A walk on the wild side

Escape to Scotland's west coast for some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Whisky optional.
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The Independent Travel

There are few finer places in the world to eat or stay than the Altnaharrie Hotel, just across Loch Broom from Ullapool in the Western Highlands of Scotland. I did neither. My visit to the hotel was limited to a happy hour sitting on its little wooden jetty, waiting for the small boat that the hotel uses to ferry guests and others (for a small fee) across to Ullapool on a summer's day of heartbreaking beauty.

There are few finer places in the world to eat or stay than the Altnaharrie Hotel, just across Loch Broom from Ullapool in the Western Highlands of Scotland. I did neither. My visit to the hotel was limited to a happy hour sitting on its little wooden jetty, waiting for the small boat that the hotel uses to ferry guests and others (for a small fee) across to Ullapool on a summer's day of heartbreaking beauty.

But I did manage to see many places that rank in the same league. A walking holiday took me and a friend through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, via some of its most welcoming, comfortable and well-catered pubs, hotels and b&bs, some in the same price league as the Altnaharrie, others costing a few pounds more than its ferry service.

When I say walking, I do mean walking. We crossed about 120 miles from Mallaig to Ullapool, carrying backpacks and experiencing the kind of weather that can change from crystalline blue skies to dense rain in minutes. This is some of the best walking country in the world: long treks across mountainsides, into hidden glens and through dense forests.

But one of the beauties of this area of Scotland is the other means of transport that make it navigable. The train from London to Fort William remains one of the outstanding railway journeys in the world, full of the kind of romance which (it is fair to say) does not usually characterise a train trip in Britain. The routes from Fort William to Mallaig or from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh are justifiably famous.

Then there are boats. Ferries link the mainland of Scotland to the Islands, of course, and the stouthearted vessels of Caledonian MacBrayne are a regular sight on Loch Broom. But given how highly indented the coastline is, it often makes sense to use smaller boats to cross water on a walking trip. With a little research (guidebooks, tourist offices, the internet or a conversation in a bar), walkers and others can often find someone who will ferry them across the loch. A trip across Loch Awe on a crystal clear summer's morning, the surface of the loch as pristine as a sheet of glass, is truly awesome.

But the boat I shall never forget belongs to Len Morrison of Arnisdale. After a tough day crossing the Knoydart peninsula, we descended to the shores of Loch Hourn, alone apart from the tiny boathouse perched on the rocky foreshore. After an hour or so, we heard the chugging of a diesel engine away up the loch, and there was Len. Forty minutes later we were installed in the front room of Len and Sheila's house in Arnisdale, preparing for a fine meal of venison. I slept that night in the room they use as the local post office.

If you want to see the Knoydart peninsula, then you have to go by boat; the thumb of land is inaccessible by road. A fine little ferry makes the passage from Mallaig across to Inverie, with its splendid pub and small hotels. The sense of isolation is all but complete.

Yet this emotion ­ a common feeling on the West Coast ­ is mitigated by the warm hospitality of local hotels, pubs and guesthouses. And for those who associate Scottish cuisine with unmentionables stuffed into the more mysterious parts of sheep, rural seclusion doesn't mean bad food. The West Coast has plenty of spectacular places to eat. We finished our trip at the Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie, a Good Food Guide regular for decades. On previous trips we had eaten at the Crannog in Fort William, one of the best seafood restaurants in Scotland, tucked away tranches of turbot at the Crinan Hotel and tested the different cures of kipper.

There is, of course, much more to Scotland than the West Coast. Our trip took us through Glasgow, staying at the Babbity Bowster, a bar-cum-pub-cum-restaurant-cum-music venue in the heart of the Merchant district, now packed with bars and clubs comparable with anything that can be found in Europe. The Ubiquitous Chip, one of the first restaurants to start the renaissance of Scottish food, produces a great deal more than fried potatoes ­ though it does that remarkably well.

But it is the countryside which really makes Scotland remarkable. The West Highland Way, from the suburbs of Glasgow to Fort William, offers splendid walking but is by no means as forbidding as its name suggests. The area around Loch Torridon is rich in trails that wind into the mountains. For the truly hardy there is the Great Wilderness, which is what it says it is. Take sandwiches.

There are few finer things after a 20-mile trek through the hills than a few drams of whisky. After 10 hours on the hills, however, you may find that one dram is all it takes to send you up the stairs to the deepest sleep of your life.

 

Scottish Tourist Board: ( www.visitscotland.com); Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board (01997 421 160, www.host.co.uk); the Internet Guide to Scotland (www.scotland-info.co.uk); 'Scotland the Best' ( www.grouse.com/scotlandthebest); www.walkingwild.com

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