Fall into the Corryvreckan vortex and it's a one-way trip to Davy Jones's locker. Ben West rides a marine roller-coaster

A whirlpool in Scotland? Where is it?

The Gulf of Corryvreckan, off the beautiful, unspoilt coast at Crinan, Argyll, is the site of dangerous tidal forces that create fierce swirls. The whirlpools really need to be seen by boat, and catamaran skipper Mike Murray regularly takes groups of up to 12 passengers from Crinan harbour to the Corryvreckan, a 30-minute voyage.

What's it like?

Depending upon the tides, a calm boat trip suddenly transforms into something far more exciting. The boat begins to spin gently around in circles and in a few minutes may have drifted more than 1,000 feet. Cabin instruments typically indicate that the boat's engines are registering more than eight knots, yet the boat may be hardly moving at all.

Doesn't sound incredibly exciting ...

The boat then suddenly lurches violently to the side. Park in the centre of the whirlpool and stand at the bow (the front) and it is like being on a natural rollercoaster ride. The tidal forces plunge you ferociously from side to side. You have to clasp the handrails firmly because, if you fell overboard, the vortex of the whirlpool would plunge you 600ft straight down (even with a life jacket) only to spew you up again five miles away. Children can go on the boat, and love it. They've just got to be very sensible, that's all.

It's a long way to go for a few minutes of fun.

There's plenty more to see and do in this stunningly pretty little corner of Scotland. After showing you the whirlpool, Mike takes you to the numerous little islands and islets to observe the abundant wildlife. On a three-hour trip you may stop at a sheltered cove and have tea as seals lounge a few feet away. Mike may set up his industrial-sized binoculars and search out a golden eagle's nest. You may see seagulls, Canada geese, seagulls, kittiwakes, terns, guillemots, seagulls, deer, goats, puffins, more seagulls, and maybe even a dolphin. All this for £18.

Is there anything to do on the mainland?

You can walk the towpath of the nine-mile Crinan Canal, which is often called the most beautiful short cut in Britain. Built 200 years ago to allow boats to go from Loch Fyne to the Atlantic without rounding Kintyre, nowadays the traffic is largely made up of yachts and cruisers, all converging upon the little, almost Camberwick Green-like, Crinan basin, with its tea shop and smart hotel.

My ears pricked up at the phrase "smart hotel".

All the rooms at the extremely comfortable Crinan Hotel have spectacular views of the Sound of Jura. Nick Ryan, who's been owner of the hotel for 33 years, gives guests a wonderful welcome. Few hotels or restaurants can boast such fresh seafood as his, picked from the fishing boats the same day. If your idea of seafood is the sort of half centimetre maggot masquerading as a prawn you buy at the supermarket, you will be amazed by the gigantic crustaceans he presents you with.

Anything else I should know?

The Woodland Trust circular walk from Crinan Basin is steep but delightful, and at the top of the hill there is a splendid view of Crinan Ferry and miles of hills beyond. The flat basin of land and the still waters accentuate the rugged hills, especially when they are bathed in a magnificent golden sunset. The serene silence of the path is broken only by the distant calls of oystercatchers or brent geese on the estuary flats. The two-mile walk begins opposite the hotel, on the other side of the basin, and returns via the towpath.

And further afield?

Argyll's ancient past is most evident around the Kilmartin valley, just north of Crinan. There are many reminders of both prehistoric and mediaeval times. The wealth of natural, historical and archaeological features is unsurpassed in mainland Britain.

So, what could I see?

Before the Eygptian pyramids were built, burial cairns (pyramids of rough stones) along the Kilmartin Glen were already in place. The area is littered with ancient monuments. You almost get blasé about them, they crop up so often in fields and woodland clearings.

Is there more?

The view from the isolated hillock housing Dunadd Fort, a Dark Ages fortification, is spellbinding. Dunadd was the site of the ancient capital of Dalriada, from which the Celtic kingdom of Scotland sprang and the place where the earliest Scottish kings were crowned. Seven miles north of the sleepy town of Lochgilphead lies the little village of Kilmartin. Its church has an excellent collection of early Christian crosses and grave slabs, dating from the ninth century.

Anywhere decent to eat?

By the church lies Kilmartin House, an impressive museum and archaeological centre. The café offers wonderful simple meals and drinks such as oak-leaf wine and heather ale, which has been brewed in Scotland for 4,000 years, making it the oldest style of ale still made in the world. In the museum, there are well-chosen displays and an evocative audio-visual show. There are also sound posts playing the sounds of ancient Scotland: bells, pipes, horns and bird-bone flutes. Children can have a go at grinding corn or playing an ancient board game. Just outside the village is Carnasserie Castle, built in the 16th century and boasting finely carved stonework. Slightly further north is Arduaine Gardens, with rhododendrons, azaleas and rare trees.

And if I want a bit of exercise?

This part of Scotland is especially good for cycling, being far less hilly than the north, and with little traffic except on a few main roads. Details of cycle routes and walks in the forest are available from Forest Enterprise.

Can I take my boat?

The region is ideal for island-hopping. Islay, Mull and Arran offer the most to do, while Colonsay and Gigha are for those after utter isolation. Heartily recommended is the wild and mountainous island of Jura. It's home to deer, otters, seals and more than 100 species of birds. If it rains, thick grey mists engulf its only settlement, tiny, almost desolate Craighouse, a little row of houses, a hotel, a distillery and solitary road. Visibility in such circumstances is down to a few feet and there is utter silence. It seems as if you are at the very ends of the earth.

So what else do I need to know?

The Crinan Hotel (01546 830261; www.crinanhotel.co.uk) offers double rooms for £95 including b&b and dinner; Kilmahumaig Barns (01546 830238) offers self-catering accommodation from £150 per week. Kilmartin Hotel (01546 510250) offers basic double rooms from £25 per night. On Jura Island the Jura Hotel (01496 820243) offers double rooms from £70 per night, including breakfast. Sea.fari Adventures (01852-300 003; www.seafari.co.uk) runs "ecotour" boat trips to the Gulf of Corryvreckan daily; two-hour (£11) and four-hour (£18) boat trips to the whirlpool are offered by Mike Murray's Gemini Cruises (01546 830238); Highland Steamboat Holidays (01546 510232) offers Sunday to Friday Clyde Puffer cruises from May to September. Kilmartin House Museum (01546 510278; open daily 10am-5.30pm, adults £4.50, under-16s £1.50); Arduaine Gardens (01852 200366; open daily 9.30am-sunset); Forest Enterprise (01546 602518); Dalote Equitation Centre (01546 850246) has escorted riding for adults and children. For more information contact Visit Scotland on 0845 22 55 121 or see www.visitscotland.com.