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Is it the Caribbean? No, Scotland - and you wouldn't confuse the two if you were there
Is it the Caribbean? No, Scotland - and you wouldn't confuse the two if you were there

Why the new Scotland snorkel trail beats the Great Barrier Reef

This year's hottest new beach break isn't in the Caribbean or Australia – it’s in Scotland. Mike MacEacheran finds out why

Mike MacEacheran
Friday 14 September 2018 10:10
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Somewhere off the coast of Ullapool, on the northwest seaboard of Wester Ross, we cross over from the dark, murky waters of inner Loch Broom onto a magical, gin-clear strait. Below us, the water twinkles, a medley of silver and blue, the stark light piercing the clouds to spotlight an underwater forest of sea kelp and a carpet of maerl algae that glows with an electric Irn Bru hue. It’s into water like this – off a beach so Caribbean in nature the only thing missing is the smell of coconuts – that we slip on our snorkelling adventure.

The problem is this: it’s barely 10 degrees, the water is Arctic cold, and I’m wrapped head-to-toe in a wetsuit thick enough to sink a whale. It’s hardly a traditional summer’s day at the beach.

You’ll find no blinding sun, beach shacks or bikinis in Scotland, but despite the lack of usual amenities, the new Scottish Snorkel Trail is a bit of a Eureka moment for marine tourism in the Highlands. Created by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, it’s a nine-stop, self-guided tourist route that slinks south from the finger inlets of Lochinver in the shadow of the Assynt mountains to the deeper waters of Gairloch in Wester Ross. Along the way, the Trust says, you can spot urchins and anemones, bright sunstars, velvet crabs, pouty wrasse, all manner of topshells and – the holy grail – the odd porpoise or basking shark.

It sounds like an idea that was thought out in the pub, but it isn’t so daft. Not only does the trail encourage locals to re-evaluate the marine environment, it offers another off-the-shelf micro-adventure for roadtrippers and families en route along the North Coast 500, the country’s cleverly-marketed Route 66 that covers nearly 100 miles of the same coastline. Scotland already has trails for whisky, chocolate, and now gin; so why not one for snorkelling?

Temperature aside, the snorkelling is glorious

While tourists are intrigued by the idea, a native like me is a harder nut to crack. Here, locals have more words for rain than Inuits have for snow, and sunny days can be harder to believe in than the Loch Ness monster. As the local witticism goes, we had a brilliant summer last year – it was on a Wednesday. Snorkelling? Pffft. So deeply embedded is bad weather in the Scottish psyche a poll last year revealed “dreich“, meaning dull and miserable, as our favourite word.

The proposal to venture out of my comfort zone comes in from the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Noel Hawkins, a dyed-in-the-wool Highlander who grew up in Ullapool. And while I meet him for lunch at The Seafood Shack (creel-caught langoustines, a bargain at six for £8.50), his enthusiasm about what lies beneath does little to convince me it’s a good idea.

“You have to trust me on this,” he says, Ullapool quickly becoming a blur in the rearview mirror on the road north. At Noel’s recommendation, we’re on our way to Achmelvich Beach, his favourite snorkelling spot and one he discovered while researching the trail last year. A tablet-coloured arc of sand, backed by romantic crofters’ cottages and a smear of pitchfork-shaped hills, it reveals itself on approach as one of the most gorgeous beaches I've ever seen. “It’ll be cold down there, alright,” says Noel, as we squeeze ourselves into polar wetsuits, gearing up for the big plunge. “If we’re lucky we might spot rare jellyfish, crabs, or juvenile fish. I saw a turtle here last year, you know.”

The water's crystalline like the Caribbean, only feels slightly different

So here I am: one sceptical frogman floating in what could turn out to be a bodybag off the Wester Ross coast in freezer-cabinet cold waters when I could have gone to the Greek Islands. And yet: below us are mesmerising rock formations, scuttling crabs, spiny urchins and hypnotic sea grasses – all of it cast in bold living colour. Better still, there’s no one else to spoil it.

Twenty minutes later, Noel points back to the shoreline, indicating it’s time to leave before the light begins to soften. But I’m having none of it. Snorkelling in Scotland? It’s brilliant. I’ll see you here next week.

Travel essentials

Getting there

EasyJet flies from Luton to Inverness from £50 return. Ullapool and the nine stops on the Scottish Snorkel Trail are around a two-hour drive northwest from the airport.

Staying there

The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is a one-stop destination for everything you need: a hotel, cafe, bookshop and the best seafood restaurant in the village. Doubles from £128, B&B

More information

The Snorkel Trail is self-guided. Download a free guide at scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk. Aquatron hires suits and snorkel equipment from £25 a day.

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