Julie is the author of a number of guidebooks, including 'Melbourne's Best Bush Bay and City Walks' & 'Melbourne for Dogs' (with RSPCA). Read more of her adventures at her walks blog: walksmelbourne.com
Published December 11th 2012
An evocative journey on the west coast of Scotland
One of the most evocative road and train journeys in the whole of the United Kingdom, has to be the 'Road to the Isles' from Fort William to Mallaig, in Western Scotland.
While you can drive this most beautiful, winding route (less romantically known as the A830) through the vast, sparsely-populated landscapes of the western highlands and beyond to the wild coastlines dripping with history, the easiest way to do the trip is to take the regular passenger train from Fort William (which you can combine with the Caledonian sleeper train from London if you live down south). During the summer (May-October), the modern electric train is sometimes replaced with a magnificent Jacobite steam train – absolutely fitting as this track takes you across the dramatic, curving Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous most recently in the Harry Potter films. Check out the timetable at West Coast Railways.
The Jacobite Steam Train passing over Glenfinnan Viaduct
The trip passes through the tiny western fishing hamlets of Arisaig and Morar (famous for its Silver Sands of Morar) and finishes at the busy and picturesque fishing port of Mallaig, the departure point for ferries to the 'small isles' of Muck, Rhum and Eigg, and also to the 'Rough Bounds of Knoydart', where a small ferry or postal boat takes you to the remotest pub in the UK, The Old Forge at Inverie, on the Knoydart Peninsula, which is only accessible by boat or foot.
While in Mallaig, pop into the Fish Market Restaurant at the head of the pier, to try some of their fabulous 'Cullin Skink' (GBP 5.95)– a smoked haddock, potato, leek and carrot chowder, using Mallaig haddock, served with warm crusty bread. All their fish is local sourced, and fresh off the boats. The specials board when I was there included Pan Fired Monkfish with Coconut Curry Sauce, Grilled Whole Dover Sole with lemon, rosemary and thyme, Pan-fried scallops with Chorizo, Chilli and Honey and the more traditional but very popular breaded haddock, chips and salad. The staff are very friendly and efficient, and the views perfect for watching your meal getting hauled in from the boats up onto the pier.
'Cullin Skink' from the Fish Market Restaurant, Mallaig
Just across from the pier is the most westerly outdoor shop on mainland UK: Way Out West, which stocks all sorts of warm clothing, scarves and walking kit, at very reasonable prices, run by Fiona and Michael, with their friend Sue, they are a great source of info on local weather conditions, and you can also leave luggage with them for GBP2 per piece, while you are waiting for your ferry.
There are a number for tea-shops and cafes in town, though some of them are only open in 'season'. During winter, the local pubs are a better bet: just up the hill from the pier is the white washed Chlachain Inn, which has a toasty coal fire, comfie chairs, a warm welcome and free wifi access - not to mention Isle of Skye beers and a mouth-watering 'gastro-pub' menu along with regular live music on the weekends. There are a number of small B&B's in town, most with harbour views – find details at the Visitor Centre just by the pier, which has an excellent range of Ordnance Survey maps and local walks guidebooks for those wanting to stretch their legs, or at the excellent www.roadtotheisles.co.uk website.
Take your trip a step further by jumping on one of the ferries and heading out to the small isles if you want a chance to see modern island crofting lifestyles, puffins and seals in the wild, and just recover your balance in the world. This is life in the UK at its most pure and natural. Enjoy.