It's an unseasonably warm October's day and I'm standing on the deck of Ros Crana, a colourful Belgian barge which is gliding almost silently down the deep, glassy channel of the Caledonian Canal towards Loch Ness. The surrounding Highland landscape looks twice as imposing with the autumnal colours reflected on the mirror like surface and the crisp air carries a hushed soundtrack of birdsong as we leisurely motor along.
The carbon copy clouds floating lazily on the inky water have a hypnotising effect and only the occasional surface bubble from a hidden fish breaks my trance like state.
I'm on day 2 of a week long cruise through the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery and I'm already wondering if life can get any better than this; sun, scenery, stillness and Scotland.
There are many ways to explore the Highlands of Scotland and a boat may not be the first mode of transport that springs to mind, mainly because not many people realise that it is a viable option.
A trip along the Caledonian Canal will take you from coast to coast through the Great Glen, a Highland wilderness with satisfyingly spectacular scenery. A long straight valley which slices the Scottish Highlands in two, it is home to imposing mountains, native pine forests, tumbling waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and steeped in clan and Jacobite history.
Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath. The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument. The 60 mile long route connects four lochs with man-made waterways and during it's construction, provided much needed employment to those struggling after the Highland Clearances.
Nowadays the area is frequented by pleasure craft and outdoor enthusiasts with options to walk, cycle or canoe along the alluring setting of the canal.
After my week travelling it's length from Inverness to Banavie near Fort William I can confidently say that Caledonian Discovery have devised a unique Classic Cruise that provides a rewarding Highland adventure by land and water which really gets you off the beaten track to uncover the hidden gems away from the tourist traps.
'Options' becomes a familiar word during the trip. While you could choose to stay on board and watch the world go by for a week, you really would be missing out on immersing yourself in the variety of landscape that Scotland has to offer. Daily 'options' are weather dependent but include a mix of sailing, canoeing, cycling and walking which are suitable for all levels of fitness and experience (or lack of experience!).
We had barely motored out of Inverness on day 1 when we were confronted with our first 'options' and I chose to leave the city behind on a flat 5 mile cycle along the canal towpath before meeting up with the barge again at the next lock.
Rust tinted trees and frosty cobwebs lined my route, a constant reminder that autumn had arrived. The traffic noise from Inverness gradually began to fade away, replaced by the occasional put-put of a passing boat and a sense of escape from the urban hustle and bustle began to wash over me. Pedaling casually along the canal-side, my anticipation of a new adventure ahead increased with each rotation of the wheel and by the time I had reached our destination for the night at Dochgarroch Lock I was looking forward to settling into my new home for the week.
Ros Crana acts as a floating hotel and a home from home during your trip and each evening she moors at a different scenic location along the Great Glen. Originally built in 1962, an overhaul in 2012 saw her converted into a comfortable cruise boat with the capacity to carry up to 12 passengers and 6 crew members.
Large sitting and dining areas offer plenty of room to relax throughout the day with books, magazines and board games available and an outdoor deck area for guests with seating provides the perfect place to admire the dramatic landscape. The thoughtful design provides just the right amount of space for being sociable without ever feeling claustrophobic and I really enjoyed the homely, relaxed atmosphere.
After a long day travelling I welcomed having my own spacious en-suite cabin and a surprisingly powerful shower. The other touch that I appreciated was always having free tea and coffee available and for those preferring something stronger, a small honesty bar that stocks a range of spirits and local Loch Ness beer.
After a filling breakfast, day 2 'options' started with what should have been an easy, wildlife spotting, woodland amble with a few of my fellow passengers. We started off silently tramping along the well worn trail, admiring the flora and fauna, gazing up at the towering Scots pine and hopefully scanning the tree tops for an elusive red squirrel or two.
Despite being in more advanced years to myself, I suspected that certain members of my walking party were set on a more adventurous walk than was originally planned, and our quiet stroll soon turned into a hilarious off-road adventure. Rather than being deterred by the number of large fallen trees blocking the path, my sprightly seniors seized the opportunity to conquer this outdoor assault course with a mischievous twinkle in their eye. With unique techniques and much laughter, trunks were clambered while dancing and singing through the woods ensued. Strangely enough we didn't have any wildlife encounters and ended up vaguely lost although no-one would admit it.
We may have arrived late for our pick up but the ice was broken and the tone set for the rest of the week!
After an energetic excursion, it was a pleasure to sit down to comforting, home-cooked food and Caledonian Discovery dishes this up in plentiful supply three times a day. Thanks to our passionate cook for the week, Tree, we were served a variety of delicious meals with a choice at dinner each night and more than enough to go around and around, and around again! Everyone commented on the high standard and generous amount of food which Tree lovingly created and served with a smile.
As the group separated for different activities throughout the day, mealtimes provided an opportunity for everyone to regather around the dinner table and exchange exploits which often involved amusing tales of saddle sore posteriors, minor mishaps and unplanned diversions which generally meant getting temporarily lost!
Refueled by a satisfying lunch, it was time to venture out into Scotland's largest loch by volume and home to the fabled Nessie. The stillness of the day turned into something far more atmospheric and dramatic as the landscape opened up and mountains began to rise like ancient warrior sentinels.
Once again I found myself taking advantage of the guest viewing deck to fully appreciate the sweeping vistas of the most famous loch in the world. Approx 10,000 years old, Loch Ness was formed at the end of the Last Great Ice Age and continues to conceal mysteries which can only be guessed at below it's deep, dark, murky waters.
The looming form of Urquhart Castle soon began to emerge on the horizon and I jumped at the chance to get dropped off at the pontoon to explore this former stronghold up close. Although mainly in ruin, it was once one of the largest castles in Scotland with a particularly bloody history.
As I stood at the top of the tower, gazing across the length of the loch, the dark water had taken on a sapphire blue colour in the afternoon sun and the vividly contrasting colours of Ros Crana were attracting much attention as she paraded back and forth.
Day 3 brought the wind, which meant a sailing lesson on Loch Ness became an option which in turn brought a deep rooted fear rising to the surface like the boisterous waves on the loch. When Chris, our outdoor instructor, asked me if i was going sailing I heard myself saying "yes" before the irrational part of my brain caught up, urging me to back out before it was too late. Perhaps it was the inspirational energy from my fellow passengers, the safety conscious crew or the fact I was put on the spot, but in that moment of madness I agreed to an activity which I would normally have avoided at all costs.
To cut a long story short I had an unfortunate experience in the sea when I was a teenager. Knocked out and injured after hitting the water at high speed, I groggily came around to find myself alone, bobbing far out from the shore and feeling helpless as the waves dragged me further from the safety of land. I gained huge respect for the power of nature that day and despite conquering my angst to some degree, if I think there is any possibility of me ending up exposed to dynamic aquatic elements then I will happily remain on terra firma.
Yet for some incomprehensible reason I found myself climbing on a little sailing boat with our instructor and one of my fellow cruisers before being tasked with assisting to navigate her across the bouncing waves. I tried to focus on the instructions from Chris rather than the fact we were in a very small vessel in the middle of a very deep, choppy loch and before I knew it I was actually having fun!
Other than a few splashes I made it safely back to the barge and thanks to Chris's confidence and experience, I never once felt vulnerable during our mini voyage.
I soon discovered that even when there are no official activity options, there is always some interesting way to pass the time while cruising along and in the afternoon I found myself standing on deck, wrapped up against the autumn chill, looking for goats (yes, goats!). Our group turned their backs on Nessie in the hope of spotting some less mythical wild beasts and we were duly rewarded for our efforts. Although we all had many previous goat encounters, there was something satisfying about watching these wild, long-horned creatures nimbly negotiate the rugged terrain which would have been otherwise inaccessible for us to reach without a boat.
As we neared Fort Augustus, our Skipper, Swampy (aka Dave), invited us to join him in the wheelhouse while he imparted a wealth of information about the local history, wildlife and geography.
However, to simply call Swampy our Skipper would be doing him a disservice and while he is no doubt highly skilled in that area, he also kept us entertained, organised and informed throughout the week. His passion and enthusiasm were contagious and I can honestly say that he played a big part in making the trip so memorable.
On arrival in Fort Augustus his experience was more than apparent when Ros Crana had to help tow out a fishing vessel that had run aground in the canal, never a dull moment!
After an eventful day I wandered along the centre of Fort Augustus and the flight of 5 locks which we would navigate the following day. Lit up in a pretty shade of green, the rushing water possessed a therapeutic effect and I thought about all the varied waterways that we had crossed to reach this point. I wondered at the many vessels that had made this very same journey for almost 200 years and stood marveling at the way man and nature have worked together to achieve something so momentous.
Feeling philosophical I took advantage of the mild evening to sit out on deck with a Glayva and congratulate myself on my earlier sailing achievement and overcoming a long held fear of what could happen to finally make something happen.
As I went to bed that night I had no idea that the most beautiful and memorable stretch of the journey was still to come...
Read about days 4-7 of my cruise along the Great Glen here
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