When Wendy from Red Kite Campers got in touch asking if I wanted to take their new VW campervan away for a few days to try it out, I got pretty excited. I've been on a couple of campervan road-trips in Scotland already and I love the freedom of making up my route as I go along and parking up at the most beautiful places for a short stop or even a whole night.
That initial excitement soon turned to dilemma after dilemma. With so many rewarding journey options, I struggled to decide on a route! In the end I opted for a road-trip that would incorporate some of the best Highland scenery on Scotland's west coast. As I only had the campervan for 3 nights, I had to be selective in the places I could visit in order to reach a balance of having time to enjoy the adventure without spending too many hours behind the wheel.
The route I have featured below includes a few Scottish tourist classics with my usual mix of hidden gems thrown in. It is impossible to see all of Scotland in a few days but if you are short on time and big on scenic landscapes, my recommended 4 day itinerary should tick all the boxes. I've also included some extra suggestions if you have more time to spend.
DAY 1 - MILTON OF CAMPSIE TO GLEN SHIEL
APPROX 160 MILES
With no sign of the torrential rain easing, I decided that our planned walk in Glen Coe was best abandoned as our clothes were just about dry again after our earlier soaking at Loch Lomond.
Mr Adventures Around Scotland pulled our colourful VW campervan in to a layby near the mouth of the looming glen and we both hopped in the back, feeling quite smug that we had such a cosy shelter to wait out the worst of the weather.
The rain thrummed noisily on the roof as a pot of water bubbled away on the stove. As I poured two mugs of steaming hot coffee, I could just about make out the distinctive form of Buchaille Etive Mor through the sheets of water sweeping across the surrounding landscape. On days like this, the iconic mountain takes on a foreboding appearance as it guards entry to the gloomy glen beyond.
I've been to Glen Coe countless times and could number the times I've visited on a clear, dry day on both hands and this was definitely not one of those days!
Last year I spent a lovely week in Ullapool with my mum, staying on the shores of Loch Broom in the well equipped Rubha Mor. Ullapool is well positioned for memorable road-trips around the North West of Scotland and we did plenty of exploring during our holiday. When I'm with my mum (or anyone else for that matter!), a day out exploring inevitably includes a tea and cake stop and we discovered some cute cafe gems in the most unexpected of places so I thought I would share my recommendations in case you find yourself craving for a cake fix in this stunning and wild part of the country. Those of you undertaking the North Coast 500 Route might also find this guide useful as you pass most of these stops on the way.
My mum and I do consider ourselves to be Scotland cake and tea stop aficionados so hopefully you won't be disappointed in our choices which definitely met with our expert approval!
TEA BY THE SEA, 17 SHORE STREET, ULLAPOOL
We walked past this gift shop come cafe a couple of times before we finally succumbed to temptation. Our willpower was eroded away by the list of delicious sounding daily desserts on the notice board outside which we just had to investigate for ourselves.
This is a quirky little place inside with a few tables adjoining a new age type gift shop. The friendly owners were more than happy to explain what delights were on offer that day and the counter was stuffed with enticing choices.
I opted for a creamy slice of bannoffee pie and my mum opted for the apple pie topped with caramel sauce and cream just for good calorific measure! A generous amount of tea and an extra pot of hot water to wash everything down completed our sweet, sticky feast and we both agreed that a cake stop at Tea By The Sea deserved a big thumbs up.
Check out my blog or more ideas on things to do around Ullapool
ACHILTIBUIE PIPING SCHOOL CAFE, OLD VILLAGE HALL, ACHILTIBUIE
The highlight from my week in Ullapool was definitely a trip to Achiltibuie and the Coigach Peninsula. The scenery is breathtaking and it really feels as if you have left the tourist trail well behind. I highly recommend a visit to this stunning part of Scotland and a stop at the village of Achiltibuie which is surprisingly big considering its remote location.
The Achiltibuie Piping School Cafe is a real off the beaten path gem with amazing views to the Summer Isles. This old village hall has a real community vibe and we found the table of home-made cakes irresistible! For such a remote place, I was also surprised at the wide range of teas on offer and although I didn't have Willow with me, it was good to discover that it is also dog friendly.
Now this is where I must confess to a blogger fail, I didn't photograph our tea and cakes as I was enjoying the experience too much, oops! I can tell you that I really enjoyed my huge slice of lemon cake and I did remember to photograph the view! The baking was so good that we bought pumpkin scones to take back to the accommodation and I also bought a cute little puffin card as a souvenir of our day. We also bought some local free range eggs from an honesty box on the road and I made sure I photographed them to make up for my earlier fail. You'll just have to take my word for it that our cakes looked and tasted incredible and of course try them for yourself!
Check out my blog to find out why I fell in love with the Coigach Peninsula
If you have read my recent blog with some of the highlights from my week in Ullapool, you will know that I was waiting to reveal my stand out experience from the trip as I felt it deserved a blog post all to itself. Well, I am finally ready to share not only the top highlight from my week in Ullapool, but a corner of Scotland that has firmly entered my list of top places to visit in the country.
I wanted to take you on a photo journey of my road-trip which started at Ullapool and ventured towards Achiltibuie and around the Coigach peninsula, a region that I fell more than a little bit in love with. It really was one of those road-trips when I kept thinking that the views couldn't get any better until I turned the next corner!
The only way to reach Achiltibuie is by a long and winding single track road which means it remains free from mass tourism and the whole area still has a simple and rustic charm. I could easily spend way more than a thousand words rambling on about how magical this place is, but I thought on this occasion I would let the pictures do the talking instead...
Heading north from Ullapool it wasn't long before I got my first glimpse of the Coigach mountains as I followed the road towards Ardmair.
Abandoned stone buildings topped with red tin are a common sight in this part of the country.
As the sweep of Ardmair Bay came in to view, the white pebble beach was a stark contrast to the dark and brooding mountains in the distance.
Around the bend from Ardmair, the mountain and loch scene was completed by some colourful fishing boats.
Ullapool is somewhere I should have first visited in July had all my #ScotCoast plans gone to, errrr, well, plan! Waiting an extra 3 months to finally get to this part of Scotland was worth the delay, especially as I could spend a whole week based in the picturesque Wester Ross village, much more relaxing than the quick stop I had planned in the summer.
Ullapool and the surrounding area have certainly been put firmly on the tourist map this year thanks to the excellent marketing of the North Coast 500 route which passes through the village. It seemed everywhere I went there was a buzz about the increased visitors and income from what has been dubbed Scotland's answer to Route 66.
As I drove around the region there were still quite a few motor-homes and camper-vans making their way around the remote Highland roads. Although I felt a bit left out that I wasn't among the majority of visitors embarking on this epic road-trip, deep down I felt quite smug that I had almost a week to explore the area when most of them only had a day or two.
Thanks to Embrace Scotland, I had a cosy self-catering apartment to return to each day and use as a base for trips around Wester Ross and Sutherland. As you can imagine, I managed to fit in quite a lot during my week but several places really stood out for me and I thought I would share some of the highlights of my trip with you. I should say that some of these places were recommended to me on social media and I'm grateful to everyone that provided their tips.
There was one absolute highlight of the week for me which deserves a whole blog post to itself so I'll keep you in suspense for a little longer before I tell you what that was, but in the meantime here are a some of the other things and places that I particularly enjoyed during my stay in Ullapool.
When winter arrives in Scotland I always find myself drawn north to the Highlands. The mountains seem that bit bigger with their snowy peaks than they do with their green summer coats; the quiet loch surfaces reflect the landscape like mirrors and although many attractions close their doors for some seasonal respite, a whole new world of outdoor adventure opens up.
One of the best places to base yourself for what is arguably the most spectacular Scottish season, is Fort William. The town is the beating heart of the Lochaber region, dubbed the Outdoor Capital of the UK due to the large number of adventurous activities available. While it is popular with tourists in the summer, the area also has plenty to offer visitors in the off-peak season. I visited in February and easily filled the 3 days I spent there, so here are 10 of my recommendations for winter activities in the Fort William area and you might be glad to know not all of them involve being outdoors!
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
One of the most popular winter pastimes in Fort William is a trip to go skiing or snowboarding at the Nevis Range just outside of the town. With an extensive network of graded runs and the off-piste expanse of the Back Corries all under the shadow of Ben Nevis, it is easy to see why this is a popular haunt for snow-sport lovers. It is also the newest resort in Scotland and if taking to the slope on skis is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different, the Nevis Range also offers other fun winter activities including sledging, snowshoeing and even snow biking.
Alternatively, Glencoe Mountain Resort, Scotland's oldest resort can be reached in under an hour by car from Fort William.
Both resorts provide lessons and equipment hire, so even complete beginners can turn up and have some fun on the slopes.
2. Wildlife Spotting
If you want to spot the Scottish big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, common seal and European otter), Fort William and the surrounding area is one of the few places in Scotland that offers the possibility of seeing all five in one day.
Of course it always helps to have an expert on hand to point you in the right direction and a guided wildlife safari with Ian MacLeod from Wild West will not only greatly improve your chances of seeing these iconic species for yourself but also teach you about the history, culture, language and geology of the region.
Thanks to Ian I discovered a great spot that has been set up especially for watching red squirrels just next to the car park at Glen Righ. I have driven by there on the way to Fort William so many times without realising this wee hidden wildlife gem existed, needless to say I will be stopping off there in the future.
Being situated in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, it is not surprising that the walking possibilities around Fort William are only limited by your imagination. Although winter hill-walking requires some experience and equipment, there are plenty of low level walks that will reward you with stunning snowy mountain vistas and walking around Fort William you are never far from a great view of Ben Nevis towering over the town.
My personal favourite winter walk is through Glen Nevis to Steall Falls. The Outdoor Capital website also has a selection of recommended walks for different abilities and if that's not enough the nearby Nevis Range has 25 miles of forest trails to explore.
As a Scottish travel blogger I often get asked for advice when people are making plans to visit Scotland and this usually inspires me to write a blog post on a place or experience that will help to answer some of those queries. However there is one place that I get asked about more than any other and that is Glencoe.
A rugged, dramatic and at times hostile environment, not surprisingly many of you find the thought of exploring it on foot an intimidating one and worry that it is only accessible to accomplished climbers and mountaineers.
One of the most common questions I get asked about is suggestions for easy trails for those with little or no hiking experience, so I wanted to share with you three of my favourite simple but rewarding walks in the area. For me, being among the mountains and forests brings the scenery to life as you start to notice the sounds of rushing water, smell the scent of pine and find yourself encompassed by the brooding atmosphere. It truly is a landscape that makes you feel small and you can't help but feel humbled and in awe at the power of Mother Nature. The best way to appreciate it is on foot, exposing yourself to all it's wonderful, powerful and strangely magical elements.
Can you tell how much I love this place?!
So here are my 3 favourite easy but rewarding Glencoe walks
1, Glencoe Lochan
Glencoe Lochan is an oasis of tranquility hidden away below the mammoth mountains. On the outskirts of Glencoe village this idyllic little spot was planted and modelled to resemble a Canadian landscape by a previous Canadian owner after his wife became homesick.
This is one of my favourite places in the area, the reflections of the mountains and trees in the still water make this a great spot for taking beautiful photographs.
The circular route around the Lochan is flat and easy, with longer woodland trails for those that want to explore further. There is an option to take a higher level route signposted 'mountain path' but to be honest the mature trees now block any view that would have previously made the effort worthwhile and the flat walk around the Lochan is visually the most rewarding.
This peaceful place makes a perfect relaxing escape from the contrast of the wilder landscape that surrounds it. An easy walk for all levels of fitness and mobility through some of the prettiest scenery.
The main reason I started this travel blog was to inspire people to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions and uncover Scotland's hidden gems that without doubt deserve more attention. After a lifetime spent travelling around my home country, I have built up a pretty good knowledge of amazing places that often get missed out in the usual guide books and remain largely undiscovered.
One of those hidden gems is Glenelg, a small village on the west coast, overlooking the Kyle Rhea, a strait which separates the mainland from Skye. Just a 30 minute detour from the hoards of sightseers at Eilean Donan Castle and you will find an area bursting with rich scenery and history, yet largely devoid of tourists.
If you are planning to head along the north west coast towards Skye between Easter and October, I highly recommend avoiding the road bridge and diverting along the more stunning but lesser known route to the island and taking the ferry from the 'Original Gateway to Skye'.
If you need more convincing than just my word to abandon the typical tourist trail, here are 6 reasons that might persuade you...
p.s please excuse any raindrops on the photos as the day I visited it would have been drier standing under a waterfall!
1. The Mam Ratagan Pass
Leave the tourist route behind and follow the Mam Ratagen Pass from Sheil Bridge to Glenelg and you are immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning drives in the country. Climbing to a height of over 1100ft and navigating a few hairpin bends along the way only add to the experience and your prize for taking the road less travelled is superb vistas towards the Five Sisters of Kintail and Loch Duich.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a scenic drive, however you are following an important historic pass which was the original route to Skye, used firstly by drovers heading south with their cattle which they swam across the Kyle Rhea strait, then a military road was built by General Caulfield to reach the barracks at Glenelg before being rebuilt by Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and upgraded again in the 1980s.
With most people now reaching Skye by the main road bridge, relatively few people travel over the pass and many are unaware or have forgotten it's previous historical importance as the main highway connecting the island and the mainland.
2. The Glenelg Inn
To celebrate your arrival in the village or to grab a refreshment between your explorations, you should head to the cosy Glenelg Inn for some traditional Highland hospitality. I love the quirky decor in the bar area and it has a great reputation for locally sourced food.
if you time it right you can also catch some live music and in the winter you can sit by the roaring fire.
I would personally love to stay the night here at some point and spend more time exploring the area and relaxing with a whisky while admiring the views to Skye.
3. Iron-Age Brochs
Follow the road from the village to the twin Iron-Age broch towers, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Standing over 10m high and over 2000 years old, they are the best preserved brochs on the mainland.
Many of the original features including internal staircases still exist and it is fascinating to stand inside and imagine the life of the people that occupied them thousands of years before when the area would have been a more hostile place.
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth.
Whenever I visit places like this I always wonder how many modern structures will still be standing in hundreds never mind thousands of years time and can't help but be impressed at the skill of the builders who created such simple yet sturdy constructions that have lasted many, many lifetimes.
4, The Bernera Barracks
The Bernera Barracks were the last of four Highland forts built at strategic points by the Hanoverian Government to garrison soldiers after the Jacobite risings of the early 1700s. Able to house up to 200 soldiers it was positioned to control the crossing from Skye at Kyle Rhea.
Construction began in 1719 and It is thought that stone from the nearby brochs was used in the building of the barracks which continued to be utilised as a military base until 1797 by which time it was already falling in to ruin. By 1800 the rooms were available to rent for a pound per year and by 1830 it was used as a poorhouse and subsequently by victims of the Highland Clearances.
Although a substantial part of this atmospheric structure still stands, it is currently fenced off for safety reasons.
You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
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