A perfect cycling staycation: the splendent Scottish Highlands

Two years ago I would never have dreamed of forgoing sun, sand and sea for a cycling holiday.  But, having caught the cycling bug good and proper, that’s exactly what I did this May half-term; worse than that, I was the one to suggest it!

As this was our first foray into an activity holiday, we thought we’d choose somewhere closer to home and decided to base ourselves in Oban and cycle some of the beautiful islands that make up the Inner Hebrides.  If you’re thinking of doing something similar, then look no further.  Below you’ll find a recipe for holiday success that covers accommodation, cycling routes and places to eat.  I can assure you that if the weather cooperates (as it mostly did with us), you’ll have no regrets you didn’t go abroad!

Step One:  Book Carding Mill apartment (available on Air B&B) in Oban. It’s a light-filled, high-spec, 1-bedroomed apartment with an amazing view over to the Isle of Kerrera and even more amazing sunsets, which can be enjoyed from the private balcony.  It’s about a 20-minute walk into the centre of Oban but only a short distance from the ferry terminal, and even shorter (3 minutes) if you’re cycling.  The owners (Finlo and Liz) are friendly and helpful, yet not intrusive, and they even give you access to the garage below to store and maintain your bikes.

 

 

Step 2: Cycle Mull, Lismore and Loch Leven and enjoy putting your feet up and staring out the window on any rest/rainy days!

Mull:  This island was so beautiful (and so big) that we actually did two routes on two different days.  On our first day, we took the 55-minute CalMac ferry to Craignure (£6.90 pp return/bikes free) and then cycled North to Salen and onwards to Tobermory, where we stopped for lunch. After we fuelled up (see Step 3 below!), we took the more scenic route back via Dervaig and through the trees to Aros.

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Mull – North loop (61 miles)

 

The return trip was definitely more challenging. The steep incline at the back of Tobermory gives you a good feel for what’s to come; we seemed to climb and climb, switchback style, before descending into Dervaig. But once there, the road flattened out and we enjoyed the shady, forested route back to the A-road, joining at Salen again, ready for our sprint back to the ferry.  In total, we did 61 miles this day, including a misjudged diversion (we thought we could make it to Calgary beach, but it was further than we thought, so we aborted!). We’ll just have to make sure to do it next time!

 

 

Mull again:  The second time on Mull we decided to cycle North again from Craignure to  Salen and then West to the wee island of Ulva for lunch (see Step 3). Afterwards, we followed the gorgeous coastal road South around Loch Na Keal, before heading inland on the Ben More road, where we started heading up and up and up and thankfully down the other side! Then it was the long Glen More climb and another descent before winding our way, more gently, back to the ferry.  Although we felt we covered much more ground this day than our first, this route was nearly the same distance at 62 miles.

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Mull – South loop (62 miles)

From start to finish, this was a magnificent route taking in some truly breathtaking scenery and covering some serious cycling terrain!  The climbs were much longer than Day 1 but steadier in terms of gradient, and with so much natural beauty to look at, they seemed to be less painful! Likewise the descents seemed never ending and would have been ideal if not for having to pull over into passing places every so often to allow cars room to manoeuvre past on the single track roads. Having said that, Mull is definitely cycling-friendly, with courteous drivers giving wide berth when passing, meaning there was never any feeling of intimidation.

 

All in all, it’s a wonderful island to cycle. Our only regret is not being able to stay until the Sunday (4 June) to take part in the Isle of Mull sportive! As the long route is largely the same as our two days combined (but in the opposite direction), maybe I can get away with saying I’ve kind of done it, or, better yet, consider it my reccy for next year!

Lismore:  This island might be described as Mull’s younger, sleepier and slightly hippyish sister.  It has a laid-back, subtle beauty about it as opposed to Mull’s rugged in-your-face kind of beauty.  It’s also much smaller, and, as we soon discovered surrounded by groups of mountain bikers at the ferry terminal, not totally designed for road bikes. The roads, mostly single-track, led to dead-ends (i.e. the sea!) and some were well-worn, muddy and gravelly.  Unclipping was required frequently, as well, to open and close gates.

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Lismore (18. 8 miles)

But, those minor impediments aside, the 18.8 miles of cycling was thoroughly enjoyable over undulating but not arduous terrain, and the views of hairy coos, hills and sea were stunning.

 

When you reach the north end of the island, you can hop on a council-run ferry (£1.70 pp single/bikes free) and take the 5-minute journey to Port Appin, another perfect stopping place for lunch (see below).  Then, when you’re fed and watered, it’s very easy to pick up the signs for Sustran’s Route 78 back to Oban, a distance of approximately 24 miles.

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The first part of this route from Port Appin around Loch Creran reminded us a lot of cycling around Cumbria with quiet country roads and glimpses of grand lakeside homes. And then the route leads to the purpose-built cycle path where it runs adjacent to the main road, sometimes right alongside it or even on it for short stretches, and other times tucks in and winds gently through the trees.  The last leg, via Glenlonan and Glencruitten, coming up and over the back of Oban, was the toughest and if we did it again we’d certainly look out for the alternative, coastal route from Dunbeg to Ganavan and then into Oban.

 

Loch Leven: For this one we hopped in the car and travelled North from Oban to Kinlochleven (about 45 minutes), where we parked and traded the car for bikes.  It was early evening and the sun was just breaking through the clouds and bouncing off the water, creating a warm, hazy glow.

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We did the gentle North side first before heading over the bridge at Ballachulish and onto the A82 (via cycle path) back up the other side of the loch to Glencoe. And then the climb starts … but fear not; it’s not nearly as steep as it seemed in the car or as intimidating as it looked from the other side of the loch!  In fact, it was relatively easy and well worth it considering the gorgeous views at the top.  All that was left was the quick descent back into Kinlochleven to complete the 20.7 mile loop.

 

 

Step 3: Eat at Cafe Fish at Tobermory; The Boathouse at Ulva; The Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant at Port Appin; Ee-Usk at Oban; and take away from the Oban Fish and Chip Shop.

 

Okay, so, as you may have guessed, you need to like seafood to appreciate fully these recommendations! As we do, we were in our element finding quality food at really reasonable prices throughout our holiday.  It’s hard to choose a favourite, as they were all amazing, but two places stand out for very different reasons.

The Boathouse at Ulva:  Eating here is simply a wonderful experience from start to finish. First, there’s the 2-minute ferry crossing (£6 pp return to the privately owned island, including tickets to the small museum) with Donald (who, when not operating the boat, watched our bikes, left unlocked on the other side of the waterway, and also cleared tables!). Second, there’s the most beautiful setting with picnic tables on the water’s edge. Third, there’s the fresh, locally farmed seafood, prepared quickly but thoughtfully by Emma and Rebecca, who also happen to be surprisingly young and extremely competent.

 

The Pierhouse Seafood Restaurant at Port Appin:  We owe the staff here a debt of gratitude as they probably saved our marriage (okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but certainly a long and quiet ride home!).  You see hubby failed to notice that there was a 2-hour gap between ferry times leaving Lismore over the lunch period. We arrived at 12:30 hoping to catch the 1:15 ferry but had to wait until 2:15 for the next one! As luck would have it, the ferry then broke down and we had to wait another half an hour … on empty stomachs! In an attempt to salvage the situation and his reputation, hubby made a call to the Pierhouse to order food in advance and, thankfully, they honoured that order even though the kitchen was supposed to close at 2:30.  We can honestly say it was the best scampi and chips we’ve ever tasted!

 

If you’re considering your own cycling holiday, I’d say do it for sure.  Do as many miles as you feel comfortable with in any one day and in between the cycling enjoy all the other things (eating, drinking, sightseeing and lazing) that you’d do on any other holiday. It’s the best of both worlds, really, and you don’t come home with any extra holiday weight! What could be better?

 

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