It says a lot when even most of my Scottish friends asked ‘where?’ when I said I was heading off to The Cowal Peninsula. It said even more when they all started guessing, with a few sticking it in the Highlands and one even floating this Argyll oasis off to the Shetland Isles. Cowal may not be well known, but, as I found out, it definitely deserves to be.
Cowal – Argyll’s Secret Coast
So let’s get that location sorted out first. The more remote parts of the Cowal Peninsula lie about two hours drive from Glasgow. It is sandwiched between Loch Long in the east and Loch Fyne in the west, with the Atlantic licking its southern fringes and the Highlands rising just to the north. The name may derive from the Norse for ‘fingers of land’, which would be apposite as this rugged hill strewn wildscape stretches like fingers out amongst the lochs and sea lochs that half drown Argyll.
In the ancient days of the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada Cowal was at the centre of a prosperous world, with much of its land inhabited and the locals travelling around by boat. Even as recently as the twentieth century paddle steamers busied around Cowal’s many wooden piers trading, doing business and ferrying tourists around. Cowal’s Golden Age, though, seems long gone and most of those piers are now derelict, leaving the peninsula a romantically deserted landscape that is great for exploring.
The Perfect Cowal Base
I stayed in two stunning places in Cowal. The first was right on the southwest tip at Portavadie Marina. This old oil industry white elephant has been stunningly revamped at a cost of £40m with a state-of-the-art marina, luxury apartments that come complete with their own saunas and bathroom TVs, romantic cottages and even newer budget accommodation. They’ve also got two excellent restaurants serving up the superb seafood that the local waters dish up in such abundance with Loch Fyne oysters for me the highlight. Their flavour varies depending what part of the loch they come from, which gives you an excuse to keep trying them!
My second oasis was Kilfinan House. This is one of the best self-catering venues I have stayed at in Scotland. It is also ideal when the rains close in as there is so much to do. In all weathers the outdoor hot tubs excels, while indoors there is a Jacuzzi, pool table, sauna and air hockey for the wee ones. The seven bedrooms are cosily luxurious and I loved the wood burning stoves. The couple behind Kilfinan have really put a lot of thought into what people want and another nice touch were the iPod docks in the bedrooms.
Cowal’s World Class Seafood in a World Class Setting
Those Loch Fyne oysters are truly world class, but the local waters also dish up plump lobster, scallops and langoustines, with white fish landed just across Loch Fyne at Tarbert. Given how remote Cowal is the restaurants are surprisingly excellent. My favourites from my handful of visits are the waterfront Oystercatcher in Otter Ferry, The Royal in Tighnabruich with its stunning seafood, Creggans Inn (both the fancy restaurant and their bar) and the superbly run Inver Cottage, where you can feast on huge scallops that are hand-dived by a couple of local schoolteachers.
Plenty to See and Do In Cowal
Again given how remote Cowal often feels there is plenty to do. The largest settlement of Dunoon (which is accessible by ferry from Gourock) has a certain faded ‘doon the watter’ charm and is also home to the world’s biggest Highland Games, the Cowal Highland Gathering.
I spent a lot of my time walking and Cowal is a walker’s paradise. I tackled a few stretches of the Cowal Way and did not see a single other human being, leaving the trail to me, the deer and the eagles. On a walk south of Portavadie Marina towards Asgog Bay I came across a giant standing stone and minutes later a spellbinding view of the Arran Hills reared into view. Again I was the only one around. Cowal is that sort of place. In a way I’m glad none of my friends know where Cowal is. If I was you I’d get out there before anyone else finds out about one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets!
Looking for travel info on the go? Check out our brand new mobile website.
You can also sign up to our blog right here!