Argyll & Bute Ferries - Scotland
Mention island hopping holidays and most people think of Greece, but Scotland is equally tempting and boasts if anything even more impressive scenery. Scotland in fact is home to over 800 islands (almost 100 of them inhabited) and around 11% of Europe’s coastline. An island hopping trip is a great way to explore this dazzlingly beautiful and ruggedly dramatic, wildlife rich coastline.
Scottish Island Ferries
One of the real pleasures of island hopping is the actual journey itself. Most of the ferries are run by Caledonian MacBrayne (Cal Mac for short), with their binary black and white motor vessels cutting a distinctive presence in Scottish waters. Their ferries are well equipped and generally efficient, these days home to restaurants and bars serving local produce such as island ales, whiskies and food. En route you can scan the waters for pods of frolicking dolphins, playful porpoises and that giant of the seas, the whale, with a variety of species found in Scottish waters.
Getting the right ticket is essential. Some travellers just buy point-to-point tickets on arrival, but booking these means you may be missing out on ‘Single Saver’, ‘Return Saver’ and various 5/9 day return tickets. Even better value are the specially designed tickets for island hoppers that really help join the dots when you are trying to put a route together. These include ‘Highland Rover’ and ‘Freedom of Scotland’, integrated tickets that also allow train and bus travel to connect with the ferry ports and help you cover the parts of the country you want to. ‘Island Hopscotch’ tickets allow travel on 25 ferry routes in summer and 22 in winter.
There are numerous possibilities when exploring the isles and extremities of Scotland’s western littoral. Besides Cal Mac other operators with one or a couple of routes include Argyll Ferries, Sandaig Ltd, Isle of Jura Development Trust, Clydelink Ltd, Highland Council, Isle of Skye Ferry Community Interest Company and Argyll & Bute Council. Their routes open up tantalising prospects like heading deep into the remoteness on Knoydart, nipping over to lovely Lismore or perhaps the most dramatic approach to Skye.
A simple five ferry island hopping trip into Argyll could start at Ardrossan near Glasgow, where the ferry to the Isle of Arran awaits. Eulogised as ‘Scotland in Miniature’ this remarkable island boasts many of the best parts of Scotland rolled into one. Then you can continue by ferry across to Kintyre for its windswept beaches and remote ambience, before cutting back across east to the beguiling Cowal Peninsula, a land of great seafood that gets all too few tourists. Then it is on the Isle of Bute to admire its faded Victorian resort charm and beaches, before a last ferry flourish to Wemyss Bay on the mainland. The Ardrossan to Campbeltown Cal Mac route (started in 2013) adds even more possibilities in this region.
Whisky lovers will enjoy an island hopping trip that sweeps from Kintyre across to Islay, with its eight whisky distilleries! A small council-run ferry slips over for more whisky on the ultra remote Isle of Jura, where there are 6,000 deer, but less than 100 people! Pushing on north from Islay it is on to the Isle of Colonsay, an unheralded island that is quintessentially Hebridean on a small and manageable scale. This island hopping adventure culminates with a fifth ferry to Scotland’s busiest ferry terminal, Oban.
Oban – Scotland’s Island Hopping Hub
There are myriad possibilities from Oban. Surfers and windsurfers will be keen to fire out to the low-lying windswept, beach blessed islands of Coll and Tiree and back to Oban. If you want to focus on one island something for everyone Mull is an obvious contender and is only 40 minutes from Oban. Real adventurers might want to take the epic ferry trip out across the Minch to the legendary Outer Hebrides archipelago and the island of Barra.
Barra is a sort of ‘Outer Hebrides in Miniature’ for those short on time. If you have a week or longer than you can push north on the ferries that connect the Outer Hebridean islands of Eriskay, the Uists, Benbecula, Berneray, Harris and Lewis. En route there are ancient stone circles, epic Atlantic beaches, machair dunes, wild mountains and acres and acres of peace and quiet.
Island Hopping Around Skye
Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides (any island between Kintyre and the Outer Hebrides) and it is deeply popular with tourists for good reason. There are the most impressive mountains of perhaps any island in Europe, world-class restaurants, bountiful wildlife and a rich culture of craftspeople dotted in small studios around a charmingly scenic island.
You can reach Skye by ferry from the Outer Hebrides and the mainland and the surrounding smaller isles are accessible by ferry too. You can nip across from Skye to tiny Raasay or explore the ‘Small Isles’ of Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck, which are all accessible from the mainland port of Mallaig just across from Skye. Each of the isles boasts its own unique character, from the distinctive volcanic plug of Eigg, through to the wildly rugged Cuillin mountain range of Rum.
Onwards from the Isles
The beauty of exploring the Scottish isles is that you can link a number of them together to make a real island adventure. Combine your trip with rail, bus, car, bike or even two-footed travel and you can complete an even longer adventure overland. You could push inland from Oban or use Fort William for a deeper foray into the Highlands towards Inverness down the Great Glen. Then, of course, there are the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney to explore, yet more islands that help make Scotland a world-class island hopping destination. The choice is yours…