It has always puzzled me why most Scots believe unless you hop on a plane somewhere, you haven’t officially “gone away” properly.
I am just as guilty as the next person of wanting to scoot across to Europe — even if it means going somewhere equally cold and rainy as home. For some reason, the change of culture and scenery appears to be a positive thing.
But then, there’s the currency and the getting to the airport early and the inevitable delays, even the occasional forgotten passport. Is it worth the hassle?
We thought so, when we concocted a plan to jet off to Paris for a few days to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday. Our preparations for the trip were going swimmingly until I received a rather disconcerting email two days before we were due to travel. Apparently our flights had been “disrupted”.
As it turns out, the French had decided to hold the second in a series of general strikes in protest over proposals to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 the day we were due to fly out. It caused all kinds of transport chaos and flights to the country were cancelled.
It seemed somewhat ironic we should be attempting to celebrate a 60th birthday when our Gallic chums were making something of an overt suggestion their Prime Minister was failing to show respect to people who had worked hard all their lives.
Meanwhile, the retirement age in the UK will rise to 66 from 2020. Moan? Us? Never . . . Needless to say, it was au revoir vacances and we were left feeling rather flat.
After running round looking for last-minute deals, we had a coup at the eleventh hour; booking a two-night stay at Loch Melfort on Scotland’s west coast. OK — it wasn’t France, but Melfort had a continental ring to it.
We set off from Dundee on a leisurely drive towards Perth, passing through Crieff and taking a picturesque trip round Loch Earn. We continued through Crianlarich and called in at The Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum for a wholesome bowl of soup and some cake.
Onwards, we passed the north shore of Loch Awe and dropped into St Conan’s Kirk, a beautiful church built in two stages between 1881 and 1930 by members of the Campbell family, who lived nearby.
We explored the church as the afternoon sun poured through its windows. There are various chapels within the Kirk, one of which is the Bruce Chapel, which has a large effigy of Robert the Bruce, carved from wood with an alabaster face and hands sitting upon his sarcophagus. There is also a piece of the King’s bone, which was taken from Dunfermline Abbey.
St Conan’s is run entirely on charitable funding and asks for a small donation from visitors, also selling items such as guidebooks and postcards. It is in the process of raising funds to help restore the roof.
As we neared our destination, we passed through Oban and decided to stop briefly to stretch our legs, taking in the sights and the smells of the busy fishing and ferry port. Then we snaked down the winding road to the serenely secluded Loch Melfort Hotel, a three-star family-run establishment boasting the finest sea views on the west coast.
Having settled into our rooms, we were just in time to enjoy a celebratory drink out in the open before the sun set. After changing into more formal clothing, we gathered in the hotel’s lounge and sat by the windows as the sky turned a fiery red, enjoying pink champagne and nibbles before being taken through to our table in the Asknish Bay Restaurant. The dining room also has excellent views over Asknish Bay towards Jura, Shuna and Scarba and its food has been consistently awarded two AA Rosettes since 2000.
Our amuse-bouche was a cold fennel and apple soup with smoked salmon and, to start, I had hand-dived marinated scallops with horseradish sauce, lime and chilli. My parents chose wood pigeon breast with Stornoway black pudding and puy lentils. Next, we had a coconut and sweet potato soup followed by our main course. My parents chose Duart halibut with asparagus and roasted potatoes while I had flavoursome Duart salmon with a pea and prawn risotto.
For dessert my father chose a cardamom creme brulee with poached pear and ice cream while my mother and I had a walnut and apple tart tatin with ice cream.
The piece de resistance was a specially-baked chocolate cake for my mother, which was presented to us at our table. We were then invited to take a seat in the lounge so we could enjoy a slice with some coffee.
The following day, we drove up to Oban and took the ferry to Mull. The journey across offers stunning views from the top of the boat, but you can also stay warm inside and enjoy a drink or snack during the 45-minute trip.
From there, we embarked on a scenic drive through the island’s rolling hills and unspoiled landscape all the way to Fionnphort. Despite it becoming slightly overcast as we travelled to the western tip of the Ross of Mull, the Isle of Iona’s pale white sands and clear turquoise waters were just as I imagined.
We boarded another ferry, this time on foot, sailing across to the three-mile-long island with a population of only 100 people — one of the world’s foremost centres of Christian pilgrimage.
St Columba arrived on the shores of Iona in 563 AD and founded a monastery. He and his followers then set out to bring Christianity to the rest of Scotland and parts of northern England. Many people from all over the world came to visit Iona’s shores and it became the sacred burial place for the kings of Scotland, Norway and Ireland.
Sadly, we only had a short time there, as we had to make sure we caught the last ferry back to Oban, but, despite the crowd of 30 or so travellers who disembarked at the same time as us, many heading to hostels and the monastery — which itself provides accommodation — there was a real sense of tranquillity as we stared over the Abbey back across to Mull.
On our return to Loch Melfort, we dined in the Chartroom II bistro, a family-friendly eatery that serves children’s meals and half portions. We filled up on hearty home-made dishes such as soup, terrine, scampi and vegetarian chilli.
The hotel has such a relaxed atmosphere and the staff are genuinely friendly and helpful. Talking to other guests, it became apparent this was a place people found homely and comforting — somewhere they liked to return.
Loch Melfort also offers complimentary therapies, has dog-friendly lodges in its Cedar Wing and a beach. We took a stroll down to the water on our final morning before paying a visit to the neighbouring Arduiane Garden, which is maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.
Conceived by J. Arthur Campbell, who also built the Loch Melfort Hotel, its range of rhododendrons, magnolias and azaleas is impressive and there is also an unmissable cliff-top viewpoint overlooking the Sound of Jura and its islands.
On our journey home, we drove to the Isle of Seil, which is 12 miles south of the Oban. It is connected to the mainland of Argyll by the humpback Clachan Bridge — the only bridge over the Atlantic Ocean. The small community was home for many years to Princess Diana’s mother Frances Shand Kydd, who passed away in 2004.
We left the west coast feeling rather ashamed we’d never seen its wonderful sights before, and it also made us wonder what other hidden treasures we had been missing on our own doorstep. Back home, we watched news footage of yet more angry protests in Paris and were strangely pleased we didn’t make it over there after all.