On the road (and plenty of ferries!) with Discover Ferries Director Bill Gibbons

With my impending retirement, I thought it a good opportunity to combine introducing my successor, Emma Batchelor, to some of our ferry members and their services, with visiting parts of the Western Iles of Scotland and Ireland. The trip covered in excess of 1,800 miles over eight days and seven nights and included nine ferry crossings. I could not have done the trip without my oldest school friend Sid, who shared the driving.

Day one: we drove near to Lockerbie to stay the night with cousin Yda. We detoured near Carlisle in search of Hadrian’s wall, which proved to be rather elusive, before entering bonnie Scotland via Gretna Green. This made us question – do young couples still elope there?

Day two: we drove to Doune near Stirling, where I had stayed one summer as a child. We reminisced at Doune castle, where I remembered being forced to eat Marigold petal sandwiches by the vegetarian friend of my great aunt!

We hit the highlands North of Perth and stopped at Piltlochery, where we took in a tour of the Blair Athholl malt whiskey distillery. We were careful to adhere to the strict drink limit for driving in Scotland, which is over a third less than England!

The A9 is now a good road, but I was reminded that, 40 years ago, before the days of the motorway system, Motor Rail ran a car carrying/sleeper train from London to Inverness.

We then headed for the ferry terminal at Ullapool, northwest of Inverness, which has always looked somewhat remote on the map. In fact, it is only a one hour and 20 minute drive from Inverness through some great scenery.

We were booked into the Harbour lights B&B, where supper consisted of deep fried scallops and chips at the local Chipper. We also had our first experience of west coast midges.

Day three: we caught the 10.30am sailing to Stornaway on one of Calmac’s newest and largest ferries the Loch Seaforth. We enjoyed the two-and-a-half hour crossing, which included a bridge visit. The purser spotted a whale and a school of porpoises, sadly I was too slow and missed both.

We arrived at Stornaway at 1pm; a lively, buzzy town with plenty of cafés and art galleries. We drove along the northwest coast of Lewis, visiting a backhouse and a highlight was visiting Norman, a weaver, who was working on his Harris Tweed loom at his croft and then the famous standing stones at Callanish. It was then on to the Isle of Harris with its stunning beach and sand dunes at Luskentyre. We caught the ferry from Tarbert to Uig, Skye before driving 40 miles to Broadford for the night.

Day four: we woke up to rain and mist so there was no chance of seeing the Cullins and any mountain scenery. We drove to Portree the charming capital of Skye. Unfortunately, the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig was cancelled in the afternoon due to technical problems, so we went “over the bridge from Skye” to the mainland and onwards to Fort William via Glenshiel and Loch Lochhy. We then drove on to Kinlochleven for our B&B, where the stunning scenery was shrouded in mist. After walking down to the village for supper at the pub, our hotel manager picked us up and drove us back, which was great service!

Day five: we left for Glasgow Airport via Glen Coe, Rannoch moor and Loch Lomond. We met Emma off her delayed EasyJet flight from Gatwick and drove onto Gourock for a meeting and lunch with the CalMac team. We then set off for Wemyss bay to take the ferry to Rothesay. The station is a huge, recently restored Edwardian edifice ,which was originally built to cater for the huge volume of day-trippers who used to flock from Glasgow to Rothesay.

We drove from Rothesay to Rhubodach, where we enjoyed the shortest of all Calmac’s crossings – approximately 400 yards – to Colintraive, across the Kyles of Bute. We then took the scenic route to the Portavedie Hotel, Spa and Marina located on Loch Fyne. This modern hotel is in a superb location and is thoroughly recommended.

Day six: we took the ferry, which is located just outside the hotel complex, to Tarbert on the Mull of Kyntire. After the ferry departed, I discovered that I had left my blazer in the hotel. A quick phone call later and my missing jacket was located and safely put onto the next ferry, which sailed an hour later – all part of the fantastic CalMac service! We stopped for a coffee and walk in the pretty and friendly village of Tarbert.

The next stop was Kennacraig, where the ferry terminal is located for crossings to Islay, en route to the Claonaig – Lochranza crossing to the Isle of Arran. We stopped off for a wee dram at the Arran Malt whisky distillery, before driving to Brodick to board the ferry back to Ardrossan on the mainland. In the meantime, the weather had deteriorated with monsoon-like rain lashing down on us all the way south to Stranraer.

After a difficult two-hour drive, we checked into the North West Castle Hotel, which was once the playground of music greats such as Bob Dylan! The public rooms are huge and the staff plentiful, although the somewhat faded glamour of the establishment suggests the clientele has changed even if the décor hasn’t!

Day seven: we had a 6am start to catch the 7.30am Stena Super Fast ferry to Belfast at Stena’s Loch Ryan terminal. The Superfast V11 and her sister ship the Superfast V111 are well suited to the Northern Irish Sea route. We were treated to the Stena plus service (club) and given a most illuminating tour of the vessel by Gordon, the On Board Passenger Services Director.

We arrived in Belfast at 9.45am, where we met with Stena Northern Ireland and then set off for Dublin. Dublin and Belfast are only 105 miles apart and seem so close in distance and driving time (one hour 45 minutes and the Dublin tunnel takes one straight into the dock area).

We then had a meeting with Irish Ferries, before popping into the centre of Dublin for the obligatory tourist experience of Guinness and Irish stew.

We boarded Irish Ferries’ Ulysses vessel at 8.30pm, where we were again treated to priority boarding, club class and deluxe cabins. The ship was the largest ferry in Europe for many years.

Day eight: we arrived at Holyhead at 12.20am and drove to the conveniently located Travel Lodge, where we were greeted by the night manager’s immortal words: “One of our rooms is out of service due to an electrical fault, which almost caused a fire. We are fully booked and the other hotels in the area are also full, so I have put you all in the family room, which has a double and a single bed.” After a few moments panic and offers to sleep in the car, the resourceful night manager succeeded in securing a twin room at the local “Truck Stop” for me and Sid; the room was tiny but clean at least!

After a 9.30am pick up, Emma and I met with the Southern Irish Sea team from Stena, where I left Emma to have a tour of the port before boarding her train back to London and then on to Canterbury. Sid and I drove back to Dorset via North and Central Wales. The A5 via Betws-Y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog in the rain was very twisty and slow but we eventually made it to Llandrindod Wells for a stop. I worked there as the local Railway manager on the Heart of Wales line for a year in 1973 and was delighted to discover that the line and station are still very much alive and you can even travel for free in the Winter! We arrived back in Poundbury at 7.30pm, exhausted.

I would like express my huge thanks to CalMac, Stena Irish Sea and Irish Ferries. The quality of service on all the vessels we travelled was excellent. CalMac runs a most complex and intense network of services, many of which offer a lifeline to the people who use them. We packed a lot into eight days and I would suggest allowing more time in the future. Travelling back from Scotland to the South Coast of England via Ireland (Belfast and Dublin) offers a host of sightseeing opportunities without adding much to the mileage, so is again something I would highly recommend.