Flying is fast, cheap, efficient and often impossible to avoid. But it’s also crowded, cramped and claustrophobic, and upgrading is expensive. Then, the airports, such a waste of time. Arrive hours in advance, stand in lines, and deal with the security hoopla, all to get ready in time – for flight delays. Oh, and once in the air, you get crummy food – if any! How about an attractive and adventurous air alternative? Board a boat, sashay onto a ship, frequent a ferry! Here are five October 2016 ferry tales…
Ferries are the best – and often the only – option to get to Scotland’s islands. It can also be a great option for travel between Ireland and Scotland. Admittedly, I did fly this time, Dublin to Glasgow non-stop on Aer Lingus regional partner Stobart Air, because the schedule of Stena Line’s Belfast-Cairnryan ferry didn’t quite fit into my plans. Still, I’ve taken that Stena Line run before, finding it fun and feasible. Here’s a no-fun fact: don’t ever take a rental car in just one direction: the international drop-off charges are killer, like $2k, I kid you not! Instead, from Dublin, hop on the train to Belfast, an easy 2-hour ride and then take a cab to the ferry port.
So here we go, my five ferry tales about travel to Scotland’s islands. This is how adventurers roll! Experience real travel, feel it, find your inner sailor and go by sea. Scotland has ferry companies large and small operating around the seaboards and between the islands. Our company can assist you in booking them directly, as we know what’s where and can provide links and information.
Most routes have car ferries, so you can take your vehicle along rather than fly out to some island and having to rent wheels for a short – and expensive – period. Ferry tickets are easy to book online in advance and you do not need the car registration, as you obviously won’t have that for a rental car. Driving a vehicle on and off the ship is a piece of cake. You’ll be guided by crews that do this all day long, shoehorning everyone onto the car deck, from huge trucks to tiny cars. I do take out the Super Cover Collision Damage Waiver (“CDW”), if only for additional peace of mind – remember, while you are a great driver, others are not! – but it’s not required. We at Authentic include standard CDW in our Scotland trips, so you’ll have at least that.
The “Big Boys” in Scots ferry travel are the folks at Caledonian MacBrayne. Just call them CalMac like the locals do. CalMac was awarded a huge new West Coast ferry contract per October 2016. The multi-year deal is worth about a billion GBP or close to a billion and a half US dollars and will bring further improvements to Inner and Outer Hebridean west coast travel in all aspects. Three of our five rides were CalMac, the others were Northlink Ferries and Pentland Ferries.
FERRY TALE 1: MALLAIG – ARMADALE (ISLE of SKYE)
The Isle of Skye is stunning. It fits in nicely between Inverness and Fort William, in either direction. It’s especially enjoyable if you have the time and budget for more than just a night. I like using the northern bridge in one direction and the Mallaig-Armadale ferry in the other, as this avoids driving the same route twice.
Great sightseeing options this way too: the Bridge route brings you along must-see Eilean Donan Castle; the ferry route gets you along Glenfinnan with its Jacobite history and Monument. You might spot the Jacobite Steam train, aka Harry Potter’s “Hogwarts Express” whistling over the famous viaduct (stay tuned for a future blog post on that). Lodging on Skye can be in short supply and therewith pricey, so book early!
Mallaig is about an hour’s driving from Fort William. The ferry is a simple and short CalMac run and only takes 40 minutes. It is very frequent, typically 10+ times a day and is cheap, like 3 GBP per person and around 10 GBP for a car. Schedules vary between weekday and weekends, and prices may vary somewhat through the year. Walk-up or drive-up is allowed, but I prefer the certainty of pre-booking. We had the last ferry of the day at 6:10pm and could not afford to miss the boat – literally!
Fun fact: the statue at the harbor, sculpted by local artist Mark Rogers, is of a fisherman holding a child’s hand while pointing at the sea. At some point, the kid’s arm disappeared! No one knows how or why, but it was replaced later.
FERRY TALE 2: UIG (SKYE) – TARBERT (ISLE of HARRIS)
The Isle of Lewis is famous for the Calanais (aka Callanish) Standing Stones. I’ve had them on my bucket list for years and have become even more interested in Lewis as of late, reading Peter May’s Detective Fin Macleod “Lewis Trilogy”. More on Lewis in a separate blog post later; this is just a ferry tale on how to get there!
The easy way from Skye to Lewis is by CalMac ferry to the Isle of Harris. It sails from Uig in northwest Skye, less than half an hour from Portree, to Tarbert on Harris. The ride takes just over an hour and a half, food & drink available on board. The cost for a car was GBP 30 and GBP 6.20 per passenger. Harris sure has its own charms, incredible scenery and not to forget the Harris Gin Distillery in Tarbert! But, long overdue music to my ears, we were going to see the Stones. Concert I mean visit report in the near future!
Do be aware that you’re crossing the “Little Minch”, part of the Atlantic and seas can be rough. They sure were on our rainy, windy and grey day, as to be expected in October. The many green faces were not early Halloween make-up…
Fun fact: the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis are actually one island, connected by a land bridge and so you can just drive from one to the other!
FERRY TALE 3: STORNOWAY (ISLE of LEWIS) – ULLAPOOL
Stornoway is the largest town on Lewis, with the famous RAF Base nearby. The town offers several decent lodging options, nothing fancy but perfectly acceptable. It also has some good pubs and restaurants. CalMac plows The Minch between Stornoway and mainland Scotland at Ullapool. This is a longer route, taking about two and a half hours. The ship has bars and restaurants, and the cost for the car was GBP 49.50 and the passenger fare was GBP 9.20. Ullapool is only about an hour from Inverness if you’re heading that way. Our route however was to points North!
Fun fact: just over an hour south of Ullapool you’ll find Inverewe Garden & Estate, run by the National Trust for Scotland. It’s a subtropical oddity in the Highlands due to the temperature boost by the warm Gulf Stream.
FERRY TALE 4: SCRABSTER – STROMNESS (MAINLAND, ORKNEY ISLANDS)
Going north, we drove the gorgeous North Coast 500 route to Scrabster, just west of Thurso. A pretty day was ending and rain was rolling in. We arrived in time for dinner at the Upper Deck, next to the Ferry Inn at the harbor, great seafood, before boarding the 7pm ferry. This route is operated by Northlink Ferries, takes an hour and a half, and the cost was GBP 49.50 for the car and GBP 18 per passenger. Stromness is on the island called “Mainland” in the large archipelago of the Orkney Islands.
Fun fact: When Orcadians talk about “Mainland”, they mean this island, the largest in the Orkneys. To go to “mainland” Scotland, they’re going to, well, Scotland!
Northlink Ferries Viking logo honors centuries of Viking dominance over the Orkneys. The Norse history can be seen still in names, sites and even the origins of the local population. One publican told us that about a third of the population has direct Norse DNA and would rather join Norway than stay with England after Brexit! The ship offers a bar, restaurant, comfortable lounge and you can even rent cabins, as it also runs longer overnight routes.
The October evening ride did mean arriving in darkness, but in the summer months one would have oodles of daylight this far north. Fun fact one: Stromness lies at about the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, Helsinki, Finland or Saint Petersburg, Russia. Fun fact two: Northlink offers a cool option where for the morning return from Stromness, you can rent a cabin the evening before while the ship is docked for the night, overnight on board and have an easy start the next day!
FERRY TALE 5: St. MARGARET’S HOPE (SOUTH RONALDSAY) – GILLS BAY
The final ferry ride was aboard the “MV Pentalina”, a Pentland Ferries catamaran. It plies the route between St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay in the Orkneys (you can drive there from Mainland) and Gills Bay, the ferry port near John O’Groats. The catamaran is very stable and this route claims to be the shortest, most sheltered and calmest Orkneys route for a car ferry (John O’Groats Ferries runs an even shorter one but it’s foot passengers only). Stable and calm are rather unexpected, as these far northern Atlantic seas can be quite rough! Car cost is GBP 38 and then GBP 16 per passenger.
The crossing only takes an hour and you can expect to see all kinds of marine and bird life, from porpoises to puffins. When passing the uninhabited Isle of Swona, look out for the islet of Hoy and the famous rock stack of the “Old Man of Hoy”. More sobering, you’ll see Hoxa Head with abandoned gun towers and bunkers, silent reminders of the importance of the Orkneys during World War II. For the best views, step outside on what they insist on calling the sundeck: during our crossing, it was more of a wind deck. There is food and drink aboard, and Pentland Ferries runs a café in Gills Bay as well.
Finishing up my ferry tales, surrounded by trip photography, I close my eyes, to once again see the waves, hear the birds and smell the salty air. I feel the ship plowing through the waters, like seafarers have felt for thousands of years. Yes, flying is quick, easy and convenient – as well as annoying, stifling and boring! There is no avoiding it, I will have to keep doing it to get to places. So be it, but when given the choice, I’ll go for the adventure of “real” travel: go with the (Orinoco) flow and sail away, sail away, sail away!
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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