Scotland: Go west for whisky galore
Now renamed the Whisky Coast, Scotland’s west coast is worth sampling.
Picturesque Portree on the Isle of Skye, a ‘supremely wild and beautiful island’
As if the west coast of Scotland, with its dramatic Highlands and romantic islands, needed any added incentive for visitors beyond its grandeur and beauty, it has recently been officially named the Whisky Coast, presumably to entice aficionados of the wee dram for which the country is even more famous than its lochs.
Many of the finest single malts are made in esoteric spots such as Islay and Kintyre, and distilleries - taking their lead from European wineries - are now laying on informative and entertaining tours.
These provide a new incentive to hop on and off ferries to the further-flung islands, though Scotland virgins will be wowed just by a mere meander up the spectacular west coast mainland, now joined by bridge to Skye, arguably the most beautiful island of them all.
With astonishingly low cost flights - less than £50 return from London - which have finally made Scotland affordable for southerners, late autumn or early spring are great times to fly into Glasgow and mosey up the coast in a hire-car before returning from Inverness. Formerly, Sassenachs were faced with much more expensive plane or train fares, now levied only on those who don't book well ahead, or a two-day slog by car.
Glasgow is the logical starting point for a west coast meander; only 45 minutes from Ardrossan, from where the ferry crosses to Arran. Afternoon arrivals would do well to tarry a night in nearby Troon on the mainland, which as well as a championship golf course has a great harbour seafood restaurant in McCallum's Oyster Bar, which serves fresh fish of several kinds with panache in a converted pumping station, and a superbly comfortable old-fashioned country house hotel in Lochgreen House.
Magical, mystical Arran is often called Scotland in miniature; grand mountainscapes give way with startling speed to idyllic coves and pretty villages on the ever-changing road which circles the island in barely more than an hour.
Brodick, where the ferry arrives, is a good place to stop and visit the castle if time allows, or catch a hearty lunch at Creelers, where organic veggie fare is a speciality, and some classy retail therapy in the Arran Aromatics fragrance emporium next door. Then head up to Lochranza, where Arran's award-winning distillery - one of Scotland's youngest - is based. They offer a really good tour in an attractive, modern plant whose grounds are peppered with wildlife - grazing sheep, strolling deer and a pair of nesting eagles for whose benefit the completion of the distillery was put on hold. Although, given the good vibrations, Arran is worth lingering upon overnight - and it has a smart spa hotel in the Auchrannie as well as a number of more esoteric accommodation choices - the Lochranza ferry linking the island with the Kintyre peninsula in half an hour enables visitors to be smartly on their way after a distillery tour.
Driving down the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula towards the eponymous Mull is simply breathtaking, and at the foot is Campbelltown, a quaint little harbour town whose family-owned Springbank distillery is Scotland's oldest.
This is the place to see peat kilns and other Victorian equipment in a dark but atmospheric plant which claims to produce the largest quantity of hand-made whisky in Scotland using traditional techniques.
For those with time to spare, the next stop could be a long one: Islay, a ferry-ride away, is home to no fewer than eight distilleries, and while some once shunned tourists, visitors are now warmly welcomed - one even runs a week-long "whisky school".
Nearby Jura and Mull each have a distillery of their own. However, if time prevents a lengthy sojourn, there is easier-to-reach entertainment in the world of whisky on the mainland. At Oban, for example, whose distillery takes its name from the handsome coastal town where the Highlands meet the Islands, and which is close to one of Scotland's finest hotels, the idyllic Isle of Eriska.
This family hotel is indeed on its own little island, reached by a short road bridge, and the huge, sumptuous bedrooms are second to none in comfort as.
More interesting perhaps than the food (which could be a little modern for some tastes, especially when weather provokes a longing for comfort food), is the after-dinner "Trilogy Tasting" experience. Not cheap at £12 to £20, it is nevertheless a good way for two people to enjoy, beside a roaring fire, a tutored tasting of three different malts selected with personal taste preferences in mind.
A delightful place for lunch as one heads on north is the Pierhouse in charming Port Appin, which is a great place to eat the fabulous fresh fish for which the coast is equally famous (the official Scottish Seafood Trail parallels the Whisky Coast).
While JC readers may not be interested in the lobsters that host Nick Horne fishes out of a creel at the end of his pier to order for shellfish fans, there are plenty of pukka fish dishes, all served with style and a great view of boats, water and Lismore Island.
Apparently, this seaside hamlet is also home to a more famed foodie establishment, but anything fancier than the simple, super-fresh bounty served at the Pierhouse could seem over the top in such an elemental setting.
The rather grim town of Fort William is home to the Ben Nevis Distillery, which sits in the shadow of the eponymous grand mountain. It's not one of the more picturesque plants, but their 10-year-old malt won gold medals three years running, and manager-guide John Carmichael can be relied upon to provide a highly entertaining tour peppered with lots of movie gossip - parts of Local Hero, Braveheart and other Scottish epics were shot within the distillery.
Those heading even further north will find they have saved what many would consider the best for last, be they malt-heads or merely scenery freaks. Skye is a supremely wild and beautiful island and Talisker - its only whisky - has been winning awards galore for years.
This is definitely the place for whisky-lovers to linger - a special two-hour Connoisseurs' tour featuring a tutored tasting of five different bottles, is considerately timed to coincide with buses from the main town, Portree. Book ahead and be prepared to fork out £15 for the privilege - and possibly die of pleasure.
For those who wake up from their ensuing nap in time for dinner, The Three Chimneys has made Skye a top-class dining destination. It is on the same wild west coast of the island as Talisker, and offers a wonderful waterside setting by which to enjoy that final after-dinner shot.
Recover from the hangover (many say you never get one if you stick to malt) at Clach Ghlas, five miles up the road at the very north-western tip of the island.
Here, Neil and Anne Paterson offer five-star b&b for half the price of the restaurant's own fancy rooms, with Skye smoked salmon among the breakfast choices and some of the island's most stunning views thrown in as a bonus. Of the alternative roads to Inverness, a comfortable two-hour drive, the scenic route via Loch Carron is highly recommended.
Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) serves Glasgow and Inverness from London and Bristol; fares start at £23.99. Double rooms at Lochgreen House Hotel( 01292 313 343; www.lochgreenhouse.co.uk) from £205 with breakfast; Isle of Eriska Hotel (01631 720371, www.eriska-hotel.co.uk) from £300 double with breakfast; Clach Glas, Skye (01470 511 205; www.clachghlas.com) from £140. Booking for lunch or dinner essential at The Three Chimneys, 01470-511258, and recommended at The Pierhouse (01631 730302), which also has rooms. Timetables and fares for Caledonian Macbrayne ferries: www.calmac.co.uk. More information on distilleries and hotels: www.whiskycoast.co.uk; and on where to eat and and drink: www.eatscotland.com