Barging through the Highlands – explore the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness on a Scottish Highlander cruise
While not everyone can afford to own a luxury motor boat or yacht, cruising by barge is not only one of the most relaxing and rewarding holidays around; it can also be one of the environmentally “greenest”. In fact a barge holiday is estimated to be 20 times better for the planet than a two hour flight.
The Scottish Highlander is a former traditional grain cargo boat, converted to a luxury hotel-barge in 2000. With a touch of tartan, Chesterfield sofas, paintings of stags and a whisky bar, it has the elegant ambience of a Scottish Country House.
The six night itinerary follows the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness through the Great Glen and the legendary Loch Ness. As the cruise starts at either Fort William or Inverness (changing direction each week), the best way to get there is by train from Glasgow or Edinburgh. Alternatively, from London you can travel north overnight on the Caledonian “Deerstalker” Sleeper train.
My partner Ken and I travelled from Glasgow to Fort William on the First Scotrail “West Highland Line” – the famous Victorian “Iron Road to the Isles” – one of the great railway journeys of the world.
What you don’t need is a book to read on the 3 hour 45 minute journey. Leaving the city behind, it quickly reaches the river Clyde, follows the shore line north up to Helensburgh and soon the majestic views of Loch Lomond. Speeding through the wild Highland landscape of moorland and forests, the train follows the River Spean towards Loch Linnhe and finally reaches Fort William in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
A private transfer by mini bus takes us on a short drive to the “Scottish Highlander” moored at Banavie. We were welcomed on board by Captain Dan, Hostess Chloe and Head Chef Christian. Fellow passengers are from the United States, England and Scotland. With a warm, comfortable Lounge -Dining Salon and well heated Staterooms, you will be cosy whatever the weather!
If you are unfamiliar with cruising, there is no need to worry about seasickness on a barge. We travel at a gentle pace and moor in a sheltered spot on the canal by night. By day, time to sit on deck, take a bike ride or stroll along the towpath to see the engineering feat of the Caledonian Canal.
Designed by Thomas Telford and William Jessop and constructed between 1803 and 1822, it features twenty-nine locks, ten swing bridges and four aqueducts – an essential waterway to allow naval, cargo and leisure ships avoid the treacherous stormy waters of the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath around the north coast of Scotland. The Canal stretches 60 miles slicing through the Great Glen, a geological faultline across the Highlands, linking four natural lochs.
The whole Scottish Highlander Experience is a cultural journey by both waterways and land. Daily excursions include historic castles, lochside villages and woollen mills, viewing stunning scenery and wildlife along the way.
On the first morning, (after breakfast of porridge, poached eggs, toast and coffee), our driver guide takes us to Glencoe, a dramatic valley of snow-capped peaks. At the National Trust Visitor Centre, a well illustrated exhibition describes local geology and history of mountaineering. En route back to the barge we tour the Ben Nevis Distillery ending with a wee dram itself.
Every day, morning or afternoon, there’s a few hours of “sailing” when you can relax in the lounge, (books, newspapers, CD player), sit on the sun deck with binoculars to spot birds, flora and fauna, or join the Skipper in the Wheelhouse – except during a difficult navigation in or out of a lock.
We continue through the peaceful Loch Lochy surrounded by birch woodland, before entering the manmade canal again through the Laggan lock. The lock-keepers open the sluices to raise (or lower) the water level and we move forward through the next gate.
Alongside our very long barge, the boat traffic in the locks is occasionally chockablock with motor cruisers and yachts and we wave a greeting in common nautical language. As we near Loch Oich, Skipper Dan alerts us to see Laggan Avenue, a tranquil, meandering canal framed by slender Scots Pine.
Moored by late afternoon above Cullochy Lock, the sun is shining and three of us borrow bicycles for a five mile ride along the towpath to the pretty Kytra Lock with its white washed cottages. Back on board to shower, change and a refreshing gin and tonic before dinner.
Cuisine aboard is superb: seasonal locally sourced seafood, beef, game, fruit and vegetables and Chef Christian Rhein prepares classic dishes such as Kedgeree, Cranachan and Cullin Skink. We indulge in hearty breakfasts, buffet lunches and four course candlelit dinners. A selection of French and New World wines is served at lunch and dinner.
Tonight we are treated to creamy potato and oatmeal soup, Shetland salmon with asparagus, Lemon tart and Perthshire raspberries, Kintyre farmhouse cheeses with oatcakes. We sit chatting with a whisky nightcap until time for bed, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat and utter peace: no wonder we sleep well on board!
The quaint old village of Fort Augustus is a busy, bustling Highland destination for boating, yachting and barging sailors, motoring travellers and walkers. The Caledonian Canal Visitor Centre (free entry, well worth a browse to learn about the building of the canal), gift shops, art galleries, woollen mills, cafes and pubs offers a lot to see and do.
After lunch we set off for a fabulous sundrenched drive through Glen Shiel to visit Scotland’s most iconic and photogenic castles, Eilean Donan, a few miles south of the Isle of Skye bridge.
The ancient castle, with its fine antique furnishings, paintings and weapons, is privately owned by the MacCrae-Gilstrap family. Perched on a rocky island at the confluence of three sea lochs, it’s an exhilarating walk over the old stone bridge following in the footsteps of warriors, Vikings, Jacobites …and Sean Connery, who was here to shoot the movie, “Highlander.”
Our journey by barge continues through the five locks at Fort Augustus, slowly dropping 40 feet down the giant stone and water staircase to reach Loch Ness. Legendary monster tales aside, this has amazing facts and figures: 1,000 feet deep, (more than the North Sea), 22 miles long and covering 35 square miles.
Most people drive along the north side, but to cruise right up the loch is an amazing experience. We spend many an hour on deck to enjoy a fresh breeze, scanning the forested coastline for eagles and deer.
Amongst many fun excursions included the spectacular ancient ruins of Urquhart Castle high on a cliff above Loch Ness. This is a must-visit attraction with a superb film on its bloody battle-filled history.
We also tour Cawdor Castle, renowned for its literary connection with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is a bewitching place, stuffed with family paintings and antiques, with lovely garden, nature trails and (very enticing) boutique selling fine cashmere and tweed.
Nature lovers will be in their element on this barge trip: British Waterways protects the natural habitat for oyster catchers, herons, amphibians and the endangered bumble bee along the canal banks. Amidst bluebells and yellow broom, we spot tits, finches, warblers, wagtails, green mallard and goosander ducks.
On the open lochs a variety of gulls swoop and soar, with a flock mobbing a buzzard near Urquhart Castle. A memorable sight is a golden eagle gliding high over the Five Sisters of Kintail, the range of hills near Eilean Donan.
Our week’s cruise has been a romantic adventure of Scottish culture and heritage. With our international floating house party, we enjoyed enriching conversations with much laughter. Our fantastic crew ensure a comfortable, leisurely time – not least the exceptional standard of cuisine, a foodie journey through the Great Glen.
This exhilarating boating trip would also be particularly fun for a group of friends or families with children (age 10 +) to charter for a private “Swallows and Amazons” holiday, exploring the wild Highland landscape and the mystical magic of Loch Ness.
The Hotel Barge: Scottish Highlander, sleeps 8 guests. 117 ft long. Accommmodation, 1 twin/double suite, 2 twin/double staterooms. Sundeck. 8 touring bikes. 4 members of crew.
Cruise company: European Waterways. Founded in 1974, this is the largest hotel barging company in Europe. Their fleet of Hotel-Barges accommodate 6 – 20 passengers with destinations in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland and Ireland. Themed cruises (golf, walking, food, wine). Private charter cruises ideal for families and friends.
http://www.gobarging.com Tel. +44 (0) 1753 598555.
Journey Description: 6 nights departing from either Fort William or Inverness. Cruise the Caledonian Canal, Great Glen, Loch Ness. Excursions to Castles, whisky distillery and National Trust attractions.
Unique Selling Point: Fully inclusive fare – all meals, lunch and dinner with selected wines. Open Bar, daily excursions. Knowledgeable captain and crew about history, wildlife, culture. 1 – 2 crew-guest ratio.
What to Pack: Whatever the season, it can be chilly in the Highlands – sweater and rainproof jacket, but prepare too for summer sunshine. Suitable shoes for the deck, walks, cycling, sightseeing. Smart-casual clothes for dinner.
What to Buy: Tweed, cashmere, woollens; whisky, arts, crafts and jewellery.
Planning your Journey: First Scotrail West Highland Line Glasgow to Fort William. & Caledonian Sleeper. www.scotrail.co.uk. East Coast Train, London to Edinburgh/Glasgow/Inverness. www.eastcoast.co.uk