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Oban--Sound-of-Mull-thumbGreat Scot...
Famed for its spectacular scenery, the west coast of Scotland is perfect for sea and sand-based adrenaline activities. In this bumper guide, Gemma Hall reveals the best places to try out everything from sea kayaking to paragliding, from scuba diving to sand yachting
Sand yachting


‘DO YOU KNOW HOW TO STOP?’ yells my sand-yachting teacher, Willy Maclean from the Hebridean watersports company Wild Diamond, as I speed down the deserted beach towards the sea. ‘It’s the same as windsurfing!’ comes the instruction, before I have time to think about it. Having spent the last three days on a windsurfing course with the same tutor, I ought to know. Two seconds and a lightbulb moment later, I swing the kart into the wind and come to a standstill, but then I’m off again, faster this time, having assured myself that I am controlling the kart and it’s not the other way around.

Sand-yachting is the latest sport to hit Tiree – a ten-mile-long and fi ve-mile-wide island off Scotland’s west coast devoted to adrenaline activities. With plenty of wind, empty beaches and hard sand, Tiree is a superb place for zooming round in what is essentially a sailpowered buggy – also known as a ‘blokart’. The three-wheeled speed machine has been recorded nudging 100kph, hence blokart’s slogan: ‘where sailing meets the speedway’.
On Tiree there is no shortage of speedways – it is a case of picking a bay where the wind is best. ‘Each beach is at a slightly different angle,’ says William, ‘so you can always find one where there’s a good cross wind.’ And therein lies the reason why many consider Tiree to be the sail- and kite-sporting capital of Scotland, if not the UK, with a combination of plentiful bays, lots of wind and great surf. It also happens to be one of the sunniest places in the UK, but that’s just a bonus.

Looking out over the bay where I am karting, the sun shines uninterrupted and, even after three days, the novelty of white sand and Caribbean-blue sea has not worn off. Behind the beach a VW van trundles along with surf boards on the roof – a moving cliché, if I ever saw one – but it is not the first I have seen today. Tiree is just that kind of place. Maybe it is because the islanders get more than their fair share of Britain’s sunshine, but Tiree is perhaps the most laid-back and friendly island I have visited on this whirlwind tour of Scotland’s west coast. OK, so this judgment is based on the fact that a local gave me and my bike a lift in his truck when I was late for my windsurfi ng lesson this morning, and the ceilidh in the village hall last night where the locals seemed happy for clueless English visitors (that’s me) to take to the fl oor and muddle my way through The Gay Gordons. Whatever the reason, one thing is certain: if your idea of a great holiday involves local interaction, watersports, beach barbecues and bags of sunshine, you’ll love Tiree.

Two things have helped promote the island as one of the best places for watersports in the country: the annual windsurfi ng championships held every October, and the Wild Diamond watersports company co-founded by Tiree-born Willy in 1998. It offers a range of beach and wave sports and caters for all levels. It is particularly well regarded for its windsurfi ng and kite-surfi ng courses.

As for sand-yachting, well, it is the latest sail sport to add to their list. It is easy to appreciate its growing popularity. You get huge returns for a sport you can learn in fi ve minutes – a bit of instruction and you’re off. What’s more, these sand yachts come in a bag that will fi t into your car boot and can be assembled in minutes. ‘You just plug in and play,’ says Willy.

Of course, it helps to know what a gybe and a tack are, but you soon learn which turn is right for where you are headed and how to bring the kart down from a wheelie (you let the sail out). You see, the principle is the same as sailing a boat, which is why some say sandyachting/ karting/land yachting/blokarting – whatever you want to call it – is a good way to learn the basics of sailing. On a blokart, there is one sail and one rope. It’s that simple. All you need is space, a hard surface… and wind! New Zealand company, blokart, suggests beaches, car parks (presumably empty ones) and tennis courts (surely too small?) as suitable play areas. Frozen lakes are the latest venues and blokart has now introduced karts with ice-blades (watch footage of the Lithuanian Ice-Blokart Championship on YouTube).

Back on Tiree, the tide is out and I have the entire expanse of brilliant white sand to myself. I loop up and down the beach in the evening sun, as fast as I dare. At one point I get carried away, almost literally, and zoom across a stream trickling to the sea whereupon I get thoroughly soaked (note to self: wear swimming costume and shorts next time). But I don’t care – I’m in karting heaven.

PRICE: yacht hire is £25 an hour. Tuition is available for adults and children from age six up (depending on conditions).
01879 220399

Island hopping
Hopping around Argyll Cycling is not only a cheap and excellent way of seeing the west coast’s islands, but Caledonian MacBrayne ferries (CalMac) have great value ‘hopscotch’ tickets that allow you to travel around multiple islands for a much reduced price, and there is no charge for bikes. For example, I cycled the length of the Western Isles, from Barra to Lewis, taking the ferry between islands. Another great route (the ‘Whisky Hopscotch’) explores the Argyll islands and conveniently starts in Ardrossan (near Glasgow Prestwick airport and a 45-minute train journey from Glasgow Central). Take the CalMac ferry to the Isle of Arran, where a circular route skirts the island’s imposing mountains and forests. Next, hop across the Kintyre peninsula and take a ferry to Islay, known for its sandy beaches and seven distilleries. Return the same way or via Mull and Oban.

PRICE: Whisky Hopscotch ticket, £31.30
0800 066 5000

Sea_kayakingSea kayaking

There is no better way to experience the west coast’s rocky coastline and superb marine life than packing your gear into a kayak and heading off for a few days. Access places no car can reach, where dolphins and seals join you as you glide by and sea eagles soar overhead. Set up camp and enjoy a night under the stars on an uninhabited island, fulfilling your childhood Scouting dreams. There are a number of adventure sports companies offering courses and day trips. Some, such as Rockhopper Sea Kayaking and Wilderness Scotland, will organise overnight stays and longer adventures. The Sound of Arisaig, due west of Fort William, is considered one of the best places in Britain to sea kayak. The coastline is dotted with many islands and has some fine sandy beaches to pull up onto in the evening. Both companies offer trips in the area.

PRICE: £195 for a 2-day trip with Rockhopper; from £575 for 5 days with Wilderness Scotland.
07739 837344;

Wilderness trekking

There are few – if any – places in the UK that are truly wild, but some highland areas in Wester Ross come pretty close. One such place is the Knoydart peninsula, north-west of Fort William. There are no roads, so the only way in is to hike, kayak or a boat from Mallaig or Arnisdale. Hill-walkers, mountaineers and Munro-baggers take note – this is one of the fi nest mountain terrains in Scotland, which offers superb views, one of the best ridge hikes in Scotland and uninterrupted silence. If going into the wild alone is not your thing, join an organised trek with Wilderness Scotland – an outdoor adventure group that has an excellent reputation and top green credentials.

PRICE: a week from £775
CONTACT: 0131 625 6635;

Scuba diving

Puffi n is one of the top dive centres in Scotland. It caters for all levels and is situated just outside Oban on the shores of one of the greatest wreck-diving areas in the UK: the Sound of Mull. Puffin owns the Breda and Hispania wrecks and runs plenty of trips to see them in the summer. They are both extremely popular dive sites and the wrecks are fairly intact. The marine life in summer around the sunken ships is impressive, and artifacts from the wrecks are still being discovered. I have only dived once before and found going under on the west coast a very different experience to the Mediterranean, for obvious reasons. In the Sound of Mull, you’ll certainly want a drysuit and a lot of insulation (the water is very cold, even in the summer). I went on a try dive (1.5 hours in total with around 15 minutes under the water) with a top-rated instructor, which provided a good introduction to the basics, all necessary equipment, safety instruction and a taste of life under the sea. The kelp forests are pretty impressive and I saw lots of crabs and small marine creatures. Next time, I’ll opt for one of the longer courses to enjoy the marine life for longer.

PRICE: Try-a-Dive, £87; PADI Open Water courses start at £499
CONTACT: 01631 566088


The MacPhie Challenge is based on the same idea as Munro-bagging (climbing all the peaks over a certain height in Scotland), except they are a lot lower (‘an eminence in excess of 300ft high’), there are just 22 in the challenge, and you only have to visit one place: the Isle of Colonsay. Sounds too easy? Well, bear in mind you need to plan for high and low tides to get across to the summit of Beinn Orasa on Oransay, and the current record for the 20-mile route is under 4 hours!

CONTACT: html Visit Scotland on 0845 225 5121

Fun yakking

‘Fun’ what? Imagine an inflatable canoe that is as stable as a raft but has the maneuverability of a kayak. Take the craft and your best mate to the top of a river course with Grade 3 rapids and start paddling. It’s guaranteed to make you extremely wet and you’ll laugh a lot. During the summer, Vertical Descents runs daily trips to either Kinlochleven or the River Awe – the latter being the most challenging.

PRICE: from £45
CONTACT: 01855 821593

horseridingHorse trekking

There are several horse-riding operators in the region, but few are better-placed than Susan Wood’s Lunga Riding Stables. The stables overlook Craobh Haven yacht harbour 26 miles south of Oban, on the Sound of Jura with views across the Firth of Lorn. New for 2011 are four-day trail rides for intermediates along lochside routes and forest paths. Current favourite treks include a four-hour Pub Ride to Ardfen – with spectacular views en route – while beginners will enjoy the easy trek down to the village of Craobh Haven and out along the causeway beside the marina. Lunga also hosts a western training week in June.

PRICE: The four-day trail ride costs approx £800 (inc horse hire and bed and breakfast for fi ve nights). A two-hour trek is £45 and the pub ride is £80 (excluding lunch)
01852 500632


You climb, you jump, you release, you soar through the sky. Flying with a parachute is one of the most exhilarating sports, but it also has a more serene side: you’ll experience total silence as your parachute takes you gliding you over islands, forests and mountains. Entering a thermal updraft allows you to climb higher, where you’ll gain the greatest view of the coastline you’ll ever see, before you eventually descend to earth. Experience a bird’s eye view of Arran and its many peaks by booking a taster session (tandem fl ight) with an instructor. If you want to conquer the skies alone, a Club Pilot Course will take you there in about six to 10 days. Various other courses are available, as well as an season pass for the experienced.

PRICE: Tandem flight, £95; Club Pilot Course, from £750
01770 303899

Seafood special

If you want to taste some of the best seafood served anywhere in the world, try the restaurants in and around Oban

One of the best (and most unpretentious) seafood restaurants on the west coast. Owned by local fi shermen and overlooking Oban bay, you know the fi sh on your dish is as fresh as it comes. Book in advance – the building was a public loo in its former life and there is not a lot of table space!

At the Ardanaiseig on Loch Awe, you are in for a treat. This is one of the fi nest restaurants in the Highlands where you can dine overlooking the waters where your food was swimming that morning. The fi ve-course evening meal I had was superb – the scallops being particularly delicious. The menu is dictated by what is seasonal and fresh that day: it could be smoked trout from Inverawe or Loch Fyne oysters. If staying in the hotel and keen on fi shing, renowned head chef, 2010 Medaille D’Or winner Gary Goldie, will cook up your catch. And you can’t get fresher than that! Booking essential.
The original restaurant overlooking the loch of the same name where you are guaranteed the freshest seafood the chain eatery has to offer.
Known to serve up one of the best fi sh suppers on the west coast. This humble chippy on Tobermory’s Harbour (Isle of Mull) won the royal seal of approval from Prince Charles. If it’s good enough for a prince...

When I visited, the smoking sheds were being fired up by a man shovelling wood into large chambers. The fish, he told me, is slowly smoked in the traditional way, which may be more time-consuming, but they produce some of the best smoked fish (and particularly salmon) in Scotland.

…is Gaelic for ‘fish’, before you ask. This modern restaurant in Oban sources most of the fish and all shellfish locally and has picked up numerous awards. Enough said.

And while you're here...
Oban is the springboard to the Hebridean islands, but it is a charming place to visit in its own right. Gemma Hall selects a few highlights nearby

You can’t visit the Highlands and not tour a castle, or three. There are several around Oban including Dunstaffnage,  Dunollie and, my favourite, the dramatic Duart Castle sitting on a peninsula jutting into the Sound of Mull. For more than 400 years it has been the home of the Maclean clan. Take a ferry from Oban to Mull and wander the state rooms and dungeons.

The Highland Games season is upon us! If hammer-throwing, tug of war, Scottish dancing and bagpipes make you want to buy a kilt, leap in the air and proclaim your Scottish ancestry, make sure you are in Oban on 25 August.

There are a number of islands close to Oban to escape to for a day or afternoon. Mull is hugely touristy but the mountain scenery is superb and there are many family-friendly attractions to keep the little ones happy. Lismore and Kerrera are picturesque and wonderfully quiet; perfect for a short cycle ride or walk.

Before Oban was a town, there was just a distillery overlooking the sea. Founded in 1794, the Oban Distillery may be one of the smallest distilleries in the Highlands, but it also has one of Scotland’s oldest sources of single malt. Tours reveal the whisky-making process.

West coast marine and bird life is fantastic; look out for sea eagles, basking sharks, whales and seals. Take a wildlife cruise with Sealife Adventures or Sea Life Surveys

In the first week of August, enjoy the sight of hundreds of yachts with their spinnakers aloft racing up the Sound of Mull in the annual regatta. The event dates back to 1882 when it included duck hunting. For the last 50 years, though, competitors have been true yachties who race various routes over one week.

All the info

In terms of action sports, Scotland is fast becoming the New Zealand of Europe. To help you plan your trip, log on to

Getting there
I travelled by train with East Coast to Glasgow. 08457 225225
ScotRail connect to stations throughout Scotland, including Oban and Fort William. A maximum of six bikes (and sometimes just two) are permitted on the train so book well in advance.
British Airways flies to several Hebridean islands, including Tiree, from Glasgow and London.

Most speakers of Scottish Gaelic live in the Highlands and Islands. Note the Gaelic for ‘whisky’ (‘uisge beatha’) which means ‘water of life’.

Forget insect repellent, there are only two reliable ways of avoiding these wee terrors: stay on the coast where it is windy and come armed with Avon’s Skin So Soft body spray. It may have been designed to beautify a lady’s skin, but someone discovered it is the best midge repellent going. It works – ask any Highlander.

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