A sustained campaign to put Oban on the map as the seafood capital of Scotland has enjoyed some measure of success in recent years, until a rival phenomenon emerged in 2011 to threaten the accolade.
The town’s 30-minute Guy Fawkes display suffered a technical hitch which saw all the fireworks ignite within the space of one minute, leading to the town being internationally tagged “Obang” when the fiasco became a YouTube sensation.
One year later, the occasion was celebrated instead with a bonfire, barely attracting a crowd of double figures. There were complaints, of course. But judging by the bustle in the town that weekend, Oban doesn’t need pyrotechnics to add a bit of sparkle to proceedings. The harbour area glows in the evening and dazzles when the Calmac ferry comes in. Splendid as the view is from the equally impressive Caledonian Hotel, the urge is not to sit back and gaze but to get out there and be part of it.
So where better to start the weekend than at one of Oban’s best-known restaurants, the Seafood Temple? Well, some might say that the thought of dining in a converted public toilet block doesn’t leave them flushed with enthusiasm, but the Temple is a gem that is not to be missed – if you can get a table. As one might imagine, it is not exactly a banqueting hall, but the small number of covers and the intimate atmosphere combine to create a dining experience characterised by the warmest of welcomes and the finest of produce.
We had arrived in Oban at 5:30pm and headed straight to the Temple, and it turned out that one of our dishes had beaten us there by only 30 minutes – a lobster landed at the harbour at 5pm. As that roly-poly chap on MasterChef might say: “Crustacean cuisine doesn’t get fresher than this.”
Mussels in a cream and bacon sauce, scallops in chilli and garlic, baked plaice stuffed with crab and olives … all were delicious, washed down with a bottle of Skinny Blonde from the Oban Bay Brewery. If this town really is the seafood capital of Scotland, the Temple already seemed like the epicentre.
It was tempting to spend the next day just lazily being looked after by the Caledonian. The hotel’s central location, which allows guests to stroll in off the Mull ferry or the Glasgow train, gives it a natural advantage over other establishments. It does not rest on its laurels, and provides the warmth, comfort and service which its grand façade demands. However, the great outdoors beckoned. The recent poor weather had scuppered a sea safari, and instead we took an off-the-beaten-track roadtrip with Lorne & Isles Tours, taking in Rannoch Moor, and stopping at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel for lunch. The views were dramatic and the journey smooth, although thoughts did wander to what the famous whirlpool at Corryvreckan would have been like had we been on the boat.
The seafood kept coming that night at the Caledonian, with sea bass and salmon the big hits, accompanied by mussels and scallops.
Departure day provided a happy dilemma: a ferry trip to Mull and the afternoon in Tobermory, or the chance to check out a rival to the Seafood Temple’s crown, namely Ee-usk – phonetic gaelic for “fish” – on North Pier. Well, it would have been rude not to, so the charms of Mull would have to wait for another day.
Ee-usk has style, with its modern, glass frontage looking across the bay, a fascinating menu, the finest local produce, and a string of awards on display, including a series of Michelin recommendations. All it lacked was the intimacy and warmth of its rival, although the full houses who pack it out at the weekend do not appear to be troubled by this. But families take note: no children are allowed after 5:45pm.
Sufficiently fortified, we hit the road home and wondered why we had ever questioned if Oban in winter was a good idea. A weekend break here might not go with a bang every time, but it will always light up your sky.
THE FACTS Special offers at the Caledonian Hotel include a two-night break for £117 per person. This includes a packed lunch, dinner, plus ferry tickets over to the Isle of Mull with bike hire and tickets to the Sea- life Centre. Tel: 0844 855 9134 or visit www.obancaledonian.com