EVERYTHING ABOUT Loch Fyne is a superlative: it's the longest sea loch in Scotland, it produces the tastiest oysters in the country and it forms the oddest shape on a map.
Towards the end of the twisting A83, which snakes its way over the "Rest And Be Thankful" pass before hugging the length of Loch Fyne, lies Stonefield Castle Hotel, near the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert.
Set in 60 acres, the castle was built in 1837 for members of the Campbell clan and follows the Scottish baronial fashion of the time. It was converted into a hotel during the 1940s and now, following a major refurbishment – and with a "heather" theme to the updated decor – it has opened its doors again.
Stonefield has 33 en-suite bedrooms, two of which have four-poster beds and four of which are classed as superior. We stayed in a principal castle room, with a superb view out across Loch Fyne. The suite had a separate sitting room and a giant bathroom, complete with a shower cubicle and one of the original, partially sunken Victorian baths. The room was excellent but it was the stunning view that stole the show.
The food in the hotel's restaurant was delicious – a mixture of locally-caught seafood and lamb and beef from the surrounding countryside.
You can use the castle grounds as an opportunity to work up an appetite for all the superb meals the restaurant serves. As well as exploring the gardens – noted for their interesting collection of rhododendrons – you can wander around the castle's private island, connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway. It's especially beautiful first thing in the morning, when the shores of Loch Fyne are bathed in soft light.
If you can drag yourself away from Stonefield Castle's grounds then Argyll has a host of other beautiful walks to explore. A stroll around the harbour at Tarbert is a must but, if you really want to stretch your legs, then you can head north to Knapdale.
The varied landscape of ridges ("cnaps") and glens ("dalls"), from which the area derives its name, is a giant nature reserve, managed by the Forestry Commission and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT). Head for the unmanned Barnluasgan Interpretation Centre and pick up one of the walking leaflets. Three walks start from the centre and there are two way-marked routes through other parts of the forest. If you fancy a short outing, the wildlife trail is easy – and we were rewarded with views of a great spotted woodpecker and a little grebe on Loch Barnluasgan. For a more energetic day, take the path around Loch Coille Bharr.
If the weather is good you could walk along the oakwood trail, which, although steep in places, is clearly marked and will lead you through some of Knapdale's Caledonian Forest Reserve, so designated in 1994 to protect some of Scotland's remaining natural woodland. From the viewpoint at the top of the walk, you can look out over Loch Linne and the smaller Loch Fidhle. It is in Knapdale that the SWT wants to stage a trial reintroduction of the European beaver. Gazing out across the area's lochs, it's easy to imagine the toothy creature being very much at home in these surroundings.
Those looking for more organised activities can take advantage of Stonefield's links with local businesses – the hotel can organise whale and dolphin-watching trips with Seafari at Oban, visits to Inveraray Jail or the prehistoric Kilmartin valley.
A trip to Loch Fyne wouldn't be complete without lunch at the famous oyster bar. While Loch Fyne now has a chain of 38 restaurants around the country, there's something special about the original oyster bar at Cairndow. The business grew from humble beginnings: Johnny Noble and Andy Lane began selling oysters harvested in Loch Fyne from a small shed in a lay-by on the main road. In 1985, they moved into an old cow byre at Clachan Farm where they built up a reputation for quality seafood.
More than 30 years later, the oyster bar is still going from strength to strength. We arrived for lunch on a sunny Monday and were disappointed that the famous shellfish platter was off the menu because the fresh ingredients hadn't yet been delivered. But that's exactly why the oyster bar has such a good reputation – customers won't be fobbed off with food from the freezer. Seafood pie, oysters with garlic breadcrumbs, pork and caramelised onion sausages and a fantastic parsnip soup more than made up for the absence of other shellfish.
Noble was an interesting character and you can learn more about his life, and his connection with the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, at Ardkinglas House, his family home, which lies just across the head of the loch.
Built for Sir Andrew Noble in 1907, to a design by Robert Lorimer, Ardkinglas is a grand, grade-A listed manor house, set in 12,000 acres of beautiful hills and glens. Not to be outdone by Loch Fyne itself for superlatives, Ardkinglas boasted the first private hydro-electric scheme in Argyll, one of the earliest estate railways and, until recently, a 203-ft fir which was the tallest tree in the UK until the Tree Register of the British Isles decided to award the title to a Douglas fir at the Hermitage, near Dunkeld, instead.
Ardkinglas needn't worry about losing one of its titles, though – the estate's woodland garden is still home to many "champion trees", the tallest or broadest of their species.
Johnny Noble's nephew, David Sumsion, inherited the estate in 2002 and lives at Ardkinglas with his wife and young family. He is now looking for new ways to diversify, just as Noble did with what became the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. The house has a self-catering holiday flat and several locations on the estate are licensed for weddings. Ardkinglas is also used for photoshoots and feature films, most recently the family drama The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (2007).
Ardkinglas House is open for tours on Fridays and by arrangement at other times for groups. It has some fascinating features, from the low steps built for the elderly Sir Andrew Noble to Edwardian innovations, including a telephone system.
Standing in its grounds and staring out across Loch Fyne, it's easy to understand why Sir Andrew Noble fell in love with the spot and bought the estate – and why Johnny Noble was determined to breathe new life into the area with his oyster bar.
, its redecoration managing to combine a modern style with traditional characterFactfile loch fyne
How to get there
From Glasgow, head north on the A82 then follow the A83 from Tarbet to Loch Fyne and down the Kintyre peninsula to Tarbert.
Where to stay
Stonefield Castle Hotel, Tarbert, Argyll (01880 820836, www.oxfordhotelsandinns.com). Dinner, B&B from 90, principal castle rooms from 125.
And there's more
Ardkinglas House, Cairndow, Argyll (01499 600261, www.ardkinglas.com).
Pre-booked house tours Fridays at 2:30pm. Ardkinglas Woodland Garden is open every day, from dawn until dusk.
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Clachan, Cairndow (01499 600236, www.lochfyne.com).
Scotsman Reader Holidays offer alternative Scottish breaks. For more details visit www.holidays.scotsman.com