Travel: discovering Argyll’s Secret Coast

Picture: Alan Milligan
Picture: Alan Milligan
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Named Argyll’s Secret Coast, the southern tips of the Cowal Peninsula allow views of stunning beauty at every turn. It is an hour and a half from Glasgow yet largely bypassed by holidaymakers; unlike nearby towns Inveraray and Arrochar, it isn’t en route to anywhere else. These are world-class sailing waters, however, they certainly aren’t unknown to those with boats.

But you don’t need to know your tell-tale from your spinnaker to enjoy the special yacht race taking place in July. The Fife Regatta is a seven-day event which happens every five years. The Fifes, as these splendid wooden vessels are collectively known, were designed and built by one of Scotland’s most famous boatbuilders, William Fife III, in Fairlie, on the Clyde Estuary, during the 19th and early 20th century and are prized across the world for their elegance and craftsmanship. Enthusiasts carry out exacting restoration projects and sailing crews talk of the sheer pleasure of sailing them.

Twenty of these classic yachts are to return to the Clyde this year including two glorious old ladies, Kentra and Astor, celebrating their 90th birthdays. Kentra, a 100ft gaff ketch, is being relaunched after seven years in storage while Astor, an 86ft schooner, is coming all the way from California for the occasion.

The regatta will start on 28 June and over the course of a week it will take in Largs, Rothesay, Tighnabruaich and Portavadie, all close together by water, but involving long car trips and ferries by land. The Cowal Peninsula, therefore, is a good vantage point as you overlook so much of the action of the regatta from here. The first three days in July are the most exciting and according to veterans of past regattas, yacht-chasing coupled with stops along the coast is the best way to do it.

The Colintraive Hotel is a good place to start. A previous winner of the Inn of the Year competition, it is a lovely old pub serving excellent local food. The first glimpses of the boats can be caught here on the Monday as they sail from Rothesay to Tighnabruaich. Walk down to Caol Ruadh, a unique sculpture park whose artworks overlook the loch; certainly the passing Fife crews might be surprised to see a life-size lounging iguana sunning itself on a rock if they happen to glance this way.

Rounding Loch Riddon will bring you along one of the most spectacular roads in Scotland and into Tighnabruaich. Here the place to stay to see the boats first is the splendid Wellpark Hotel. Recently refurbished, it has a beer garden overlooking the narrows between the shore and Bute, so spectators will be close to the action. Porpoises and dolphins are a common sight here too and the hotel has plenty of vantage points from the exquisite rooms, with binoculars and telescopes in situ.

The boats will anchor next to the pier; for an even closer look, there is a converted trawler, Morag, which can be chartered for trips by the hour or the day, or visitors can join the street party in the village. The excellent art gallery here is holding a nautical-themed exhibition featuring Scottish contemporary seascape painters, and a skiff race will involve two handmade boats, crafted by the locals and launched to honour the regatta. With the Fife crews on shore, the evening is likely to be lively. Tighnabruaich, when it is buzzing, is a great place to be; an epicentre of West Coast bonhomie.

On Tuesday the yachts will set sail en-masse for Loch Fyne providing the most breathtaking sight of the week. If it is wet they will be best viewed over a seafood platter in An Lochan’s restaurant. If it is sunny, then sit outside the Kames Hotel with a pint and fish and chips.

Heading for Portavadie in Loch Fyne there are viewpoints and walks around the headland. One of the most spectacular beaches in Scotland, Ostell Bay, is found at the end of a walk before you top the last dune to find what seems like miles of golden sand laid out before you and the whole island of Arran framed opposite.

You could perhaps say the same of Portavadie Marina, your first impression of it, coming at the end of a quiet single track road, is one of surprise. It is an oasis on a quiet coast with top-class accommodation ranging from penthouse apartments to bunkhouses, dozens of yachts moored outside and a fantastic restaurant with glass walls and a balcony.

Completing the trip, a little further up the Loch Fyne coast at Otter Ferry is The Oystercatcher, a beautifully located pub restaurant on the beach. More traditional and quieter than Portavadie, it is an excellent place to watch the sun go down and sample oysters from the adjacent estate.

The Fife Regatta is a good time to visit The Secret Coast, and certainly there will be plenty going on in the first week of July. But driving or walking here have their attractions even without a nautical flavour.

• The Fife Regatta on the Clyde Estuary, starts in Largs on 28 June and will visit Rothesay, Tighnabruaich and Portavadie before returning to Largs. The yachts will be navigating the Cowal Peninsula on 1-3 July with on shore events following their progress. There is a choice of accommodation ranging from camp sites, bed and breakfasts, self-catering cottages and hotels. See www.argyllsecretcoast.co.uk