Fort William and area is a popular destination for many. Not just for international tourists, but for UK residents too. That being said, we didn’t find it overrun with tourists. Deep in the heart of the Highlands, it is easy to see why it gets so much acclaim. As you drive through the awe-inspiring highlands, you emerge from the imposing hills and are treated to incredible views of Loch Levin. You then drive for several more miles, along the coast of Loch Linnhe, trying to keep your eyes on the road instead of staring at the views.
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Being such a popular area, the hotels in Fort William are a bit on the upper scale of price,so we opted to get a BnB in the smaller village of Roy Bridge. Only 12 miles from Fort William, it isn’t a big compromise, especially since the room rate was just over $100 Cad as opposed to the $200 average of Fort William. The BnB we chose was the Homagen: a cute little BnB with very friendly owners, and equally friendly guests. If you are a person who likes to meet people, one good way of doing that is to go to a BnB and eat breakfast with the other guests. You might not meet as many people if you were to use a hostel, but it’s much more comfortable. The weather for the area was particularly clear, which our BnB owner said is unusual. We asked her for a recommendation for star gazing, and she told us to visit the Commando Memorial a WW2 memorial completed in 1951. Located in Spean Bridge, which is another little Scottish Village. She wasn’t wrong it was a good place for star Gazing.
One of the main reasons we chose Fort William was to appease both of our desires. I love steam trains, and she loves Harry Potter. What better way to make both of us happy then to take the Jacobite Train. Although the engine used in the films is sitting in Universal Studios Leavesden which I talk about in an earlier blog here. The Glenfinnan Viaduct is featured in the second film, you can see here in someone else’s Youtube clip. If you wan to ride the train (which I highly recommend), do no underestimate the popularity. I booked months in advance and it was almost sold out. Even then, I had to book our return journey as 2 single journeys, sitting in separate coaches, and on the last day of our time in F.W., which proved to be problematic, as I will explain later on. The first day we got to spend around F.W.
Even though we were going to ride it the next day, we decided to photograph the Jacobite Train going across the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct completed in 1901. It has 21 spans of 15m arches, to total 380m long, making it the largest viaduct in Scotland! It is impressive in it’s own right, but equally impressive is the drive to it from F.W.: hugging the coast of Loch Eil for most of the 16.6 mile stretch, makes it very scenic. Once you get to Glenfinnan, its popularity is apparent, almost all of the parking lots were full, but we managed to sneak in a spot as someone left. If you can get a spot in the main lot, even though it isn’t free, it’s well worth it for sanity’s sake. There was quite a crowd at the main viewpoint, so I did a bit of hiking so I could get a better view. I didn’t see any signs or fences, but I did go off trail. The train came on time, and was well worth the effort.
If you do have time there is another site in Glenfinnan worth a look: the Glenfinnan Monument. An excerpt from (Visit Scotland) “Glenfinnan Monument was erected in 1815, in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died in the cause of Prince Charles Edward Stuart”. We didn’t have time that day to visit it, though, as we had other plans.
A last minute decision we made was to take a boat tour of Loch Linnhe. What better way of seeing the beauty of a Scottish Loch than by boat? There are a few boat tours in the area but the one we chose was Seaxplorer opting for the 2 hour Wildlife and History Cruise. Well worth the £42 each, as we had a blast, saw a good deal of wildlife, and the operator was very knowledgeable of the area. I love trains, as you all must know by now, but Adriane loves boats. So this was particularly enjoyable for her. The wildlife we saw includes: cormorants, blue herons & gray herons, seals, deer, wild goats, and a few others.
After a wonderful day at sea, we drove back to F.W. to have a wonderful dinner at Glen Nevis Restaurant. The saying “when in Rome…” applied here, as when in Scotland you have to try haggis. Although we chickened out and just went for the “haggis bites” as an appetizer, but I have to say they were pretty good. After a delightful dinner, we turned in for the day.
The following morning was not as eventful as we had to do more laundry, then go back and pack the car. We wouldn’t have time to pack later, because I had to book the train ride on the last day instead of the day before. We would ride the Jacobite, then immediately get in the car to our next destination of Portree on the Isle of Skye. The ride would end at 4:30 PM, and we would get to Portree by around 7pm give or take.
The Jacobite Steam Train Journey started at 12:25 this day: an over 80 mile round trip, from Fort William to Mallaig, it is a long and satisfying journey. The coaches on board are quite comfortable, even being in standard class. There are even coaches that are in the H.P. movie, although sadly they were fully booked. The journey passes stunning scenery of forests, lochs, and highland mountains. Not only does it go over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, there are many other viaducts, and even tunnels. Even if you don’t care about steam trains, the views on this one can’t be beat. I do have to warn you: when you go through a long tunnel, you may want to close your window as coal smoke gets inside the compartments (although for me this is ideal). Another thing to consider is if you stick your head out of the window, not only are there trees and other hazards, there is also hot coal soot coming from the train, even in the back of the train. My eyes were burning a bit by the end, because that didn’t stop me from sticking my head out 😀
The journey pauses for a couple of hours in Mallaig so you can visit the town or have lunch, which we did, opting to eat at the Tea Garden (their website’s not the greatest, but I’ll provide it anyway). The food was really good. We had a charcuterie plate with meats and Scottish cheeses, paired with some really good port. Afterwards, we just explored a bit, before re-boarding the train.
This is where the trouble began that I alluded to earlier. The journey back started out just fine, but part of the way back, our train broke down. It took a while for the train crew to figure out what the problem was, and then figure out if it could be fixed. Hours had gone by before they sent a part from F.W. The hotel we were supposed to be staying at this night wouldn’t allow late check ins, it was already 4pm (the ride was supposed to be over by 4) and we had barely left Mallaig. By the time a spare part could get to us, and we could get back to F.W, then drive to the Isle of Skye it would be too late. We called the BnB, and they said they would give us some leeway on the check in, but only an hour so it was already too late. The worst part about it was the cell reception was spotty, and we barely managed to get through. To make matters worse the internet was unusable, so we couldn’t book an alternative hotel. We called the BnB we stayed at the night before, but the room was already booked. My wife Adriane, had an idea. She had a friend who is a travel agent, back home in Calgary, and she saved our butts! There was no vacancy in all of Fort William, Mallaig, Glenfinnan or anywhere in the immediate area. She did find us a place just over an hour away that had late check in. The Muthu Ben Doran Hotel located in Tyndrum. Not bad, and certainly better than staying the night in the car.
To be fair with the operators of the Jacobite, none of this was their fault, really. I mean the engine was built in 1949, not super old, but old enough. No matter how well maintained these old steam trains are, at some point or another, a breakdown is bound to happen. Some people on the train were freaking out, and getting angry at the staff on the train. I don’t really see the point, the wait staff on the train can’t refund you or get the train moving any faster, making their lives miserable isn’t going to help. Besides I think they did a great job communicating what happened and how long it was going to take (once that was found out). Once they found out it wasn’t going to be a quick fix, they made arrangements for all passengers to get on the next mainline train (which the Jacobite shares the rails with). We opted to stay on the train though. By the time we found out, it was already too late to make it to Skye, so we just relaxed and mingled with the few other people left on the train. Not only did we get freebies from the staff, we also were able to change carriages into the first class carriage; patience and empathy do pay off sometimes.
Our friend CJ really helped us out, so I am providing this link of my own free will. Please like and support her on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/gotravelwithcj/ If you need a travel agent, she really knows her stuff.
After a 3 hour delay we finally made it back to Fort William. By now it was dark and we immediately set out for the new hotel. So not much else happened.
So if you are thinking about visiting Scotland, I hope I painted it in good light and you consider the Fort William area. There are many things to do in the area, and it is a place of beauty. Even though our train broke down, and we missed out on the Isle of Skye, I would ride it again in a heartbeat, and so would she. It is well worth the money.
Join me next week, when I will cover our last leg of the trip and talk about Glasgow. Until then: Chì mi fhathast thu ( that is “see you later” in Scottish Gaelic)
– the Globe Trevor –