A coach holiday to the west coast of Scotland offers the best of both worlds, The Star’s Deputy News Editor, Sarah Crabtree, discovered.
Not just turquoise seas, sandy beaches and palm trees to rival the Caribbean - but the ease of getting there without an airport in sight...
THE Highlands and islands of western Scotland always seem so enticing.
Atmospheric mist rolling in across purple heather glens. Romantic castles reflected in the stony-still waters of lochs. Birds of prey soaring above dramatic snow-capped mountains.
But getting there can be a puzzle. How to explore that remote rugged landscape, and hop from one magical island to the next, without days of tiring driving, gallons of fuel, and hours spent poring over maps and ferry timetables?
The solution is to travel by coach - an experience these days far removed from school trips of old.
Of course the stress of driving is taken entirely out of your hands. But so is the hunting for somewhere to park, worrying about speed cameras, and planning ahead to fill up with petrol.
The higher vantage point from your cosy seat provides the best possible view of the passing Scottish landscape. And coach travel also allows the journey to become as much a part of the holiday as the destination. The enjoyment of admiring the changing scenery becomes just as much of an attraction as the arrival.
After heading north from Sheffield, our first overnight stop was in Glasgow, to rest and recharge ready for an early start.
And after breakfast we were off - to Wemyss Bay on the Firth of Clyde to connect with the Caledonian MacBrayne 8.30am ferry to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, and a visit to Mount Stuart.
The red stone Victorian Gothic mansion, owned by racing driver Johnny Bute, is where Stella McCartney married 10 years ago, watched by celebrity friends including Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Pierce Brosnan and her Beatle dad Paul.
But its past is just as glamorous as its present.
The first house in the world to have a heated pool, and the first home in Scotland to be lit by electricity, its decor is flamboyant and marvellously eccentric, its walls and ceilings painted with blue and gold stars, suns, moons and signs of the zodiac.
After lunch in the Mount Stuart garden cafe, where the expertly-prepared, beautifully-presented food is sourced from the kitchen garden, we were back aboard the coach.
A leisurely drive along the length of Bute, watching for porpoise in the sea as we passed, took us to the island’s secondary ferry port of Rhubodach. It’s a tiny dock where you can idle away the wait skimming stones on the pebble beach.
Back on dry land we swept round winding roads, hugged on both sides by huge bracken hillsides. Acres of open sky stretched above us, the enormity of Scotland and its vast untouched landscape ahead of us.
The views were ever more enjoyable from the warmth and comfort of our reclining coach seats.
All the while we were kept entertained by our onboard guide, Eric, who was full of anecdotes, jokes and facts. Did you know the origins of the song The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond?
Far from being just a traditional ditty, its lyrics are actually a tragic tale of death. The high road was the long march back to Scotland from London for Jacobite soldiers - and the low road the passage to the afterlife for executed souls.
Hence the low road brings its walker back to Scotland ‘afore ye’.
From Oban the next day we took the ferry once more to the Isle of Mull - home to a distillery producing two fine malts, and famous as the base for children’s TV show Balamory.
And from Mull we found our sea legs for a bracing little boat trip on gently bouncing waves to Staffa - home to the world famous Fingal’s Cave and the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture.
The cave is a natural wonder, its cathedral-like column construction similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland but in vertical form.
Great hexagonal pillars rise from the sea - and the cave is accessible via a thrillingly precarious footpath hewn into the side of the rock, a small handrail your only salvation.
On the Isle of Iona, via another ‘CalMac’ crossing, we explored the restored Abbey - the seat of Christianity in Scotland and the draw for thousands of pilgrims each year, all following in the footsteps of murdered monks, clan chiefs and ancient kings.
More inspiring still was the island’s breathtaking scenery - white sandy beaches bathed in balmy temperatures, surrounded by a brilliantly clear crystal turquoise sea.
It’s incredible to take in that these islands really are a part of Britain, in the same time zone as Sheffield.
While in South Yorkshire we are trudging to work under gloomy grey skies, at just the same hour fishermen are setting out in colourful painted boats on dazzling, unpolluted water.
Back on the mainland we slowed the pace for a stop at the National Trust for Scotland’s Crarae Gardens near the banks of Loch Fyne. An exotic Himalayan-styled woodland garden, its shade-dappled pathways wind past rhododendron in a rainbow of breathtaking colour.
And eventually it was back to Glasgow, and onwards to Sheffield, on our comfortable coach which transported us effortlessly door-to door.
Most coach companies offer door-to-door pick-ups, all inclusive hotel accommodation and meals, and entry tickets into all attractions en route.
* Sarah travelled as a guest of Visit Scotland
* Sarah journeyed with Find a Coach Holiday which features several South Yorkshire coach tour operators:
* Coopers Tours - 0844 357 5353 - Coopers Tours - has a 5 night trip in April, incl. Oban, from £259pp.
* Eagre Coaches, part of Wilfreda in Sheffield - 01427 612 098 - Eagre - has 4 night tours in April and August incl. trips to Bute and Mount Stuart.
* Andrews of Tideswell - 01298 871 222 - Andrews of Tideswell - picks up in Sheffield, and has a 6 night tour in September incl. Mull and Iona.
Holiday tips - don’t miss:
1. The Horoscope Room in Mount Stuart - which opens to reveal a steamy secret conservatory. Stella McCartney spent her wedding night in the suite.
2. The foodie delights on the Isle of Mull - try The Isle of Mull Cheese Company, and the Tobermory Fish Company’s mouthwatering marmalade-cured salmon.
3. The dramatic journey past the splendour of the famous Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint above Loch Lomond on the homeward route back to Glasgow.