Day 6 – Monday
Today was the big day. We decided to head west to the coast and take a tour to see some puffins. We made the arrangements the night before and set off at 6 o’clock in the morning for our destination: Oban.
There are some fast roads in Scotland, and then there are the other 95%. A good fast road might suddenly narrow and become a one and a half lane stretch with blind corners, and then return to a full two lanes ten kilometers later. In my previous travels, I could look at a map, find the scale of the road and think “ok, that should take about three hours”. But here in Scotland, the roads that appeared on the map could either be taken at 120km or 40km, without any visible differentiation. Thank goodness for Google Maps or we would probably have completely underestimated the time it would take to get to Oban.
The drive there wasn’t bad. I managed to stay awake and not hit any oncoming vehicles or sheep in the road. We were blessed with the best weather of the trip so far, and the brilliant blue sky reflected grandly off the lochs and rivers.
We made better time than expected (Dan commented on how “confident” I was on the narrow roads and blind corners, which just means that I probably drove faster than I should have) and we arrived in Oban in plenty of time to figure out where to park the car for the entire day and find the ferry terminal.
The town of Oban
Oban was a big town and built with slightly more colorful materials than the smaller towns thus far. It also sat directly on the waterfront and had a fantastic harbor and plenty of lively boat traffic. We found the ferry terminal and waited in line at the tour office. We paid for our tickets and were ready to leave, but the man behind the counter still went through the entire sales pitch of the tour as if trying to convince us that it was a good deal. He also explained how the tour operated, which was like no other tour I’d ever been on.
The ferry out of Oban
The plan was to catch the 9 am ferry out of Oban for the 45 minute ride to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. Once off the boat we were to look for a red tour bus and ride on that for an hour until we reached the tiny settlement of Fionnphort. From there it was a thirty minute ride on a tour boat to the island of Staffa, where we had 45 minutes to wander around before getting back on the tour boat. But when we did return to the boat, we would be taken to the village of Biale Mor on the Island of Iona for another 45 minute free period. From here we took a ferry back to Fionnphort and then reversed the bus ride and first ferry back to Oban. Got that?
The ferry left at 9am, full of happy tourists. It was a big boat and held a number of tour buses below, as well as the usual assortment of motorcycles, cars and delivery trucks. Oban slipped away into the distance and
I was tired and relished the idea of just crawling into a corner on the ferry and closing my eyes. But then I actually got on the ferry and realized that the scenery was too interesting to miss and I felt compelled to look at everything.
Forty five minutes later we disembarked from the ferry and eventually found our bus. I say “eventually” because there were about a dozen buses parked there waiting for their passengers to load. Dan and I got seats near the back of the bus and sat back to enjoy the road. To give you an idea of the type of road we were on, it was a 37km ride that took an hour. To say it was a slow road would be an understatement. The entire distance was single lane with pullouts, but fortunately with good sight lines. A couple of old bridges we crossed were barely wide enough for the bus. The driver of the bus made it an enjoyable trip by keeping up a running commentary about the island, the road, the history and anything else that caught his eye. Still, about 45 minutes into the ride I wanted to close my eyes again.
Fortunately we arrived at the hamlet of Fionnphort which seemed to exist solely to support the boat ramp that gave access to other islands. The tour was flexible. Each leg of the trip had its own ticket and we could use them in whatever order we wanted to, as well as whenever we wanted to. Therefore we had the choice of going to Iona or Staffa first. We chose Staffa and piled into the boat along with a couple of dozen other people. The boat was crowded and there was no room to move around, so we all just sat there and looked around during the thirty minutes it took to reach Staffa. The island was remote, the only man-made structures were a concrete jetty for the boats and a short set of stairs up the side of the island. The driver of the boat told us to be back in 45 minutes or else!
Our tour boat to Staffa
Staffa Island rose out of the water like a cluster of stone logs. It is a volcanic island and the hexagonal basalt columns were distinctive. The southern end of the island was pocked by two large caves worn out of the stone. The larger of the two is known as Fingal’s Cave and was touted as a key reason to take this tour. As the boat docked on the jetty we had a choice: start with the caves or puffins. Dan and I didn’t take any time to agree that the puffins were our goal. We climbed the stairs and headed north over the lush green grass that covered the top of the island.
Looking south on the island
I felt guilty walking along the path to the orange marker that indicated where the puffins were nesting. I didn’t want to disturb them, but I also wanted to see them. And if I didn’t go see them, that wouldn’t stop the other people with me from going. So I decided to just swallow my guilt and enjoy the moment. Dan and I took a seat on a grassy hill above the cliffside where some puffins had been spotted and relaxed. It was peaceful. The sound of the waves and the birds was calming and the sun was warm on my skin. My patience was rewarded when I noticed a puffin go into its underground nest and pause before flying away again.
A tour boat heads out
A nesting puffin
We spent all of our time near the puffins and didn’t get a chance to see Fingal’s Cave up close. I didn’t mind. I could imagine that it was impressive and what I could see from the boat showed me that my imagination was correct. We headed back to the jetty for our return ride. After the crowded boat pulled away the captain piloted us north instead of south. He took us in close to where the puffins were feeding in the water. I was a little annoyed with how close he got, disturbing them enough for them to fly away. I tried to take pictures anyway.
I can fly!
We made our way back towards Fionnphort but instead of docking there, we went a little to the right and docked on the island of Iona. The boat captain warned us not to miss the last ferry back to Fionnphort or we’d miss the bus back to
Craignure and then the ferry back to Oban. Noted: don’t miss the ferry to Fionnphort.
Iona Abbey – and yes, the water really was that color
Iona’s history is rich in monastic history, dating back over four centuries. People still make pilgrimages here and the Iona Abbey stands guard over the strait between Iona and Mull.
We started our visit to Iona by walking north to the ruins of a nunnery, and then on to the Abbey itself. The weather was still gorgeous, with a strong breeze blowing off the water and a blue sky above.
View across to Mull
Backside of the Abbey
Inside the Abbey
The Abbey had surprisingly little to see and it didn’t take us long to wander around the grounds and the open rooms. Seeing as the site is used for housing and events, I can understand why not all of it was open to the public. We walked back to The Village (Baile Mòr) and had time before our ferry. It was already after 3 pm and we hadn’t eaten, so stopping for lunch seemed to be the obvious thing to do.
My choice of fish ‘n chips wasn’t spectacular but it was filling. Dan decided to try the bus driver’s recommendation of fresh, local-caught mussels. I think that Dan fared better, but we both came away satisfied. And now we had time to kill before our ferry. As we sat on the rocks, admiring the clear water, the colorful boats, the beautiful day, a ferry came over from Mull. It wasn’t the ferry our tour operator had mentioned but as I said to Dan, it really didn’t matter which ferry we caught; the bus would be waiting for us on the other side of the water. So we ran and caught the ferry just before it shoved off.
Amazingly clear water off Iona
Coastal view from Fionnphort
We now had time to kill before our bus would leave and I spent it wisely at the local store buying an ice cream bar. We watched a lamb cry desperately for its mom, not realizing that if just turned around, it would no longer be lost. We watched the rest of the tour group come in on the next ferry and we hopped on the bus to get some good seats near the front. The bus filled up quickly and I felt good having the seats we did. Then an older woman boarded and looked at the seats in dismay. It turned out that she doesn’t travel well and preferred to sit near the front. Dan and I immediately got up and gave her our seats, coincidentally finding the same seats we had on the morning’s ride still free.
We sat back and enjoyed the bus ride back to the ferry, and then the ferry ride back to Oban.
Front-loading ferry to Oban
Castle view from the ferry
Now that we were back in Oban we needed to find a room. I wasn’t up for the return drive to Aviemore so we had made the decision to stay here for the night. We took a room in the first place that greeted us, the Palace Hotel. It was every bit as old as it looks, but it was clean and comfortable on the inside. Our room was on the top floor – the right-most window up in the eaves. It was quiet and cozy – and a lot of steps to get there.
The Palace Hotel in Oban
We dropped off our bags and then explored the town. There were many shops, restaurants and people and it gave a lively feel. We found a restaurant, Cuan Mor, and had a light bite to eat. It was getting late and it had been a long day so we retired shortly afterward to our room.
View from our room