Loudoun Hill and the Spirit Of Scotland sculpture by Richard Price, near Darvel, East Ayrshire
Jessica Way explores the magnificent beauty of the south west coast of Scotland, discovering some of the finest hotels to stay in and places to visit along the way
YOU'VE PROBABLY ALREADY heard of Scotland's North Coast 500, a circular route around the northern top of Scotland from and to Inverness, and now, more recently, the South West Coastal 300 route has launched, a stunning drive of just over 300 miles, firmly placed on the travel itinerary wish-list for tourists looking to experience their own slice of Scotland.
There is no one way to travel and explore either the NC500 or SWC300, the choice of where you start, and finish, is yours too. Both scenic driving routes cover several hundred miles, and you could easily spend weeks at a time exploring a single stretch of the coast, and still feel you have only just scratched the surface.
The choice of spectacular white sandy beaches, pretty coastal towns and villages, and landscapes filled with soaring mountain views, makes discovering your own coastal adventure as easy as the coastal breeze itself.
Much of the west coast, although sometimes exposed to the whims of the North Atlantic weather, is shielded by the inner isles, with easy access to island-hop across to the likes of Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona and Skye - making our only touring challenge avoiding island temptation and sticking to our pre-planned route!
EDINBURGH TO DUMFRIES
Flying from Southampton to Edinburgh our SWC300 journey began with a pleasant two-hour drive south to Dumfries, known as the `Queen of the South'.
Picking up our hire car from the airport (we used enterprise.co.uk) was straightforward, and touring by car is made easy in Scotland. In addition to the motorways and good main roads, there is an excellent network of lightly trafficked rural roads, as well as strong signposting for the main tourist routes.
While driving look out too for the many brown `Thistle Signs' by the road that point the way to all kinds of walks, trails, attractions and adventures.
About half way on this journey we stopped to see Scotland's Highest Village – Wanlockhead. Sitting at an altitude of 467 metres, and home to The Museum of Lead Mining, which tells the story of the local industry and allows you to go down a former working mine.
There's also a lovely tea room serving pasties, homemade soup, scones, cakes and other light bites.
Once in Dumfries itself we really enjoyed visiting the Robert Burns House (robertburns.org). Now a free museum, with friendly volunteers and a donations box, it was previously the house in which Robert Burns lived
and where he wrote some of his best poems. There are many of his most famous quotes to read and inspire, and a lovely touch is seeing the inscription of his initials scratched into the window pane of his bedroom.
Enjoying a day of culture, our next visit was to the fabulous new visitor centre, Moat Brae (peterpanmoatbrae.org), described by author J.M. Barrie as his 'enchanted land' – and the place where Peter Pan, and the imagination within his stories, was born.
Moat Brae itself was originally the home of J.M. Barrie's school friends Henry and Stewart Babbington – with his own house just a few hundred metres away – Barrie is quoted to say “I was more in that house (Moat Brae) more than any other in Dumfries” and himself acknowledged Moat Brae as being his inspiration behind Neverland.
Ten years of fundraising and restoration work has gone into turning this impressive, historically significant Georgian house, and gardens, into a modern, light, freeflowing, interactive museum space. You should definitely make a visit if you are passing by Dumfries – we were really impressed. It has been achieved beautifully – while remaining sympathetic to the original features.
Inspiring imagination and creativity is at the heart of the museum – which aims to inspire and offer new opportunities to children (and young people) interested in creative writing and literacy. With the local community and many passionate people behind the project, I am sure the museum will be a huge success for Scotland.
We rested our heads for the night at the Cairndale Hotel and Leisure Club (cairndalehotel.co.uk) where we enjoyed a delicious four course Table d'Hote dinner in the Reivers Restaurant. Following a morning visit to the hotel's own private leisure club, The Barracuda Club, where they offer a range of beauty treatments including holistic and aromatherapy therapies, and a hearty full Scottish breakfast, we were back on the road.
ROCKLIFFE TO PORTPATRICK
In search of some sea-side tranquillity and fresh sea air we headed south towards the Solway Firth. Our first stop of the morning was at the pretty, quiet coastal village of Rockliffe – a beautiful sandy bay, surrounded in parts by large rocks and rock pools, lined with rows of pretty white-stone and pastel cottages.
There is a large car park just before you reach the bay or limited 20-minute parking at the beach itself. For us that was enough time to soak up the views and enjoy an ice-cream. On less sunny days when the ice-cream van stays at home (we were lucky with the weather – and mine was a 99!) there is also a curios/antiques shop which serves takeaway coffees that can be enjoyed sitting out on the green.
If you enjoy walking, there is a superb linear coastal walk linking Rockcliffe to the east - with Sandyhills, a picturesque sandy beach - said to be one of the finest
“Our first stop of the morning was at the pretty, quiet coastal village of Rockliffe – a beautiful sandy bay, surrounded in parts by large rocks and rock pools, lined with rows of pretty white-stone and pastel cottages.”
cliff walks in Britain with stunning clifftop scenery and views across the Solway Firth to Cumbria and the Isle of Man. There is also an infrequent bus service leading back to the start – so if you wanted to give your legs a rest there's no need to walk.
Heading in the opposite direction (west) there is a more manageable mile-long Jubilee Footpath linking Rockliffe to Kippford – a charming waterside location with several places to choose from for lunch.
Known as the Solway Riviera, popular with yachtsmen, Kippford is lined with granite and white-washed houses, colourful cottages, a gift shop and café. We choose The Anchor pub (which also has rooms) for a locally sourced fresh seafood platter, and crab sandwich - washed down with a refreshing juice. Back in the car we continued our journey west towards Kirkcudbright, passing Dundrennan Abbey - dating back to 1142, and previously a Cistercian monastery - and where Mary Queen of Scots spent her final night in Scotland back in 1568.
It was also close to here where we drove past a 35 foot Wickerman, which I am fairly certain must have been on the grounds of East Kirkcarswell Farm, in memory of the Wickerman Festival, and founder, Jamie Gilroy who was tragically killed by gunshot to his head in December 2014. The music festival, which had been held at his farm since 2001, had become world-famous – likened to a smaller version of Glastonbury – it attracted the likes of Scissor Sisters, James, The Proclaimers and many more. Traditionally the festival would end at around midnight with the burning of a giant wickerman built by local craftsmen Trevor Leat and Alex Rigg. The designs for these became ever more elaborate and inventive over the years.
Kirkcudbright, known as 'Scotland's Artists' Town', made a quirky stopping point. It was easy to park, and we enjoyed looking in the new Kirkcudbright Gallery and some of the independent craft shops and galleries. There's an interesting harbour where you can get ice-cream and fish and chips, and an old-fashioned looking petrol station where we filled up the car.
Next we crossed the bridge over the River Dee and drove alongside the shore past the beautiful Dhoon beach with its views of Little Ross Island and its lighthouse. Continuing along the B727 via Borgue we joined the A75 and took a divert to explore Gatehouse of Fleet – and I am so pleased we did.
Here we discovered the less-well known Carrick Bay and Knockbrex viewing point – a stretch which has been voted `Favourite Beach in Dumfries and Galloway', but is still quiet from tourism. A hidden gem – not completely hidden of course, after-all `we' found it - but there was hardly a car, or soul, in sight.
The sea level was so low we could have walked across to Mossyard, had there been time, but we did enjoy walking barefoot on the sand and dipping our toes in the sea.
Continuing along the A75 passing Creetown, the route took us to Newton Stewart (another great stopping point for shops and cafés) and with stunning views of the Galloway Hills and Wigtown Bay.
From here it is just over an hour's drive to Scotland`s most southerly point - the remote Mull of Galloway – where you can delight in views of the Galloway Hills, Lakeland Fells, the Isle of Man and even the Mountains of Mourne. This is one of the highlights of the route and somewhere you could spend several hours simply soaking up the atmosphere and views!
Climb the 115 steps to the top of the fabulous Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, where a spectacular view from the balcony and lightroom will reward you for your efforts!
Pop in to the Gallie Craig award-winning cliff top coffee house or make time for a visit to the RSPB Nature Reserve. From here re-trace your route and, just before Drummore, follow the signs for Port Logan. Here we turned
right, and, after a couple of miles, rejoined the A716 northwards. Port Logan has another beautiful beach and nearby is `Scotland's most Exotic Garden' – Logan Botanic Garden.
From here you are not very far from Portpatrick, where you will find several bars and restaurants on the harbourside, pastel-coloured houses, set around a small bay with cliffs forming the backdrop.
GLENAPP AND GALLOWAY FOREST PARK
From Portpatrick we headed north past Stranraer onto the A77 along the coast of Loch Ryan to Cairnryan - where we could see the ferries sail from terminals at each end of the village across to nearby Northern Ireland.
Shortly afterwards we arrived in 5-star paradise for our next overnight stay - easily one of the most beautiful hotels in Britain. Glenapp Castle Hotel is ideally situated on the South West Coast 300 route – and an absolute must (if your budget allows).
Let the team take care of your itinerary for a couple of days – they've just launched an exciting and unique variety of experiences from mountain biking, archery, private falconry displays, stargazing, golf, whisky tastings – there's even `forest bathing'.
The castle itself, built in 1870, is a strikingly beautiful example of the Scottish baronial style of architecture. Designed by the celebrated Scottish architect David Bryce for Mr. James Hunter, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire, the castle's mellow sandstone battlements are topped by soaring turrets and towers, earning Glenapp a rightful place as one of the most romantic castles in Scotland.
In January, the castle took delivery of their new boat, the `Glenapp Castle' which can take up to eight guests on private sea safaris exploring the stunning clear waters, remote beaches and the amazing sealife and birds they are blessed with on their doorstep.
In addition to this, the castle has stunning gardens and grounds for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure, including the wooded Glen walk. You are warmly encouraged to take a map, jump into a pair of Hunter boots, and grab a Glenapp jacket, before heading out to enjoy the sights, sounds and scents of thirty-six acres of castle grounds.
You could easily spend an afternoon strolling the carefully tended lawns and pathways, surrounded by the vast array of exotic plants that have been collected since Victorian days.
We enjoyed taking a stroll through their beautiful walled gardens, where we came across their wonderful Italian garden, designed by Gertrude Jekyll, and a historic Victorian glasshouse – currently being restored by talented craftsmen to its former glory. In time this will be a wonderful space where they will grow more of their own fruit and vegetables.
And that's not the only improvements being made at this incredible hotel – there's also the excitement of the imminent launch of their 4-bedroom penthouse
apartment, sure to rival some of the finest private suites in the world.
I was given a sneak-peek, hard-hat tour, of the conversion, starting with a trip up the beautiful spiral staircase (in the castle's turrets) which links the bedroom suites and reception rooms, as well as leading guests to the private roof terrace with 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside and coastline. And what a view – I was told you can see as far as Ireland on a clear day!
This space will be perfect for small groups... there's also a drawing room which can be used for private dining, a sitting room, games room, kitchen, sauna and beauty treatment room, along with an astonishing master bedroom suite boasting more magnificent views.
Glenapp Castle Hotel is also the perfect base for exploring the Galloway Tourist
Route (from National Trust Scotland). This route, stretching through the lush countryside of Dumfries & Galloway and into Ayrshire, in the very heart of Burns' country, takes in Gretna Green before continuing on to Dumfries (where we started our tour). From Dalbeattie you then venture through the beautiful Galloway Forest Park, just a 40 minute drive inland from Glenapp Castle Hotel, and an absolute must for spotting wildlife – 774 km² of unspoilt countryside with many rare and endangered species, including red deer and wild goats, and can you believe it, a fifth of all of Scotland's red squirrels!
There are three visitor centres, and the option to choose from two scenic Forest Drives; either follow in the footsteps of Robert the Bruce or take a picnic beside a peaceful loch. The area is also Scotland's first Dark
Sky Park – and one of the best places to stargaze in Europe.
Some of the guests staying at Glenapp look on the castle as their home away from home, with many repeat visitors, who have been guests for several years. Between receiving the finest quality of hospitality, in an atmosphere of peace, tranquillity and relaxation – nothing is too much trouble for their staff who are ready and eager to be at your service. The staff were exemplary - always offering to go the extra mile to make your stay as enjoyable, and memorable, as possible.
For such a grand castle – surrounded by 12,000 acres of Lord Inchcape's Glenapp Estate – it is refreshingly unpretentious too.
Currently there are 17 luxurious and spacious suites and bedrooms, each individually furnished with a unique combination of fabrics, art and antiques. We stayed in a Junior Suite, situated in the East Wing of the castle, furnished in grand stately Victorian décor, complete with fireplace, large windows, and a luxurious marble bathroom.
For our evening meal we chose the six course gourmet menu – courses included Spinach and Quail's Egg, Duck Foie Gras Bonbon and Fillet of Loch Duart Salmon – finished off at the end of the evening with a warming dram of whisky in the lounge!
The food and service was flawless, and unobtrusive – a lovely evening.
AYRSHIRE AND SANQUHAR
Following our wonderful stay at Glenapp Castle we were back on the road, a downhill coastal route heading towards Ballantrae, with beautiful views, and where we had our first proper glimpse of Ailsa Craig - a volcanic (extinct) island famed for the granite used for curling stones, and home to over 40,000 sea birds with a summit of 1,100 feet.
As we entered Ballantrae we took a left turn, pausing for a moment, to take in the stunning views of Ailsa Craig, and Arran, lying just offshore from the harbour.
We then followed the A77 along the coast for another half an hour where we reached Turnberry, then on to the A719 – and our next destination, another triumphant 5-star hotel within this glorious stretch of coastline – the iconic Trump Turnberry Resort.
Known throughout the world for its incredible championship links golf courses – there's an entirely different vibe here from Glenapp, less personal, more energetic, however it's another fabulous choice – especially if you love golf and sporting activities.
Trump Turnberry is home to three exceptional golf courses, the Open Championship Ailsa course, King Robert the Bruce and the Arran – giving it the accolade as one of the finest golf resorts anywhere in the world.
There's also a fantastic onsite activity centre, Turnberry Adventures, offering guests a variety of activities including, archery, horse riding, quad bike safaris, mini highland games and water zorbing. Naturally there's a luxurious spa, offering a range of ESPA treatments, and a lovely swimming pool where we enjoyed a refreshing dip.
Trump Turnberry has over 100 years of heritage and history – and, with the gleaming white-washed buildings and immaculate lawns, golf courses, lighthouse and amazing sea views, the resort is an impressive sight. Resident Piper, Bryce McCulloch's Scottish Bagpipe music added to the spirited ambience.
The `big news' for the resort this year is the launch of their stylish new collection of nine two-bedroom cottage suites lovingly restored, following a £1.6 million investment, back to their full glory.
The Cottage Suites, dating back to 1902, have been elegantly designed and furnished – the interiors, inspired from the surroundings and rich heritage, have many of the signature Turnberry touches you would expect, combining a timeless, cosy interior with modern functionality.
The suites offer a self-contained private haven for guests – with all of the perks of a traditional hotel suite, yet with even more space. A great option for families, with cots, high chairs and stair gates available, and/or
dog owners, designed to be dog friendly, with gourmet treats, plush dog beds, water bowls and toys available on request.
There's a wide choice of unique dining experiences, including the signature restaurant 1906, which takes its name from the year Turnberry opened; an elegant Grand Tea Lounge and Bar, home to the opulent afternoon tea; and Duel in the Sun restaurant overlooking the legendary Ailsa golf course.
We opted for 1906, which offers classic dishes with a modern twist. Here we enjoyed a lovely meal, and as the sun set, out came our unique Chef's Table experience – our Orkney beef steak diane, one of their signature dishes, being cooked to our preference at our table.
Dessert was another timeless classic, 1906 Crepe Suzette, flambéed at our table side before being served with Grand Marnier, orange and vanilla ice cream. Our waitress was lovely – very warm and chatty, and enjoyed telling us how lucky she felt to have her job at Trump Turnberry – a step up from her previous job, she told us, where she'd been serving fish and chips.
The surrounding area offers even more to explore – from castles to distilleries, from beaches to the birthplace of Robert Burns – you could spend several days or more exploring Ayrshire.
Back on the road we passed the entrance to Culzean Castle and drove down the `Electric Brae' where your car appears to be rolling uphill! Onwards the road approaches Dunure with more jawdropping views of Arran. A detour of a mile or so from here brings you to Dunure Village - a pretty harbour and the extensive ruins of its 13th Century Castle and Dovecote.
Return to the A719 from where it's a short distance to Alloway, a suburb of Ayr and famed for being the birthplace of Robert Burns and the setting for his epic poem, Tam o' Shanter. Our final stop – here we visited Burns Cottage and Burns Birthplace Museum, housing his life's work, before heading back on the road for the airport.
An endlessly fascinating region of Scotland. We loved the variety of quaint coastal villages, diverse landscapes, and culturally inspiring attractions in this single stretch of coastline. It was an extraordinary journey that has given us an appetite for more. Missing the haggis already, the more rugged NC500 route is now firmly in our sights.
Mull of Galloway Lighthouse
The Harbour Cottage Gallery in Kirkcudbright
Kirkcudbright Harbour and Marina
“We arrived in 5-star paradise for our next overnight stay - easily one of the most beautiful hotels in Britain.” Pictured left; Portpatrick Harbour Kirkcudbright. Pictured below and opposite page; 5 Star Luxury Hotel, Glenapp Castle.
A view towards Turnberry Lighthouse and Ailsa Craig from the 8th green of the new King Robert the Bruce golf course at Trump Turnberry, Ayrshire
Culzean Castle from Croy Shore, South Ayrshire. Picture Credit: Paul Tomkins
The Cottage Suites at Machrie Lodge Lounge