There’s a pub on the shores of Loch Ness called the Dores Inn, with both an indoor and an outdoor bar. So you can sit indoors in Dores Inn or outdoors in Dores Inn (if you don’t get it, try saying it out loud).
That amusing little nugget of local culture came courtesy of Chris, our guide aboard the Ros Crana, a colourful barge that takes guests on activity-filled cruising holidays traversing the Great Glen, the 62 mile-long fissure that cuts diagonally through the Scottish Highlands from Inverness on the northeast coast down to Fort William in the southwest.
A teller of captivating facts and an expert silent canoer (more on that later) Chris also let us into a Loch Ness revelation – sightings of the mythical monster tend to surge in spots near pubs! Nessie may well have put this area of Scotland on the international tourism map, but debate about the monster’s existence is just one of the intriguing features of this enchanting part of Scotland.
I thought that Loch Ness would have been the highlight of my trip onboard Ros Crana, but it was just one of many magical moments. From cycling the tow paths to steering the vessel in the barge’s wheel house and trying my hand at canoeing, as well as eating well, sleeping well and making new friends, it was a trip with numerous high points.
Having been running cruises since 1996, I could have asked for no better people than the good folk behind Caledonian Discovery, who own both the Ros Crana and her sister barge, the Fingal of Caledonia, to introduce me to the magnificent Caledonian Canal, its myths, legends, facts and fascinations.
Loch Ness is undoubtedly the best known location in the Scottish Highlands, with its mythical monster drawing visitors from all over the world. Stretching for 23 miles, its immense depth (it’s the second deepest loch in Scotland) is what breeds speculation about a prehistoric monster, or perhaps a family of monsters, living there. The water is incredibly murky, like tar, with little visibility once you get down a few feet due to the high concentration of peat in the surrounding soil. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the water itself was black.
One of the benefits of actually being on Loch Ness aboard Ros Crana, rather than seeing it from the shore, is that you get to explore the loch’s ‘wild side’, an area only accessible by water.
We met the Caledonia Discovery group in Inverness, and stayed our first night onboard at the hamlet of Fort Augustus, on the most southern tip of Loch Ness. Waking up the next morning to see the mist rolling in over the still waters of the Loch, fortified by a hearty bowl of Scottish porridge, was a wonderful start to the day and we were soon making our way up through the series of five canal locks on this part of the Caledonian Canal.
A trip on Ros Crana offers guests the opportunity to walk, cycle, sail or canoe when the opportunity arises and I opted to borrow one of the barge’s bicycles to cycle the five miles from Fort Augustus to Aberchalder.
Guests don’t have to be sporty or energetic though, as activities are all optional, and my husband preferred to sit on the deck and admire the scenery, finding himself blessed with views of two of the most beautiful locks on the canal, at Kytra and Cullochy, as I cycled along the tow path on part of what is called the Great Glen Way, a series of footpaths, forestry tracks, tow paths and occasional stretches of road. There’s no right or wrong way to do a trip on Ros Crana, just ’your’ way.
A peaceful night was spent at Aberchalder, by the Bridge of Oich, before sailing into Loch Oich, anchoring at Castle Bay by Invergarry Castle. A tender from the barge took us to the shore and a walk to discover the crumbling castle ruins and the grounds of the Glengarry Castle Hotel before going back on board for lunch.
It was in the afternoon that I got the opportunity to try canoeing, sharing a canoe with Chris, who at one stage showed off his silent canoeing skills, minus the slapping of oar on water that usually attends such as activity. With only the sounds of nature as an accompaniment, it was an entrancing moment.
Stopping off for an ice cream at a shop beside the Well of the Seven Heads, Chris told us all about the grisly episode of 1663 that gave the well its name, and then we were off again, canoeing through the beautiful Laggan Avenue, a stunning stretch of water lined with mature pine trees.
All of the six cabins onboard Ros Crana are named after locations, there’s a Loch Eil and a Beauly Firth – ours was Loch Ness, easy to remember! There’s an onboard bar too, and if you fancy a tipple you simply grab a beer, wine, spirit or cider and mark your purchase on a sheet beside your cabin name, to be totted up at the end of the trip. I was reliably informed that it’s the cheapest bar in the Highlands! A drink before dinner is a great way to get to know your crew and fellow cruisers – meals are taken communally around the table with the people who, just a few days before, were strangers but who have now become friends to swap stories and jokes with.
A special tip o’ the chef’s hat must go to the onboard chef, Tree (short for Theresa). With mouth-watering treats such as freshly baked baps, Scottish salmon and Highland venison, and traditional specialities including Clootie dumpling, there was always a choice of two dinner options, one of them vegetarian. Excellent food is one of the features of the trip, and dietary requirements can be accommodated, including my unquenchable appetite for second helpings!
Our final day saw us cruise along Loch Lochy – leading one to wonder if the Scots had simply run out of names at this stage – to Bunarkaig Bay, located beside the Clan Cameron Estate and a Sight of Special Scientific Interest.
While there is a slower pace of life known as Highland Time, our trip flew past all too quickly. Each day brought new scenery, new activities and new stories and we were sad when it was all over. It was hard to believe just how much can be packed into a day yet how relaxing such an adventure can seem.
For information on Ros Crana and Caledonian Discovery holidays, visit caledonian-discovery.co.uk, where you will also find booking prices for 2019, or email [email protected] For 2019 cruises save £70 per person on a 7 day cruise or £35 per person on a 4-day cruise, offer available until 31 January 2019. Look for special offers and chartering opportunities under the ‘Cruises’ section on the website.