Fort William, Scotland: Gateway to Highland Adventure
By Charlotte Turner
Fort William is a town primarily known for being home to the United Kingdom’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
The mountain has been particularly important in the development of the town’s identity, with Fort William now claiming the title of ‘the outdoor capital of the UK.’ A significant-sized town in a fairly remote landscape, Fort William acts as gateway to Highland adventures.
Although perhaps this is an obvious tourist attraction to many overseas visitors, many British have an unfortunate habit of overlooking their homeland completely when it comes to planning their annual holidays.
Due to a combination of ridiculously low airfares from the numerous budget airlines dotted throughout Europe and the famously unpredictable Scottish weather, a week in the Mediterranean often sounds far more tempting on first glance.
Quite frankly, the possibility of spending our precious holidays squelching up a mountain makes us shudder. But I can now prove that, even if the weather lives up to its deserving reputation, this charismatic town has some of the most stunning and dramatic countryside that the British Isles has to offer.
When to Go
Well, I went in August, supposedly the middle of summer, and it rained three days out of four. Rather unhelpfully, I kept being reminded that I had just missed a mini heat wave and some of the best weather the area had ever seen.
Any vaguely patriotic Scot will tell you that the Highlands look fantastic whatever the weather, and the mist only makes them more dramatic. I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about this at first, but in all honesty, the wet weather did not spoil our holiday at all. My main piece of advice as far as this is concerned is to pack your wet weather gear and a couple of fleeces whenever you visit and take your chances.
I live in London, and as my original plan had been to camp, I arrived in the area by car. Although we spread the journey over several days, driving via Nottingham to visit friends and Edinburgh to check out the Scottish capital, the drive would have taken about 12 hours in total, taking secondary ‘A’ roads. We took the main Eastern artery, the A1(M), which runs from London to the far tip of the Yorkshire Dales and then took the A68, otherwise known as the Jedburgh Road, to Edinburgh.
Getting there and around
From Edinburgh, your choice of roads to the Highlands becomes very limited and there are three roads that take you directly to Fort William. The route runs alongside the famous Loch Lomond, and the roads are in fantastic condition.
The main concern throughout the year, but particularly in winter, would be bad weather hindering driving conditions. If you were in a hurry, traveling on the motorway and entering Scotland via Glasgow would be the best bet, but you miss the toursity, but essential, opportunity to take a photo of yourself in front of the rock heralding ‘England’ on one side and ‘Scotland’ on the other.
The Scotland Stone
By air, most international flights will fly into London Heathrow or London Gatwick, where you get your connecting flight to Scotland. If you haven’t pre-booked your internal connecting flights, one tip that I would pass on to those traveling on a shoestring would be to check out the London Stansted-based budget airlines on the internet before committing to a deal with an overseas based travel agent.
It is possible to find ‘free’ flights on these websites at any time of year, (where you only pay the airport taxes), to many other UK and European destinations. You may not be lucky in finding a deal at the time you are traveling, but it is certainly worth a look.
The Scottish rail network is good, linking major cities and tourist hotspots. If coming from the North, it is also possible to travel from Inverness by boat, although this would depend on the season, tides and your budget.
Would it be too obvious to say Ben Nevis? The mountain itself is obviously a major draw for visitors and contributes greatly to Fort William’s commercial success. Even for those who are not that crazy about mountaineering, there is a rather convenient halfway point that is not a particularly difficult climb and is very well-trodden.
The view of Ben Nevis from the hostel
Although it is possible to do a round-trip from this point, I was advised by staff at the Glen Nevis Information Centre that this walk would finish about seven miles away from the starting point, and so I would have needed to research what times the buses ran along the road, (and I got the feeling that they were not that frequent.)
As a fitting finish to your physical exertions, there is a pub situated right at the foot of the main path which proves to be a rather effective incentive in your scramble back to the bottom.
Climbing is not the only way to see the mountain range. For any level of cycling ability, follow the signs from Fort William to Glen Nevis Information Centre. Just before the centre, turn right into the Braveheart carpark.
From here, I cycled along a slightly hilly, stony path running right along the foot of the mountains and parallel to the road. For the more adventurous, ‘The Witch’s Trails’ are a series of rides ranging from ‘easy’ to ‘severe,’ (‘severe’ described as only being suitable for expert mountain bikers.) Go into the tourist information, any hostel or a cycling shop in the town centre to pick up a leaflet and a map detailing these routes.
View from the start of the Ben Nevis trail
Neptune’s Staircase, situated just outside Fort William in the small town of Banavie, is definitely worth a look. Located opposite ‘Chase the Wild Goose’ hostel, (see below,) or on the road into Banavie from Fort William, this series of locks on the Caledonian Canal is an impressive feat of nautical engineering.
For those traveling on a budget, I cannot recommend the Chase the Wild Goose hostel too highly. Situated just outside Fort William in a village called Banavie, this was the last hostel I tried as we drive through torrential rain on the road to Fort William from Edinburgh. Charging £14-£15 a night, this hostel has 4-8 bedded rooms, and the facilities were better than most hotels I have stayed in.
Each bed had a thick winter duvet, (which, I discovered, you need in the Highlands of Scotland even in the height of summer) and the bathrooms were spotlessly clean and almost better than my bathroom at home!
The Ben Nevis trail
There was a TV room, free DVD loan, a reading lounge, free bike storage, local food/ transport/ tourist folders of information and free tea and coffee.
For £2 deposited in an honesty box, there was a self-service breakfast available 24 hours of cereals, toast, juice, tea or coffee.
If you are traveling without transport, buses run into town from outside the hostel. Overall, this hostel had the nicest atmosphere of anywhere I have stayed.
An invaluable source of information if you are hostelling around Scotland is the Blue Hostel Guide, which lists independent hostels across the country. These often work out to be cheaper than the SYHA, (Scottish Youth Hostel Association), unless you are a member as there is a small surcharge for non-members.
One problem we did encounter with budget accommodation was the lack of mixed dorms or twin rooms. Having traveled as part of a couple previously, I was used to twin/double rooms being the exception rather than the norm, and all the hostels I contacted only had one such room, usually booked months in advance.
However, most of the hostels I contacted would not allow a couple into what would normally be a single-sex dorm, even if we were likely to be the only ones in it and offered to move if necessary. Chase the Wild Goose proved exceptionally helpful, allowing us to use an eight-bedded room at no extra cost as they were not expecting to be full. When the hostel started to get busier, they asked if we were willing to share with an Italian lady and her 5 year old son who had experienced the same problem.
The loch at the halfway point
For those with more money to spare, there are numerous B&B’s, (bed and breakfasts), littering the roads surrounding Fort William. If you go to the tourist office, they will help you find the type of lodging you want.
As a Londoner, I had lived my entire life with the promise that London is the most expensive place in the UK. I found this to be a myth, as the rest of England appears to be catching up at a phenomenal rate.
If you’re hostelling, I would recommend making full use of the cooking facilities. Chase the Wild Goose used to be a Bed and Breakfast according to the manager and so the kitchen was equipped to a similar standard as a commercial one.
There are small supermarkets in both Fort William and Banavie which make cooking by far the most economical option, especially if you are in a group of two or more. Chase the Wild Goose had a folder listing local eateries, which ranged from fish and chip shops, to Chinese restaurants to cafes serving soups, sandwiches and jacket potatoes. And I am sure you can find a bit of Haggis around, although being vegetarian, I have to admit I did not try this particular delicacy.
Charlotte (Turner) Baird is a part-time travel writer and primary school teacher from London. She has previously taught in China and travelled throughout Asia.
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