The Seafood Trail, Argyll

BBC Countryfile Magazine – September 2010 Issue
By Jo Tinsley

Enjoy seafood delights and ever-changing views on a trail through some of Scotland’s finest scenery Towards the end of Loch Lomand you’re faced with a tough decision – turn right and follow the convoy of coaches and Munro-fixated hikers to the Highlands, or swing left and explore the jigsaw of sea lochs and jagged islands that makes up the unsung Argyll coast? Those in the know turn left.
Between the clear waters of Loch Fyne and the open sea, Argyll produces some of Britain’s tastiest seafood. Yet, unluckily for ‘fish’ionardos, the majority of shellfish is shipped off to Spain, where tourists tuck into Scottish langoustines for triple the price.

To celebrate the bounty on their doorstep, a handful of hotels and cafe’s have banded together to create the Seafood Trail – a culinary adventure that takes you from crab shack to fine dining hotel, each connected by a love of fresh shellfish and a desire to sustain Scotland’s sea fishing industry. Following co-founder Carole Fitzgerald’s example, my partner and I decided to explore the trail in a vintage Volkswagen campervan – our reasoning being, the less we spent on hotels, the more seafood we could eat.

Loch Fyne Oysters

We picked up our van, Heidi, from the Tuckwood family who run Classic Camper Holidays. After getting used to Heidi’s quirks on the single track roads of the Borders, then inching her up to a respectable 65mph on the M8, we pulled in to our first stop, the original Loch Fyne restaurant in Cairndow. Once a roadside oyster shack, the company has since launched 46 restaurants.

These upper reaches of Loch Fyne, where seawater mixes with fresh run-off from the burns, provides a distinctive feeding ground for oysters. “Oysters are fussy filter-feeders,” Virginia Sumison, neice of Loch Fyne’s founder Jonny Noble, told us. “They pump huge amounts of water through their shells. Here we’re 50 miles from the sea so the oysters taste sweet, not salty”. Virginia then explained how one Loch Fyne speciality was invested by accident when someone left the kiln on too high and roasted the smoked salmon – bradon rost is now one of Loch Fyne’s biggest sellers.

Breakfast with a View

Aside from the money you save on accommodation, and the smile-inducing joy of driving one, hiring a camper lets you breakfast with a view. At Inver Cottage the next day, we cooked up bacon, bradon rost and scrambled eggs opposite Old Castle Lachlan. You couldn’t imagine a more idyllic setting. To work up an appetite for lunch, we then walked along the coast to explore the castle ruins and poke about the rock pools, before doubling back to Inver Cottage, a restored croft on the shores of Lachlan Bay. We got chatting to the owner, Jasmine, who told us about two local teachers, Shona and Mary, who dive for their scallops.

After catching the ferry to Kintyre, we let Heidi stretch her legs along the B842 – The Long and Winding Road that inspired Paul McCartney to write the 1970s Beetles hit. Then, as sun lowered, we made camp at Carradale Bay and strolled along the beach to the Dunvalanree Hotel. With only eight tables and attentive owners, it felt like we were being treated to a home-cooked meal rather than eating at a hotel. Full up on lemon sole and crab, we waddled back to the camper and fell asleep to the sound of the sea.

Delicious Dead End

Seven miles down a dead end, we didn’t expect the Seafood Cabin in Skipness to get passing trade – but we had to get our elbows out to secure a picnic bench. Open all summer, the shack excels in simple seafood, served up to views over the isle of Arran.

Our final stop was the Cairnbaan Hotel beside the Crinan Canal. At one time considered the roughest pub in Argyll, it was said that no crime was serious enough to be barred from the Cairnbaan. Now a family restaurant, it excels in good value seafood, dished up generously.

We rounded off our trip by taking Heidi for a spin beside the Crinan Canal, a nine mile channel built to provide a navigable route between the Inner Hebrides and the Clyde and save puffers (flat-bottomed cargo boats) from making the perilous journey around the Mull of Kintyre. Today, it is heralded as the prettiest short cut in Scotland. It certainly was scenic, but as the past three days had taught us, taking the long way round often has its own rewards.