Aboard his boat Luna, coastal explorer William Thomson continues coast’s sailing tour of classic British harbours, this month exploring the colourful harbour town of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull
If you are lucky enough to find yourself on Scotland’s west coast, you’ll have to pinch yourself to remember you’re still in the UK. Precipitous volcanic cliffs with golden eagles soaring on the thermals plummet down into deep blue waters, full of mystery and whales. Yes, you drove up here on the M6, you’ll remind yourself one more time. While the road snakes along the shore, it is never close enough for me – I want to be out on the water. Luckily, these are fantastic seas for sailing; the higgledy-piggledy scattering of Inner Hebridean islands means there is always an anchorage sheltered from any wind direction. A warship from the Spanish Armada even anchored in Tobermory Harbour on the Isle of Mull in 1588 after fleeing the English around the northern tip of Scotland. However, they didn’t get any further; a mysterious fire broke out onboard which set off a huge explosion in the gunpowder magazine. The ship went down to the seabed, apparently with £300,000 worth of gold, yet to be discovered.
For a modern boat taking shelter in Tobermory harbour today, the landscape is similar to what those Spanish sailors saw 400 years ago, except for one difference. Today, the waterfront is lined with multi-coloured houses in yellows, pinks, reds and blues. As Scotland is not famous for its sunshine, the hallucinogenic waterfront is the perfect way to brighten up a grey day. The quirky colour scheme started half a century ago when the owner of the Mishnish Hotel painted his façade bright pink, and then, later, yellow. Others followed suit, adding reds and blues to the palette. When the Mishnish’s new owner then announced plans to replace the yellow with black, this proposition was met with universal uproar. Regardless of the exterior colour, the hotel is a treasure trove inside, with wood-lined booths warmed by log-burning stoves and views of the harbour.
If you find yourself in Tobermory for just a few hours, two highlights can be found to the south of the town beside the boat pontoons. The first gem is Europe’s first fully licensed catch-and-release aquarium, an exciting concept where everything on display is returned to its natural environment – the sea – after four weeks. The seasonal displays all feature local sea life caught by local fishermen, divers, even families. If you’re with kids, make sure to try the popular ‘touch pool’ sessions where your little ones can get their hands wet gently playing with squishy, slimy and spiky creatures. Meanwhile, if you’re sans enfants, the second major highlight is just a stone’s throw from the aquarium; Tobermory Distillery. A warehouse tour will show you the whole production process of delicious whiskies, starting by tasting a dram of the New Make Spirit. Learn about the impact of wooden casks, time and the climate in the creation of rich and complex flavours in the peated and un-peated varieties of these iconic Scottish malt whiskies.
Waiting for your tide
You’ve got 12 hours until a favourable tide pushes you along the coast. Here’s how to make the most of those hours….
INDOORS MULL AQUARIUM
This is Europe’s first fully licensed catch-and- release aquarium, an exciting concept where everything on display is returned to its natural environment – the sea – after four weeks. Not only is this more sensitive to the wildlife, it also means a constantly changing exhibition for visitors. Mullaquarium.co.uk @mullaquarium
OUTDOORS STAFFA TOUR
The four-hour Staffa Tour takes you around Mull. You might see magnificent white-tailed and golden eagles, minke whales, basking sharks and porpoises. The trip stops off at the world-famous Fingal’s Cave made from hexagonally jointed basalt – magical! See Waiting for your Wind. staffatours.com @staffatours
With stunning views over Tobermory Harbour, the Mishnish is the perfect place for breakfast, lunch and dinner – you can even stay here, in one of 12 comfortable rooms. The beautifully cosy snugs are warmed by log burning stoves and the interior is perfectly in tune with the heritage of Mull. themishnish.co.uk @TheMishnishhotel
DRINK TOBERMORY DISTILLERY
A tour will show you the whole production process of these delicious whiskies, starting by tasting a dram of the New Make Spirit. Explore the impact of wooden casks, time and climate in creating a rich and complex flavour in the peated and un-peated varieties of these iconic malts. tobermorydistillery.com @tobermorydistillery
Waiting for your wind – 48 hours in the area
If you didn’t have time on your first day in Tobermory for a boat tour, it should be the priority for day two. The four-hour Staffa Tours trip departs from Ledaig Pontoon and with the safe and speedy craft you’ll soon be out on Mull’s wild west, soaking up the stunning scenery and seascape. But don’t forget to look up! In addition to magnificent white-tailed and golden eagles, you should see shags, fulmars, great black-backed gulls, herring gulls and even puffins! Despite their inept-looking flight, puffins are powerful creatures of the sea and as comfortable underwater as a seal. You’re bound to see those too, in addition to rare minke whales and massive basking sharks. This boat trip will take you to wildlife paradise.
From the water, your guides will point out ancient hilltop fortresses and medieval chapels that date back to Viking times and beyond. The rich history of the area is party down to what’s going on underwater; these shores are bathed in the soothing Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that comes all the way from the Caribbean. The Gulf Stream’s purpose is to transport warm water away from the equator towards the North Pole, and by happy coincidence Scotland’s west coast is right in its path. This explains the mild winters compared to other places of the same latitude; it rarely snows at sea level here. The flora and fauna are also unique, with jungles of tropical plants lining the foreshore. But, while gazing ashore at these natural beauties, remember to stay tuned into what’s happening around the boat too, because dolphins enjoy riding the bow wave created by MV Angus’s powerful engines.
With all these wonders, it is scarcely possible to imagine that the best is still yet to come. Undoubtedly, the highlight of this boat trip is a visit to the famous Fingal’s Cave, the world’s only sea cave formed by hexagonally jointed basalt. The place is utterly spectacular, otherworldly. The symmetry of the cavern and its scale are breathtaking, spanning almost 200ft. Make the most of your time here; you will have just over an hour to gaze at this natural wonder of our world – but no longer! After all, time and tide wait for no man. Safely back aboard MV Angus, you will soon be cruising back into Tobermory, slowing the engines as you approach the harbour. It’s as picturesque a scene as you will find anywhere, with the brightly coloured waterfront reflected on a calm anchorage to create a shimmering mirror image of the yellows, reds and blues. The magic of Tobermory is that it’s far enough away to feel like another world, but close enough to make it easy for a quick getaway. Go!