A family trip on the Caledonian Sleeper; London to Fort William and on to Mallaig

Flying has lost its allure and sitting in traffic on the M6 has never had any but there was an air of anticipation as we waited to board the Caledonian Sleeper. Is there a better way to start a family holiday than going to bed on a train and waking up in the hills of Scotland?

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper

We had booked on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service which was scheduled to leave London Euston at 9.15pm. Fearful of missing the train we’d arrived incredibly early so endured a long wait on the concourse before boarding commenced.

Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston
Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper at London Euston

Thankfully we were able to check in 30 minutes before departure. As there were four of us travelling we’d booked two sleeper berths (each sleeping two) and our steward unlocked the door between them to make one cabin.

Each room has a set of bunks, a small storage area and a sink; compact but well designed. There are toilets at the end of the carriages. There isn’t much space, either in the rooms or the corridors, but you quickly get used to squeezing in to let people past.

Despite its tiny size the kids had great fun exploring the room. Both immediately bagged the top bunks and unpacked the goodies (soap, eye mask and ear plugs). A few minutes later we felt the train move, we were off!

Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper
Checking out the beds on the Caledonian Sleeper

As we couldn’t encourage the kids to have an early night we all made our way to the lounge car. This consisted of several tables and sofas which face each other across the carriage. We’d eaten earlier but some people were tucking into haggis, neeps and tatties which looked a lot better than the offering on our local trains. We ordered drinks from the steward and enjoyed the novelty of our accommodation before retiring to bed.

Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge
Enjoying the Caledonian Sleeper lounge

I’d love to say I slept perfectly but I didn’t. Whilst the mattress and pillows were comfortable the sound of the train creaking and squeaking kept my daughter and I awake for much of the night. Conversely my partner and son had a great sleep and slept through until 7am.

Breakfast in the Highlands

We had coffee, juice and Scottish shortbread delivered to our compartment in the morning. Still hungry we decided to return to the lounge car for breakfast. I knew the train had split during the night with separate sections going to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, but I hadn’t realised the lounge car had been disconnected and moved around too!

Views from the Caledonian Sleeper
Views from the Caledonian Sleeper

Fortunately we found the lounge (in the opposite direction) and ordered breakfast. It’s not haute cuisine but eating porridge and watching the Highland scenery go by was one of the highlights of the trip.

The train stops at several stations in the Highlands, including Rannoch Moor. Looking out on the platform I saw a couple of walkers waiting for the train, complete with midge nets over their heads. When I looked closer I could make out the clouds of midges surrounding them. I was very grateful not to get off at that stop!

Arrival in Mallaig

There weren’t any midges to welcome us when we arrived at Fort William. Instead we were met by the car hire representative. Whilst it’s possible to take a train all the way to Mallaig we needed a car to reach our evening accommodation and it was much cheaper to hire in Fort William than Mallaig.

The road takes a similar route to the railway so we didn’t miss out on the views. It was also convenient to be able to stop at Glenfinnan, home of the Jacobite Rising but more recently famous because of its Harry Potter film connections.

Glenfinnan dining car
Glenfinnan dining car

You’d have thought we’d have had enough of railways by this time but I’d already decided on a unique lunch spot, the dining car at Glenfinnan. We enjoyed a great lunch in the restored 1950s carriage; the homemade soups were really tasty although my other half wasn’t so sure about his black pudding toastie. Diners also receive a free ticket to the small Glenfinnan Station Museum which tells the story of the West Highland Line.

Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct
Walk to Glenfinnan viaduct

Glenfinnan viaduct

After lunch it was time to stretch our legs. From the station we walked along the Viaduct Trail which has impressive views over Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct features in the Harry Potter films and is a magnet for photographers, particularly when the Jacobite steam train (which travels between Fort Wiliam and Mallaig) crosses on its regular tourist run.

Glenfinnan viaduct
Glenfinnan viaduct

I’d hoped to co-ordinate our walk with that of the Jacobite returning across the viaduct. I had a vague idea of its arrival time but we were too early so instead we sat on the platform at Glenfinnan Station waiting to see if it came through. However something much more exciting happened as a pine marten popped out of some undergrowth and ran along the track!

Road to the Isles stopover
Road to the Isles stopover

Giving up on the Jacobite we drove on to Mallaig. Of course, soon after leaving Glenfinnan we saw the steam train coming towards us. I was able to pull over so we could watch the train although it spent most of the time hidden behind trees on the other side of a loch.

Haggis supper, Mallaig
Haggis supper, Mallaig

Our journey ended in Mallaig, a small port on the west coast of Scotland. We were staying in one of the nearby villages before heading to the Isle of Eigg a few days later. More posts will follow but in the interim I’ll leave you with a photo of the deep fried haggis my partner had for tea!

More info:

  • The Caledonian Sleeper runs every evening except Saturday. We paid approximately £145 for the one way journey between London Euston and Fort William. This covered 2 adults and 2 children using a family railcard. Whilst it may sound expensive you save on accommodation costs and travel ~500 miles. Plus it’s a pretty unique and fun experience!
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Campsite review – Sands Caravan and Camping, Gairloch

Sands Caravan and Camping site is a bigger and busier site than we usually choose, but it was its outstanding location in the north west highlands of Scotland that pulled us in.

The site

Sands is 3 miles out from Gairloch village, out along a coastal road.  It offers camping, touring and static caravan pitches and wooden wigwams. The camping and caravan sections are set apart from each other, with campers able to pitch their tents in amongst the dunes. The pitches all looked pretty flat and spacious.

The campsite is in a fabulous location, as you’ll see from this picture.

View from wigwam at Sands Campsite
View from wigwam at Sands campsite

In front of our spot, over the dunes, is the sandy beach.  The small uninhabited island of Longa is visible directly in front, with Skye a little further out. On the other sides are mountain vistas. Could the location be any more spectacular?

Our wigwam

I’d booked us into a wooden wigwam, partly because it saved us carrying all our camping gear and partly as protection against rain and midges.

Rona - our Sands Campsite wigwam
Rona – our Sands campsite wigwam

The wigwams are basic enclosed wooden shelters with platforms and mattresses to sleep on. You need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.  There is a small storage area, a kettle and a heater, which we definitely didn’t need.  Each wigwam also has a picnic bench and fire pit outside.

Inside the wigwam at Sands Campsite
Inside the wigwam at Sands Campsite

We needn’t have worried about the rain as it was unexpectedly warm and sunny throughout our stay. However the midges drove us crazy!  We were near enough confined to our wigwams once they came out each evening.  Due to the heat the wigwams resembled saunas as we kept the windows and doors shut in an attempt to keep the midges out.

Campsite facilities

There were plenty of toilets and showers, and they were kept pretty clean given the number of people using them. Annoyingly, the shower buttons had to be pressed every few seconds to stop the water turning off.  Very tricky when you’re trying to wash your hair!

You’re not allowed to cook in the wigwams, and as we’d managed to forget our camping stove we were thankful for the hob in the undercover cooking area (£1 for 20 mins of electricity). There’s also a dining area, which some people were using to escape the midges.

If you don’t fancy cooking, there is a small onsite cafe with home baking, lunches and breakfast rolls.  It’s open from 9am-5pm, then reopens again 6-8pm for evening meals. We popped in for drinks and cake, but didn’t eat there in the evenings.

Sands Campsite cafe
Sands campsite cafe

The camp shop is well stocked and sold just about anything you could possibly need on holiday. It opened at 8.30am, and we were always there ready to pick up freshly baked chocolate croissants each morning. Very tasty and highly recommended.

The shop has tourist information and details of walks in the local area. Directly across from the campsite entrance they’ve created a 1km looped trail, which was popular with the dog walkers. If you fancy a little more action you can also hire bikes (£12 a day) and kayaks (£25 a day) from the shop.

The beach

Beach at Sands Campsite, Gairloch
Beach at Sands campsite, Gairloch

The sites biggest attraction for families is the sandy beach which the campsite fronts onto. I’m guessing that for most of the year its pretty wild and windswept, but during our stay it was the scene of sandcastles, paddling and beach BBQs.

One last tip – if it is sunny during your stay, head up to the dunes to watch sunset (which can be pretty late in summer).   The pinks, gold and orange reflect onto the sea, creating an amazing spectacle. Certainly an impressive end to the day!

Sunset at Sands Campsite beach
Sunset at Sands campsite beach

More info

  • To book, or find out more,  see the Sands Caravan and Camping website.

Costs

  • Our family of four paid £48 per night for the wigwam. This was peak summer pricing. You can get smaller wigwams, these cost £32 for two sharing.
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Things to do in and around Gairloch

Gairloch is a small coastal village in Wester Ross, in the north west highlands of Scotland.  We chose it as a holiday destination because of its fantastic scenery, wildlife watching and walking opportunities. The downside is usually the rain, but we were incredibly lucky as our trip coincided with the UK heat wave. We camped at Sands Caravan and Camping; there’s plenty of other accommodation if camping isn’t your thing.

Looking back over Gairloch beach
Looking back over Gairloch beach

Gairloch village

The village is strung out along the shores of Loch Gairloch.  The harbour area, also known as Charlestown, has several operators offering boat tours.  If you’re lucky you might see the Sammy the seal, who follows the boats in and hangs around the pier area.

Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour
Sammy the seal in Gairloch harbour

From the harbour you can take a path up and over to the beach behind the golf course.

Gairloch beach
Gairloch beach

Jellyfish are pretty common in the waters around here as it’s in the warming path of the Gulf Stream, so you certainly need to keep an eye on the beach when you’re walking.

Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!
Keep an eye out for the jellyfish!

Away from the beach you’ll find the aforementioned golf course, a few cafes and inns, beach shops, a leisure centre and a tourist office (with free wi-fi).  There are no large supermarkets in the area, so we stocked up at Strath Stores.  The shop has a very popular sandwich bar, which we made use of every day of our holiday. Gairloch also has a Heritage Centre, which I’d saved for a rainy day, but the weather was so great that we didn’t get around to visiting it.

Sealife glass bottom boat

Gairloch is one of the best places in the UK for marine wildlife watching. I’d have loved to go on one of the whale watching tours, but the cost was prohibitive for our family, and I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed the reality of a day at sea in a small bumpy boat. We therefore settled on a glass bottom boat tour around Gairloch harbour. Whilst this didn’t initially sound so exciting it turned out to be a great decision.

Sealife boat trip
Sealife boat trip

The tours are run by Richard, an enthusiastic and knowledgable Lancastrian.  The boat is converted so that everyone can have a viewing portal into the sea under the boat. The underwater viewing works best in shallow waters, in deeper areas you just see your reflection in the window. The kids were given an ID sheet and tick list to record the wildlife. Amazingly within about 5 minutes of setting off they were able to tick harbour porpoises off the list!

Underneath the boat we saw several different types of jellyfish, starfish, sea urchins, anemones and a variety of seaweed.  We were also lucky enough to see common and grey seals. At one point Richard scooped a jellyfish out of the water, to give everyone a closer view. The kids were given an opportunity to carefully touch it, before it was released back into the sea. The highlight for the kids happened on the way back, when they were given a chance to steer the boat. Both thought this was amazing and had huge smiles on their faces.

Trusted with the tiller!
Trusted with the tiller!

Rua Reidh Lighthouse

We set out to walk to Rua Reidh lighthouse from Melvaig one evening.  It’s only 3 miles to the lighthouse along a straightforward track but after a mile or so we almost had to admit defeat.  The midges were horrendous!

Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse
Sunset at Rua Reidh lighthouse

At the lighthouse we immediately spotted minke whales through our binoculars. After a while the whales moved on so we walked the last short stretch down to the lighthouse.  It’s still a working lighthouse, but also has a guesthouse and self-catering apartment. It looks like a lovely place to stay, but is 12 miles from the nearest shop, so probably not for everyone. No facilities are available for casual visitors, and the private road can only be used by those with an accommodation booking.

Beaches near Gairloch

You can head north or south from Gairloch and find deserted beaches in the most stunning locations.

North from Poolewe
North from Poolewe

We drove to Poolewe, which was used in the Second World War as a base for convoys to gather before sailing to Arctic Russia. We took the road out to Cove, to visit the remains of gun emplacements and a memorial to the sailors who took part. It’s difficult to imagine how different this peaceful area would have been 70 years ago. The local community is campaigning for a new museum in the area to tell the story of the convoys.

Beach near Cove, Wester Ross
Beach near Cove, Wester Ross

Another road, heading south from Gairloch, took us to the village of Badachro and then onto Opinan Beach. The view over to Skye was stunning, and the beach itself had lots of interesting shore life to discover.

View out to Skye
View out to Skye

Walks

There are plenty of mountain walks for experienced and well-equipped walkers, but we found the walks more limited for family rambles. Apart from strolls along the beaches we walked up to the waterfall in Flowerdale Glen, which was named by the estate owners for its displays of wild flowers. The walk was enjoyable but marred slightly by the abundance of horse flies at the falls. We decided not to stop for our picnic, and headed back to Gairloch to eat near the harbour.

Kids view:

The boat trip was fantastic, I didn’t realise we’d see so many things. Steering the boat was epic! (Highest praise indeed)

More info:

  • The only downside to our holiday was the unwelcome wildlife. Midges, ticks and horseflies abound.  Midges are active on calm evenings and early mornings from May-August.  We used insect repellent liberally but were still bitten in places that we didn’t think to use it (inside ears, under watch straps). Our son also managed to pick up a couple of ticks, whilst rolling around in long grass. These should be carefully removed as soon as you find them. 

Costs

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Driving the Scottish highlands from Fort William to Gairloch

I never envisaged writing about a car journey on this blog, but the trip we made from Fort William to Gairloch in the Scottish highlands changed my mind. I’m a sucker for scenic views and this journey provided plenty of them. It probably wasn’t the most exciting day out for the kids but they were happy enough, playing or reading in the back seat of the car.

There are a couple of route options between Fort William and Gairloch. We chose to go via Kyle of Lochalsh, a drive of 129 miles. Google maps suggested this would take just over 3 hours but our journey, with lunch and lots of photo stops, took the best part of a day.

Our route from Fort William to Gairloch
Our route from Fort William to Gairloch

After filling our petrol tank and dosing the kids up with travel sickness pills we took the road out towards Inverness, before turning left at Invergarry towards Kyle of Lochalsh.

We knew we were heading into tourist country when we spotted a lone bagpipe player, standing in a layby near a wood, no doubt waiting for the next tourist bus to arrive!

Cairns at Loch Garry
Cairns at Loch Garry

Our first stop was at Loch Garry viewpoint, where you get a great view of the loch, which is supposedly the same shape as Scotland. I think this was a rather fanciful claim from the tourist board but it is still an impressive view. Visitors have also built lots of small cairns.

Bridge over River Shiel
Bridge over River Shiel

At Glenshiel it’s hard to imagine this was the site of the last battle on UK soil involving foreign troops. Spanish troops were defeated during a Jacobite rebellion in 1719.

Eilean Donan castle
Eilean Donan castle

We stopped for lunch at Eilean Donan castle, the castle that used to appear on the BBC adverts. There’s no denying that it is in a spectacular position, on an island overlooking three lochs. Unfortunately it is also a magnet for every tour bus north of Edinburgh. We decided not to go into the castle but did make use of the onsite cafe, for lunch.

A890 towards Achnasheen
A890 towards Achnasheen

We left the tourist coaches behind after Eilean Donan, and took the A890 to Achnasheen. I’d been expecting a single track mountain road, and whilst it was initially one lane (albeit with plenty of passing places) it turned back to a two way road only a few miles in. It was very quiet, and a pleasure to drive with hardly another car on the road.

As we were driving in the middle of summer it was rather strange passing under an avalanche shelter and seeing the snow marker poles either side of the road. Roadworks were taking place to shore up part of the hillside – last winter a rockfall blocked the road and resulted in motorists having to take a 150 mile diversion!

Loch Maree from Glen Docherty
Loch Maree from Glen Docherty

From the small hamlet of Achnasheen (population 28) we took the road out to Kinlochewe. After driving up the pass you’re treated to a magnificent view of Loch Maree, which is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland.

There are a variety of stopping places and short walk options alongside Loch Maree. The Beinn Eighe visitor centre has several nature trails. White tailed sea eagles nested on one of the Loch Maree islands earlier this year, and the area also has pine martens, golden eagles and crossbills although you don’t see these whilst driving past at 50mph!

Just outside Gairloch
Just outside Gairloch

The final stretch is once again single track and the road is rather potted. Fortunately this doesn’t last long, and you soon reach the welcome tourist facilities of Gairloch.

More info:

  • Fill your petrol tank in Fort William (Morrisons is one of the cheapest garages).  We found petrol costs were up to 10p per litre more expensive in the highlands.
  • Check road conditions before you travel.  The road between Kinlochewe and Gairloch was shut a few days after we travelled due to a landslide caused by torrential rain.
  • Take a picnic, or work out where you’re going to stop for lunch in advance.  We only saw a couple of places to eat at, although I’m sure we could have found a few more if we’d checked out Trip Advisor beforehand.
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