Some fairly spectacular scenery can be found by exploring the costal regions west of Glasgow. The Firth of Clyde begins the display, but as you keep going, the terrain gets less populated and wilder. Depending upon your stamina and interest, it is worth doing a bit of "island hopping" from the mainland to Bute and then into Argyll and onto the Cowal and Kintyre peninsulas, finally getting as far as the island of Gigha, the most southerly of Scotland's inner Hebrides, returning to the mainland via the Isle of Arran. The distances are not great, and the ferry trips cut down the driving times, as well. Sunsets over the western seas rarely fail to disappoint on a good evening.
Isle of Bute
Bute is one of the easiest Scottish islands to reach. Ferries depart from the restored Victorian railway terminal in the village of Wemyss Bay on the Clyde coast, about 54km (33 miles) southwest of Glasgow. Trains from Glasgow's Central Station depart hourly and the trip takes less than 1 hour. The standard, same-day round-trip fare is about £10. The ferry departs approximately every 45 minutes in the summer and the crossing to Rothesay, Bute's main port, takes 35 minutes. Single passengers pay £4 one-way, and cars cost an additional £16. For ferry information, call tel. 0870/565-0000, or go to www.calmac.co.uk. Call tel. 0870/608-2608 for public transportation information.
Cowal & Kintyre Peninsulas
West of Glasgow, the Cowal and Kintyre peninsulas extend their fingers into the sea, creating long salt-water fiords that extend well north up to the Highlands. The main town and ferry port for Cowal is Dunoon, which offers a place to stock up on goods. The landscape features magnificent sea lochs, gentle hills, and forested glens. Highlights include the Benmore Botanic Garden (daily Mar-Oct) 11km (7 miles) north of Dunoon on Cowal. It has giant redwoods and thickets of rhododendrons. The village of Tighnabruaich is a mecca for boaters, set in a picturesque natural bay across from the isle of Bute. Indeed, you can get a lesson on splicing the main brace (or at least sailing a dinghy) at the local sailing school.
On Kintyre, the lovely harbor of Tarbert is where many local fishing boats land. At the ferry slip you can purchase fresh scallops, as well as live crabs and lobsters. Avian populations abound in this region of Scotland, and breeds include black-headed gulls, gannets, oystercatchers, razorbills, and shags (and those are just a few of the seabirds). An observatory is on the island of Sanda, just off the tip (or mull) of Kintyre. On the peninsula itself, however, another bird-watching blind is situated near the west coast village of Machrihanish.
Gigha: "The Good Isle"
Pronounced "gee-a" with a hard g (as in gear), this small island gets its name from the ancient Norse ruler King Haakon who once dominated this region of Scotland. It means "the good isle." And good, indeed, it is. Tiny and placid, Gigha is best known for its Achamore Gardens with their exceptional springtime display of rhododendrons and azaleas. But as a quiet place to escape and relax, it is excellent, as well. There are plenty of rural and coastal walks. Gigha is also particularly noteworthy because on March 15, 2002, the residents established a community trust and assumed ownership of the isle. The 30-minute ferry for Gigha leaves from Tayinloan on the Kintyre peninsula. For overnight dinner, bed, and breakfast accommodations, contact the Gigha Hotel (tel. 01583/505-254; www.gigha.org.uk).