Travel: Take a trip “Doon the Watter”

A ‘doon the watter’ – also known as the River Clyde – trip on a paddle steamer to Helensburgh, Gourock, Largs, Rothesay, Millport and Dunoon was once the highlight of the year for many Glasgowers.

The advent of mass tourism and cheap air travel has put an end to the popularity of these homemade holiday destinations, but today, with rising fuel costs and a growing awareness of reducing our collective carbon footprint, the Costa Clyde is back in business.

Having both recently spent time in Dunoon on business we decided to take a short overnight break from our respective homes in north Glasgow to the Cowal Peninsula.

The tourist offer changes in and around the area and no more than on the actual water. We started by ferry from Gourock; a short hop across the water to Dunoon.

From Western Ferries Terminal we drove straight to nearby Holy Loch Marina where Jason Coles has run his boat tour company Wreckspeditions for the past five years. For the next few hours we enjoyed our very private Doon the Watter tour with Jason at the wheel.

The weather was beautiful as we donned our life jackets and set off around the beautiful Dunoon coastline. We had already seen a pod of porpoises chasing the Western Ferry out of Gourock so that box was already ticked.

As we accelerated and slowed around the Gantocks Lighthouse, poor old Dunoon Pier and West Bay, Jason told us tales of the area’s recent history. It was a reminder of the area’s heyday as a busy working bay as well as a tourist destination.

Our skipper’s enthusiasm for the area was contagious and a highlight was watching the majestic PS Waverley, the world’s last seagoing passenger paddle steamer, gliding serenely past on its way out of Dunoon Pier with its famous red, white and black smokestacks glittering in the sunlight .

A trip to Doon the Watter doesn’t get any better than this… especially when followed by an overnight stay in a cozy tavern by the loch.

The 16th century Whistlefield Inn, a 20 minute drive from the marina towards Strachur, immediately appealed to both of us as it effortlessly blends history and comfort. This family-run hotel and restaurant exudes a cozy yet stylish Scottish ambience.

We were originally going to drive the 12 miles back to Dunoon for dinner, but once Jill had one look at Whistlefield’s menu and settled in with a glass of Sauvignon and a bag of salted chips at an outside table overlooking Loch Eck, the plan was abandoned. Instead we sat outside, warming up the sun and chatting to other guests.

The menu is hearty and offers something for every taste. Main courses range in price from £10 to £12 and we both opted for the fish cakes which were delicious. Afterwards there was plenty of space to chill and chat with co-owner Lisa.

It’s true that people help create places. Our stay was rounded off the next morning when Lisa and her little girl offered to take us for a short walk up the hill behind the inn to a lookout point with stunning views of the hill and valleys on either side of Loch Eck.

Back on the road we make our way to nearby Benmore Botanic Gardens, just north of Dunoon.

The 120 hectare garden takes its name from Ben More Mountain. It houses a world-famous collection of plants that stretches from the Himalayas to China and Japan to North and South America.

Stepping into Benmore, an outlier of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, is like stepping into a Tolkienesque forest fantasy. Visitors are greeted by an avenue of ancient towering trees – Giant Redwoods – exotic sights and smells, not to mention an amazing variety of colors, the enthusiastic chirping of birdsong and the odd swift red squirrel.

The garden’s magnificent Golden Gates were crafted in Berlin and exhibited in Paris in 1878. Commissioned by James Duncan, who owned the property from 1870 to 1889, they formed part of the main entrance to Benmore House, now an outdoor centre.

After inspecting the magnificent gates we followed the signs to the Victorian Fernery.

The Fernery is an impressive structure built into the hillside and a fine example of the Victorian ‘Fern Frenzy’ that reached its peak between the 1840s and 1890s.

Duncan, a wealthy sugar refiner, philanthropist, and art collector, made vast improvements to the estate, including building the Fernery, and opened his land to the public.

The Fernery fell into disrepair at the beginning of the 20th century and lay idle for almost 100 years. Thanks to careful restoration, visitors can now experience it just as the Victorians did.

We rest our feet with a coffee and cake pit stop at the very non-Victorian coffee truck in front of the Benmore Visitor Center and Shop, where we are visited by a friendly robin.

Dunoon is a short drive from Benmore and one of the town’s most popular spots is Dunoon Burgh Hall, a beautifully restored red sandstone Victorian building which hosts exhibitions, concerts and events throughout the year.

Dunoon Burgh Hall has always been a firm favorite with tourists. When it opened in 1874 the building housed Argyll’s only theater and was a popular venue for dances, concerts, meetings and performances.

Unfortunately, by the early 21st century, the building had fallen into disrepair. In 2008 it was saved from demolition by the council, who worked with the John McAslan Family Trust, run by Dunoon-born ‘star architect’ John McAslan, to buy it from a housing association for a pound.

It reopened after a major renovation in 2017 and is now a cultural center serving both the local community and visitors.

After a delicious soup and cheesecake lunch at Café Burgh Hall, we head to the gallery. There we get into conversation with Jan, a volunteer. “Dunoon is a hidden gem,” she tells us. “There is so much to see and do. Even Julia Roberts and Robert Downie Jr. have visited us in the past few weeks.”

She notices the look of collective disbelief on both of our faces.

“They were in town for Karen Gillan’s wedding,” she smiles. “You know – the girl from Dr. Who with red hair? She married her American boyfriend in Castle Toward, not far from here.

“Julia Roberts was spotted down by the water at The Rock Cafe. If only she had known about Burgh Hall! She could have even gotten married here as we host a lot of weddings.”

If only… you heard it here first. Dunoon has A-list star quality.

Travel Facts

* Jan and Jill stayed at the Whistlefield Inn, Loch Eck, Dunoon, PA23 8SG where rooms start from £100 a night: https://www.thewhistlefieldinn.com/

* Doon the Watter Tour with Wreckspedition: https://www.wreckspeditions.com/doon-the-watter-tour – private tour for up to eight people costs £125

*Benmore Gardens is open 1st March to 31st October, adults £8, seniors £7, children (0-15 years) free. https://www.rbge.org.uk/visit/benmore-botanic-garden/

* Check out Dunoon Burgh Hall’s year-round programme: https://www.dunoonburghhall.org.uk/

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