Oban is a place many people associate with summer, with enjoying fish and chips while they wait for a CalMac ferry and the seagulls squawk above. I’m a massive fan of Oban, though, and I reckon this Argyll resort town is a real year round charmer too.
Many people think of Oban as somewhere you just flash through on a ferry. That is doing it a great disservice as this picturesque town, overlooking broad Oban Bay and the isles, has plenty to offer beyond being Scotland’s largest ferry port, such as boat fresh seafood, a whisky distillery and some lovely wee walks.
Oban Youth Hostel is a brilliant five star hostel base. I love the views this grand old stone dame on the waterfront offers (the sunsets are truly sublime) and the fact that they have a wee detached apartment that is ideal for families. It’s also ideal for a doing an impromptu live radio broadcast for the BBC from, as I found out when I stayed!
So join me now as we head for a whiff of that salty Atlantic Ocean air in Oban, which is these days a resort town for all seasons. Here are my top four reasons why you should head there at any time of year.
1. Ferry Fun – Let’s start with those CalMac ferries. They pootle in and out of the harbour all day and for much of the night, which for me is one of the great charms of Oban. I find it hard to resist a ferry ride. Indeed I once jumped on a ferry across to Craignure on Mull just for the sake of the journey and then turned tail and came straight back again! This is actually one of my favourite ferry trips in Scotland as you edge out of the harbour before hitting the open sea, where the views really open up. Mull, of course, rears up dead ahead with its craggy peaks, while to the north a natural panorama of mountains tempt, including Ben Nevis.
CalMac Ferry in the Sound of Mull
The food is great on CalMac these days so you can tuck into some fresh local produce as you head over, all the while gazing out the window in search of porpoises, dolphins and even whales. The most dramatic stretch of the journey is near its denouement when you slip by the stark white Eilean Musdile lighthouse and ease past the hulk of Castle Duart, one of the most dramatic castles in Scotland. If you really want to get away from the world altogether I recommend a wee day sail across to the sleepy isle of Lismore.
2. Whisky Galore – Not many towns in Scotland can boast an acclaimed whisky distillery right in their centre. Oban is one of them and it’s a sheer joy whether you love whisky or just don’t know you do yet! Oban Distillery, a rugged old stone gem, has stood proudly on this spot since as far back as 1794.
The set up is as brilliant as it is simple. Pure, fresh water gurgles down from the hills into the distillery. The malted barley and yeast work their magic and out flows the hallowed ‘water of life’ at the other end. You can just nip in and pick up a bottle of one of their gorgeous expressions, but I recommend taking time to take a tour, as every distillery in Scotland has its glorious quirks and idiosyncrasies. The Sensory & Flavour Tour just takes an hour and, of course, includes a wee dram (direct from the cask). For aficionados it has to be the more in-depth Exclusive Distillery Tour, which allows access to the bonded warehouse and the Distillery Managers Office.
3. Savour Seafood - Oban styles itself as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’ these days and it’s with very good reason. One of my favourite places to enjoy fresh Scottish seafood is the Oban Seafood Hut, the green one right on the pier. Much of Scotland’s best seafood ends up on the fine dining tables of London, Paris and Madrid. Here they manage to divert it and serve it up as simply as it can be.
Tuck into one of their prawn sandwiches, or enjoy a steaming bowl of mussels. If you want you really go for it order lobster, which is cooked right in front of your eyes, or their epic and brilliant value seafood platter. You can savour the boat fresh bounty of the local fleet all across town, with the exceptional sit down eatery for me the Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant. If you want to snare one of their coveted window tables I recommend booking in advance.
They have a couple of handy kitchens at Oban Youth Hostel too if you want to you can bring back some fishy foodies to prepare yourself. I rate the youth hostel’s Raasay Dining Room too, which is well worth staying in for.
4. Seasonal Stroll – Outside of summer Scotland’s mountains can be, shall we say, a little testing. Oban then is ideal for those just looking for something a little gentler where a call into the pub is more likely than a call to mountain rescue.
There are plenty of walks around Oban too. I enjoy a stroll along the waterfront with my kids, but my favourite local foray is up to McCaig’s Tower. This slightly surreal coliseum type affair opens up sweeping views of the town, the bay and the islands. It may not quite be as grand as Rome’s Coliseum (it was admittedly never finished), which it is supposedly modelled on, but it boasts much better views.
View from McCaig's Tower
I’m beguiled by its story as well as its views. It was built by wealthy philanthropist John Stuart McCaig on Battery Hill with local Bonawe granite between 1897 and 1902. The edifice he himself designed had two purposes – to permanently commemorate his family and also to give hard up local stonemasons work in turbulent times. He never realised his grand dreams of building an art gallery inside along with statues of his family as he died in 1902.
To find out more about Oban Youth Hostel, or to book your stay, please click here.
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.