Day 1: Dunbeg to Salen
Last year, almost to the day, we were due to do this trip, but had to cancel due to Colette’s accident. This year, with a similar spell of good weather on the cards, we decided at short notice to try again. We couldn’t get any accommodation on Mull, so based the trip around an overnight stop at Salen (the Ardnamurchan Salen, that is).
We left home bright and early, arriving in the village of Dunbeg, just north of Oban, around 9am. The car was quickly unpacked, and off we went on a warm, sunny morning.
I was riding my old hybrid bike, loaded up with all the luggage in panniers, while Colette took her regular road bike. That was the deal if she was going to agree to do pannier touring, and I was totally fine with it.
We came to a stop after less than a mile, due to roadworks on the A85. Luckily there was a 10 mph speed limit on the affected part of the road, so we didn’t hold up the traffic too badly when we finally got moving. Soon, we had ridden through Connel, over the bridge and away from the traffic as we picked up the Caledonia Way cycle path.
The first part of the route we had done before, but between Barcaldine and Appin, it was new to us. The bridge over Loch Creagan narrows was spectacular, but for some reason, we didn’t stop for a photo.
After cycling for about an hour and a half, we were due a break. We stopped at a horseshoe-shaped stone structure with seating built in. It was designed as a snug windbreak for travellers to stop for a rest, and was the ideal spot to break out the flask of coffee.
Once we got going again, we passed the scenic Castle Stalker to our left, then began to feel the force of a brisk headwind for the first time. Luckily it didn’t slow us down too much, as we were fairly sheltered by trees around the cycle path.
There is a stretch of a mile or two where the path disappears and there is no choice other than to ride on the main road. Luckily the traffic was light, so it wasn’t a problem. The route then took us well away from the road through open country. The delight of this route is that it is so varied, not just mile after mile of straight, flat path with a wall of trees on either side, which some ex-railway cycle paths are like.
After Kentallen, there is a steep section leading past a viewpoint. I was concerned that it might be too much with all the luggage, but I had a good low gear and it was no trouble at all.
We then returned to the coast as we approached Ballachulish, before the path took us back to the main road. For some reason, I thought we needed to cross and cycle on the pavement on the other side of the road to cross the bridge. Crossing took an age, as we waited for a gap in the traffic.
The view from Ballachulish bridge
Once we were on the bridge, it was clear that I had got that wrong, and we should have stayed on the left. On the plus side though, we had a great vantage point for a photo looking up Loch Leven.
From this point to Corran, we were cycling on the pavement, designated as dual use. It wasn’t all that pleasant, having heavy traffic passing so close, but at least we weren’t on the road and suffering the ire of drivers trying to overtake us.
At this point, we were thinking about lunch options. We passed the Lodge on the Loch and noticed a sign for their cafe. We hadn’t set foot inside this hotel since our wedding night, so we thought, why not…?
The place was very quiet, but we sat down for lunch anyway, at a table with a great view across Loch Linnhe. Our steak and onion sandwiches didn’t disappoint, though the hotel itself was in need of some modernisation, particularly the toilets!
Soon, we arrived at Corran for the ferry. The north wind was blowing straight down the loch, making it feel a bit chilly by the water. We put on extra layers for the crossing, but after we disembarked at Ardgour, the wind was now at our backs, speeding us along the road towards Strontian.
Before reaching Strontian, there is a bit of a hill. The initial gradient was over 7%, which slowed us down to a crawl, on top of which, the wind had changed to a headwind again. OK, we were going slower, but we were still enjoying every minute! At the top, just past the cattle grid, we chatted to a local cyclist who was out for a quick spin. It was downhill all the way to Strontian from here, and she was going to try for a PR.
Downhill to Strontian and our first view of Loch Sunart
After she set off, Colette decided to try and follow, and so did I, until I was distracted by a photo opportunity. By the time we reached Strontian on the shores of Loch Sunart, Colette was feeling tired after the exertion of doing her best to keep the other cyclist in her sights. We needed a break, and luckily there is a cafe in the village. We ordered tea and cakes there, though Colette was close to hitting the wall, and found she couldn’t eat anything. She drank plenty of sweet tea instead then.
There were just 10 miles left to Salen, but this turned out to be very much up and down in nature, as we were warned by several people. It looked fairly flat on the profile from my route planner, but that was far from the case. The climbs were all very small, but the cumulative effect was quite wearing. On top of that, it was difficult to keep momentum going, as you continually had to pull in to let cars past on the single track road.
It was hard to complain when the lochside scenery was so breathtaking. We just plodded along and finally, Salen came into view, where the Salen Hotel, our overnight stop, was impossible to miss.
After dumping our stuff in the room, the next priority was cold beer, then showers. Our evening meal was great, which can’t really be said for our sleep. It was very warm in the room, but we were warned not too open the windows lest we be invaded by midges.
Day 2: Salen to Dunbeg
Fuelled by a bumper Scottish breakfast, we got underway the next morning about 8.50am. After less than a mile, phones began to ping, signifying that we had left the dead zone that is Salen (the hotel did have WiFi but it had no discernible connection to the internet). We spent a few minutes in someone’s driveway uploading the previous day’s Strava and dealing with WhatsApps before getting going proper.
The theme of short, sharp undulations along the coast continued, as did the beautiful scenery. I cast my mind back to the last time I visited the area with Oliver on a fishing trip. We motored across the loch on that trip, past the island of Carna and through narrows to reach the isolated Loch Teacuis. It was an idyllic day, accompanied by dolphins and porpoises and the same glorious sunshine as our present trip.
After about 10 miles, the road started to climb more steadily. We paused at a viewpoint where the bay of Camas nan Geall came into view, before getting back onto the climb, which snaked its way inland.
Around a corner, about halfway into the climb, we got a view of the second half, rising fairly steeply to the top of the pass. It took what seemed an age to complete the climb, as we had to stop in every single passing place to let traffic past. That is the penance for cycling on these remote but scenic single track roads. You just need to be in the right mindset to accept it for what it is. I’m afraid I wasn’t quite there, and was heard to say “Oh no, not another blooming car!”, or words to that effect, with some regularity.
We passed Loch Mudle then the road turned to lead back towards the coast. There then followed a joyous descent all the way to Kilchoan, thankfully unencumbered by oncoming or overtaking traffic.
It would have been great to fit in the extra 12 miles or so to visit Ardnamurchan Point, but our timetable for the day didn’t allow it. Instead, we headed down to the jetty at Kilchoan for the ferry to Tobermory.
There was some time to kill before the ferry, so we got out our flask of coffee, which we had refilled at breakfast in the hotel. The small ferry took us over the 5 miles to Mull at a sedate pace, giving plenty of time to admire the views from the open top deck.
We arrived at the bright and bustling port of Tobermory at 12.20pm. We had about 4 1/2 hours to spend on Mull, during which time we needed to find our way down to Craignure. The options were to have a nice long sit down lunch, then take the direct route, or to buy sandwiches and fit in a detour to see some more of the island. We decided on the latter.
Leaving Tobermory turned out to be more tricky than anticipated. My route planner had picked an apparently random zig-zag up steep roads through the houses. One of the roads wasn’t at all suitable, so I had to use my actual brain to get us on the right track, aiming for Dervaig.
After a few miles, we reached Loch Peallach and decided to stop for our picnic lunch on the grass next to the Tobermory Angling Club boathouse. It was a lovely restful place to eat our sandwiches in the warm sunshine.
Continuing west, we stopped close to Loch Torr to admire a golden eagle rising above us, using the updraft from a cliff, then continue its flight along the loch. Sadly, Colette wasn’t able to catch it on her camera.
Next, we approached a climb. I could hardly believe what my Wahoo was telling me. Lots of hairpin bends ahead! And it was right. What a beautiful climb, and just the kind that they build in Europe, while here, the roads usually just run straight and steep up the hill. Add to that, the fact that it was just wide enough for cars to squeeze past, plus the scenery of course, and I was in heaven.
The view down to Dervaig
An equally hairpinny descent took us back to sea level and the village of Dervaig. The road here continued to Calgary and beyond, but it would have taken too long to go via the west coast, so we turned left instead. This alternative minor road runs southeast along a valley that cuts through the middle of the island, and as I expected (and hoped) it was very quiet.
There were plenty of cattle and sheep to be seen, but not much in the way of wildlife. We made our way through gently rolling grazing land and forest, with the view to the right dominated by a mountain ridge line. Then, as we got nearer to the east coast, we rode alongside a river and met a few cars to remind us that we were approaching civilisation once more.
We reached the east coast of the island at Aros and joined the main road, though it was still single track at this point. Shortly we arrived at Salen (the Mull one of course) and stopped for a very tasty salted caramel ice cream.
South of Salen, the road became a proper two-way affair, so we didn’t have to stop every time a car caught us up. In fact, they had to wait to pass us. The boot was on the other foot! I made sure to wave a kind “thank you” to any cars that had to wait before they could overtake.
From this point, it was pretty uneventful as far as Craignure, where the ferry to Oban departs. We had arrived about an hour before our ferry was due, so had plenty of time to buy tickets. We were also on the lookout for a coffee shop, but it was 4pm and we could hear people grumbling that it was closed already. So we just got some goodies from the Co-op and joined the queue for the ferry with a bunch of other cyclists.
The ferry to Oban was a much bigger vessel than the Kilchoan ferry. It swallowed up an unbelievable number of cars and coaches, though the space for bikes was a lot more limited. We don’t pay for them though, so you can’t complain (unless you can’t get on, of course!). We went up to the cafe and watched the world go by with a cup of tea.
It was a very comfortable crossing, and the 10 miles went by fairly quickly. After disembarking in Oban, we took a short detour to Stevenson Street, where Colette’s Dad had an office (now a Ladbrokes) many years ago. Then we rode through the town centre and north along the coast using cycle route 78.
After reaching the car park at Ganavan, we just had a mile or so of cycle path left to take us back to Dunbeg. This also included the steepest little gradient of the whole two days, but our bikes had the low gears and our legs were still working (just), so we made it without pushing.
Soon, we got the car packed up and ready for the long drive home. We were feeling elated at having such a wonderful two days of cycling, but also pretty exhausted. Anticipating that, I had left a can of Red Bull in the car to drink on the way home to keep me alert. I was kind of dreading what that stuff would be like after two days in a hot car, but actually I can attest that hot Red Bull is surprisingly tasty!