A short hop to heaven
An island paradise linked by a fantastic ferry service is right on our doorstep, says Ciaran Byrne
It's 8pm on Arran and the sun is slipping behind Goatfell, the mountain that dominates this Hebridean island of 2,000 souls, 15 miles off the Scottish mainland.
From the window of the Douglas hotel in the little port of Brodick, you can see the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry ease into its berth after crossing from the mainland in glorious evening sunshine.
It's a near perfect picture. From the super cool hotel's outdoor terrace, guests sip cold beer and stare out at the shimmering blue waters.
The 'CalMac' ferry disgorges a glut of foot passengers, coaches and one or two cars from Ireland – an increasingly common sight here.
Arran is one of the main gateways to the southern Hebrides, a quite stunning island chain within surprisingly easy reach of Ireland.
Many Irish people encounter Scotland through city breaks taken in Glasgow or Edinburgh – but more and more are discovering a more scenic Scotland.
The road to the islands begins at Belfast port with Stena Line's two-hour crossing to Cairnryan.
From there, it's a 90-minute run up the gorgeous Ayrshire coast to the port of Ardrossan and a 55-minute trip to Arran, called 'Scotland in miniature'.
The Hebrides are a remarkable collection of islands, rich in history, heritage and all manner of natural wonders. Currently, they are being celebrated in a BBC series called Islands on the Edge.
There's also the little matter of whisky; the isle of Islay boasts seven single malt distilleries including Laphroaig and Bowmore.
But, with all due respect to whisky lovers, these islands are about so much more. Family friendly and blessed with beautiful landscapes, castles, beaches, walks and cycle trails, there are also accommodation options to suit all budgets.
On Arran, there's the Douglas, a laid-back, boutique hotel restored beautifully by its Russian-based owner – an exiled Arran islander.
With its plush rooms, huge ceilings and swish dining room offering seasonal Scottish cooking, the Douglas is an ideal base to do explore Brodick.
Elsewhere, the Auchrannie spa resort offers a great option for families with buzzy restaurants, two swimming pools and a fully-kitted out childrens 'playbarn'. In fact it's a one-stop shop for kids of all ages with three soft-play areas for toddlers and a dedicated area for teenagers.
The family run resort, like the Douglas, recently scooped a top Scottish tourism award.
Despite its busy nature due to a high number of day trippers, Arran encourages visitors to explore the rest of the island and the pretty village of Lamlash is worth a visit. Set in a beautiful bay just three miles south of Brodick, the village overlooks Holy Island, a smaller island which hosts a Buddhist community.
The Glen Isle Hotel offers comfortable rooms with views of Holy Island and a menu that includes the best of the day's fish catch served in its restaurant.
The beauty of the southern Hebridies will take your breath away and with planning, it's possible to see a great deal of the 'islands on the edge'.
The key is 'CalMac' – the ferry company that operates 25 routes to Scotland's remotest regions. With a fleet of modern ships, 'CalMac' offers an 'Island Hopscotch' ticket scheme where multiple journeys and connections are possible for a single discounted price.
From Arran, we headed to Kintrye, a slender finger-shaped peninsula, just about linked to the mainland.
We grabbed a ferry in glorious sunshine to take us from Lochranza to Claonaig. From there, we drove to Campeltown, Kintyre's centre and checked into the Royal Hotel for a a relaxing night in a huge family room.
From Kennacraig, at the top of Kintrye, to Islay, Caledonian MacBrayne's newest ship the 'MV Finlaggan' is our home for a pleasant two-hour journey.
We ate a lovely Scottish ale pie and chatted to the ever-friendly crew members as we headed towards the place they call the 'Queen of the Hebridies'.
In the Year of Natural Scotland, 'eco-chic' is playing a starring role. Located on Islay's Oa peninsula near Port Ellen, the stunning turf-roofed Coillabus Lodges are stuffed with the latest green technology. Discreetly dug into a hillside, there are shades of the Cliffs of Moher centre in Co Clare.
With huge windows giving guests remarkable light and views of Oa, Coillabus would do justice to a honeymoon, romantic retreat, a writing week or any kind of a break requiring space, tranquillity and luxury. For two days it was the perfect escape. The lodges have cosy underfloor heating, wood burning fires, en-suite bedrooms, a sauna and outdoor hot tub. This was going green – but five-star.
Islay is ideal for wildlife, beaches or a golf and whisky break. The Islay Woollen Mill, near the ferry at Port Askaig, is also worth a visit. Owner Gordon Covell will tell you about his time living in 1960s Dun Laoghaire and show you the tartans he designed for Mel Gibson's Braveheart.
For fans of George Orwell and 1984, the five-minute ferry from Islay to the island of Jura is an absolute must.
Stay at the lovely little Jura Hotel in Craighouse harbour, visit the Jura distillery and learn about how Orwell wrote his book here in 1948, as he sought a complete retreat from his post-Animal Farm fame.