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Travel: Magical Mallaig will have you under its spell

The sands of Camusdarach
The sands of Camusdarach

They call it “Ben’s beach”, an arc of pristine white sand lapped by the crystalline waters of Scotland’s west coast.

The beach – Camusdarach – at Morar, between Arisaig and Mallaig, was a stunning setting for the 1983 Bill Forsyth film, Local Hero, starring the late great Scot, Fulton Mackay.

The actor (best known as Mr Mackay the prison officer in classic TV sitcom Porridge) was the eponymous Ben, a beach dweller up against the refinery plans of American oil tycoon (aka late Hollywood giant, Burt Lancaster).

Filling his hands with sand, Ben asks in the film if the oil giant would pay a pound for each grain, leaving his agent, Mac, without a reply.

The fictitious exchange speaks volumes. In the real world, too, this place is priceless – even in the depths of winter.

With my collar turned to the wind and the February sun hanging low in the sky, I can just make out the jagged crests of Skye’s jaw-dropping Cuillin mountain range, and the outline of the tiny islands of Rum and Eigg. There is not a soul around. The only sound is from seabirds overhead and the rush of the tide.

In the summer, Camusdarach is a magical escape for holidaymakers who come to swim, kayak, picnic, and even marry on its white shore.

A pod of dolphins

There is a great deal to see and do in and around Mallaig, Arisaig and Morar, with a good selection of places to eat and stay, and something to suit most tastes and pockets.

We are based at the West Highland Hotel in Mallaig itself.

Set at the end of “The Road to the Isles” – which starts in Fort William – getting here is all part of the adventure.

The route offers some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, from heather moors, rich green woodland and rough and rugged hills, to dramatic Atlantic Ocean vistas. It is steeped in history and its small, but welcoming population are proud to share its heritage, as well as its peace and tranquillity.

Our hotel – just a few steps from the station and ferry port – is a great base for exploring.

This hostelry has been a popular haunt for travellers for more than a century, and boasts tasteful rooms and a glass-fronted terrace where guests can dine and drink in soul stirring sunsets over The Small Isles.

The rugged coastline

Its cosmopolitan client base is drawn in no small part by the Harry Potter Hogwart’s Express aka the Jacobite Steam Train. Described as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world, the steam train featured in the children’s film inspired by J.K. Rowling’s The Prisoner of Azkaban.

The 42-mile journey from Fort William to Mallaig takes in the beautiful sands around Morar, as well as Loch Morar, the country’s deepest fresh water loch, and the deepest seawater loch in Europe, Loch Nevis. And it crosses the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct – 100ft above the ground and spanning 1,000ft – before arriving in Mallaig.

And the small fishing port teems with visitors to its shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs.

You can get a handle on the town by taking the Mallaig Circuit walk, which has great views over the harbour and across Loch Nevis to Knoydart.

We also recommend heading to the Land, Sea And Islands Centre in Arisaig, a four-star attraction in an old blacksmith’s workshop.

The quaint building is a fusion of past and present and a celebration of the area’s heritage and wildlife.

© Christopher Dyer
Arisaig House

The centre, which retains the old forge and bellows, hosts regular events and exhibitions covering everything from crofting, fishing and knitting to wartime espionage. More than 3,000 agents were trained here during the Second World War, learning all the wartime skills they would need, including how to become silent killers – fascinating, if not chilling!

And Larachmhor Gardens, on the edge of Arisaig, are an enchanting retreat, developed in the 1920s by entrepreneur, John Holms, who had a passion for exotic species.

And if you want to dump the car, there are treks galore for walkers of all levels, like the lovely, and 2.5mile (4km) trek to Prince Charlie’s Cave and Borrodale Beach which starts at Druimindarrach.

But for our final stroll, we end up at where we started out – at Camusdarach beach – and a sunset that would put Hollywood in the shade.

Sunset at the West Highland Hotel

P.S. Mallaig was known as the herring capital of Europe in the 1960s. Today it is the ferry terminal for services to Skye, the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna) as well as for Western Isles cruises.


Factfile

Rooms at The West Highland Hotel from £47. Call 01687 462210 or westhighlandhotel.co.uk

For a B&B with sea views try Seann Airidh at Arisaig. Tel 07970 549839.

At Camusdarach, glamping pods are £60 per night. Tel 01687 450221 or camusdarach.co.uk

Find accommodation and activities in the area with Road to the Isles.