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Seaplanes and artisanal coffee roasters: Cowal is emerging as a haven for savvy Scots | Leaf Probably

WITHIN minutes of the seaplane landing on Loch Fyne, I’m bubbly in an outdoor infinity pool by the loch, dreaming of perfectly cooked Gigha Halibut and ultra-local Tighnabruaich coffee for lunch. Welcome to Cowal, the long-forgotten peninsula that now emerges as a haven for savvy Scots.

Cowal was of course no secret once upon a time, as generations of Glasgow holidaymakers ‘doon the watter’ ‘doon the watter’ on paddle streamers en route to the resort of Dunoon. The advent of cheap air travel to Spain’s costas ended that golden era, but serious green shoots are emerging again.

Portavadie is symbolic of this new growth. The deep basin excavated in the 1970s to build concrete offshore oil production platforms never completed a single job; instead, Portavadie degenerated into an unsightly white elephant. In 2010, Portavadie was reborn as a modern marina with elegant apartments.

Today it’s a full-fledged resort, with a spa featuring an infinity pool and a series of hot tubs. It is quite an experience to sit warm and look out over the hills of Kintyre while oystercatchers pass close by. Portavadie is an excellent place to stay, but on this visit I’m only stopping by for a bubble and that spot-on halibut with a delicious hazelnut crust. I check into the brand new The Hollies in Tighnabruaich, a lavish self catering retreat and a very new Cowal.

For years this old sandstone building lost its dignity, abandoned by the water. Brilliantly renovated by an East Kilbride couple, using lots of hardwood and fine fabrics, each bedroom is named after a different Scottish band, from The Blue Nile to The Waterboys. From the latter, my bathroom overlooks the Isle of Bute, ideal for a dram overlooking a night sky untouched by light pollution.

Tighnabruaich is the epicenter of Cowal’s rebirth. Argyll Coffee Roasters brew great coffee here and a couple have set out from Glasgow to found the Tighnabruaich Gallery, which showcases the work of Argyll artists. The landmark Royal an Lochan Hotel has also been spruced up, not bad for a village that until recently was best known for its glittering Kyles Athletic team.

Warned by a waiter in Portavadie, I make my way to Carry Farm, which has a lot more going on than just raising sheep. I’m meeting Fiona McPhail. Not content with helping run the farm and the famous Tighnabruaich Sailing School – the Kyles of Bute boast world-class sailing – she conjures sheepskin art from her Hebridean flock at the recently opened Hayshed Gallery.

“Cowal is such an inspiring place,” she smiles as we gaze out at the water under the big Cowal sky. “You feel far away from worries and stress here, but not as far away as out on the islands. It’s also a creative place.”

Cowal is certainly creative. Argyll Coffee Roasters has just opened a coffee shop next to the gallery, offering its coffee and other local produce from Cowal’s Northern Lights Cakery and Wild Kitchen. The Argyll Botany Company was also moved here, to a small retail oasis an ocean away from the world of supermarket hegemony.

At The Hollies, I grab gourmet treats from Secret Coast Hampers—everything from cowal coffee and tablet to heather honey.

Carry Farm is also part of the Northwoods Rewilding Network. Cowal 2022’s style is beginning to be noticed for both its rewilding and community ownership projects.

I’m exploring Kilfinan Community Woodland, a project full of community engagement and positivity. I hike up the Burnside Trails, past children’s playgrounds, wooden rain shelters and BBQ areas – all free to use. They also run a “forest school” for children and permaculture courses.

North of Tighnabruaich I come across a mighty ark; You can’t quite miss Argyll’s 20 meter long wooden ark perched on the hillside. It is the work of David Blair, an artist who seeks to “raise awareness of the magnitude and urgency of the climate and environmental emergency.” Its fame has spread beyond Argyll, with COP26 delegates among those making the pilgrimage here.

That Cowal is literally offering his own ark to the world seems symbolic. This is a corner of Scotland that has often been overlooked, but it offers sanctuary to open-minded, creative people and a rich canvas to develop their ideas.

And now for like-minded visitors too, as Portavadie’s Iain Jurgensen tells me: “We’re on Argyll’s Secret Coast and yes we have viewpoints that you’ll want to stop for photos but also different ways of looking at the world. Like thought-provoking sculptures that make you think about our impact on our climate.”

I leave Cowal and skip the seaplane to take a CalMac to Rhubodach on Bute. In the summer, the Waverley Paddle Steamer crosses these famous bottlenecks on day trips; no longer just a sad tourist throwback. More part of the alluring structure of a peninsula that offers a new breed of Doon the Watt visitor, from coffee roasters and artisans to outdoor infinity pools.

And we haven’t even mentioned the revamped restaurants in Otter Ferry and Colintraive, the brilliant new cafe/gallery in Blairmore, a tea plantation (yes, in Scotland) and the recently enhanced Cowal and Loch Lomond Way.

The Hollies –

Portavadie –

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