CRUISING the Caledonian Canal

It seemed a shame to just see Ben Nevis from the water, so we spent a couple of days hiking it first, then celebrated our achievement with a cruise down the Caledonian Canal afterwards

A far from banal canal

The Caledonian Canal is so much more than a canal, which you will discover over a week on board a small ship cruise, sleeping around 10 passengers, doing this coast to coast odyssey in style. The Caledonian Canal is one of those Victorian creations of mammoth proportions which we are lucky enough to still enjoy today. At the time, this route that cuts straight through the glens from Corpach in the west to Inverness (and Loch Ness) in the east was built in order to facilitate boats transporting all sorts of goods, as well as vulnerable naval ships, by giving them an alternative route to the far north without going around Scotlandís treacherous tip. Today, it is one of Scotlandís most beautiful boating arteries, stretching for nearly 100km and using a series of locks to link the lochs. Only a third of it is, therefore, manmade, linking up inland waterways of Loch Lochy (yes, thatís a real name), Loch Oich and, most famously, Loch Ness. With 29 locks as well, no wonder it took nearly 20 years to complete.

The prelude

Most small ship cruises start in Oban, which is a direct train journey from Glasgow, so you donít need to worry about driving all the way up the coast. These vacations are linear anyway, ending in Inverness so you can also pick up a train to come back. Before entering the actual Caledonian Canal, your first journey is along Loch Linnhe, a sea loch where you may have a chance to spot dolphins, seals and even white tailed eagles soaring above as you saunter inland. Your beacon ahead for this part of the journey is nothing other than the iconic Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 1,345m. Two lovely stops along the way include one for culture and one for nature: the former is Castle Stalker which is on its own tidal island, and the latter is at the Wildlife Hub at Appin, which will give you a great introduction to wildlife that you might expect to see in the days to come.

Neptuneís Staircase & beyond

Even the name suggests you are about to embark on a wonderful adventure, as your entry into the canal and waterway system begins at this collection of eight locks which pretty much enable boats to climb uphill. It takes about 90 minutes to climb up to 150m above sea level, and the whole procedure is one that you can watch either from the deck or on the towpath. Once through the system, you cruise to the town of Gairlochy on Loch Lochy, a long, narrow inland loch with the best name ever. Along the way you will see hikers and cyclists enjoying the Great Glen Way that follows the waterway, as well as prolific wildlife including the rare black throated diver bird, osprey, red squirrels and red deer. So bring your binoculars; Lochy can get lively.

Loch Oich & Fort Augustus

After passing through the two Laggan Locks, Loch Oich is the next waterway at the most elevated point of the Caledonian Canal, and with a slightly wilder feel. Protected by wooded slopes, some of which make up the South Laggan Site of Special Scientific Interest, keen birders will be keeping an ear and eye out for sedge warblers and reed buntings. Keen swimmers will definitely want a dip, so bring your wetsuit if you want to enjoy the water for more than a couple of minutes because, Oich, itís cold. Another stunning lock system awaits at the end of this Loch, this time with six locks to navigate at Fort Augustus. This is a great spot to anchor, with lively waterside pubs, the Caledonian Canal Heritage Centre and the Clansmen Centre.

Finally, another reason why this lock collection is so celebrated is because it gives access to the leader of all lochs: Ness.

Our top Scotland cruising Vacation

Wildlife vacation in the Isle of Mull, Scotland

Wildlife vacation in the Isle of Mull, Scotland

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From £575 to £790 5 days ex flights
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This trip can be tailor made from late April to the end of September
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Loch Ness

There are lots of facts and fables about Loch Ness, about its size, depth and of course its inhabitants. What is for sure is that it is the second largest freshwater lake in Scotland (after Loch Lomond) but only in surface area. Its superior depth makes it the largest volume-wise. What is never in question is its natural beauty, especially when you escape the daytripping crowds of tourists on your petite cruise boat, which will take you down the length of the loch. You can disembark and walk its shores at beauty spots such as the Falls of Foyers. The village of Drumnadrochit, in addition to being home to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, is surrounded by Glen Urquhart and Glen Moriston, as well as the Great Glen which stretches back to your starting point at Nevis.

The real Neptune

Finally the sea is in sight, as Loch Ness seeps into the sea of Moray Firth via the River Ness . Your small ship cruise ends in Muirtown Basin in the heart of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. Take time to explore this beautiful historic city, which includes the nearby Battle of Culloden site. To get your land legs back, seek out the Ness Island Trail, following the River Ness out to islands in the middle of the river, adjoined by bridges.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: kris1138] [Neptune's staircase: Son of Groucho] [Loch Ness: Shadowgate]