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Trip Report Spring Gardens of Scotland's West Coast

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Since I have searched this topic on the forum and there is not much information I would like to provide a trip report for this recent excursion into the west Highlands, particularily to visit the spring gardens. My trip started May 1 2013, I am hoping by posting it people travelling this spring might add in 1 or 2 of these gardens. As I go through I will suggest minimum time you should allow for a visit, of course more is always better but some there is no point stopping if you only have half an hour. I want to preface this report by saying it is very heavy on Rhododendrons. I completely appreciate that this is not everyone’s favorite plant and that Rhodo ponticum is a pest which is taking over areas of the highlands and ruining the natural flora. In these gardens we are talking about hybrid Rhodos which are not invasive but are devastatingly beautiful.

Day 1 - Arrive Glasgow airport in the early morning, arrange transportation to Benmore Bontanic Gardens. Using the Calmac ferry system allows you to cut off time driving around the Lochs and is a beautiful way to enjoy views of the highlands. The Clyde ferry leaves from McInroy’s Point. The Rhododendron / Azalea season in these gardens can be anytime in April / May. This year is a full 3 weeks behind normal in the gardens so arriving the first of May we are actually at the beginning of the flowers. There are lots of Rhodos that have not bloomed yet but we can see that there are some gone past So it was a very good show.

Benmore is a 120 acre woodland garden located on a steep mountain side. There are some formal garden beds near the bottom but majority is on the mountainside. There was some storm damage 2 years ago with large trees toppled but it is also interesting to walk through the rehabilitation project in this area of the garden. There is a beautifully restored Victorian fernery with a which dates back to 1870. It has grotto style stairs on both sides which create a sense of spirituality when you enter. It is a bit of a walk from the main entrance but worth it. The map is well divided indicating which paths are level and easily accessible and which are a climb. This was my first view of the 40 foot Rhodos I had dreamed of. I would give the garden 4/5 ( allow at least 3 hours ). A must see. Very nice coffee shop which make full hot meals if you are looking to eat.

We stopped at Inveraray castle on the way back up the peninsula. Inveraray is a small castle and the seat of Campbells. The interior is well preserved and the guided tour did draw attention to details you would miss if you were wandering through on your own. The beautiful wall decorations and furnishings make this an interesting stop. The gardens contain a few Rhodos but at this time of year not really worth the time to walk through them. Garden gets a 1.5/5 but if you are interested in history stop for the castle.

Stayed the first two nights a Loch Melfort Hotel. I can not recommend this place more highly. Located right on the side of Loch. A beautiful layout with amazing views from all the rooms. Dining room has been set up to maximize views of the Loch. The food was great and service professional but friendly. Arduaine gardens is on the same property as the hotel and as a guest of the hotel we were able to wander the gardens in the evening, also I was back out there at 6:30 am. This will be an outstanding garden all year round. There is hardly an inch of it that has not had very thoughtful hardscaping done. Every time you turn a corner you are drawn into another vista or “room” as we talk about in gardening circles. There are lots of formal gardens each with their own theme. In is perfectly maintained and has such a huge variety of plant material I am sure it would be worth a visit any time of the year. The Rhodos were in full show including two at the very back of the garden, the tallest I have ever seen, planted in 1937. Garden gets a 4.5 / 5 and allow 90 minutes. Good walking paths, with good footing. So many intersecting paths it is hard to follow the map but I believe in just tossing the map and wandering where the eye takes me so I was content.

Ceilidh in Oban. In the evening went up to Oban to visit Skipinnish Ceildh House. From 9 to 11:30 there was a very fun evening of traditional Scottish Country Dance. The accordion player acted as caller and teacher, walking us through the steps for each song first. A very fun way to get exposed to a little local culture. Driving time to Oban from Loch Melford 25 min.

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    Day 2 - Drove to the ferry at Tayinloan and travelled to Gigha, one of the small inner Hebridean Islands. There is a formal garden there called Achamore Gardens. The political history of this island is quite interesting. In the recent past the island was sold to the community who are now running this traditional baronial garden as a tourism location. Achamore house is set up as a bed and breakfast so you can stay on Gigha overnight if you wish. The original garden was started by James Horlick who was a rhododendron breeder so this garden contains some outstanding individual specimens. In particular while we were there Rhodo brocade and Rhodo Mrs. James Horlick were at their peak. Also he selectively chose some rhodos for their scent and this adds to the visit. If you are into Camellia there is an astounding 150 m Camellia walk which was in full bloom. There are a mixture of singles and doubles and there was lots of birds to be seen if you sat here quietly. Also a peacock wandering around the high ground put on a great show. You can climb to the high point above the garden and there is a great view point looking out across the outer hebrides. It is supplied with picnic tables and would be a great spot for lunch if you remember to pack it with you. An interesting ruined church and 200 year old graveyard is worth a walk around outside the garden. Due to staffing this garden is not as well maintained as might be but they are working hard at it and I would keep it in mind. If you are into Rhodo’s it is worth it for the individual specimens. There is a nice walled garden which I am sure is lovely in summer. Actual garden time 90 min but travel time is substantial. Garden gets 3 / 5.

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    Day 3 - Drove north to catch the ferry at Mallaig. Castle Stalker is an island folly which you can stop and take a photo of, not much to write home about. We had a stop for 30 minutes at the Glenfinnen monument. I have previously driven past this twice and not had time to stop because of dashing for the ferry. Even if you are not a Jacobite I strongly recommend this stop. The climb to the top of the monument is only for the able bodied, and lean, but the views afforded at the top are worth the 3.5 pounds for admission. Kids would love this stop. When the ferry docks on Skye there is a little shop called Ragamuffins, easy to miss because right on the dock. Not all the wool products are made in Scotland so you must read labels but they did have some lovely things.

    Armadale Castle is the seat of the Clan Donald. This stop offers 3 things of interest. The Museum of Isles has been very well laid out with lots of interactive displays and gives you an excellent understanding of the history and geography of this area. There are lots of great displays. If you happen to come from this clan the extensive library will allow you to trace your ancestry. The “castle” is a ruin. In the past it has been quite picturesque but the most beautiful part of the ruin has now been desecrated by a large white tent which has meant the removal of a lovely garden and ruins the photo from every view point. This is my third visit and I am very glad I got to see it before this happened. The gardens at Armadale cover a large area and include extensive perennial borders and interconnecting ponds. During the summer they have interesting container gardens of exotic plants. There are also some woodland walks with views of Skye. You need at least 120 minutes here if the weather is good, more if you want to really do the museum. The coffee shop is liscenced and an Irish coffee hits the spot if the weather is wet, as it often is. At this time of year I would give the garden a 2/5 but if you are this way in July to Sept it is a 4/5 easy.

    Drove to Plockton which was to be our home for 4 nights. We stayed at the Plockton Inn and it was great. There is also the Plockton Hotel which is slightly more up scale in the rooms but the food is not as good. I loved this inn. If was just the way I like things, clean and comfortable with tons of atmosphere. I had one of the attic rooms and there was tons of space. An outstanding feature is a shower with fire hose style water pressure. It was quite unexpected since showers in the UK tend to be quite passive. Had a great shower every day. We ate at the Inn 3 / 4 nights. Food was very well prepared and fresh. Menu heavy on all versions of local seafood which are cooked exactly right. One night had venison stew which was also great. Don’t miss Mary’s home made Sticky Toffee Pudding. I would stay here again if in the area.

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    Day 4 - Got up early to explore the town. There is an excellent little local guide book which can be purchased locally which was very helpful. Did two of the 30 minute walks to visit the beautiful gardens around the town and climbed to the view point over to Skye. After a great breakfast headed to Attadale Gardens.

    Attadale is a privately owned garden covering 20 acres. The Macpherson family has done an outstanding job developing this property to maximize the use of nature’s bounty. It is truly a garden for all seasons. There are Rhodos in this garden over 100 years old, as beautiful for their trunks and lines they bring to the garden as for their blooms. The Rhododendrons are lovely but the huge variety of plant material, espeicailly exotic tree varieties, means this garden is a must see any time of year. There is a rocky hillside garden, a water garden, japanese garden and a geodesic dome fernery. One unique aspect of this garden is the statuary. There are wonderful pieces of artwork spread throughout the garden. They are very well located to set off the garden, they fit in rather than stand out. The work is from a variety of artists, many of them Scots. Also unique benches have been placed in interesting niches to encourage you to sit and enjoy the environs. There is a self catering cottage rental available which would be very tempting. I would love to be able to sit in this garden in the early morning. I would give the garden a 5/5. I would allow 2 hours to visit.
    Had dinner this night at the Plockton Shores. This is also a fine restaurant with good local food, specializing in sea food.

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    Day 5 - For early morning walk I took the shore walk around the harbor to Duncraig Castle. Castle is a beautiful building from the outside but has gone through many changes of ownership over the years and is currently under renovation again. This walking trails travels along the coast with excellent views of the seaside and back across the water to Plockton. You should allow 2 hours walking time.

    Today’s garden is Inverewe at Poolewe. I was already in love with this garden from previous visits. I have only seen it in the late summer and a bucket list item was to come and see it when the Rhodo’s were in bloom. It did not disappoint. The beautiful lochside location makes this garden very special. When you first come in you pass the walled garden and the rock garden which are nothing to see at this time of year but are outstanding in July - Sept. You just need to keep walking and you will enter an ancient grove of trees that Osgood MacKenzie gathered from all over the world and planted as a wind break for his garden. Within their towering shelter is a Rhododendron feast for the eyes. You can not look in any direction without seeing a riot of colour. They come in all different sizes and shapes. From shrub varieties 2 ft to 40 ft tall to open expansive varieties where you can stand within the branching trunks and see out through a canopy of blossoms. There is a coffee shop at the entrance but I knew from previous visits that there is a beautiful high lookout point at the far end of the garden. I had my thermos and my picnic lunch and thoroughly enjoyed viewing the landscape from up there. At this time of year you need to allow at least 3 hours for the garden, you could easily stay longer. There is a beautiful gift shop with a great selection of souvenirs, many of them locally made and reasonably priced. This garden is also a 5/5.

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    Day 6 - Taking a break from gardens today went for a 6 hour sea-kayaking trip. Due to it’s large and well protected harbour Plockton is used by several of the sea-kayaking companies. I went with the National Trust group and we had a great trip. The equipment was excellent quality and they had all the gear you needed to stay dry and comfortable. Willie Fraser took the time to asses the skills of those in the group and gave excellent tips to those needing instruction. You can paddle for a full day or half day. Out on the water we could enjoy the interesting landscape from a totally different vantage point. We saw seals both on the small islands and bobbing around in the water around the boats. We were also lucky enough to see 2 separate sea otters which we were able to observe diving and eating for a while before they noticed us and took off. Dinner sure tasted good that night.

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    Day 7 - Early morning walk today is down to what is known as the coral beach. This hike is not beautiful for itself but the end destination is a splendid little beach with a couple of isolated coves and great views out over the islands. It would be a great place for a quiet swim in the warmer weather. If walking from Plockton allow 75 minutes, more if you want to spend some time on the beach.

    Time to head back south so this was a travel day. We were lucky enough to have outstanding weather so definitely took the scenic route. Crossed the bridge onto Skye just so we could take the little car ferry across at Glenelg. The drive down to the ferry is remarkable on a good weather day. Had lunch at Fort Augustus, lots of bad options (stay away from the Bothy) but there was an excellent chippie with great fish and chips. Also took the scenic route through Glencoe. If you have to drive 5 hours in a day hard to beat that scenery.

    Stayed this night at the Lodge on Loch Lommond. This hotel commands an outstanding view up the loch. The rooms in the main building all face the water and have beautiful individual balconies. In every way the accommodations were 4 star but there are some real management issues that need to be worked on. Dinner was a fiasco. All levels of service were not up to what you would expect. Bar tending, table service and food all need to be worked on. For example there is an extensive wine list but we were down to our fifth choice before we found a bottle that was actually in stock. I would stay here again but I would eat somewhere else. It suffered by comparison to the quality of food and service we had received in Plockton, and it was more expensive.

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    Day 8 - Last day and three gardens left to see. Left in the morning and drove to Glenarn. This is a private garden in Rhu. If you are into Rhodo’s you have to go here. It is not well sign posted but worth the hunt. This garden is smaller than some of the other gardens I have visited on this trip but there are just as many plants in it!! Even though it might seem a slightly less remote location several red deer ran right in front of me as I toured the garden. The garden contains several plants that have been declared Champion trees by the UK Tree Register. This means they have been judged to be the largest version of this plant anywhere in the UK. There is a natural burn running through the garden and they have used this gully to maximum advantage. There are a variety of walking trails up and down through the garden so you can see it from every vantage point. This is a spring garden only but gets a 5/5. Allow 60 to 90 minutes depending on your level of addiction. Payment by honour system so make sure you have change with you.

    Driving north around the Loch I came to Ardkinglas. This is a woodland garden for the whole family. There are a nice variety of Rhodos but also very interesting woodland hike with a large salmon stream and an old stone mill. I was happy touring as a gardener but can see where kids would love running through here and it will be interesting all year round because of variety of plant material. This garden contains 5 Champion trees, meaning they are the tallest example of their species as well as the tallest tree in Britain. You can feel the strength of time when you stand in this grove. As a stop I would say it is a 4.5/5, as a garden I would give it 3.5/5. You will need at least 2 hours.

    Around the top of the loch and down south again you will come to Crarae, about 11 miles south of Inverary. This route takes you past Loch Fyne Oyster bar which is supposed to be quite good although not up my alley. Crarae is another woodland garden. It has many similarities to Ardkinglas in that there is a natural water feature running all the way through it. This is a narrower river but with more active waterfall type scenery and layers of Rhodos all over slopes. This garden was also quite heavily damaged during the wind storms of 2011 but they are working quite hard to rehabilitate these areas. I would give the garden a 4/5, allow 2 hours, maybe more as the forest paths open up again.

    If anyone is still reading I hope this trip report will be of use when planning a trip. Mostly I think it is a real tragedy that these beautiful gardens are putting on this world class show and were not packed with people. If you like gardening do yourself a favour and head to the west coast of Scotland.

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    This is a fantastic report, highly detailed and well-written.

    Too bad about the poor hotel experience. You went very early in the season, when new staff are being trained and the winter still being shaken off. I had a similarly dreadful time at the Jasper Park Lodge in the Canadian Rockies, though I was given a free night when I complained.

    Many places that are highly seasonal depend on overseas or student help to get through their busy seasons (we kept running into New Zealanders in the Highlands) and getting them trained is a real issue. Many restaurants here in Nantucket use Restaurant Week as a kind of soft opening in June -- less expensive meals, but the quality of service may leave something or a lot to be desired.

    Places with large numbers of East Europeans on staff have a lot of trouble because there is, for obvious reasons, not a big tradition of service in formerly Communist countries, so employees have a lot to learn. Good management knows that and gives them the time and training.

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    Kinlock, excellent report with very detailed information.
    Agree with what Ackislander says – it was early in the season.

    We also went to Scotland in mid May some years back – really chilly. We asked in Pitlochery, “Where are all the hanging baskets as one sees all over Ireland?” Were told it was too early. But it is a lovely place.

    Thanks for sharing...

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    I must say that overall I had great hotel experiences. All accommodations were excellent and only one negative restaurant experience out of 8 meals out. The staff at Loch Melfort and Plockton both had some eastern Europeans who were excellently trained and friendly efficient servers. Thanks for taking the time to read my report. It is fun remembering the trip.

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