Forget Cornwall, Oban is Scotland's answer to the perfect seaside getaway

Richard Franks
·5-min read
Village of Oban, Scotland - Getty
Village of Oban, Scotland - Getty

From the airy, open windows of my Junior Suite at the Oban Bay Hotel, I gaze across the calming sea. A cool breeze drifts salty air around the room as I hone in on the faint squeak of oystercatchers wading further along the bay. To the west, the isle of Kerrera is partly eclipsed by a passing Caledonian MacBrayne ship; to the east, a dreamy tangerine sunset slowly descends behind Lismore’s craggy landscape – the previous evening the sky had been aglow in violet, proof that no two days on Scotland’s west coast are ever the same.

Coincidentally, my suite – a regally retro room with a four-poster bed, freestanding bathtub, vintage telephone and, of course, Tunnock’s teacakes – is also called Kerrera, the bonny isle I can see from my window. It’s true that Scotland’s west coast allures like no other and Oban is its pearl.

Yes, Oban may not be blessed with stretches of white sandy beaches like its Hebridean neighbours or those on England’s South West coast, but what it lacks in bathing spots it more than makes up for in adventure. With its very own mini rainforest to explore, epic coastline trails to hug and kayaking, fishing and wildlife-spotting trips to immerse yourself in, it’s Scotland’s hidden seaside gem.

Crowd-free attractions

Across the hillside north of Oban, Dunollie Wood, also known as Scotland’s Rainforest (woodlandtrust.org.uk), twinkles in the destination’s crown. One of just five designated temperate rainforests along the west coast, this site alone is a protected area for more than 200 species of bryophytes and lichens, with rare red squirrels and enigmatic tawny owls often spotted too. And unlike Cornwall’s leading eco-attraction, the Eden Project, the gravel footpaths here are often deserted, saved from a few pesky midges.

Creeper-covered Dunollie Castle overlooking one of Scotland's temperate rainforests, near Oban - Getty
Creeper-covered Dunollie Castle overlooking one of Scotland's temperate rainforests, near Oban - Getty

Visit when it’s raining (this is Scotland after all) and you’ll be welcomed by the sweet scent of the low-lying bluebells, along with the nostalgic smell of petrichor. If you’re lucky, you’ll wander the trails under the watch of the hulking great eyes of stern, mottled tawny owls, which patrol the lush canopy of the centuries-old trees – only in Scotland can you plod across a dappled rainforest above a fishing town.

Bountiful day trips

In Oban there’s wildlife aplenty on land and sea. In ‘normal’ times, Staffa Tours’ most popular trip, a joint visit to the puffin colony on Lunga and Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, is bookable including return travel from Oban (staffatours.com). But for now, restricted passenger capacity means they can only offer this trip from ferry ports at Tobermory on Mull, or Kilchoan in West Ardnamurchan.

Group of Atlantic Puffins on the isles of Scotland (photo taken in Oban) - Getty
Group of Atlantic Puffins on the isles of Scotland (photo taken in Oban) - Getty

But don’t be deterred, Oban is an ideal base for such day trips from these ports – a 50-minute CalMac ferry crossing to Craignure, followed by a 30-minute drive will get you to Tobermory, or a two-and-a-half hour drive will get you from Oban to Kilchoan, with time left to explore (calmac.co.uk).

If opting for the latter, savour the drive if you can. Leave early, give yourself plenty of time and cruise those single track roads at the speed of a tractor towing an agricultural trailer. The vistas are worth revelling in, and even more so are the views across Harp Rock on Lunga – the jaunt across uneven cliff-edge paths is worth it for the sights and sounds of 8,000 huddling guillemots alone.

Take a tour around the Firth of Lorn for scenic views of Kerrera, Mull (pictured) and Lismore - Getty
Take a tour around the Firth of Lorn for scenic views of Kerrera, Mull (pictured) and Lismore - Getty

For those short on time, Staffa Tours have launched a new sightseeing tour departing from Oban. “Our new, two-hour tour explores the Firth of Lorn, with scenic views of the islands of Kerrera, Mull and Lismore,” said Staffa Tours’ Zena Henderson. “The tour looks to showcase the area’s exceptional array of wildlife, with sightings of porpoise, otters and white-tailed sea eagles. If you get lucky, you might be able to spot a pair of eagles soaring over Dunollie Wood."

Adventurous outings

Those keen to get even closer to the water can do just that with Sea Kayak Oban (seakayakoban.com), which offers everything from kayaking day trips to canoeing qualifications. A less strenuous approach is to head out with Argyll Sea Tours (argyll-seatours.co.uk) to visit the local seal colony, go on a historic sightseeing tour or even go mackerel fishing – ideal for wild campers, who get to keep their catch.

A group of kayakers around Kererra, part of the Inner Hebrides, Scotland - Getty
A group of kayakers around Kererra, part of the Inner Hebrides, Scotland - Getty

Hidden coves and secluded beaches

Staycationers craving the sand beneath their toes needn’t feel disheartened by all this exploration though. Ganavan Sands, a lovely, secluded beach with clear waters and views out to Mull and Lismore, is a mere five-or-so-minute drive from the harbour in Oban. Adjacent to the beach runs a five-mile circular path which clings to the heady coastline, unearths a hidden cove, passes around the grounds of Dunstaffnage Castle and returns to the beach again. It’s an exhilarating walk across boggy land and fading grassways with various unmarked paths.

Ganavan Sands, Scotland - Richard Franks
Ganavan Sands, Scotland - Richard Franks

And for afters? One of the nation's oldest single malt Scotch whisky distilleries sits beside Oban’s hillside, just a short walk from two of the best seafood joints in the country, Oban Seafood Hut and Ee-Usk (eeusk.com).

Essentials

Richard Franks was a guest of the Oban Bay Hotel in Oban, Scotland. Doubles from £153 per night; visit crerarhotels.com to book. Well-behaved dogs are welcome. For more ideas on where to stay, see our complete guide to the best hotels in Scotland.