Scotland holidays: Exploring the Caledonian Canal on a floating family adventure

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There aren’t many canal holidays where you feel tempted to take a plunge over the side — then do. Not only is this canal a mile wide in parts but you can also swim in much of it since it’s perfectly clean (if not very warm).

There is just one underwater hazard worth looking out for, though it failed to appear all week when we were there. Perhaps Nessie was on holiday, too.

Now celebrating its 200th anniversary, the Caledonian Canal is an astonishing feat of Georgian engineering. It was in 1822 that the waterway opened to save ships a long and often perilous voyage around the top of Great Britain. Instead, Thomas Telford built a series of waterways linking the lochs between Inverness in the east and Fort William to the west, creating a safe, 60-mile shortcut between the North Sea and the Atlantic, via the most dramatic scenery.

Robert Hardman's voyage through Scotland's Caledonian Canal begins at Laggan Locks, pictured above

Robert Hardman’s voyage through Scotland’s Caledonian Canal begins at Laggan Locks, pictured above 

All aboard: Robert and his daughter navigating the Caledonian Canal aboard 'Magnifique'

All aboard: Robert and his daughter navigating the Caledonian Canal aboard ‘Magnifique’ 

Modern shipping is far too big for the locks between the lochs. But it is perfect for a holiday in one of the comfortable, idiot-proof motor cruisers available from canal holiday specialists, Le Boat.

Because these channels are big enough for a small ship, Le Boat’s vessels are roomy — just as well when you are a party like ours — three adults, four children (aged between nine and 14) and a dog.

Called Magnifique, our cruiser had four double cabins, three bathrooms, showers and a saloon seating up to ten next to a kitchen with two fridges. There was also central heating, a TV and DVD player.

You can drive the boat from inside or out and the controls are dead simple. With a top speed of 6mph, the pace is sedate. 

Loch Oich, pictured above, is the highest stretch of the canal route from Laggan Locks

Loch Oich, pictured above, is the highest stretch of the canal route from Laggan Locks

We picked up Magnifique at Laggan Locks. Since it is in the middle of the canal system, you can go off in either direction. We decided to head towards Loch Ness and, in no time, found ourselves on Loch Oich, the highest stretch of the route.

We tied up at a jetty near Invergarry and the children were straight over the side. We had brought our own inflatable canoe and off they paddled to inspect a nearby island. Very Swallows And Amazons.

For our first evening, we walked into the village for supper at the Invergarry Hotel, a family-friendly joint with a well-run bistro and a kids menu for £6.95.

Fort Augustus, pictured, is the handsome town at the western end of Loch Ness - and a good spot for stocking up on supplies

Fort Augustus, pictured, is the handsome town at the western end of Loch Ness – and a good spot for stocking up on supplies

Urquhart Castle facing out towards Loch Ness. 'This is your classic Scottish castle, a fabulous relic of clan warfare and marauding between the 13th and 17th centuries,' says Robert

 Urquhart Castle facing out towards Loch Ness. ‘This is your classic Scottish castle, a fabulous relic of clan warfare and marauding between the 13th and 17th centuries,’ says Robert 

The Caledonian Canal is an astonishing feat of Georgian engineering, says Robert

The Caledonian Canal is an astonishing feat of Georgian engineering, says Robert 

The next day, we reached Fort Augustus, the handsome town at the western end of Loch Ness (and a good spot for stocking up on supplies). Here the canal descends via five locks through the town.

All the locks and swing bridges on the Caledonian Canal are operated by full-time lock-keepers. 

So all you have to do is throw them a couple of ropes and then make sure you have one person at the front and one at the back — either letting the rope out or pulling it in, as the boat rises or falls. 

Emerging into Loch Ness felt like sailing out to sea. It is Britain’s biggest stretch of inland water and you cannot see from one end to the other. Even in high season, it was gloriously empty and we had a delightful three-hour voyage to the little harbour at Urquhart Bay, just beyond the ruins of Urquhart Castle.

Now run by Historic Scotland, this is your classic Scottish castle, a fabulous relic of clan warfare and marauding between the 13th and 17th centuries.

On the day we turned up, a re-enactor took us through his terrifying array of Highland warrior weaponry which had the children gripped, especially when it turned out that the average soldier would have to cook his porridge in his helmet before going into battle. We had a four-ring hob.

After cruising through Loch Ness, Robert and his family turn towards Fort William and Ben Nevis (pictured)

After cruising through Loch Ness, Robert and his family turn towards Fort William and Ben Nevis (pictured) 

According to Robert, outdoor adventure outfit Active Highs organises trips down the rapids cascading from Loch Garry, pictured above

 According to Robert, outdoor adventure outfit Active Highs organises trips down the rapids cascading from Loch Garry, pictured above 

TRAVEL FACTS

A seven-night self-catered cruise starting and finishing at Laggan in the Highlands is from £789 per boat (leboat.co.uk). Tickets to Urquhart Castle (historicenviroment.scot) £9.60 for adults, £5.80 children.

White water rafting with Active Highs from £65 pp (activehighs.co.uk). For reservations at The Whispering Pine, visit blacksheephotels.com.

 

This is the heart of Nessie country, with many sightings of the monster reported in this part of the loch. In the joyously named village of Drumnadrochit, half an hour’s walk from the harbour, there are places to eat and, rather amusingly, two rival Loch Ness Monster visitor centres.

One was closed for flood repairs but we had a jolly hour in Nessieland, an endearingly homespun exhibition with somewhat dated exhibits — well worth a look.

Just beyond the top end of Loch Ness we tied up in Dochgarroch, from where it’s a short bus or taxi ride into Inverness.

Now cruising the other way, towards Fort William and Ben Nevis, we stopped off for an afternoon’s white water rafting with Active Highs, the main outdoor adventure outfit in these parts. They organise trips down the rapids cascading from Loch Garry, using ten-man rubber boats steered by a pro. It is a mix of paddling like mad and just clinging on. It’s not for the nervous but my lot all loved it.

On the shores of Loch Lochy, we had our best meal of the trip at the Whispering Pine Hotel and Spa. Renovated by the India-based Mars group, it combines Scottish and Indian cuisine, with neeps, tatties, biryanis and Mulmuly kebabs (chicken and cheese) — plus 35 malt whiskies.

Finally, we reached the outskirts of Fort William with the Atlantic in the distance. But without a spare day to descend Neptune’s Staircase, the eight locks which take you down to sea level, we had an ice cream and headed back to Laggan.

We had cruised 120 miles and gone to bed (and woken up) in some of the most magical settings I can recall. We never did see Nessie. Nor, I’m glad to say, did we encounter that other local monster — the midge. 

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