From Highlands to Islands: Exploring Mull, Iona and Staffa with West Coast Tours
After spending 2 days exploring the Isle of Skye, we were keen to see more of the Inner Hebrides and were delighted to be invited on a day of island hopping run by West Coast Tours. Their popular Three Islands Tour
We were asked to arrive at the West Coast Motors office in Oban at 9am, but we got to Oban an hour early to find a parking place (the Rockfield Centre carpark is 2 minutes walk away and only £5 for the day) and grab some breakfast. Café Shore on Station Road served Lorne sausage baps – the delicious thick square slabs of sausage that we discovered in Grantown on Spey last year.
Once we were checked off a list at West Coast Motors, we were given a voucher to show to the ferry port to receive our boat tickets, which you’ll also show to your bus driver once you arrive on Mull to make sure that you board the right vehicle. West Coast run a number of different itineraries, and you don’t want to end up getting whisked off to Tobermory, beautiful as it looks!
It was very exciting to be in a departures lounge again at last, isn’t it fantastic that we can do tourist activities now? The ferry from Oban to Craignure on Mull took about 45 minutes and was very smooth. You can either take a comfy seat in the restaurant or lounge areas or get some fresh air and views up on deck. We saw gannets diving and guillemots bobbing on the water, and at the far side, our bus, a double decker with air conditioning, was waiting for us.
The journey across Mull was about an hour and 20 minutes long through stunning scenery, and our driver played an audio guide which pointed out geological points of interest and historic facts about the tiny villages we passed through. The interior of Mull is incredibly green, scattered with lochs and carved into swooping valleys and hills by ancient glaciers and volcanoes.
The bus drops you at the little port of Fionnphort, surrounded by glowing pink granite rocks and turquoise blue water – very different to the bleak craggy landscapes we’d seen on Skye.
Top tip, use the toilet block at Fionnphort (you’ll need 20p) as there aren’t any on the Staffa boat or Staffa itself so you won’t get a chance to go again until you get to Iona!!
As soon as we boarded the boat to Staffa, the captain warned us that it was most likely too rough to land on the island itself, but that he would make sure that we still saw lots of puffins. The half hour journey across took us past seals sleeping on rocks and as we approached the island, we could see the famous basalt columns that give Staffa its name, chosen by the Vikings because of the wooden staves they used in their buildings. If you’ve been to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or Reynisfjara beach in Iceland then you’ll recognise these hexagonal rock formations.
Right in front of us was Fingal’s Cave, the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture when he visited in the 1820s – the huge arched entrance with waves crashing inside so inspired him that he scribbled down the opening melody on the spot! It’s absolutely massive, stretching some 250 feet back into the rock, and as we bobbed in front of the cave, our captain played the overture through the boat’s speakers which was very atmospheric. Once you’ve finished reading this, go and listen to the Overture, close your eyes and imagine big waves – the ‘world painting’ is superb! Speaking of painting, the island has inspired many other creatives from J. M. W Turner to Jules Verne.
Sadly, our boat crew decided that the sea was in fact too rough to land on Staffa, which was a shame as we’d have loved to have sat on the cliffs and watched the puffins, but on a positive note the big waves looked fantastic smashing into the cave. Our captain took us around the sheltered eastern side of the islands where we found hundreds of puffins both in the water and whizzing overhead with beaks full of sand eels.
The first 10 minutes of the ride back across was very bouncy, like a bucking bronco as the boat rolled in the big waves, but it was good fun and we always felt safe. I’m sure the boat crew have been out in far worse! Instead of going back to Fionnphort the Staffa Tours crew drop you at Iona, the third Western Isle on the trip.
Ordinarily the tour allows for 2 hours of free time on Iona, but another positive of not landing on Staffa meant that we had some extra time on the island -closer to 3 hours. Iona is home to a medieval nunnery, a magnificent abbey, a couple of hotels with tempting beer gardens and some beautiful scenery. Like Northumberland’s Lindisfarne and Caldey Island in Tenby, Wales, Iona is one of Britain’s holy islands and was where St Columba landed in the 6th century, before introducing Christianity to Scotland.
While the Abbey was only open to pre booked tours, we enjoyed looking at it from the outside and also wandering through the ruined Augustine nunnery, one of most complete Medieval nunneries in Britain. Next to the Abbey is Reilig Odhráin, an ancient burial ground and the legendary final resting place of early Scottish and Norse kings, including, allegedly, Macbeth, and more recently Labour Party leader John Smith.
Apart from its religious buildings, Iona has some stunning stretches of white sand, an old quarry to explore, and plenty of nature to walk through. Being close to the Gulf Stream, Iona is very mild, and in summer the wild flowers are everywhere. Listen out for corncrakes, one of Britain’s rarest birds, who thrive on Iona in summer before heading back to Africa in colder months.
If you’re all walked out, we would definitely recommend stopping for a drink in the Argyll Hotel’s divine beer garden. Sitting with a cold glass of wine, watching the boats bob on the blue Iona sound and listening to the oystercatchers call to each other is unbelievably relaxing. If only that was our local, we’d sit there every evening in summer!
All too soon it was 17:15 and time to catch the tiny ferry for an 8 minute journey back across Iona Sound to Fionnphort and our waiting bus, which then retraced the 35 miles or so back to Craignure. We had a different driver this time who was more experienced and so elected to give his own narration on the journey back, rather than playing an audio tape like the morning driver. This was peppered with personal anecdotes and really brought the island to life, plus he had keen eyes when it came to wildlife and helped to point out a short-eared owl floating across the valley and red deer up on the hillside.
The ferry back to Oban left at about 19:30, and as we sat watching Gannets dive into the waters as we ate fish and chips in the restaurant, we felt very grateful to be exploring again. It felt like such a win to be back doing an organised tour at last! Everything was very slick, transport connections were easily lined up and we always felt safe – face masks were required on the buses and below decks on the ferry, but not on the Staffa boat (it was virtually all outside seating and easy to space out).
The West Coast Tours Three Islands Tour is a fantastic way to get a really good taste of the Inner Hebrides, especially if you’re short on time, but never felt rushed. It would also be a great add on if you’re already exploring the west coast of Scotland, and it has definitely sold Mull to us – we’d love to come back and spend more time there, and to visit Tobermory with its rainbow houses. And we need another stab at spotting a white tailed eagle and landing on Staffa!
Thank you again for having us, West Coast Tours!
We’ll finish up with some top tips for joining this tour:
Arrive in Oban early, long stay parking seems to be limited (most of the street parking looked like 2 hours max) and you won’t be back until close to 8:30pm so you’ll need somewhere you can leave the car all day.
Pack lunch/snacks/drinks – there is a restaurant on the Ferry to and from Mull where you can buy food, but once you’re on the islands you won’t see a shop until Iona, at about 3pm.
Bring wet gear! As with anywhere in Scotland the weather is prone to quick changes, and the boat to Staffa can be rather splashy if the waves are big. We wore our raincoats and “wet legs” (Kagool trousers) and definitely needed them on the Staffa tour.
Wear suitable shoes – while you’ll be sat on a boat/ferry for a chunk of the day, if you’re lucky enough to land on Staffa then the rocks around Fingal’s Cave can be slippery. David wore hiking boots and I wore walking trainers as my boots were still wet from rainy Skye, both were fine for the day.
Don’t forget binoculars- From red deer, otters, short eared owls and Sea Eagles on Mull to puffins, guillemots and porpoises at Staffa, there is so much beautiful wildlife to look out for on this trip!
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Disclaimer - we were kindly offered two places on the Three Islands Tour by West Coast Tours in return for writing this blog and posting on Instagram, but as always all opinions are our own and this is an accurate and honest account of our day!