My wife and I have taken a lot of boating holidays over the last few years, all of which until this summer had been on narrowboats on the canal system. Having made our first booking through a Hoseasons brochure, we read about all of the other places you could get afloat. The Norfolk Broads is one of these, but even more excitingly, we read that you could go right into the Scottish Highlands and then travel among them on the water. We told ourselves that one day we would have to do this, and now we have!
Caley Cruisers has been established in Inverness for about forty years. It's a well thought of firm, which has even assisted in searching Loch Ness for its elusive monster! They operate a fleet of 30 motor cruisers in 9 different boat classes.
In common with most boat hire firms, Caley hire their vessels by the week (7 nights) and also for short breaks (3 or 4 nights). Prices range according to the season, with the high season being in the school summer holidays, as you would expect. We saw a lot of their boats on our journey, and it certainly seems that they update the fleet on a regular basis and look after their craft well. Caley boats compared to other firms on the Caledonian Canal very well indeed. For their smallest boat, the Iona class, measuring 30 feet by 11, prices in 2009 went between £476 and £803 for a week and between £345 and £562 for a short break. Their biggest and most expensive class, the Balmoral, 38 feet by 13, costs between £1216 and £1911 for a week, with short breaks starting at £852.
We went on a Mull of Kintyre, which is a smart, modern cruiser, 31 feet by 11'6'', and it cost £1103 in high season for our week. Prices for Mull start at £618 for a week, and range between £435 and £765 for a short break. Mull will accommodate up to five people, but three looked like the most comfortable, as with five you have either to convert the dining table, or get very cosy indeed at night time! There were just two of us, so we were very comfortable.
All the boats come very well equipped, so you will be provided with these things:
*Gas cooker, with gas usage included in the overall price
*Fridge - a bit on the small side, but with a little freezer compartment
*Buoyancy aids - including life belts and life jackets
*Hot & cold running water
*Shower & vacuum toilet, which you operate by a pump handle, which flushes the loo with water from the canal of the loch, but then holds everything in a large tank for the boatyard to deal with.
*Warm air central heating - we didn't need this as we had good weather safety equipment
*12v cigarette lighter connection (useful also for charging mobile phones)
*Full tank of diesel - no refuelling required. You pay a fuel deposit for this, a hefty £200 in our case, and £250 for the bigger boats. That seemed a bit steep at the time of booking, as most boat hire firms charge around £80-£90, and some still do not make a separate fuel charge. (Firms have started to do this now that boat fuel attracts the same high taxes as road fuel). We travelled up and down the whole canal and were careful about how we used the engine, so got a nice and immediate refund of £125 when we returned the boat.
*Plenty of cutlery, crockery and utensils
*Information and documentation (There was an excellent detailed pictorial cruising guide, providing information about locks, swing bridges, mooring and correct passage through buoyed channels, as well as features on the route. Also supplied was a nice gazetteer of places to visit on the way.)
Different boats have a selection of different extra features, including:
*Dual steering, allowing you to be either inside or outside the boat when under way. We didn't have this, which was fine when it rained, but I am used to being in the open air on the back of a narrowboat, so missed it a bit.
*Microwave (not on our boat) *Hair dryer *Toaster *Stereo radio/cassette, cd payer
*240v supply through Inverter
*Electrical hook-up (This means you can plug the boat in to onshore electrical supplies. If the boat doesn't move much, the batteries can get run down, especially if you use electricity quite a bit, but cruising for a few hours each day ensured that we always had our batteries well charged.)
*TV/DVD (We didn't have this, and didn't miss it.)
You can get a good look at the boats on the website. Cruisers are very different from narrowboats, so our first sight of Mull was quite a surprise. You get on at the stern and walk straight into a generous sized room, which take up most of the boat. That room is your galley and saloon (boat-speak for kitchen/diner) and also the place from where you steer the boat, so almost like the twin front seat of a car. Then you go both forward and down to find a compact bathroom on one side, and a bedroom on the other, with a typical boat double of 4 feet wide. Right in the bows is more sleeping accommodation, which puts heads apart and feet together! Obviously you can reverse this, but run the risk of bumping you head if you get up without thinking. The engine was easily accessible for daily checks under the floor in the main room. At the stern of the boat was a nice outdoor seating area which also contained the gas locker (calor) and the fenders that you attach to the side of the boat when mooring to protect the sides.
Caley Cruisers ask you to arrive from midday for the first Safety Briefing. This means that you have to plan your journey to Inverness carefully, but luckily the drive there, although long, is straightforward up the brilliantly engineered A9. Secure car parking is provided at the boatyard. It's easily accessible by rail and air, too. The Safety Briefing consists of a DVD, which you can also see on the website, and then a question and answer session. You are then shown around your boat, and taken up and down a short stretch to get used to handling the boat, particularly turning and mooring. Our boat had the luxury of bow thrusters, which made manoeuvring really easy. After loading up, boats travelled in convoy for the first few miles up the first canal section to the first lock, just to check that everyone was happy with sailing.
Where you go
Inverness is at the head of the Great Glen, and the Caledonian Canal was built in the early 19th century to enable quite large boats to avoid having to sail around the top of Scotland. The canal uses Lochs Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy and adds about 25 miles of artificial cut to make a total length of nearly 60 miles. Hire boats can't use the final two or three miles at each end, as these will take you out to the sea or to sea lochs. It would be possible to bash down to Banavie (very near Fot William) and back in four days, but the idea of a boating holiday is also that you relax, so a week was really nice. By the end of the first day, you have sampled Loch Ness. When we went, the waters were quite choppy. This was a bit alarming, but we soon realised that the boat was strong and stable, and could cope with the three-foot waves. As we have only steered narrowboats, which go on calm waters, apart from rivers, this was a new experience! Mooring for the first night for almost everyone is at the picturesque Urquhart Bay, just around the corner from the famous castle, which will have been seen by many motorist as they speed up the A82. From here, Drumnadrochit is about a mile and a half away, so worth a walk. It's very touristy there, with TWO Loch Ness monster exhibitions, and hundreds of souvenirs - little green cuddly Nessies, chocolate bagpipes, etc. Sailing Loch Ness takes about four hours in all, going at around 6 MPH. We found that the best way to enjoy it was to have a Ordnance Survey 1:25000 Explorer map to hand, so that we could look out for natural features and understand the land we were going through. Of course, we looked all the time for monsters, we one did not appear. Loch Ness is very deep and has a base of liquid peat, so she might easily hide there...
At the end of Loch Ness you get to Fort Augustus. Caley's cruising guide advised us to look out and aim for the spire of a former Benedictine Abbey to make sure that we went up the canal rather than the River Oich. This was not too hard to do, and then, after the majestic quiet of Loch Ness, we found ourselves in the busy main street of Fort Augustus, which appeared to have been built up around the canal. There is a spectacular staircase flight of five locks there, on either side of which are lots of interesting shops. It's a great place for gongoozlers (those who love to watch canal boats going past, especially through locks), and also a very popular tourist spot, so much so that it was hard to hear any Scottish voices, and it felt like we could have been anywhere in Europe. In common with the practice on other Scottish waterways, locks and bridges and operated by British Waterways staff. These are almost all moved electronically. The locks are big - about 150 feet by 40 - so very different from narrow English canals, but the lockkeepers are helpful and make it clear what they would like you to do. Most of the time, we were sharing locks with other boats, which made for nice opportunities to meet people and have a chat. That's a feature that is common on the waterways anyway - other boaters are good to meet, and passers-by often ask interesting questions.
After Fort Augusts, you go through the second bit of real canal, and pass through two really pretty locks - Kytra and Cullochy. Mountains start to appear, with Ben Tee particularly striking and pointed straight above Cullochy Lock. We moored at Cullochy on the way back, and enjoyed several walks along the canal. One was to a lovely old river suspension bridge, the Bridge of Oich. In the other direction, we found dozens of delicious wild raspberries just there for the taking.
Loch Oich comes next. This is very pretty, and on a much smaller scale than Loch Ness, but also very shallow, so you have to keep carefully to the centre, where the dredged channel is, and make sure you go the right side of the buoys. We had a little problem here on the way back as a vital buoy was missing, so we ran aground! There was no danger, and we just telephoned the boatyard, who sent out a motorised dinghy to pull us safely off. We had a nice mooring on Loch Oich for our second night, near to the Well of the Seven Heads, site of a grisly story of 17th century retribution, but also by a very useful general store. Nearby also is another castle.
Or third day took us through the astonishing artificial cut of Laggan Avenue, a stretch of canal that had been very difficult for Telford and his army of workers to construct, and which now is attractively lined with Scottish firs. At Laggan Locks, there was the opportunity to have a pint or two on a floating pub. This was followed by Loch Lochy, which is another big one, about half the size of Loch Ness, and also reputed to house a monster - Lizzie! At the southern end, you aim for a little white lighthouse, which then takes you into the final canal section, leading to Banavie. Halfway along, you begin to become aware of even bigger mountains than those already seen, and it is very exciting when you confirm that you are looking at Ben Nevis and the surrounding high peaks. Most of the time, the top of the Ben was surrounded by cloud, but we were lucky enough to see the summit for a few hours while we were there.
Having got to journey's end, we then walked down to the amazing Neptune's Staircase. This is a staircase flight of no less than eight locks, unique in Britain. From Banavie it is easy to get into Fort William, either on foot or by train or bus. At this point in the journey, it is easy to build in a day for exploring, so there are many choices. Climbing Ben Nevis is one - which I intend to go back and do. We took the bus to Mallaig on the west coast, and came back on the Jacobite steam train, which made a great day out.
Unlike on the canals, where you can moor for the night virtually anywhere you like, there are only a few specified places to tie up. These are often well equipped with water points, showers and loos, which are good to use instead of your boat's facilities as it saves on gas, water and pump-out.
This was all that we hoped for and more. If you haven't been to the Scottish Highlands, then you should. Although Inverness is a long way from anywhere in England and from much of Scotland, the drive to it is also highly attractive, so that's a hidden bonus.
We sometimes enjoyed a few miles at the end of the day, either along the canal, or, using maps, around the area we had stopped at. Scotland has a fairly new policy on open access to almost all parts, so as long as you behave sensibly you can go almost anywhere. I particularly enjoyed going to the very ends of the canal. At Inverness, the last quarter of a mile is built out on an artificial promontory. I went there as the sun was setting, and there was a lovely sky looking across to the Black Isle. At the souther end of the canal, I walked down to the sea lock at Corpach where I met a yachtsman who had just tied up. "Have you come far?" I asked. "Oh yes," he replied, "from Los Angeles!". We saw a good number of yachts and other sea-going craft, including many from Scandinavia. Apparently, many of these come through the Caledonian Canal on their way to the Bahamas - nice work if you can get it!
We thought the boat was great, and that Caley Cruisers was an excellent firm. Staff members were always positive and helpful, and we felt well looked after. If you enjoy boating holidays, then this is a really good one, and a bit different from everything else in Great Britain.
Boating holidays in Scotland. Discover the Caledonian Canal!