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A secret slice of serenity

On the A815 from Cairndow, just round a tight bend on the approach to Strachur sits a large, brown road sign.

Portavadie Marina is situated in a man-made lagoon blasted out when the Labour government attempted to cash in on the North Sea oil boom
Portavadie Marina is situated in a man-made lagoon blasted out when the Labour government attempted to cash in on the North Sea oil boom

To the casual passer-by it might seem unremarkable, a portent of the region's budding tourist industry. Yet to two expectant travellers and one weary toddler it is a welcome staging post on a serpentine, 70-mile trip to Portavadie, situated on the remote heel of Argyll.

Billed as the secret coast, the anecdotal evidence certainly backs that claim as we traverse single-track lanes, mountain passes and coastal roads on our journey.

"Portavadie is where people escape to - to relax, unwind and enjoy it all," Bridgeen Mullen, my point of contact, had told me a few weeks before departure.

The marina, situated in a man-made lagoon blasted out when the Labour government attempted to cash in on the North Sea oil boom, is the brain child of Carole Jagielko, nee Bulloch, of the famous Loch Lomond distillery family and it is clear that no expense has been spared. The complex is straight from the set of a James Bond movie with its modern glass-fronted buildings, manicured lawns and expensive boats.

There is a sense of grandeur yet the mantra is affordable luxury and it is the little, seemingly inconsequential, details that stand out for a young family such as ours: children squeal with pleasure as they roll around in a water orb, a litter of swans patrols the marina looking for food and an Australian family plays cricket on a makeshift pitch.

A 40ft yacht quietly slices its way into the marina, its sedate progress evoking a calmness that permeates the complex. The sun has come out and as my son, James, and I build sandcastles while my wife, Helen, enjoys a pedicure and facial at the spa, tranquil music fills the air around the walkways. Urban life is confined to memory.

Back in our luxury apartment the nautical theme is continued, a porthole-shaped window frames Loch Fyne and Arran, a sea of light floods the apartment, while masthead-style supports create the impression of being on board a boat. As we sit on the balcony sipping tea while James tries on his generously provided pirate costume, it is hard not to feel supremely pleased with life.

The next morning at breakfast a group of sailors inform us they have been coming to Portavadie for five years; "ever since it opened" they conclude. Their conversation is instructive - everyone we have met so far, from the receptionist who checked us in to Jennifer, our trip co-ordinator, tells us the same thing. "It is a place people keep coming back to . . ."

As we tuck into a full Scottish, it's tempting to conclude that they return for the restaurant's superb black pudding alone.

The Morag sits at Tighnabruaich Pier chugging smoke into the clouds above. Donald Clark, our captain, is a natural raconteur. Once a naval commander at nearby Faslane, today 'DC' splits his time between his boat trips business and serving the local RLNI.

Emergencies notwithstanding, he travels the Kyles of Bute three times a day, offering a variety of sightseeing and fishing trips to small parties. Over steaming mugs of coffee, DC shifts seamlessly from the Viking invasion to the hilarity of a sunken urn during a cremation service at sea. "Next, we're going to see a camel, a Komodo dragon and, hopefully, some seals," he adds with a playful smile appearing on his lips.

At one cove, he hands over his binoculars and points to a large house on a hill. It's owned by a local sculptor. Perched on a rock close to the shore is a carved dragon while the sloping garden plays host to a wooden camel. Further on, a female seal - this one of flesh and blood - lounges on a small rock formation just jutting into the sea. She is unperturbed by our presence; she has, after all, seen Donald's boat before.

As The Morag nears home, there is still time for a spot of straight-line fishing. A rod is plonked overboard and we simply wait. The mackerel start to pile up. James and Helen pluck three while Jennifer adds to the bucketload now forming. Finally, I land three of my own. Most of the fish are tossed back but some have tails lopped off and others are gutted. James wriggles past his mother in order to take a closer look.

The imagery is startling and also a reminder that fishing is a way of life for people of the region.

Back at Portavadie, after a leisurely stroll from the main drag we eat dinner at The Lodge. Alasdair, Portavadie's catering manager, informs us that a personal favourite is the gammon steak with fried egg and mustard. It is a shrewd choice. The gammon is juicy and salty with crispy edges, the egg yolk is sunset orange. James's portion of spaghetti bolognese is perfectly sized and Alasdair lets us in on a trade secret. "The chef tends to have a quick look to gauge how big the dish should be". It is this attention to detail, like a fresh plate of pastries on arrival or a signpost guiding the way, that has characterised our stay and makes Portavadie a home from home.

"When are we going back?" James asks as we leave the marina in our rearview mirror. "Soon, son, soon," I reply.

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