WHICHEVER way you arrive in Fort William from the south – by car, train or on foot – the approach, via the brooding splendour of Glen Coe, then along the banks of Loch Linnhe, is utterly spectacular.

Britain’s highest mountain famously towers above this bustling Lochaber town, which has long been Scotland’s outdoor capital, a year-round hub for walkers, mountaineers, skiers, mountain bikers and watersports enthusiasts.

Often, however, Fort William is viewed as a place to leave from, pass through or sleep in rather than a destination worthy of exploration in itself, despite having a vibrant history and culture, some great local produce and improving facilities.

Historical highlights

The original wooden fort was built in 1654 during Oliver’s Cromwell’s invasion as a base for English troops to “pacify” the locals (including Clan Cameron). After the Glorious Revolution, it was rebuilt in stone and named Fort William, after William of Orange. Originally the town that grew up around the fort was known as Maryburgh, after Mary II, but after various changes (Gordonsburgh, Duncansburgh) it eventually settled on Fort William, or An Gearasdan – The Garrison – in Gaelic.

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An older settlement existed around Old Inverlochy Castle, which dates to the 13th century, and is the site of two battles, in 1431 and 1645.

In 1745, Fort William was besieged for two weeks by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites, but they failed to take the town.

The building of the Caledonian Canal in the early 19th century transformed Lochaber into an industrial hub, and after World War One a significant hydroelectricity project was established.

During World War Two, Fort William hosted HMS St Christopher, while nearby Spean Bridge was the training base for the first ever Commando force.

These days many of the town’s 10,000 people work in the hospitality and tourism sector or provide public services to the wider Highlands and Islands.

What to do

With its pedestrianised High Street running parallel to the banks of the loch, Fort William is easy to negotiate. Just a few steps from the railway station, the Old Fort with its remaining stone walls, archway and cannons, is a great place to start. There are also plenty of benches from which to soak up the loch views. Five minutes’ walk away, set back from the High Street is beautiful St Andrews Church. Built in the 1870, this Episcopal place of worship has a stunning interior with stained-glass windows and ceiling paintings. Nearby Duncansburgh Church, built in 1692, has attractive public gardens to the front.

A little further along the road is the West Highland Museum, which has a fascinating collection of Jacobite memorabilia – including a secret portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie – and provides an excellent insight into the lives of the people of Lochaber stretching across hundreds of years.

Around a 30-minute walk north from the railway station, on the banks of the River Lochy, sits the aforementioned Old Inverlochy Castle, a (free) must-visit for anyone interested in Scottish history. Once one of the most strategically important castles in the country, the extensive ruins tell of a turbulent and violent tale.

For those who would rather see the sights from the water, regular cruises leave from the Crannog restaurant on the waterfront. Look out for seals, dolphins, porpoise and, if the weather allows, good views of Ben Nevis. Those who prefer more adventurous water pursuits may wish to check out the white water rafting, canyoning, river tubing offered by Vertical Descents in nearby Onich.

Speaking of Ben Nevis, ticking the UK’s highest mountain off the bucketlist is a must for many visitors to Fort William. It’s not a challenge for the faint-hearted, however, and a good level of fitness and sensible planning is required to reach the summit. There are countless other beautiful walks in the area, many of which are a good bit easier. Spean Bridge-born Caroline Wilson recommends Cow Hill – Meall an t-Suidhe in Gaelic – a foothill of Ben Nevis. “I did it with my mum when she was almost 80, though she’s fairly hardy. It’s not too strenuous at all and the views over the loch are incredible." John Hutchison, from Fort William, recommends the walk thorough Glen Nevis to Steall Waterfall. “This is a very doable low-level walk to Scotland’s second highest waterfall, which has a drop of 120m,” he says. Negotiate your way across the rope bridge if you dare.

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Even those who don’t want to break a sweat at all can enjoy the majesty of the mountains with a ride on the UK’s only mountain gondola, which travels 650m up Aonach Mor. The Nevis Range offers a world-class array of snowsports in winter and mountain-biking in summer, too. If you don’t want to bring your own cycle, Off Beat Bikes, on the High Street, hires, repairs and stocks accessories for them, as well as offering expert advice on routes.

If and when the weather turns, those who have youngsters to entertain will want to make use of Fort William’s impressive Leisure Centre, which has swimming pool, squash courts and gym. The Nevis Centre on An Aird, meanwhile, is a sizeable community space with soft play, bowling and a schedule of music events throughout the year. A new cinema is due to open in the town's Cameron Square in 2020.

Where to eat

For seafood straight out of the loch, The Crannog, which is right on the waterfront and a favourite of chef Gordon Ramsay, is hard to beat. David Barrett, from London, says: "A starter of Lochaber mussels, followed by langoustines simply cooked in butter, makes for an unforgettable dinner. The views are second to none, too."

Norry Hunter highly recommends the food at The Geographer, while those in search of a good fish supper should look no further than Sammy’s Fish and Chips, in the Caol district of town.

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For a lighter bite, The Wildcat Café, on the High Street, has excellent vegetarian and vegan soups, salads and home baking. The peanut flapjack is a triumph.

Deli Craft, also on the High Street, bakes its own bread and pizza dough, and stocks a variety of local produce such as venison and cheese.

Local institution the Nevis Bakery sells tasty pies and sausage rolls, not to mention a delicious homemade ginger cake.

Where to shop

After a period in the doldrums, Fort William’s High Street is on the up. The Highland Bookshop opened two years ago, with its extensive history, wildlife and children’s sections already making it a favourite with readers across the highlands and beyond. The author events, children’s story sessions and writing groups are also very popular.

The Granite House has a lovely selection of gifts, accessories, kids’ clothes, while the Highland Soap Company makes and sells a range of organic products. The Wild Scottish Raspberry is a favourite scent in my household.

For outdoor gear, Nevis Sport, near the station, has a mindboggling choice of attire for every outdoor pursuit you could possibly imagine. The café is pretty good, too.

Where to stay

Boutique: Overlooking Loch Linnhe just a five-minute walk from the centre of town, The Lime Tree's stylish rooms and delicious breakfasts attract a young crowd. From £100 per room.

Canalside: With spectacular views of Ben Nevis, The Moorings offers comfort, tranquillity and a great menu. From £150 per room.

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Woodland setting: The Glen Nevis Hostel, run by Hostelling Scotland, boasts excellent facilities, including private and shared rooms, en-suite bathrooms and an open-plan living space with wood-burning stove. From £30 a night.

What to do nearby

A visit to the Commando Monument at Spean Bridge, 20 minutes away by car, is a must. Afterwards, enjoy lunch or afternoon tea at The Old Pines. The nearby Clan Cameron Museum is also worth a visit.

Just four miles outside Fort William resides Neptune’s Staircase, a dramatic flight of eight locks on the Caledonia Canal, built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822.

The iconic Jacobite Railway runs in summer from Fort William to Mallaig, across the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

In the coming weeks I'll be visiting Stromness, Falkirk and North Kelvinside in Glasgow. Send your hints and tips to: marianne.taylor@heraldandtimes.co.uk