Lauded by Blur’s Damon Albarn and revered by visitors from around the world, the Cowal Peninsula is a holiday haven to hide away in, as Robin McKelvie rediscovers

I used to think the most romantic way to arrive in the Cowal Peninsula was aboard the Waverley, the world’s last ocean-going paddle steamer, then I took the sea plane. Swooping low over Argyll’s haunting hills and cobalt sea lochs this wild and wildly beautiful peninsula rears into view, kissed with sandy beaches and gnarly forest. Within an hour of splooshing down on Loch Fyne I’m in a hot tub on the loch shores, dreaming of local langoustines for lunch. 

It has always been personal with me and Cowal. My mum hailed from Dunoon, my parents met there, and I associated Cowal with being dragged over to visit my fading grandparents. I had half-written this often-ignored peninsula off before Damon Albarn intervened. The mercurial Blur frontman was so inspired when he played a gig in Cowal’s only town that he penned 2013’s track Selfish Giant, later gushing: “Every time I sing The Selfish Giant I go back to that night in Dunoon, which was a really great night, a fantastic night.” I figured there must be something about Cowal. And there is. Cowal is deeply special.

This sea plane arrival with Loch Lomond Seaplanes is my most dramatic yet. I enjoy that hot tub at Portavadie, an unlikely super-slick resort down a wee road 90 miles – but at least two hours driving time – from Glasgow. I’ve watched over the past decade as they’ve forged themselves from an old oil industry white elephant through sheer effort and bloody mindedness into something unique, upgrading their resort, adding a hotel block to go with the apartments and then the highlight, that spa with its daring al fresco hot tubs and infinity pool on the rocky shores. Sublime.


It would be easy to linger at Portavadie, but I want more of Cowal. After those langoustines – and Gigha halibut with a nut crust and smooth mussel cream – I’m off tackling a stretch of the Cowal Way. This 57-mile member of Scotland’s Great Trails soars off right from Portavadie but for years has been little trammelled. That all changed just before Covid hit when they took the obvious step of extending it to reach the bonnie banks, renaming it the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way.

As I bash on through forest and hill I’m still accompanied only by deer and birds of prey soaring high above on the thermals. I smile back at the Kintyre hills as the rugged backbone of Bute pulls me east. It’s easy to get out amidst the great outdoors in Cowal: it swirls all around here in a world where Nature is writ large.
I re-enter the world of man at Tighnabruaich with the Isle of Bute just across the famous Kyles of Bute. Outside the Highlands, this is inarguably one of the prettiest corners of Scotland, though the Highland Boundary Fault actually rumbles right through, there is a palpable sense of community and they’ve a shinty team: Cowal is Highland in all but name.

Tighnabruaich’s glory days date back to when those paddle steamers thrashed holidaying Glaswegians ‘doon the watter’, but there is impressive new life everywhere I look. Since a Glaswegian couple opened the Tighnabruaich Gallery in 2017 it has not only painted the unique local light and landscapes in all their technicolour glory but pushed the creative boat out with eclectic temporary exhibitions. The village’s landmark hotel is back, too, the Royal An Lochan, and the fine artisan creations of local Argyll Coffee Roasters grace Five West, the kind of welcoming café we all wish we had in our street. They even serve their own bespoke Five West blend.


On the waterfront another phoenix has risen again at The Hollies. The community had feared demolition may be the only answer for the dilapidated Kyles of Bute hotel. A dynamic couple from East Kilbride had other ideas, conjuring up a stylish self-catering escape on a musical theme, with interiors that look like they’ve stepped straight from the pages of a design magazine. The exterior has been brought back to its sandstone beauty too.

All the developments come woven into a vibrant community, whose efforts impress the more time I spend in Tighnabruaich. I hike up to the Kilfinan Community Woodland. This brilliantly simple project opens up a swathe of woodland with trails, public art, shelters and BBQ spaces that everyone can use. It also sustainably engages in forestry to plough back money into the wood and the community.

Sustainability is not an ephemeral concept on Cowal, rather something that everyone has to confront far from urban centres and the world of supermarket hegemony. Just north of the woodland is an even more striking symbol of sustainability, one that so caught the eye of COP26 delegates that they ventured here just to see it. 
The Ark of Argyll is a large wooden ark dominating the view down towards the Kyles of Bute from just off the main road. You cannot miss it – that is the idea. 
The artist behind it, David Blair, tells me he created the Ark to “raise awareness of the scale and urgency of the climate and ecological emergency”. Cowal is a peninsula that makes you think long beyond your journey back home.


My own journey takes me south now past the joined-at-the-hip twin village of Kames, to discover Carry Farm. My dad was a keen sailor and I knew about the acclaimed Tighnabruaich Sailing School. I didn’t know its owner presided over Carry Farm and their herd of Hebridean Sheep. 
Nor that they have opened a wee retail oasis on-site. Their Hayshed Gallery features tanned skins and textiles from their own sheep. Just next door Argyll Coffee Roasters have a wee café, while across the road the Argyll Botany Company soothe the senses with their health and beauty range. Carry Farm is a wee oasis that is very Cowal.
Tastebuds still salivating from freshly ground coffee, I venture deeper south until the road runs out. 

It’s a boggy ramble to find Ostel Bay, also known as Kilbride Bay. A wide sandy arc spills around and Cowal borrows – as it often does – Arran’s Alpine-esque crags to create a postcard-perfect scene. It’s just me here. And a curious seal. 
I think of my mum, nod in thanks to Damon Albarn and head back to the warmth of a hot tub on Loch Fyne’s shores to dream up my next excuse to escape in whatever ark I can find back to Cowal.

Bed down in Cowal

The Hollies

This brilliantly reborn self-catering escape overlooks the famous Kyles of Bute and the eponymous island through its floor to ceiling windows. 
Each bedroom has a Scottish musical theme so choose to stay in ‘The Blue Nile’ or ‘The Waterboys’. They host regular songwriter and music workshops. 
This is a truly spectacular space for a special family escape or a getaway with a group of friends. Huge kitchen and dining area, with chill out areas too.

Royal An Lochan

This revamped old dame on the waterfront is now again a solid place to stay. Make sure to book a room with a view across the Kyles and also a table in their restaurant to savour the remarkable local seafood.


The best place to stay in Cowal; indeed, one of best on the entire west coast. Choose from luxury apartments, hotel rooms, honeymoon hideaways and motorhome berths. Or moor your yacht at one of the 230 modern berths. Then bubble in those outdoor hot pools and salute your decision to come to Cowal.


Foodie Cowal

Marina Restaurant

Portavadie’s Marina Restaurant offers local langoustines and that Gigha halibut, alongside smoked fish from Dunoon’s excellent Argyll Smokery. There are views, too, across the yacht masts to the lofty peaks of Arran.


This is hands down the best restaurant on Cowal. Loch Fyne langoustines and crab, plus Argyll venison, star alongside tasting menus in a set-up that has attracted the attention of Michelin.

The Blairmore

The ‘doon the watter’ glory days are back at Blairmore. Not only is the Waverley once again roaring into the pier, but a new family-run café and gallery space has emerged that is a real breath of fresh air.

Further Information
The Wild About Argyll website has lashings of information on the Cowal Peninsula.