A very bonnie boat trip
By Lucy Gillmore, Daily Mail

The Firth of Clyde does not exactly have a holiday ring to it. To most people, it conjures up a chimney-clogged skyline rather than sultry seaside sunsets. The industrial heritage also does little to suggest a nature lovers' paradise, but, in fact, the salty waters teem with wildlife and the coast is unrecognisable as Glasgow's backyard.

The Cowal Peninsula, jutting down into the Firth of Clyde, is bordered by Loch Long and Loch Fyne and is blanketed by the Argyll Forest Park. Off its tip is the Isle of Bute, while further down is the island of Arran, sheltered from the Atlantic by the comforting arm of the Kintyre Peninsula. The rocks are covered with basking seals, the coast is peppered with little fishing villages and the islands and islets lapped by seafaring history. And there's no better way to experience this precious part of Scotland than on a converted trawler.We were on a three-day cruise sailing around the sun-bathed sea lochs and the gorse-pricked islands of southern Argyll on the Glen Massan, an old fishing vessel-turned-luxury cruise boat. Reclining on a wooden lounger, a glass of chilled white wine to hand, we chugged on towards our first anchorage. As the sun slowly sank, it was hard to believe this was Scotland.

Admittedly, we were wrapped in blankets, but, hey, a sea breeze is a sea breeze wherever you are.
It was doubly surprising to me that I was there at all. Frankly, I am not your average cruise-goer. Whenever the subject came up, my standard response was always an ungrateful: 'I'd rather chew off my own arm.'The thought of spending a week – or longer – in an enormous floating hotel, with whistle-stop tours of Caribbean islands or Mediterranean cities, had always been my idea of hell. But I am drawn to the water. And, after a trip to Laos last year, floating soporifically down the Mekong on an old rice barge, I was hooked on small-boat cruising.There's something soothing about sitting on deck watching the coastline drift by. And something satisfying about that boat being a traditional vessel, history seeping out of the woodwork but now enjoying a new lease of life. Small boats are more intimate, like waterborne boutique hotels. And so, when a friend suggested a few days holiday on this old Scottish trawler, I flung my raingear, my wellies and thick jumpers into the car and set off for the west coast. What I didn't think to pack was the sunscreen.

The Glen Massan is one of two boats owned by The Majestic Line, a family-run company set up by architect Andrew Thoms and Dr Ken Grant. Five years ago, the two friends were sailing around the Med on a Turkish gulet when they started to discuss how small-group cruising could work in the area they had sailed all their lives: the Firth of Clyde.Thoms and Grant are passionate about the fishing boats that used to ply these waters, so they rescued a decommissioned trawler from a scrapyard and it spent a year in Holy Loch marina being converted into wood-panelled, gold-funnelled, six-cabin passenger boat.The 26-metre Glen Massan took perkily to the waters again in 2006, and then they found a second vessel, Scottish-designed but Irish-built Glen Tarsan. It is based in Oban and sails around the islands of Mull and Islay.

Cruises range from the standard six days to long weekends, and itineraries change with the wind – and guests' whims
   Our tour of the inlets and islands of Southern Argyll started in Holy Loch marina near Dunoon and ended in Inveraray on Loch Fyne, but the bit in between depended on the weather – and what we fancied. We started with a briefing from our captain, Scott (from New Zealand), and our chef, Mary (his wife), and a welcome drink with fellow passengers.We were eight in all, plus crew, but the Glen Massan can take 11 or 12 passengers if fancy hiring the whole boat. One couple, David and Moira, were there to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary, Brenda and Jim had just married off their daughter and were shattered. Her sister, Ann, and his father, John, completed the easy-going party. 

We helped to lower the average age, but as we set sail up Loch Long draped in woollen rugs, cradling our drinks and hiding behind dark shades, I felt more bygone era grand dame than spring chicken. On the bridge, Scott checked the satellite navigation system, steering us out of the way of a submarine. He unrolled the charts and pointed out seals sunning themselves on the rocks and porpoises breaking the surface.Two hours later, we dropped anchor off Carrick Castle in Loch Goil. Mary had prepared a feast of seafood amuse bouche followed by fresh Scottish salmon, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce – which we ate at a candlelit communal table against the backdrop of a romantic 15th-century ruin.She then paraded in, lights dimmed, to the sounds of the wedding march with a homemade fresh mango cake for David and Moira. After tears, more wine and exchanges of life histories, it was time to turn in.

Our cosy cabins came with a toasty tartan-clad hot water bottle in each bed. After breakfast the next day, we motored to shore in the dinghy and went for a stroll along the lane hugging the coast.
  Dogs were playing on the beach; locals were sitting outside their homes enjoying the sunshine.We felt more like dignitaries visiting a far-flung outpost than Glasgow's commuter belt. Then it was time to reboard our boat and plough south towards the next port of call – Millport, on the island of Great CumbraeThis was once a hotspot for Glaswegian holidaymakers but is now a little frayed around the edges, although it does have a swanky new museum focusing on local history.Over the next couple of days, we sailed up slivers of lochs, moored in remote inlets, lolled on deck, cruised the Kyles of Bute and trekked around the coast from the pretty village of Tighnabruaich before heading for the Isle of Bute.

Bute is the home of the Zavaronis: the Scottish ice-cream family. Richard Attenborough has an estate on the island, and it is also where you will find Mount Stuart, the glamorous pad where Stella McCartney was married.This fantastical stately home has been the ancestral seat of the Crichton-Stuarts since the end of the 17th century. The original house was destroyed in a fire in 1877, and so the extravaganza is pure Gothic revival.http://maps.gstatic.com/intl/en_ALL/mapfiles/transparent.png The house is open to the public over the summer, but the weekend we dropped anchor, the Marquess of Bute (Johnny Dumfries, the former racing driver) had been celebrating his 50th birthday with family and friends – 'the drummer from Pink Floyd and Nigel Mansell', according to our taxi driver. However, Mary made a ship-to-shore call and the doors were thrown open for a private tour. As the jaded partygoers shipped out, we rolled down the drive feeling like visiting VIPs on a raspberry-ripple sugar rush. From the soaring columns of the 25m marble hall, built from rare Sicilian alabaster and marble, to the pristine clarity of the white marble chapel, Mount Stuart is unabashed theatre.The two hours flew by as our guide wove the history and character of the building and family into a spellbinding story. We poked around the bedrooms and bathrooms – still in use and with the latest guests only recently departed – and gazed at the Titians and Tintorettos in the drawing room until we were told it was time to go, and the door clanged shut behind us. 

On our final evening, moored in Loch Fyne, we had a party. This time the excuse was Mary's birthday. Moira had bought party poppers on Bute and we all chipped in for a present.The wine (and Irn-Bru and whisky) flowed. Outside, the inky darkness wrapped itself around the little boat as we bobbed up and down, cocooned from the world, yet within sea spray's reach of Glasgow. Sensational.

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