Dunoon adventure: Off-grid house, walking, talking and sunshine
A couple of days of adventuring on the Cowal Peninsula, close to Dunoon, reveals a gem of a location for outdoors fans, including couples and families.
“I had no idea Dunoon was so close to Glasgow,” says my friend Mark. “It’s really easy to get to from Edinburgh, too, and without the need for a car,” says my other companion on the Cowal Peninsula trip, Becca.
While I have visited Dunoon many times – and already know how easy it is to reach from the Scottish mainland – Mark and Becca are taken by surprise.
Dunoon is the main town on the Cowal peninsula in the south of Argyll and Bute. It is on the western shore of the upper Firth of Clyde, to the south of the Holy Loch and to the north of Innellan.
Regular trains leave Glasgow for Gourock where you can board a foot passenger-only CalMac ferry to Dunoon.
If you plan to take a vehicle, Western Ferries, have regular sailings, also from Gourock (you need to drive a little further from the west coast mainland town) and they take foot passengers as well.
- Top tip 1: Book your tickets in advance and on-line for much cheaper travel.
From Glasgow to Gourock is less than an hour by car and by train it’s about 45 minutes. The ferry crossing takes about 20 minutes and there are sailings every 15 minutes.
Driving is another option. By road, from Glasgow via Arrochar and the famous Rest and be Thankful, it’s around two hours of travelling and on a wonderfully picturesque route.
But, still, we three agreed that arriving by ferry is a great start to an adventure.
The rebirth of a tourist town
Dunoon has long been a popular tourist destination, first becoming established in the 19th century when paddle steamers offered easy access to visitors from Glasgow. Like many other traditional west coast holiday towns, Dunoon’s visitor economy was affected by the increasing popularity for overseas travel in the later part of the 20th century.
In recent years, however, the Argyll & Bute town has enjoyed something of a tourism rebirth. Dunoon and the Cowal Peninsula is a growing centre for tourism and now has the position as the southern and seaward gateway to Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park.
Dunoon BID has been working behind the scenes to create an attractive outdoors and adventure offering with a Dunoon Half-marathon and 10k, an Ultra Marathon (see Runners love first Dunoon ultra), triathlon, as well as a number of mountain biking events. See Dunoon joins SXC mountain bike series.
New for this year is the Outdoor Festival taking place in September.
See Dunoon Presents for what’s on information.
Where to stay
There a plenty of hotels, guest houses and self-catering lodges in and around Dunoon but why go for the ordinary, when you can try somewhere extraordinary?
New to the self-catering market is Bernice Farmhouse and Bernice Cottage, situated close to Benmore Centre (offering outdoor activities and accommodation) and in the wider estate of beautiful Benmore Botanic Gardens. Bernice and Benmore Centre are run by Experience Outdoors.
Experience Outdoors is an outdoor learning provider for Edinburgh City Council, which delivers education to school children primarily. You know those residential activity weeks that many primary school children are lucky enough to enjoy, as well as Duke of Edinburgh, Scouts, Guides and other groups? Well, Experience Outdoors also relies on income from self-catering groups and guests at weekends and holidays at their centres to support their core purpose of outdoors education.
Bernice farmhouse and cottage are adjoining and set on a remote hillside, below the mountain of Beinn Mhor and above Loch Eck. This is a place to truly get away from it all.
- Becca and I enjoyed an afternoon walk of Beinn Mhor.
The scenic drive from Benmore Botanic Gardens along the lochside and then climbing into the hills, is around 4kms and on both singletrack tarmac and trails. There are no other properties for seemingly miles and the property is not connected to the national grid.
This means there is no wifi and electricity is provided by a diesel-powered generator. (The first two hours of use each day are free.)
The accommodation is back-to-basics style, but comfortable. Think smart hostel, with rooms of bunks and twin beds. One of the bedrooms in Bernice Farmhouse has an en-suite shower room plus there are two more shower rooms spread across the property.
The large Bernice Farmhouse kitchen has two large cookers run by gas, a fridge-freezer and all the crockery and utensils you will need for a week away.
- Top tip 2: Note that the taps do not provide drinking water so you should take you own bottled water. The water is fine for washing and cleaning teeth.
- Top tip 3: Dogs are allowed at Bernice, which is great.
There’s a large and cosy sitting room with a wood burning stove, a huge dining room including a very long dining table and a porch area.
But the area we most liked was the garden with a firepit and barbecue. We were fortunate to have dry weather and spent the entire evening outdoors. I was surprised that we were not bothered by midges because the west coast of Scotland is renowned for these biting beasties. Maybe the smoke from the fire was the secret, or the wind because we were in an elevated position.
Just a minute’s walk from the house is a lovely waterfall that plunges into a pool of crystal clear water and with a swing hanging from a tree overhead. If you are looking for a place to stay with the family, this is idyllic. The kids would enjoy many hours of playing in the water.
The views from the front of the house are a delight, with only greenery, hills, trees and the loch’s waters visible.
The farmhouse sleeps a maximum of 18 people in five bedrooms.
Bernice Cottage is smaller, sleeping four people in two bedrooms. There is one shower room. It is ideal for a family group, or for extending the size of the group that could be accommodated across the two neighbouring properties.
While we could have paid extra, £9 per hour, for more than the allotted daily two hours of electricity, Mark, Becca and I decided we wouldn’t bother. This wasn’t because of the cost but rather we liked the idea of managing with less.
In the summer, it’s light until late into the evening anyway and we had battery powered torches and lamps with us. It felt more “away-from-it-all” to keep electricity use to a minimum.
It is rather like camping but with solid walls and a roof rather than tents and it was a lot more luxurious than a weekend under canvas. We used the generator for powering the showers and creating hot water for washing up.
- Top tip 4: Take a cool box for cold storage if you do not plan to use the fridge.
- Top tip 5: If you are sharing the property as a large group, the £9 per hour for more electricity is not a lot.
We discovered that there is 3G and 4G (depending on your network provider) and it was possible to stay in contact with the outside world. But, we chose not to bother. Apart from a quick call by Becca to her young child at bedtime, we simply enjoyed the chance for a digital detox – and chatted instead.
We talked, walked, cooked bbq food, drank wine and then sat around the firepit into the late evening.
Heading indoors later on, we thought about lighting the log burning stove but we were warm enough without and our beds soon beckoned.
In my opinion: Bernice Farmhouse and Cottage are ideal for groups of family and/or friends who want to get off the beaten track and enjoy a simpler style of holiday or weekend break. The accommodation is surprisingly close to the central belt of Scotland and reached by train/car and ferry for a quick get away.
Find out more: Outdoor things to do while staying at Bernice Farmhouse, Dunoon.
Check out 5 great walks close to the sister centre and self-catering properties at Lagganlia, Cairngorms.