Five ferries cycle tour on Scotland’s west coast islands
This is an article about the Five Ferries cycle tour in Scotland, visiting the islands of Arran and Bute and riding between on the peninsulas of Kintyre and Cowal.
By land and sea on a bike
Taking a ferry journey always signals the start of a great adventure – and with the promise of five sea crossings during a single day of cycling my spirits soared.
The planned ride, the Five Ferries Cycle Tour, starts and finishes in Ardrossan on the west coast Scottish mainland and covers 74 miles via two islands and two peninsulas.
Looking at the elevation graph of the mapped route, I’m anticipating several big hills and a generally undulating landscape. Yet, I’m also sure the views of coast, lochs, beaches, moorlands and mountains will be more than just rewards for my efforts.
First ferry of the day
The first Caledonian MacBrayne ferry leaves Ardrossan on time, heading across the Firth of Clyde for the Island of Arran. It’s a journey of less than an hour and in calm conditions, so I sit outside watching the horizon as the small ferry port town of Brodick grows larger and closer.
Arran is nicknamed “Scotland in Miniature” because the Highland Boundary Fault cuts through the island’s middle. It divides a mountainous Highland landscape to the north from rolling lowland countryside in the south.
Departing the ferry by bike is delightfully simple and avoids the need to wait in a queue of motorised vehicles at the CalMac terminal. I ride the boat’s metal ramp, reach the main road, the A841, that circuits Arran and turn right.
The Five Ferries route hugs the isle’s eastern coastline giving wonderful views of the Firth of Clyde, plentiful beaches and several seals reposing on a rocky foreshore. To the west are Arran’s highest mountains, including the tallest, Goatfell at 2866ft.
The highest point of the day’s ride is also on the island and after a gently undulating start, passing through the pretty coastal villages of Corrie and Sannox, the road turns inland towards a long climb rising to almost 660ft elevation.
I take my time, slipping into an easy gear and focusing on what’s to come over the crest of the hill. The descent via a wide valley with a wide vista of the bay of Lochranza ahead is fantastic.
Lochranza – meaning “Loch of the Seals” – is a beautiful setting with a ruined castle sitting on a grassy promontory to one side, clear waters of Kilbrannan Sound and a backdrop of dramatic mountains.
There is little time to relax here, however, because with only 80 minutes between the Ardrossan ferry arriving on Arran and the second one departing Lochranza for Claonaig, I have only a short wait before cycling on to another CalMac craft.
Missing this ferry would mean you would be unlikely to complete the full ride in a day.
Ferry 2 to Kintyre
The Lochranza to Claonaig crossing is 30 minutes and offers the chance to rest my legs and have a snack before reaching the Kintyre Peninsula. A glance at the elevation profile reveals an ascent from the port to a height of 430ft.
The singletrack B8001 is peaceful and picturesque, which is just as well because the ascent is slow and tiring. The views of forestry and wild moorlands take my mind off my aching leg muscles before, suddenly it seems, I’ve crested the top and I am flying downhill again.
The B road crosses the narrow leg of land and there are more fine views of another narrow sea inlet, West Loch Tarbert on the western side of Kintyre, as well as further afield to the whisky isles of Islay and Jura.
At the small settlement of Kennacraig, I join the A83 to ride north towards Tarbert. The road is busier and seems out of place surrounded by the empty land and water but it offers an easy and fairly flat ride.
The historic and picturesque fishing town of Tarbert is located on an isthmus, a narrow spit of land, where West Loch Tarbert bites deeply into the peninsula and only just fails to meet East Loch Tarbert, itself an outlet of larger Loch Fyne.
I push my bike around the town’s old harbour, listening to the sounds of clanking boats and seagulls crying overhead, before boarding one of the regular 25-minute ferry crossings for Portavadie, situated on another narrow leg of land, the Cowal Peninsula.
Ferry 3: A short one
A sign at Portavadie welcomes me to “Argyll’s Secret Coast”, which makes sense as I join the delightfully tranquil B800 and ride steeply uphill through remote moorland and forestry heading for Tighnabruiach. The village sits on the shore of yet another sea channel, the Kyles of Bute, which separate Cowal from the mainland.
This stretch of the tour is the most challenging, with more than 1800ft of climbing over 20 miles, and after a stop for a sandwich and coffee I find myself climbing again on the A8003 towards the second highest point of the day.
The road travels into a craggy landscape of forested slopes and rocky outcrops above the shores of the Kyles and I feel a draw to pull off the side of the road many times to enjoy the superb vistas over water and wild land (and also catch my breath).
Ferry 4 & island 2
A mile or so past the most northerly end of the sea channel, the route turns south again on to the A866 in the direction of Colintraive and the fourth ferry of the day. It’s only a five-minute sailing to reach Rhubodach, on the Isle of Bute. The island scenery is also divided by the Highland Boundary Line.
By now my legs are feeling the combination of miles and hills and I rejoice in a tailwind for the ride of 8.5 miles along the eastern coast to Rothesay amid a scenery of forest, moorland and sandy shores.
Rothesay is the main island town and has been a popular holiday destination for Scots since Victorian times. Even on a week day in the 21st century it’s busy.
There is plenty to see and do including esplanade gardens and the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre, located in a refurbished 1920s structure of cast iron and glass. Rothesay Castle and Bute Museum are also nearby if you have the time to visit.
I wish I had allowed more time on the island but I need to make the fifth and final sea crossing from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay, then the final 20-mile cycle leg of day’s tour to Ardrossan.
Ferry 5: Back to the mainland
The ferry journey is 35 minutes and while I have travelled far by boat and bicycle I still enjoy the sea crossing, especially as the sea views sparkle in late afternoon sunshine.
Again, I welcome the tailwind as I push hard on the ride south along the main coast road to reach the start-finish. On reflection, a two-day ride of the route would have allowed more opportunities to visit attractions but, then again, a cheeky mid-week day away from my desk was all I had time for.
How to do the 5 ferries bike ride
Getting to start/finish: Regular trains to and from Glasgow Central connect with ferries at Ardrossan Harbour (for Brodick). See scotrail.co.uk.
A Five Ferries ticket that covers the cycle route is valid for five days and costs £14.70 for cyclist and a bike. There is no need to book ahead if you do not have a motorised vehicle. If you plan to travel as a group of cyclists, contact CalMac before you travel.
The first ferry to Brodick (with train connection from Glasgow) leaves at 8.20am in the summer. Check timetables for the last ferry from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay, depending on whether you will get the train from there to Glasgow or from Ardrossan to Glasgow.
Five Ferries Cycle Tour route
1 Ferry from Adrossan to Brodick on the Isle of Arran.
Ride Brodick to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran: 15 miles. (1013ft total elevation)
2 Ferry Lochranza to Claonaig on the the Kintyre Peninsula
Claonaig to Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula: 10.5 miles (616ft)
3 Ferry from Tarbert to Portavadie on the Cowal Peninsula
Portavadie to Colintraive on the Cowal Peninsula: 20 miles. (1795ft)
4 Ferry from Colintraive to Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute.
Rhobadach to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute: 8.5 miles (383ft)
5 Ferry Rothesay to Wmyss Bay on mainland.
Wemyss Bay to Ardrossan, Ayrshire: 20 miles (695ft)
Five ferries kit
- Calmac ferry ticket
- Road bike
- Comfortable cycling clothing, including padded shorts, tights (depending on the weather), cycle jersey, baselayer t-shirt and a waterproof jacket.
- Helmet, sunglasses, cycling gloves
- Small rucksack with puncture repair kit, spare layer, snacks.
- Smartphone with route downloaded on to an map app, or a bike GPS gadget.
- Water bottle.
- Money for lunch and snack stops.
Did you know?
- The Isle of Arran has two whisky distilleries, Lochranza Distillery, close to the Five Ferries Tour route, and Lagg Distillery, to the south of the island.
- Choose the summer for the bike route because the ferries are more frequent and there is more daylight.
- Loch Fyne is both the longest (43 miles) and the deepest (114m) of Scotland‟s sea lochs.
Complete the Five ferries Tour over a more leisurely two or three days.
Cycle a 55-mile circuit of the Isle of Arran or a 23-mile round island route of Bute.