Sitting on a low wall edging the shoreline of beautiful Loch Broom in the Ross-shire town of Ullapool, a takeaway container of delicious crab cakes and salad on my knee and a day of mountain walking in my legs, I indulge in a little people watching.
My chosen spot is located on one side of Ullapool’s bustling main street and is the perfect place to take in a vast array of outdoorsy folks.
In a short space of time, I am passed by young backpackers; day hikers in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s; cyclists, some on lightweight racer bikes and others on hybrid bicycles laden with panniers; and solo pedestrians, couples and family groups.
I hear their accents, from west coast Scotland and England to America and Europe.
They are all going about their evening in this north-west Scottish tourist town – and almost without exception they are relaxed and smiling.
Like me, many will have based themselves in Ullapool for a weekend break or week’s holiday. The town, which was founded in 1788 as a herring port and designed by Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford, is still one the UK’s major fishing ports yet, these days, it’s tourism that underpins the local economy.
Only an hour from the Highlands city of Inverness and some 4.5 hours north of Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow, visitors are attracted to a picturesque area that combines sea loch, coast, islands, lush lowlands, wild moorlands and mountains.
The town is also popular with festival goers with an annual line-up including the Festival of Dance in springtime, May’s Book Festival, and in October the Guitar and Beer Festivals.
The summer sees a regatta of hand-made wooden rowing skiffs as part of the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association’s calendar of Scotland-wide events.
To reach Ullapool, most people drive the A835, which hugs the eastern shoreline of Loch Broom, and gives superb views of the narrow waterway, sometimes glittering in the sunshine and, other times, mysteriously brooding and reflective.
The loch is fed to the south-east by the River Broom and extends some nine miles to the sea where it opens up into The Minch. At its widest point it encompasses a picture-postcard collection of small islands, known as the Summer Isles, which are perfect for a spot of kayaking exploration.
Ullapool is also a gateway town to the Outer Hebrides, with regular CalMac ferries sailing between Stornoway on Lewis and the mainland. Many walkers and cyclists passing through the town will be going to, or coming, from the long chain of west coast islands.
In recent years, the town’s through-traffic has been boosted by the North Coast 500, a 500-or-so-mile circular road route exploring the north-west Highlands that starts and finishes in Inverness.
Heading north from Ullapool, drivers and cyclists following the NC500 quickly find themselves surrounded by the ancient, rugged scenery of Assynt. A clear legacy of glaciation, the landscape comprises isolated mountains, such as Stac Pollaidh and Suilven, set amid immense tracts of bare moorland and blanket bog, all strewn with lochs and lochans.
Ullapool is also a stepping stone to the UNESCO North West Highlands GeoPark, which stretches along the coast both north and south of the town. The rocks here are Lewisian Gneiss, formed 3,000 million years ago, and are among the oldest in Britain.
Unsurprisingly the town provides access to a treasure trove of walking gems nearby and within easy driving distance. From Ullapool, a walk is recommended to Rhue Lighthouse along the shore of Loch Broom, where you can also take in a vista of the low-lying Summer Isles.
The natural wonder of Corrieshalloch Gorge is discovered some 12 miles south of Ullapool beside the main road. A short walk takes you to a bridge across the stunning one-mile long 200ft deep gash in the rock, where the River Droma plummets through a series of waterfalls.
The gorge forms part of a vast and wild landscape formed largely during the last ice age. Less easily accessible but well worth the rewards of spectacular views and Munro summits is the craggy and rocky Beinn Dearg range. Walkers leave the A835 behind for a long hike to tour all or some of four Munros, including the tallest of Beinn Dearg.
Across the other side of the road the nine Munros of the magnificent yet contrastingly rounded Fannichs ridge offer further big outings. This ridge overlooks inland Loch Fannich and is usually walked over two or three day hikes.
Ullapool and the A835 also gives access to the small village of Dundonnell via the Destitution Road (A832), which is acclaimed as one of Scotland’s most scenic roads and forms another section of the NC500. The small settlement is located at the mouth of Little Loch Broom, a sister sea inlet of Loch Broom, and at the heart of the wonderfully wild landscape of the Scoraig peninsula.
Dundonnell is the start point for a hike and scramble of the magnificent dinosaur-backed ridge of An Teallach. A feisty and memorable outing, An Teallach boasts two Munros.
Nearby on Destitution Road, a car park at Corrie Hallie is for walkers departing for a hike to Shenavall bothy, which is the start of an epic walk of the Fisherfield peaks, including five Munros and a Corbett. The Fisherfield Forest is acknowledged as one of the last true wilderness areas of Scotland.
It was after an attempt of the Fisherfield Round – I will be back! – this summer that my partner and I found ourselves searching Ullapool for an evening meal. We had not booked ahead at one of the busy pubs and restaurants but luckily discovered the superb Seafood Shack was still open, although with a long queue.
I overheard people talking about how full the hotels and B&Bs were, too, and felt lucky to be the owner of a campervan. It’s worth noting that van overnights are discouraged in the town and nearby, so you need to book into the local campsite, Broomfield Holiday Park.
In any case we were due a shower and we needed to fill up the van’s water. The campsite is stunningly located on the edge of Loch Broom, where a sunset was developing as we sat down in camping chairs to enjoy – at last – a glass of wine.
Again I was struck by the range of campers, from playful toddlers and families to fit-looking couples in their 70s. Exchanging a few words with those that passed by, we heard mention of the NC500, a cycling tour of the Outer Hebrides, great beaches and “brilliant weather for Munro bagging”. The chat confirmed what I had spotted earlier, that Ullapool as the ideal destination for all kinds of outdoors fans.