Asking for recommendations for a short break my neighbour looked puzzled when I suggested Oban.

“Isn’t that just the place you get the ferry from?” he quizzed. Oban is Scotland’s busiest ferry port but it’s also gloriously so much more. Join me as we turn our back on CalMac and savour boat-fresh seafood, artisan Argyll coffee, life-affirming hikes and a relaxed dram with a view to the isles.

I’ve been to Oban countless times over the years, usually passing through on those ferries or joining cruise ships, but it’s a hard place to sail away from when you realise its charms.

To get your bearings hike up one man’s famous folly; now our collective joy. McCaig’s Tower, the very symbol of Oban, hangs Colosseum-esque over an Argyll town that narrowly missed out on becoming a city during the Queen’s Jubilee in 2022. The McCaig view is remarkable; less-visited Pulpit Hill tops it. It’s named for the "Minister’s Stone" where services were held with an enviable backdrop of the vast natural amphitheatre of Oban Bay spreading out below and Mull’s hulking hills soaring in the distance.

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Steep slopes ravage down seawards to a waterfront lined with elegant Victorian buildings that rose following the flood of tourists that followed when the Callander and Oban Railway reached the Atlantic back in 1880. Oban was already a royal burgh and indeed man has coveted the sheltered bay here on the edge of the Hebrides since Mesolithic times.

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If tourism drove Oban on, its dual fuel partner was the Oban Distillery, a rare surviving town distillery. Founded in 1794, this whitewashed gem just back from the waterfront is the antithesis of the modern one-room distillery, a tantalising time machine through uisge beatha’s heritage. Its honey-sweet, sea salt-tinged malts can be enjoyed in Oban’s hostelries, but they also offer excellent tastings here. ‘Taste of Oban’ sweeps you through a tutored tasting of four drams and also dips into how the distillery has helped shape Oban. 

Just around the corner from the distillery is the new face of Oban. Hinba is a bright, airy café that – you’ll know instantly from the aroma – serves the best coffee in town. Their cardamon spiced lattes are spirit-soaring. The beans are roasted just to the south on the Argyll’s Isle of Seil, with owners Fergus McCoss and Vanessa Achilles clearly passionate about both their coffee and the area: “The local produce is just brilliant and there is a real passion. We work with a cheese producer on Mull and a local bakery specialising in vegan produce. There is always something new and exciting in Argyll.”

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It doesn’t stop there. Taste of Argyll now conjure up myriad local delights on the ferry pier, from Argyll coffee through to sandwiches, cooked meats and homebaking, with the option for takeaway. Another newbie, The View, is a large bar with sweeping bay views: think the bridge of a ship rather than a bar in the conventional sense. The local council has stepped up too, revamping the waterfront with wider pavements and landscaping. There are plenty of benches for gazing out to the isles; new pontoons too for the flotilla of small family-run cruise ships that now call Oban home.

History always hangs heavy in Oban, most dramatically in the form of Dunollie Castle, which has hung on a bluff just outside the centre in various forms for thousands of years. A bulwark against anyone trying to sneak into Oban from the Hebrides, it swims in the intoxicating history of Dalriada and the Lords of the Isles, with the 1745 House Museum telling the story. The grounds are worth meandering around too. 

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A local favourite is a wee amble in 32-acre Dunollie Wood behind the castle. Oban offers endless opportunities for two-footed adventures north and south, with plenty of hinterland to delve into too.

Back in town dinner is always a treat. This is, after all, the self-styled ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’. The local trawlers tie up on the pier and smaller shellfish boats also work these waters, with further seafood delights landed from the isles. Reclining on the waterfront quaffing boat-fresh haddock and chips as the gulls squawk is still the quintessential old school Oban experience. 
With so much water around it’s hard to resist heading out, with skipper Allan at the ready with laidback small boat trips that putter out in search of the local seal colonies aboard M.V Purple Heather. After taking in the local landmarks you break into the Firth of Lorne where you’ll see seals with Lismore haunting the backdrop.

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Just across the water at the mouth of Oban Bay lies the rugged Isle of Kerrera one of the most accessible of the Hebrides. What has to be the cutest, smallest CalMac ferry hops foot passengers and cyclists across to an isle almost within stone skimming distance. 

Kerrera may be low on population, but it’s high on natural beauty. My favourite cycle is south in search of  Gylen Castle. One of Scotland’s most dramatic castles – once a stronghold of the Clan MacDougall – stands proud on its own promontory above a rocky beach as it eyeballs the Southern Hebrides. It’s a spectacular spot and if you’ve picked up an e-bike from Oban Cycles it’s easy to get to. There is a wee café at the foot of the castle trail too that does superb homebaking.

Cyclists are remarkably well catered for in Oban. You can now take your bike on a dedicated ‘Highland Explorer’ Scotrail carriage with space for 20 bikes. Oban is a fulcrum of the Caledonia Way too, or the National Cycle Route 78 as it is also known, a long-distance bike route that vaults 234-mile from Campbeltown to Inverness.

Back in Oban as the sun burns down over the Hebrides seafood is on the menu in a flurry of restaurants and the bars start to fill. The ferries come and go to the isles, but it’s the lucky ones that are staying right here in a town that more than stacks up for a weekend away or even longer. 
And my neighbour? After chatting about what I included in this article and showing him the photos, he has just booked a wee escape to Oban too. 

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Foodie Oban

The Grill Room, Oban Bay Hotel

Enjoy the best steaks in town, cooked on a 500C Josper Grill, as well as superb seafood served in refined surrounds. They serve locally smoked salmon too and there is a decent wine list. Look out for locally-landed lobster.

Oban Seafood Shack 

The original and best seafood shack is this green and white cash-only delight. Tuck into a seafood platter of local lobster, langoustines, oysters and prawns at the chunky wooden communal tables as the ferries bustle in and out. Or just enjoy one of their home-smoked salmon sandwiches. One of Scotland’s most rustic seafood experiences. And one of its best.

Waterfront Fishouse

Book a window seat and peer over the ferries and towards Kerrera as you savour boat-fresh local seafood. They can name their suppliers by their first names – the langoustines for example come from ‘Gordon the Prawn’. A stand out dish is their loin of Mull venison surf ‘n’ turf with seared scallops and Wakame seaweed.

Bed down in Oban

Oban Bay Hotel

Oban’s most impressive hotel sits in a stately old stone building in a privileged spot on the waterfront. Look out for otters in the bay before popping down for an oyster at breakfast. The glorious suites make the most of the views across Oban Bay and over Kerrera.

Perle Oban Hotel & Spa

Grand old dame on the waterfront dating back to 1882, this has been revamped in some style. It is in an unbeatable location a stone’s throw from the train station and Scotland’s busiest ferry pier.

Loch Melfort Hotel

Just a half hour drive or bus ride south of Oban, this remarkable hotel gazes out over the water towards the Isle of Jura and a flurry of other isles. Wander in 17 acres of grounds alive with goats and Highland cows, before taking a wild swim at their beach. Make sure to book a room with a sea view and also to slip into Arduaine Garden, one of the Argyll’s finest green lungs, next door.