WITH its dramatic Munros, abundant forests and stunning sea lochs, the Cowal peninsula holds its own against the Highlands in terms of scenery and seclusion. And yet it remains one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.

For those who are already familiar with its charms – including Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, who lives there for much of the year – this part of Argyll is simply irresistible, combining beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife and interesting history with easy accessibility from the central belt.

Dunoon, the peninsula's main town, has plenty going for it including a handsome esplanade, good shopping, great fish and chips and one of the cutest cinemas in Scotland.

Historic Highlights

Dunoon Castle dates back to the 11th century but there is evidence of human habitation in the area going back to Neolithic times. Two feuding clans – the Lamonts and the Campbells – were prominent for hundreds of years.

The town later became a popular holiday spot for Glaswegians sailing “doon the watter”, and in 1961, during the height of the Cold War, Dunoon became a garrison town on the US Navy. The Holy Loch base was closed in 1992, and Dunoon suffered a downturn.

More recently, however, a new generation of walkers, bikers, sailors and nature enthusiasts have provided an economic and social boost to the town and its people.

What to do

Two ferries sail to Dunoon from Gourock – the CalMac is passenger-only, Western takes cars - getting you in at different points in the town. Not that you have to arrive by boat, of course, and even if you drove the long way round, the walk along Alexandra Parade between the two terminals helps you get your bearings. Admire the grand Victorian and Edwardian mansions as you saunter, taking in the spectacular views whatever the weather. If you’d rather do all this on two wheels, pick up a bike at Argyll Bike Hire (argyllbikehire.com) and cycle up to Holy Loch Marina, a popular berth for yachts from all over Scotland, the UK and beyond.

A visit to Castle House, now a museum, is a must. Built by former Lord Provost of Glasgow James Ewing in 1822 using remnants from the old ruined castle, its lively exhibits, photographs and models tell the story of the area and its people. There’s an excellent gift shop, too. The extensive gardens are lovely, offering stunning views of the Firth of Clyde and beyond. And don’t forget to visit the statue of “Highland” Mary Campbell, the inspiration behind some of Robert Burns' most romantic songs and poems.

Culture vultures will want to visit the newly refurbished Dunoon Burgh Hall (dunoonburghhall.org.uk) on Argyll Street, with its vibrant schedule of music, theatre and visual art including - until 18 April – an excellent exhibition of record sleeve art. There are also regular painting, life-drawing and music workshops and classes, as well as as host of kids’ events.

The Studio Cinema in John Street (studiocinema.co.uk) is an absolute treat, showing the big movies of the day in an intimate setting.

Benmore, one of the most beautiful and dramatic botanic gardens in the UK (rbge.org.uk), is just a 10-minute drive or 40-minute cycle from Dunoon. Spread over 120 acres at the foot of Beinn Mhor, the garden is overflowing with exotic plants and trees from every corner of the globe. The avenue of giant Redwoods and riot of rhododendrons are just two of the highlights, and you’ll want to check out the Bhutanese and Chilean pavilions as well as the Golden Gates dating back to 1878. Keep your eyes peeled, too, for red squirrels, sparrowhawks and golden eagles along the way. And, after all that fresh air, the cafe offers tasty soups, mains, scones and cakes.

Nearby Puck’s Glen – also part of Argyll Forest Park – is the most famous walk in the area and never disappoints. There’s something atmospheric, even magical about this forest trail with its tumbling burn criss-crossed by arched wooden bridges, overshadowed by dense woodland.

Where to eat

Emma Thompson’s husband, actor Greg Wise, says a fish supper in Dunoon is part of his perfect weekend. And you’re certainly spoiled for choice in these parts. Lorenzo’s on Church Street is always a good bet, while Anselmo’s on Hillfoot Street serves up tasty homemade pasta favourites alongside the fish and chips, with both sit-in and takeaway options.

Yvonne Reilly is a fan of the US diner-style and Tex-Mex fayre at 51st State Bar and Grill on Argyll Street. “Huge portions, lovely staff and great value for money - I’ll be back,” she says.

Cowal regular Eileen Wright says it’s worth the four-mile journey to the Osborne Hotel in Innellan. “A particular pit stop for chilli heads, the extra hot chicken wings are legendary and only serious chilli lovers should even attempt them - many have tried and failed," she says. "For those less ambitious in the Scoville stakes, the sweet chilli and honey garlic wings are compulsively good and flavour-packed.”

If it’s a light bite or coffee and cake you’re after, Perk Up on Ferry Brae has delicious homemade soups and some of the best tray bakes, pancakes and cupcakes in town.

Where to shop

On Argyll Street, Doon the Watter stocks quirky gifts and homeware, while Bookpoint is an excellent neighbourhood bookshop, complete with friendly service and an impressive range of genres and titles.

Finewood Gallery, on Hamilton Street, has an intriguing collection of artwork and crafts for from all over Argyll, while foodies will want to sample the tasty treats – smoked salmon, trout and prawns – on offer at the Argyll Smokery on Highland Avenue. Those lacking in culinary inspiration, meanwhile, may wish to try out one of the recipes on their website (argyllsmokery.com).

Where to stay

Sea View: The St Ives Guest House (stives-hotel.co.uk) offers elegant bedrooms and a fabulous breakfast with locally-laid eggs and salmon from the aforementioned smokery. Rooms from £95.

Central: The Argyll Hotel (sgehotelgroup.com) offers clean, modern décor, a lively bar and good food. Rooms from £60.

Cosy: Self-catering Yewtree Cottage in Kirn has an artistic interior and its own private garden. Go to Airbnb.co.uk for details and prices.

Secluded: Hunter’s Quay Holiday Village (argyllholidays.com), just outside Dunoon, offers lodges, cabins and caravans in a relaxed setting. It has its own leisure complex with pools, jacuzzi and gym, and offers a range of activities and entertainment for all ages and tastes. Breaks from £100 per person.

What to do nearby

Head to the beach. There are some stunners within a short drive of Dunoon, including Ostel Bay, Otter Bay and Ardentinny.

Historic Inveraray Castle and Jail, seat of the Duke of Argyll, sits on the banks of beautiful Loch Fyne an hour from Dunoon.

Once you’ve explored the castle, treat yourself to dinner at Inver, 40 minutes further down the loch, which has recently established itself as one of the best restaurants in Scotland. Says Eileen Wright: “Local oysters, crab, langoustines and halibut are among the mouth-watering highlights. It won’t be the cheapest meal you’ll partake of in Argyll but it will almost certainly be the most memorable.”

Over the next few weeks I'll be visiting Falkland, Comrie and Tarbert in Harris. Send your hints, tips and recommendations to marianne.taylor@heraldandtimes.co.uk