OBAN, Scotland — This old port town is to Scotland what Brighton is to England, both having run the gamut from fashionable Georgian and Victorian Era seaside resorts for the royal and wealthy to lively, colorful and often crowded watering places that cater to a broader selection of Britons bent on a holiday by the sea.
What sets Oban apart from its Channel-coast cousin is its role as a working port, capital of the West Highlands and gateway to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. And while it's no longer the sleepy fishing village it was on our first visit three decades ago, Oban still has a goodly measure of the beauty and rustic charm we recognized then.
Beneath the soft skies of Scotland, northern Argyll has some of the most spectacular scenery of this storied land. Heather-blanketed Highland peaks slope down to a wild and jagged coastline backed by striking seascapes and silhouettes of islands in the Inner Hebrides beyond.
Shoreline caves were the dwellings of Stone Age hunters. Dr. Johnson and his diarist James Boswell were visitors in 1773 when Oban had "one tolerable inn." And more than a century later Queen Victoria pronounced the town "one of the finest spots we have seen," opening the door to Britain's upper crust.
Here to there: British Caledonian and British Airways get you to London nonstop, a shuttle on up to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Oban is 122 miles from Edinburgh, 93 from Glasgow, with daily bus and train service from Glasgow.
How long/how much? Give Oban a day, one or two more for ferry excursions to the isles of Mull, Iona or others in the Hebrides. We found dining costs moderate, lodging approaching expensive.
A few fast facts: The English pound recently cost us $1.63, making our dollar worth 61 cents here. Mid-May through October are best times for a visit, the gardens at their best in May-June and September. Rain is always likely, so bring a raincoat.
Getting settled in: Hotel Caledonian (on bay; $86 double B&B) is a shining example of 19th-Century Scottish architecture, all turrets, dormers, bay windows and solid stone facing. Rooms are huge, furnished in plain but comfortable manner, with "self-catering" coffee and tea gear at your bedside for morning. Full restaurant, and tours may be booked.
Columba (also on bay in town; $93 B&B double) has just had a refurbishing and is spiffy indeed. Contemporary room furnishings, great views from most of them, good restaurant.
Great Western (edge of town on bay; $93 B&B) is another Oban fixture, a member of the Scottish Highlands Hotel chain that goes for such up-to-date amenities as color TV in all rooms, several lounges and bars.
Hotel Royal (main square; $56 double, half-pension) is at center of shopping, with small rooms furnished in utilitarian fashion. The dining room is gigantic, but, like the bedrooms, lacking in charm.
Regional food and drink: Oban is still the fish market of the Western Highlands, and, if it swims, it's probably on the menu: trout, the lowly but delicious plaice, haddock, kippers, prawns, mussels and the undisputed king, salmon.
Scottish lamb and beef can't be faulted, particularly roasts and steaks of Highland beef cattle, noteworthy fare in this nation of beefeaters. And while haggis doesn't enjoy the highest reputation with non-Scots, this national dish made of sheep's innards and oatmeal should be tried, delicious as a patty with your eggs for breakfast.
Moderate-cost dining: Gateway (George Street) concentrates on seafood and a rather imaginative Italian menu for Scotland, such as cannelloni stuffed with crab meat and grilled, trout Siciliano poached in white wine with tomatoes, olives, mushrooms and garlic. A four-course menu for $12.50.
Hotel Columba has a family restaurant with steaks, chops, burgers and seafood all day. But the formal dining room is very lovely and very British, serving such as a brace of quail roasted and stuffed with mushrooms, sole grilled on the bone, pheasant souffle, an excellent wine card.
The Studio (Craigard Road) is a small place at top of hill off George Street. A husband-wife team turns out things such as argyll rice with prawns, mussels and salmon blended in a cream-and-mild-cheddar sauce. Basic wine list, six types of steaks and an early bird special menu.
Going first-class: Drive up the tree-tunneled lane to Glenfeochan House (Kilmore, south of Oban; $96-$128 B&B double) and you're sure it's right out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott, or maybe even Edgar Allan Poe. Towers, turrets and chimneys pierce the sky with Victorian flamboyance, a forest of rhododendrons, exotic shrubs and trees gracing five acres of the property's 350. Lochs and rivers seem right outside your bedroom window, the interiors a symphony of charm and good taste.