On a pleasant Saturday afternoon in October an international assembly of German, Belgian, Dutch and American whisky lovers meet on the quay of the picturesque harbour town of Oban, on the Scottish west coast.
Next to the praised Ee-Usk fish restaurant they find a well-kept, solidly moored two-master. The place is appropriate, since this ship, built in 1903, was built especially for the herring fleet and originally baptised Machiël. A good century later, after various name changes and renovations, captain Klaas van Twillert purchased the vessel and refurbished it in 2002 into a beautiful charter ship, naming it The Flying Dutchman.
The ship can hold 20 people plus a three-man crew. Today 18 passengers board to enjoy Scotland from the water for the next seven days. Of course we brought a special dram aboard and opened a bottle of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, SMSW No. 39, an elegant 26-years-old single malt named Magical & Heavenly. In hindsight that would sum up the entire trip.
Klaas’ wife Inge is the cook and serves a delicious chilli con carne with salad and tortilla chips. Dessert is key lime pie with strawberries. All present concur about the quality of whisky, wine and beer. It is an excellent start. People happily retreat to their cosy cabins for the night.
At sunrise I get up to sit on deck and write in my travel log. The crisp morning air is inviting and after a while I decide to take a wee walk around the harbour, which creates a healthy appetite for breakfast. Around 10am the entire group goes to shore for a heart-warming tour of Oban Distillery.
Everyone is free for lunch and we end up on the other side of the harbour at a hole in the wall that serves excellent seafood. We enjoy succulent scallops smothered in garlic butter, a handful of oysters on the half-shell and a portion of peeled langoustines. Why not? We are in a fishing port after all.
Then it is time to sail to Tobermory, capital of the Isle of Mull, where we arrive late in the afternoon. The evening is spent in the well-known Mishnish Pub – a distinct yellow building across the bay from our anchorage.
After breakfast we walk to the notable Tobermory Distillery, built in 1789, and have to wait a little until the doors open at 10am sharp – in this part of Scotland a spade is a spade. It’s worth the wait since the tour is very entertaining not least because our guide Alison perfectly blends her extensive knowledge with a healthy dose of good-natured humour. At the end of the tour, distillery manager Graham Brown has a treat for the company. We are to taste head-to-head two 18-years-old Ledaigs, the peaty variety of Tobermory. One grew up in an ex-Bourbon barrel and one in an ex-sherry butt. It is really interesting to compare what two different casks do with the same spirit.
We cannot linger too long, since The Flying Dutchman wants to set sails rapidly, in order to reach Ardnamurchan Distillery on the eponymous peninsula later in the day. This brand new 21st century distillery is a beautiful contrast with the previous one from the 18th century. We cannot moor at the pier because that part of the bay is too shallow and are ferried in three groups to the shore by helmsman Alex. From there it is a 10-minute walk through beautiful natural surroundings before we arrive at the distillery. Since it has been producing for only a couple of years, there is no mature whisky to be had. Luckily distillery manager Fraser Hughes and tour guide Sophie have a tasty alternative with a beautiful Glenborrodale blended malt, containing Glenrothes, Highland Park, Tamdhu and Bunnahabhain. For good measure Fraser pours a stunning 21-years-old Bunna single malt as ‘one-for-the-road’. Independent bottler Adelphi owns Ardnamurchan, that’s why he can offer us such delicacies.
Back on board, Inge treats us to a delicious curry with potatoes and fish. Captain Klaas decides to motor in the dark for a while and I join him at the helm. It is pitch black when we anchor in a little bay at the mouth of the Sound of Mull for a good night’s rest.
Hoist the sails at dawn! We are expected at Ben Nevis Distillery in the afternoon for a tour and tasting conducted by none other than Colin Ross, a dear friend of ours and a real icon in the Scottish whisky industry, with more than 50 years of experience under his belt. Alas, the wind dies down and we have to motor all the way. The passengers do not particularly mind, since they have all the time to capture on camera the beautiful autumn colours on the tree littered hills framing Loch Lhinne. Around two in the afternoon we pass Fort William and enter the basin where the Caledonian Canal starts, via two small locks. From there it is only a 15 minute walk to the distillery where Colin awaits us and takes all the time to present the place where he has been working since the late 1980s. His assistant conducts a tasting afterwards where we enjoy the standard 10-years-old Ben Nevis single malt, next to a 12-years-old Dew of Ben Nevis blend, an unaged expression finished in an ex-white port pipe and a peated creature named Old MacDonald. Colin would love to see The Flying Dutchman and comes back to the ship with us. For the occasion we open another SMWS bottling, No. 3, titled Time For A Break. It is the perfect companion for pasta marinara with shrimp, calamari and mussels. That night all aboard have trouble falling asleep, excited about the adventure that awaits us the next day when we will conquer the famous eight steps of the old Roman Sea God…
The entrance to the Caledonian Canal from the Fort William basin consists of a series of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase. The Flying Dutchman is one of the longest vessels able to fit in the locks, and we attract many spectators during the hours of climbing. The canal itself is a 60-mile long waterway designed by the famous Scottish architect Thomas Telford, also responsible for the famous red railroad bridge over the Firth of Forth at Edinburgh and the turreted Craigellachie Bridge in Speyside. Telford started the canal in 1803 and it would take 19 years to complete it. In fact only a third of the distance between Fort William and Inverness earns the title ‘canal’, referring to the parts that connect the water masses known as Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. During the entire trip we will encounter 28 locks, four aqueducts and 10 turn bridges, before arriving in Inverness’ Muirtown Basin. From there only one lock is left, the one that offers access to Beauly Firth and the sea.
This is a day where we cover quite a stretch. A beautiful journey with turning bridges and lakes we have often admired from the road when driving to the north. Seeing it from the water now is totally different and very interesting. The landscape varies by the half hour. We pass a lake, enter into another canal stretch, sometimes through a wooded area, then through flatlands. The Caledonian Canal follows the Great Glen and was built to offer merchant ships that did not want to sail around Scotland from Oban to Inverness a shortcut. But that was 1822. Today mostly recreational boats and chartered ships with tourists use the canal. In the evening we dock in a lock at the end of Loch Laggan and walk to a ship nearby that doubles as a pub and enjoy a couple of pints before dinner.
It is 8:30am when we leave the lock and sail on the stretch of canal that will take us to Loch Oich, which offers a quick and quiet crossing. We have to motor, because again the wind fails, but no one cares. Everybody is drinking in the stunning scenery. Around midday we arrive in Fort Augustus. At this point the canal descends again and for that to happen we need to conquer five locks in a row, which will take a few hours. It gives us time to go ashore, find a pub with wi-fi and catch up with emails and such, since The Flying Dutchman does not offer internet facilities, deliberately.
When we walk back to The Flying Dutchman we notice a small crowd watching, as usual. It’s not only the impressive size of the ship in the locks. One of our passengers is a German gentleman who dresses up every morning after breakfast as a sailor of the German Navy. His costume dates from the 1950s and it is from the now-extinct German Democratic Republic. Actually, he resembles more of a pirate than a navy man in it. Many onlookers beg for a picture with him and he cordially cooperates. Early on during the trip he allowed me to call him our ship’s ‘personal pirate’.
It is 3pm when we have taken the last lock and enter Loch Ness. Now it’s getting really exciting. Are we going to spot the monster or not? Everybody on board scans the loch from west to east, from north to south. Many pictures are taken and when we moor in a bay close to the village of Drumnadrochit, after having passed the ruins of Urquhart Castle, each passenger claims to have taken an image of Nessie, but nobody wants to show the evidence… except maybe… Becky.
The dinghy ferries us to shore where a whisky dinner awaits us at the Fiddler Inn, run by the Beach family since 1996. This great pub and restaurant that doubles as a B&B has won the coveted Whisky Bar of the Year Award from the Scottish Licensed Trade News at least four times. Proprietor Jon Beach and his father Dick, who reminds me of a Scottish version of Ernest Hemingway, have adorned the walls of the pub with Dick’s collection of whiskies, about 1,400 in all and counting. They are for tasting, not collecting. Jon has a special surprise for us in stock and before we start to eat, we savour a Crawford blend from the 1970s, followed by a private bottling of an 18-years-old Springbank and a 1970 Knockando. I enjoy venison salami and steak for dinner. The food at the Fiddler is outstanding. A taxi brings us all back to the pier, in three trips. That night we sleep on Loch Ness. Well, sleep isn’t quite accurate; we are kept awake most of the night by a banging and clanging sound and cannot escape the eerie thought that something is circling the ship. At long last, we fall asleep and dream about Nessie.
Captain Klaas punches a big hole in that dream at breakfast. During the night the anchor chain had turned several times and produced the clanking sound. So much for monsters. Around 9:30am we leave the bay and set sail for Inverness, the last leg of the trip. Until today we’ve experienced the most beautiful autumn weather we could have wished for, with lots of sunshine and not too rough a wind, but now the skies are leaden coloured and a cold breeze tugs at our sleeves. It’s getting colder by the minute so we repair to the large and cosy saloon, one with a book, the other with a laptop to write and download images, all for this article as you can imagine!
At 1:30pm The Flying Dutchman arrives at the first of the last four locks we will take before entering the marina at Inverness.
There Donald Colville, the amiable global ambassador of Diageo’s malts, awaits us with a final whisky tasting to accompany the Captain’s Dinner. Donald has brought some real beauties: a Singleton Signature (destined for the Asian market only), a Caol Ila Feis Ile bottling from 2006 and as the pièce de résistance, a 21-years-old Oban. That final dram seems very appropriately chosen as we come full circle, having left Oban Distillery a week earlier.
After breakfast all passengers cordially greet each other for the last time, friends for life. That afternoon a new group will board The Flying Dutchman to sail the ship back home to The Netherlands for the winter. We take a cab to Inverness Airport and fly back to Schiphol Amsterdam, still enjoying the adventure of the week past, a journey through breath-taking scenery, marinated in a fine dram or two, three. Whether you love nature, whisky, or both, this is a trip well worth taking.
For more info about The Flying Dutchman see: