Getting to Iona Off Season – Public Transport and Car
Why travel off season? Are you an adventurous type, someone who prefers to avoid the busy tourist times or perhaps seeking a personal quiet retreat to reflect on life? An artist, poet or writer? Whatever the reason there are a few things that you will need to know to get the best out of a visit. Seeing Iona in it's winter clothing brings a whole different atmosphere; the only sounds are of the weather or local wildlife. It is easy to be truly quiet, the expansive horizons giving space to be if that is your need.
What to expect from a Scottish Island in Winter.
There is a feeling of expansiveness and deep calm, the rest after a busy season. Both Mull and Iona go mostly into hibernation in the winter and shops, if open, will have shorter opening hours. Cafes and restaurants away from larger centres also tend to be closed. There are a few B&Bs that do evening meals on Iona, otherwise the choice would be for self catering. The holiday lets have very reasonable rents during the winter season and this way you have complete freedom to create your stay to work for you. A good place to look is www.welcometoiona.com for options. The local community also has various clubs and socials during the winter and welcome everyone to join in!
How to plan your journey
The most important piece of information that you need to know is that the bus, train and the ferries in particular run a reduced winter service. Make sure that when planning the journey that you are looking at the “Winter Timetables’’. You may need to ring a company directly to confirm times. Travelling to Iona is a pilgrimage itself and will take approximately 6 hours from Glasgow.
By public transport
I would recommend the train as it is one of the most beautiful train journeys in Scotland. Take a picnic and enjoy the glorious Highland scenery for 3 hours.
Oban to Craignure – Calmac Ferry – there is no choice!
No booking is required as a foot passenger. Not every ferry from Oban connects with a bus across Mull so choose one that does. The last Oban ferry to connect with the Iona ferry is the 4pm. If travelling at 4pm you will need to book the last sailing to Iona (in the Oban Calmac office) as it operates only on request during the winter.
Craignure to Fionnphort – West Coast Motors bus.
There are no buses across Mull from Craignure to Fionnphort on a Sunday, and Craignure in the depths of winter (January and February) only has the Spar Shop for food, the Visit Scotland Ticket office and maybe the Charity Shop open. The Craignure Inn and Isle of Mull Hotel serve meals but worth checking opening times if you find yourself stranded waiting for a bus.
Fionnphort to Iona – Calmac Ferry
This ferry needs to be booked in the Winter if you are getting the last ferry of the day or on a Sunday. The last ferry leaves at 6.00pm to Iona. There is one ferry an hour except between 12.15 and 2.15pm when it stops for a long lunch!
Reversing the journey is easier as all buses from Fionnphort connect with a ferry to Oban from Craignure. If you want to leave on the first ferry Monday it leaves to take the School Children to Oban at 6.10am; Tuesday to Saturday it is at a more reasonable 7am. This ferry must be booked by 4pm of the previous day to travel. However the first train to connect from Oban to Glasgow is 12.11pm so you may as well have a lie in and get the 9.00 ferry!
What to pack to be able to enjoy the great outdoors
In one word ‘layers’ – Thermal underwear, a good quality water and windproof coat and trousers, 2 hats, 2 pairs of gloves and 2 scarves. So one can dry in between! Walking shoes, lovely slippers and of course wellingtons! Wool or fleece jumpers are also a must have.
Half the joy of being on Iona in the winter is being outside with the huge variety of elements! The wind can be ever present and rain horizontal but it can equally be totally still and sunny. The light and shade of the off season months are continually changing and dramatic, making each view different every day.
What else might you want to pack?
If wifi is an absolute necessity for you check that your place of stay has it. If a digital detox is the very thing for you then download some music and movies for a cosy night in. For wildlife watching bring binoculars and any photographic equipment that you might need. Other key items for you might be books, a journal, craft materials or projects. Once here you may wish to take part in local activities which might be on offer; these can include, yoga, pilates, tai-chi, book club, knitting kittens, badminton or singing and church services. If you happen to be on Iona on a Wednesday evening then the Argyll Hotel has a pub night and occasional quiz. The village notice board at the top of the pier keeps everyone up to date with what's on.
Where might I stay?
The Iona Eco Hostel (link) is open all year round and has a great kitchen and lounge area with views North onto the Treshnish Isles. Self catering is the norm here. It is a mile walk from the village so top up with supplies before leaving the village. There are also the Iona pods which are en route to the Hostel towards the north end of the Island. Each pod has a kettle and a microwave so be creative when choosing your food options. There are a couple of B&Bs that will do evening meals and your best source of information for Iona itself, is the community council website www.welcometoiona.com. The final option is to rent a self-catering cottage. To find out details of these you may need to call one of the hotels, in winter hours Monday-Friday, who can point you in the right direction.
What else is open?
On Iona all shops apart from the Abbey and the Spar are closed in January. Aside from these the Iona Craft shop is the first to open and the last to close. It is open from Tuesday-Saturday 10-4pm in November and most of December and is back open in February Tuesday to Saturday 11-3pm. It is a great place for a quality coffee and a biscuit! The 2 hotels are only open for special events like fish and chip nights and we are open every Wednesday evening for pub night. Historic Environment Scotland run the Abbey and this is open throughout the year but it would be worth checking times before you come.
Whatever you choose to do you will have beaches to yourself and time to move slowly and experience what it is to be a human being!