Everyone should have a bucket list of things they want to do before shuffling off in later life muttering “I wish I’d done that. ” So, with that in mind, one of the must-do items on that list should be a seaplane trip over the Western Highlands of Scotland.
And, for me, that lucky opportunity arose in July 2019 courtesy of Loch Lomond Seaplanes, located at Balloch on the outskirts of Glasgow.
So, with Mrs Grub and Travel Guides firmly ensconced beside me, off we tootled to the company’s current base at Cameron House Hotel. Note: Check access arrangements as building work on the fire-destroyed hotel means there is no current access from the main A82 Glasgow to Fort William route.
Europe’s only scheduled seaplane airline – celebrating 15 years of operation providing the travelling public with scheduled sightseeing tours with over 110,000 passengers flown – they provide passengers with the ability to visit the remoter areas of Scotland and the Loch Lomond National Park that cannot be accessed by road.
Loch Lomond Seaplanes (LLS) was established in 2003 by Captain David West and over the following four years he was forced to confront all the legal, regulatory and operational challenges presented by introducing the UK’s first seaplane airline in over fifty years – now Europe’s longest established scheduled seaplane service! LLS began its Scottish operations in April 2004. Commercial operations initially included scenic tours, charter flights, hotel/resort support and the very popular fly to lunch/dinner flights. In 2004, at the inception of commercial operations, LLS won, after a long and hard-fought public battle with the planning authorities, the right to operate the service from the newly formed Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.
From the initial booking through to the flight itself communication was superb, even down to an email warning of the Balloch Highland Games taking place on the day of our flight which may have meant extra traffic on our route, suggesting we allow a little extra time.
The company has a website and online bookings are possible. There are a number of flight options on offer to customers, ranging from £109 depending on the length of the flight. Be aware that the company’s website has a section where special offers will be advertised. There are also offers which pop-up on various voucher sites occasionally such as Wowcher, Groupon, and Itison. These are always worth a quick check online.
The company website is also well worth a visit as it contains a wealth of information, including how many TV adverts and film appearances the company has featured in including the soap drama Emmerdale, the 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, and the James Bond series, to name but a few. Here’s the link.
There is parking which is dedicated to seaplane customers. After a short five minute walk and you’ll arrive at the private dock where a member of staff will check you in. Be aware that all customers must arrive 30 minutes prior to the flight time. This allows staff to carry out a safety briefing before you embark and is mandatory.
There are no toilet facilities available at the dock so make sure you stop at the local boathouse restaurant, five minutes distance away from the parking area, before you depart on your flight.
The seaplane, a Cessna 208 Caravan Amphibian is fitted with 10 seats including the right-hand front seat next to the captain. Entry is gained via a double door at the rear of the plane and staff will help customers across the gangway. The website details restrictions for disabled customers, or those who may be carrying some extra weight, or, who are taller than usual. But I’m a big lad, and if I can shoehorn my ass into a seat, then you’ll have no trouble!
All seats have windows so there’s no need to be concerned as to whether you sit on the right or left-hand side of the plane. The captain, in our case, the company’s MD David West ensures that he circles points of interest so everyone has the opportunity to get some photographs no matter where they’re sitting.
Talking of David, he’s a larger-than-life character, full of fun, constantly cracking jokes and generally sets everyone at ease, particularly anyone who might be a little nervous.
All flyers are provided with a set of Wi-Fi headphones so you can listen to the interesting and helpful commentary also provided by David en route as you cross local landmarks. Shore staff will come aboard to ensure that all seatbelts are correctly fitted and secured and before you know it, the doors are locked, safety lines are untied, revs are increased and with David’s dulcet tones ringing in your ears, you’re off.
Now, a wee warning for those who have never flown in a seaplane before – it’s noisy, and, because you’re skimming across the top of the waves there’s a fair bit of bouncing and buffeting going on before the plane reaches its rotation speed and lifts off from the surface of the water. Another point to keep in mind is, this is a small plane and because your flight path crosses mountain tops, there are updraughts and crosswinds so, as David explains, and manages to hide the word turbulence so well, says you may feel a ripple or two!
Our flight, however, was very comfortable indeed and David seemed to know just when to skirt a mountain rather than going over the top – customer satisfaction and comfort is very definitely key for Loch Lomond Seaplanes.
Now, here’s another wee tip for you – don’t spend all your time glued to a tiny two-inch camera screen. You’ll suffer for it if you do. Keep your eyes on the scenery outside, by all means, snap all the pics you like, but then put the phone or camera away, sit back and enjoy the experience. Doing this means it’s very unlikely that you’ll suffer from air sickness.
Our flight departure time was 11.05am and luckily the weather was fine. Dry with a bit of cloud cover and sunny spells – perfect for viewing Scotland’s Western Highlands and the Trossachs – our intended route.
Flying at heights between 500 and 3,000 feet our route took us from the southern end of Loch Lomond where we viewed the various islands on the loch that mark out the Highland Boundary Fault see info here before flying north past Ben Lomond, Scotland’s most southerly Munro, to take in the incredible Arrochar Alps. These are mountains that are over a billion years old and were once connected to North America. We flew over Ben Arthur, the Cobbler, one of Scotland’s most climbed mountains, overlooking Loch Long and the breathtaking ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ route that winds through Glen Croe towards the west coast. We then flew over the isthmus between Tarbet and Arrochar and could only wonder and marvel at how the Vikings managed to pull their longships across it in 1263. The flight then turned east past Loch Sloy with a view north to Ardlui and the mountains overlooking Crianlarich and Tyndrum before passing to the north of Ben Lomond and into Loch Arklet on the trail of the first “Tartan Tours” offered by the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook in 1859.
From Loch Katrine, an engineering marvel that supplies Glasgow’s water purely by gravity, we flew east moving deeper into the Trossachs towards Loch Achray and the landscape, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott, which inspired writers and artists such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Hans Christian Anderson, Keats, Wordsworth and Eliot.
We even saw Rob Roy McGregor’s home and the farm where he married. From this height, it’s easily understood why the Trossachs was the favourite holiday destination of Queen Victoria. The flight then proceeds further east over Loch Venachar to the beautiful town of Callander before finally turning west once again towards the Lake of Menteith with its historic Inchmahome Priory. The Priory, dating back to 1238 was frequented by such historic figures as King Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots. From the Lake of Menteith the flight then skims over Loch Ard before approaching Loch Lomond once more via Conic hill on the eastern shore. Descent commences over the islands to the south before experiencing the amazing feeling of touching down on water.
Before we knew it, the 40-minute flight was over and we had landed back on Loch Lomond for taxing across to the dock.
As I mentioned at the start of this review an experience like this truly does belong on your bucket list. It was a remarkable experience, and for most of us, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a part of our homeland from a perspective we will never normally get.
If you get the chance – just do it. Don’t dither, don’t think about it, don’t wait thinking you’ll do it next year – book it now. You won’t be disappointed, I guarantee you.