Although I have lived in the UK all my life, like many people who grew up within the confines of London, I have seen relatively little of my home country.
I haven’t set foot there Scotland until the age of 20, I never knew the majesty of the Lake District until years later, and hadn’t even been to Birmingham until this year.
There is something uniquely British about our reluctance to explore within our own borders. YouGov pollsters found a few years ago that the average British is more likely to have been in Paris than in Edinburgh, amsterdam than Nottingham, and almost twice as likely to have flown to New York than venturing to Belfast.
But between the pandemic limit international travel and climate crisis diminishing my own desire to fly to distant destinations, like many people, I want to travel within the country more than ever.
That’s why when I was offered to travel from Inverness to Belfast by boat, I jumped at the offer. A unique opportunity to navigate Loch Nessthrough the Inner Hebrides and dock in Belfast Titanic Trimester? Count on me.
I undertook an 11 day trip on a Thames barge
The trip was on the magnificent Snark, a new steel-hulled vessel, sail barge – often known as the Thames barge. Being my first time on a boat like this, I wasn’t sure what to expect – and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure the Snark is remotely representative of similar vessels.
Led by Paul and Qiao, the skipper and mate (and also husband and wife), the boat serves as residence during the winter months, before being used to take guests on sailing holidays when the weather warms up.
Paul, former international marine on racing yachts, and Qiao are both trained architects – which means the living quarters on board are, perhaps unsurprisingly, beautifully designed.
From the well-equipped galley to the ingenious guest cabin layouts, every detail of Snark is meticulously thought out, making it an exceptionally pleasant space to live in.
Which was good news, because it would be my home for 11 days.
I was one of four guests, a diverse group in terms of background, age and outlook. This seems to be fairly typical of Snark’s clientele, attracting some people with a particular interest in sailing, others with a deep passion for sailing. environmentand others who just want to try something new.
This combination of personalities, along with the fascinating journeys of Paul and Qiao, resulted in lively and memorable conversations at the table.
All the food is prepared by Paul – a wonderful cook – with a very varied menu (despite his claims to the contrary at the start). And there are plenty of great drink options too, all included in the price.
Sailing is more about the journey than the destination
We started our journey in Invernesswhere we would sail down the Caledonian Canal, through 29 locks, four lochs (yes they are different), before finally ending the Scottish part of our journey at Corpach on the west coast.
Because of the lock keeper shortages and the threat of high winds, we had to make some adjustments to our itinerary – but the joy of a trip like this is the flexibility. Being at mother nature’s behest means things should always stay relatively loose.
As a chronic over-planner and self-confessed control freak, there was something incredibly liberating in knowing that as long as I got to Belfast in time for my flight home – I had no obligation to be n anywhere or do anything for the next 10 days. It was a rather unfamiliar feeling, I admit.
Although I have traveled extensively overseas (less domestically as noted earlier), rarely do I take a trip more focused on journey than the destination. It took some getting used to, as most of the time our daily plan was just to ‘get to that mooring point’ or ‘get deeper into that loch’ – with no tight schedule.
Instead of researching things to see in upcoming towns or looking for swimming spots along our way, I spent my time lying on deck reading, basking in the glorious sunshine as we sailed on Loch Ness, admiring the scenery of the magnificent scottish highlandsand do a bit of yoga (in addition to his multitude of other talents, Qiao is also a yoga teacher with mats, books, and blocks galore).
For the first half of the trip, we were moored on pontoons near locks, which provided ample opportunity to explore the areas traversed. Fort Augustus was particularly beautiful, while the arthouse cinema in Fort William was my favorite little find. It also left me plenty of time to run along the towpaths, enjoy the impressive network of electric bikes in the region, and even offer me an exceptionally cold place of wild nature swimming.
By the time we reached Neptune’s Staircase – a towering series of eight locks that can take hours to navigate, near the end of the Caledonian Canal – the weather had changed somewhat and Ben Nevis was obscured by towering clouds . Personally, I enjoyed the moodiness this created, as I’m convinced Scottish landscapes look even better with ‘atmospheric’ lighting.
Finally, several days after leaving Inverness, we passed through Corpach Lock – our last lock of the voyage – and crossed Loch Linnhe and then, for the first time, out to sea…this is where I learned that I was suffering from an intense seasickness.
Boating 101: Bring enough anti-nausea pills to power a small army
Reader, it is important to let you know that I have spent over 20 years of my life in and around the water. I’m only 28, so proportionally that’s a big part of my existence.
I was a competitor swimmer, before later competing for Great Britain in kayaking and triathlon. Water is my happy place; I have spent a large part of my life both in it and on it. I say this because this next section will make you wonder why the hell I signed up for this trip.
As soon as we set sail, I felt a dizziness that I hadn’t felt on the canals and lakes. Perhaps arrogantly, I had believed myself immune to seasickness – which potentially made the experience all the more intense.
Despite wearing anti-seasickness strips, taking all the anti-nausea pills I could safely consume, and chewing more ginger cookies than is probably healthy, nothing seemed to work.
Most irritating of all, everyone seemed remarkably well – whereas I, one night in particular while anchored somewhere off the Slate Islands, had trouble sleeping without getting up to vomit every 20 minutes . At this point my greedy reading (I completed four books in the first three days of the trip) had to stop, as it was definitely making things worse.
What helped, however, was sitting on deck obsessively searching for marine life (dolphins or porpoises, I was not picky). The Inner Hebrides is a nature lover’s dream, with abundant flora and fauna to focus on. Didn’t see as many dolphins as I might have liked, but there’s no greater thrill than spotting a dorsal fin in the waters around you.
It was while sailing through these bays and coves that I realised, for the first time on the trip, that I was seeing a part of the UK – my home country – that I would never have been able to see without the Snark .
Sure, it’s possible to holiday on the Isle of Mull or stay a few nights in Oban – but you can’t see the seals dozing under Fladda Lighthouse or the sun setting behind the ruins of an ancient Castle at the tip of Kerrera Island, unless you are on a boat. There are things you can only truly experience from the water.
My nausea during this section was certainly outweighed by the privilege of being able to see sights that even locals will never be able to appreciate.
Sailing offers slow travel and introspection with a sense of adventure
After a few days exclusively at sea, we stopped on the beautiful island of Islay, home to the Lagavulin whiskey distillery – not my favorite drink, but I’m a huge ‘Parks and Rec’ fan and I couldn’t help but pay homage to my favorite Ron Swanson scene.
After that I spent the day Trekexploring the beautiful island and trying to regain my sense of balance.
Once back on the boat, the sequel was in store rather rough – or “rolly” as Paul likes more euphemistically to refer to waves that frankly seem huge to me – crossing the Irish Sea, and suddenly we were at a distance touching Northern Irish coast.
Having never been to Northern Ireland (or watched “Game of Thrones”), I had little to no expectations. I knew I would probably enjoy Belfast as a city, but I was unprepared for the beauty of the coast. We anchored off Cushendun and I was constantly making mental notes of where to return and explore properly.
The next day we headed to Belfast. After 10 days so distant, it was shocking to pass huge cruise liners and the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes.
While I know a lot of people fall into the “definitely urban” or “definitely rural” category, I’m absolutely torn between the two. So when we stopped in Belfast Harbor Marina I was delighted – but not relieved – to be in a town.
After one night in Belfast – including a somewhat untimely and naively planned night run to look at the murals on my own – our trip was over. I could write an entire article about my 24 hours in Belfast, but I’ll spare you that here. I will say that Beflast is an absolute treasure, and I am well aware that I have only scratched the surface of what is on offer in this beautiful, vibrant and fragile city.
Unlike any vacation I’ve had before, my time on the Snark didn’t go by in a flash. It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it doesn’t mean negatively.
Rather, I think it’s a reflection of what happens when you focus on the journey rather than the destination. There wasn’t a rigid itinerary with things to check off each day, just a slower style of travel that we’re just not used to these days.
Next year, Paul and Qiao will take their guests aboard the Snark for a Baltic voyage, via Boulogne, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. If you fancy a more introspective vacation experience – albeit still with an adventurous spirit – you might want to join them.
Watch the video above to learn more about life aboard the Snark.