Transport Potpourri: A Ferry, Bus, and Train from Islay to London (A Cranky Travelogue)

Trip Reports

After finishing up tasting at Caol Ila, it was time to begin the long journey home via ferry, bus, train, subway, and finally airplane. I had a momentary sense of dread when I realized that from the time I boarded the ferry, it would be about 36 hours before I’d step off the airplane in Los Angeles. There were faster ways to go, but this best combined a sense of adventure and beauty with comfort, or so I thought.

Even though the weather was good and the seas were calm, there was a chaotic scene unfolding with the ferry. The day before, half the crew on one of the vessels had come down with a stomach illness, so they had to pull it out of service to do a deep clean. That sent the schedules into flux as CalMac, the operator, scrambled to run as much of a schedule as it could. In some cases, the ferries were delayed. In others, they were moved from one Islay terminal in Port Ellen up to Port Askaig. Yet somehow, through the madness, my ferry remained right on time.

The ferries are a lifeline to Islay, but they’re also a point of frustration. They carry passengers, personal cars, and cargo all together. Cargo gets priority, so it can be a real challenge for people who need cars to make sure they can get on. I saw more than one person on the island shake their heads in disbelief that there wasn’t at least a dedicated cargo ferry. As needs increase, I imagine that will have to happen.

I walked up to the port to see the mighty Finlaggan. Built less than a decade ago, this still counts as the “new” ferry serving the island. Lower decks are for cars and trucks. Passengers board on to deck 4 which, along with deck 5, is where travelers congregate. We must have had a light passenger load because everyone was able to spread out and find their own corner. The deck for cars and cargo, however, was packed.

There was a small store and bar along with a cafe onboard. I took a seat and watched as we squeezed in between Islay and Jura before making a beeline for the mainland.

The ferry was quiet and smooth, and it gave me time to read. While the scenery was nice, we spent a fair bit of time further from land so the haze prevented excellent views. Near the end, however, we entered West Loch Tarbert, a long and narrow body of water that nearly severs this finger of land from the mainland. Nearly.

Kennacraig, the end point of the line, is a bit more than halfway up the waterway on the right side. We docked on time, and I went out to wait for my bus. The buses are fortunately timed to meet with the ferry, so it was only scheduled to be about a 15 to 20 minute wait.

That time was possibly my favorite part of the ferry experience. I sat in front of the small terminal building and watched the dance of trucks, tankers, cars, and vans as they jockeyed for position, waiting to race onboard once the inbound vehicles had exited. It was like watching a game of Tetris as different trucks were summoned to board at different times.

The dance wasn’t done when my bus pulled up, but I obviously had to leave. I heaved my now whisky-heavy bag into the hold and climbed onboard what really was more of a coach. The bus had started somewhere else, because there were already probably about 15 people onboard. I found an empty row and sat down.

We waited a few minutes as people finished up their smoke breaks. One of those people came back on and brought a fresh layer of cigarette smoke wafting into the cabin. He then sat right behind me. I was comfortably-seated and tried to hold out, but once the guy in front of me started coughing uncontrollably, I picked up my stuff and trudged further back to another empty row.

As the crow flies, a trip from Kennacraig to Glasgow would not take very long. But there are lakes and inlets snaking in and out of the lowlands, so it requires a roundabout way. The payoff is that the scenery is truly stunning. Early on, there were idyllic pasture lands hugging the water.

That’s enjoyable but it is nothing compared to the craggy, soaring mountains and picturesque lakes that followed.

I think the windows had some tint on them, because my photos didn’t come out the way I expected. Still, you get the idea.

The most spectacular of all was the trip through a national park and its centerpiece, Loch Lomond. I didn’t get many photos, because I was too busy actually enjoying the scenery. But I did get this:

Once we were through the park, I was done. The seats weren’t particularly comfortable, and the twists and turns had me me a little carsick. The ride through the Glasgow suburbs seemed interminable as we made stop after stop.

Finally, we pulled into the Buchanan Bus Station in downtown Glasgow just as the last rays of light were fading. I was thrilled to get off into the crisp night air, and I was looking forward to stretching my legs.

Glasgow has more than one train station downtown, and my train, the regally-named Caledonian Sleeper would be leaving from Glasgow Central. It didn’t look far on the map but with my heavy bags, it took longer than I thought. I rolled into the station sweating, and began looking for the lounge which I could use since I had purchased a Club cabin ticket for the train.

It took awhile, but I found someone who pointed me to the Virgin Trains First Class lounge. It was 9:40pm and my train wouldn’t leave for two hours yet I was told the lounge closed at 10. That was frustrating until I learned that the train actually began boarding at 10.

The lounge itself was entirely empty, and it was nothing even remotely special. It had some rotting fruit and a few drinks but nothing more. I had hoped for a bathroom so I didn’t have to lug my bags further, but there wasn’t one. I just opted to call home and wait until they kicked me out at 10.

Right as promised, the attendant came in and closed up shop. I made my way over to track number 10 where the train was ready and waiting. There were two people blocking the boarding area, checking tickets before allowing anyone to pass. I could only marvel at the conversation between the two of them, because I couldn’t understand a word. There is truly nothing quite like the Glaswegian accent.

One of the agents took my boarding pass and spoke slowly to ask if I had taken the Caledonian Sleeper before. I told her I had not, so she gave me a pamphlet about the services and amenities on board. With that, I walked on to find cabin 6 in car L.

This was not what I was expecting. I had reserved a Club room which was supposed to have a full ensuite bathroom. This looked an awful lot like the classic room which has only a sink hiding under the blue counter.

I learned later that this ancient train had no ensuite bathrooms at all. It didn’t even have a shower anywhere on the train. Instead, I was given the option of getting a token to get into the Virgin Lounge in London upon arrival where I could shower. I wasn’t happy about having paid more for this, so I sent a request to have the difference refunded (about GBP 40). Two weeks later to the day, I received this response:

On our website it does advise the following

To ensure greater clarity for guests, anyone who books travel for June 2019 or later is now able to select from one of our new accommodation options which include en-suite rooms with double beds. Those looking to travel earlier than June 2019 will continue to select from the current transitional ticket options. Once we have an exact date for the new trains to enter service, our booking system will be updated.

This clearly advises that we are unable to sell the Club or Classic rooms with en-suite until June onwards. If you are to look at the website for June onwards you will be given the different options as the service would be expected to be the new fleet.

Apparently you had to look on the train-specific page to see that what you’re buying is not actually what they offer in the booking process, at least until June. I have a bad taste in my mouth about this, but I digress…

On the bed was a door hangar where I could fill out my breakfast request. I opted for a bacon sandwich, but I couldn’t actually write that down. The pencil they provided had no lead in it (or graphite, for that matter). I had no pen on me, so I hunted someone down a couple cars away. I also noted I’d want a shower token on there as well.

The cabin was a pretty drab place that looked weathered. The corners were all dirty and the controls were worn. This place had seen much better days. On the bright side, the bed seemed to be quite comfy. I could only scratch my head when I found the toiletries for showering which couldn’t actually be used on a train with no shower.

The ride down to London was only scheduled for about 7 1/2 hours, so I wanted to sleep for most of the ride. But I hadn’t eaten dinner, and we had boarded so early that I figured I’d go to the lounge car and have a bite.

I took a seat and was greeted by an older woman who seemed like she had done this for many years. I didn’t want a huge meal at that time of night, so I just went with a Ploughman’s sandwich. It was soggy with very little substance actually on the bread. Unsatisfied, I gave up and went back to my cabin to get some sleep.

Even though the bed was comfortable, it was narrow and I had trouble falling asleep. In fact, I didn’t fall asleep until after we had started moving. Then I had a fitful night. Apparently the train should go much faster than this but to give a full night of sleep, it goes slow and starts and stops on side tracks (I’m told). The jerkiness would wake me up from my shallow slumber every so often.

I woke up for good at about 6:30am to see that we were pulling into Euston station already. I had requested breakfast at 6:45am, so that hadn’t arrived yet. Fortunately they weren’t kicking anyone off the train even though it had pulled into the station.

As I went to use the bathroom at the end of the car, the attendant arrived with my breakfast. He just put it on the tray above my bed, and it was waiting when I returned.

The bacon sandwich I had for breakfast was actually pretty tasty, and I’m sad to say that was the highlight of the experience. Just a few days later, the Caledonian Sleeper rolled out its newest rail stock with fancy cabins and all that. Maybe it’ll be worth trying again in the future, but for now I’m just going to be glad I can check the box saying I’ve done it once.

After finishing breakfast, I exited the train and looked for the lounge. It was packed with commuters and there was a line five people deep for the shower. Having nowhere to be for awhile, I just stood and waited. It felt good to wash the train off of me, and once I was done, I realized just how tired I was. So, I sat in the lounge, had some tea, and read the newspaper to try to wake myself up. It worked.

After that I decided to wander around London. It was an overcast day and the brief sprinkle of rain was the only precipitation I saw on the whole trip. I wandered down through the streets toward Covent Garden and then met a friend for coffee/tea near Piccadilly Circus. By noon, I was tired of lugging my bag around and decided it was time to go to Heathrow. I walked with my friend toward his office and then descended underground to take the Piccadilly line to the airport.

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18 comments on “Transport Potpourri: A Ferry, Bus, and Train from Islay to London (A Cranky Travelogue)

  1. Wow! What an adventure, Brett. I’d be cranky too seeing that train room. Can’t wait to hear about your Air New Zealand leg.

  2. Definitely worth highlighting that by all reports the quality of the new sleeper trains that arrived now is substantially better

  3. Why does the train need to go slowly, rather than just wait longer at the station?

    A long long time ago there was an overnight Boston–New York–Washington sleeper train, which stopped by New York at 2 or 3 AM (both directions). You could get on a dedicated sleeper car in New York at a reasonable bedtime (something like 10 or 11 PM, not sure), and the car would wait at Penn Station until the the train came from Boston, then join the train to Washington. If you were going from Washington to New York, there was a sleeper car that was unhooked from the train in New York, and you could stay on it and sleep until a reasonable time (6 or 7 AM). I’m not sure if they also provided dedicated New York sleeper cars to/from Boston. The train still runs, but with no sleeper service at all.

    1. Ron – I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. Maybe they needed the platform or maybe it’s just the way they set it up.

    2. I can’t speak to the current schedule, but the previous iteration of the train with sleepers Washington-Boston and Washington-New York had its schedule set up to slow-roll so that it would also be appealing to suburban DC and Boston as well as Providence and Baltimore passengers. The couple of times I took it I was extremely happy that the train was timed at BWI Airport and Back Bay for a “reasonable” hour instead of the normal NEC timetable which would put it a couple of hours earlier/later.

  4. Your train experience in the UK was unfortunately not rare, they are a shambles. The franchise system isn’t working, nationalisation isn’t the answer, and the politicians don’t have the guts to make brave decisions.

      1. Nothing to do with Brexit. I meant bravely dump the one train company per route franchise system and make it competitive for private operators. Not possible on all routes, but Sweden has made competition work on some big routes, so it’s feasible.

  5. I believe a person would really have to enjoy travel, and planning it, to endure everything as you have written about it. If you enjoy it, do it, while you can.

    Wonderful write-up. Thanks!

  6. Did you ever try Nannybag or other similar services to store your luggage? I used it in London a year ago and it worked well.

    1. efpocuch – That wouldn’t have done me any good since I wasn’t returning to the same place. I was progressively making my way through the city.

      1. True. I missed that. But I just wanted to mention that I only learned about those luggage storage apps last year, and it’s really convenient (if you’re actually going back, mind you). Great series BTW. I enjoy your posts particularly when they are not too US-centric.

  7. hi Brett: I relish the details in your narratives.. and I feel a kinship as a fellow geek.We are lucky to enjoy the fine points while those around us are oblivious. Keep up the good work.. I laughed out loud at this , “The bacon sandwich I had for breakfast was actually pretty tasty, and I’m sad to say that was the highlight of the experience.” CJTaylor

  8. “I walked with my friend toward his office and then descended underground to take the Piccadilly line to the airport.”

    Good to know you took the best form of transport to Heathrow. Will wait for the write up on that.

    Re your tired short visit to London (I’m originally from London and was there last week) I’ve had similar issues in other cities, notably Seoul and Hong Kong. I’ve been ready to go sightseeing but have felt zonked out after an hour so headed back to the airport.

    Looking forward to the final episode with T2 again. And the big question – which lounge?

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