Rothesay, Isle of Bute

The Wishing Fountain, Rothesay

For years Rothesay was a prime holiday destination for hordes of Glaswegians who would take a trip "doon the watter" for some sea air. Thanks to its beautiful setting on the Isle of Bute, and well-preserved Victorian seaside architecture it is still popular (but not as much as it should be), and is easy to reach by public transport making it an ideal place if you suddenly decide you want to get away from it all.

The pleasure starts as soon as you get on the ferry at Wemyss (pronounced "Weems") Bay (or before if you've got the train into its glorious Victorian station). The sailing only take 35 minutes and it's a beautiful trip across the Firth of Clyde. You might associate Scottish island life with crofts and sleepy villages but even from the boat Rothesay's solid Victorian villas and sandstone tenements give a hint of its bustling past.

When you get off the ferry take a right and the Grade 'A' listed Winter Gardens, now the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre will help you find your bearings. The gardens outside are beautifully kept - immaculately clipped and colourful. You can have a game of putting or make a wish in the Wishing Fountain, gifted to the town in 1961. And if you walk along the prom you can enjoy the view over to the Cowal Peninsula. One thing that's so special about Rothesay, and indeed the whole of Bute, is that here a sea view doesn't mean just sea, it means layers and layers of hills and mountains from neighbouring islands and mainland. I'm not always sure what I'm looking at but I know I like it.

Continue past the Winter Gardens to Rothesay Pavilion, one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Scotland described at the time of its opening as 'uncompromisingly Moderne and stylish, [it] captures something of the boldness of Mendlesohn and Chermayeff’s only just completed Bexhill Pavilion’. Now used for concerts and discos the Pavilion also has a cafe which is open during the summer.

Enjoy a Top Hat in Rothesay

Once you have regaled yourself with tea you can walk back towards the town centre and enjoy some of its other delights. There is a castle with a moat which was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. Originally the castle was on the coast - the coastline you see today is built on land reclaimed from the sea. Near the Castle is The Serpentine, an extremely narrow, hilly road that snakes down the hill in a series of hairpin bends, much like San Francisco's Lombard Street. If you can make it up the stairs at the side you'll get a great view across the town.

In Rothesay though, the best pastime is wandering along the front eating chips and ice cream. Take note - there is a local delicacy which shouldn't be missed. Invented by the Zavaroni family (yes, as in Lena) who have a number of fish and chip shops along the front, a Top Hat is an ice cream cone topped with a snowball (mallow covered with chocolate and coconut). The snowball ice is itself a highlight of any Scots-Italian cafe menu so making this delicious dish portable deserves top marks.

As you make your way back to the ferry have a pit stop in the Victorian toilets. They were commissioned in 1899 when Rothesay was at the height of its popularity, and like the rest of the town have been well-preserved. In Rothesay, even spending a penny is a pleasure. If you have longer, the rest of the island is worth exploring too and if I were you I'd never go home again.

How to get there

Rothesay is on the Isle of Bute, just off the west coast of Scotland. Caledonian MacBrayne operate regular ferries from Wemyss Bay-Rothesay. Trains to Wemyss Bay tie in with the times of the sailings. You can take cars and bikes if you're planning to explore but a day trip is perfectly manageable on foot.


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