Everything has changed over the past year or so, and just like people, some towns and cities are looking a bit tired.
Not so, Fort William.
My impression is that it has used the time to give itself a makeover and tempt visitors to linger and enjoy some of the indoor attractions in the town often referred to as The Outdoor Capital of the UK.
If you can drag your eyes away from the dramatic scenery – giant snow-topped mountains; deep lochs which switch quickly between sparkling mirror calm to wild and choppy; plus regular sightings of wildlife ranging from deer to porpoises, then you’re in for a treat.
During our three-day visit we enjoyed a variety of indoor and outdoor experiences, yet only scratched the surface of what’s on offer here.
First stop was the family-run Highland Soap Company’s new venue on the north side of the town, just off the A82.
Situated next to the ruins of historic Inverlochy Castle and picturesque River Lochy, it’s home to a soap factory offering tours and workshops; a chic and stylish visitor centre/gift shop and a superb cafe/restaurant with outdoor area offering unrivalled views of Ben Nevis.
The company was founded by Emma Parton, who began making organic soaps in her kitchen at home and now sells to stockists in Scotland, Europe and North America.
Emma was the hostess with the mostest for our soap-making workshop, which was great fun as we sniffed our way through a variety of scents, botanicals and colours creating our own, unique soap bars.
Afterwards, we tucked into a fine lunch in the cafe, which offers visitors a taste of Fort William via lots of locally-sourced produce.
Our favourites included wild venison salamis from Great Glen Charcuterie, fish tacos, and a warm black pudding salad – all sourced locally.
A post-lunch walk through the town centre revealed a good mix of independent and national stores, as well as points of historic interest.
Among them, our hotel – The Garrison – previously a police station now converted into a boutique-style venue with quirky decor and interesting features, including rooms created from former cells.
It’s well placed for local attractions, including the new independent Highland Cinema, which is nothing short of fabulous.
It’s the brainchild of owner Angus MacDonald, and its design pays homage to traditional Highland bothies with a red corrugated roof and walls made from stones from an old sheep farm at Glen Nevis.
It houses two cinemas, with walls partially clad in MacDonald tartan, and a stunning bar/restaurant with cathedral ceiling and big windows overlooking Cameron Square.
The menu showcases local produce via sharing platters, pizzas and delicious Highland tapas.
Incidentally, Angus also owns an independent bookshop in the town, while the family is also connected to Highland Soap as his son, Archie, is a director with the firm.
Amazing that one family is doing so much to breathe life into the town.
After a restful night and good breakfast we met up with Anna Danby, of Wild Roots Highland Guiding, for a guided walk to the base of the cliffs on the North Face of Ben Nevis.
Anna, who worked for a decade at Dynamic Earth, is a font of knowledge when it comes to the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area, and shared stories while walking at a pace which suited everyone.
Stopping regularly to admire the views, which are spectacular, she also read from a book telling the story behind the CIC hut – an Alpine-style mountain hut which has provided shelter to thousands of mountaineers and climbers over the years – and read a poem about the beauty of Lochaber: moments of tranquil mindfulness in a rugged location, and something I’ll remember for a long time.
The afternoon was spent on board Souters Lass, a cruise boat operated by Crannog Cruises from Fort William Town Pier.
During our 90-minute trip we listened to an entertaining commentary which taught us something of the town’s colourful history, Loch Linnhe and the salmon and mussel farms in it, and the surrounding hills.
We spotted seals and a variety of birds, and when freezing rain blew in, warmed ourselves with a dram of Ben Nevis whisky below deck.
That evening we returned to the Highland Soap Company visitor centre for dinner and again dined well on local drinks and produce – this is definitely an area “foodies” will enjoy.
Our final day was spent onboard the Jacobite steam train, best known these days as the Harry Potter train.
Much has been written about the trip from Fort William to Mallaig, a line said to be one of the most beautiful in the world.
While the carriages, apart from first class, are basic, and there’s a good chance you’ll be covered in a thin layer of soot, the sheer joy of the steam train experience is wonderful.
As for the scenery, it’s breathtakingly beautiful – enough to make you weep at times and remind you how lucky we are to live in the most beautiful country in the world.
As for Fort William, we packed a lot into our short visit without trying the mountain biking, gondolas, kayaking or walks it’s famous for, which can only mean one thing – we’ll have to come back again…
The Garrison Hotel: www.thegarrisonhotel.co.uk
Highland Soap Company: www.highlandsoaps.com
Highland Cinema: www.highlandcinema.co.uk
Wild Roots Highland Guiding: www.wildrootsguiding.scot
Crannog Cruises: Facebook www.crannog.net
Jacobite Steam Train: www.westcoastrailways.co.uk