One of the Greatest Train Journeys in the World
Back to the place we were few years ago, Fort William, but finally on this occasion we prepared very well in advance and pre-booked everything in order to enjoy what we really wanted and pretty much the reason for coming back here: taking the Jacobite Express and visiting Eilean Donan castle. Although for many of you (including myself some years ago), it might sound more familiar if I name the train instead as the Hogwarts Express. Familiar now? That’s right, this is the same train used on all of the Harry Potter movies. The same locomotive, carriages and absolutely the same route with its distinctive Glenfinnan Viaduct.
A note in here, as I was wrong when I first came to know this railway some years ago and which perhaps you wonder on the same mistake, the Jacobite Express is a much older runner than even when the first Harry Potter book was being conceived. It’s a historic railway line that is nowadays mainly open as a tourist destination using old carriages and steam locomotives. So definitely no, this is not a new railway done for the movie, instead, the movie is based on a real railway.
The best and easiest way to reach this place is flying to Glasgow where we took a rental car and drove all the way up to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Since it’s a route we already did on our Scotland road tour some years ago we were not looking this time too much on stopping around for sightseeing and enjoying the views. Instead we drove quite directly to the hotel, had lunch and left straight away for Eilean Donan castle, another 60 miles away from Fort William. Should you be a first time visitor in Scotland then be prepared to calculate plenty of time as you will want to stop everywhere along the way to enjoy the spectacular views and nature. And yes, even if you do not drive, this all can be done by bus and by tour.
Fort William itself is a small city but important along the way for anyone on a Scotland tour, as it’s generally one of the overnight stops. Nearby at Corpach is the Caledonian Canal, an unique sight in its own to see the ships moving up and down the many locks at this point. All together, the Caledonian Canal has 29 locks.
Mallaig is by the coast on a beautiful location between the sea and mountains. Also very small but more charming than Fort William itself. The food as you can imagine is also of great quality (although this is pretty much the norm anywhere in Scotland). Expect to easily find seafood. After all, Scotland is the largest seafood producer in the UK, and the city of Oban, not far, is the self-proclaimed seafood capital. Many boats offer trips around the Western Isles where you can see dolphins, seals and even puffins. it is pretty much the highlight once you are in Mallaig, although we were not fortunate enough and saw only seals.
Now what really matters between both cities is the train ride. Honestly, it should be a once in a lifetime on anyone’s list. The scenery you will pass is hardly beaten elsewhere. Lakes, mountains, and viaducts like the spectacular Glenfinnan, made famous worldwide after the Harry Potter movies. The train slows down when passing the viaduct allowing you plenty of time for photography, so don’t worry on getting a nice shot, you will certainly have the chance. Also for the best shots, make sure you are on the left side of the train on the outbound direction, right hand side on the way back. You have the best area by the carriages doors as you can pull down the windows in full.
As last, and actually unexpected as it was not part of this weekend trip from the beginning; after seeing everywhere again those pretty pictures of Eilean Donan castle, in postcards, adverts, magazines… once we checked in at the hotel I run a quick map search only to find out the castle was merely 50 miles away! That was a clear goodbye and sacrifice to the hotel spa, but worth it in every minute. The landscapes we drove through were amazing and got the chance to see few Angus cows here and there. The drive tool almost 2 hours! yes, you might wonder how come this long, but this is what will normally take you because the road is very narrow and taking over cars is a challenge itself. But then, there it was. Exactly as you see it on the most beautiful postcards or magazine. After other previous times visiting Scotland, now I can say it is the most beautiful castle with difference. It’s the location itself, on an island in the lake, with mirror reflections from the water and surrounding landscapes. No wonder why this is one of the major images Scotland sells itself to the world.
For more information about Fort William, Mallaig and the Jacobite Express check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The United Kingdom’s currency is the British Pound (GBP, £). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to get there
Reaching Fort William is easy though could be time consuming. You could take the Caledonian Express train which does the route London Euston to Fort William as last stop and of course getting in the train at any of the calling stations along the route. Bear in mind that the train will take pretty much the same time than if you fly to Glasgow from anywhere within the UK and then either a train or a rental car to drive there. Therefore you might be better of by getting a train all the way even if you see the prices from London, as calculating what you would normally spend to reach the airport, air fare and then train or rental car could easily be more than a hassle free train ride.
Fort William train station is right in the middle of the city and no further public transportation should be needed at all.
Driving to Dornie where Eilean Donan castle is will take no less than 1.30 hours. It is just 50 miles but this is not a motorway and surely you will want to stop at many point along the way since the views are spectacular.
Booking tickets for the Jacobite Express
Do never leave this for the last days before you go there. This is the principal reason why we are coming back here exclusively to take the train. 5 years ago we were passing by as part of our Scotland road tour and when we asked at the train station if anything was available on the day or following day, it was of course nothing available, but even for the next month ahead not a single ticket. And even taking in consideration they hold a bunch of tickets for “walk in bookings”, do never be reliable on this. Demand is really big so the best you can do is booking online at their official website here.
Readily available in their website, I note them here for quick access and planning.
Departure from Fort William is at 10.15 am, arriving Glenfinnan 10.56 am and Mallaig 12.25pm.
The return trip departs Mallaig at 14.10 pm arriving at Fort William by 16.00 pm. Note that on the return trip there is no stop at Glenfinnan.
The great choice of B&Bs in the area is countless. And even if you have not booked in advance and you show up on the day, don’t worry on doing this, it is guaranteed you will find a nice B&B in short time. This is what we did for half of our Scotland road trip 5 years ago and never came intro trouble. And it was back then 4 of us travelling together.
Hotels are more limited of course, as these are small cities, but you can find great properties few kilometres away from the city, even castles, of course the cost for those will be definitely something to consider depending on what kind of stay you will be looking for. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
In this occasion and as we knew all we wanted to do for the weekend was taking the Jacobite Express on Sunday, we decided to book a spa hotel to rest and enjoy the whole of Saturday doing pretty much nothing else than bathing, sauna, steam room and enjoying at the jacuzzi. Ben Nevis Hotel & Leisure Club in North Road, PH33 6TG. A great choice also bearing in mind it’s the only spa hotel in the area. Some 3km from the train station. Clean, comfortable and friendly staff; large facilities like the indoor pool and great Scottish breakfast also included.
Album of Eilean Donan and the Highlands
Album of the Jacobite Express