Destination Helenburgh got in touch recently to invite us to the Clyde coast town for a spring break. Helensburgh is probably best known for The Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but there’s more to the ‘Garden City of the Clyde’ than iconic architecture. The bustling Argyll town has green space aplenty, great eateries, quality independent shops, a good selection of accommodation and lots to see and do. And, if you find yourself in town looking for ideas and inspiration, then you can pop into the visitor Information Centre managed by the Destination Helensburgh team and they’ll be able to help with some itinerary recommendations.
Getting to Helensburgh is easy from Central Scotland. It takes under an hour by car from Glasgow and 90 minutes from Edinburgh. You can also get to the town by train or bus.
Day One: Helensburgh & Rhu
We drove to Helensburgh and after parking the car, set off for a walk along the promenade.
We’re at our happiest when we’re beside water, so Helensburgh ticked boxes for us immediately. The town has a nice, open outlook, so doesn’t feel crowded or hemmed in.
We stopped at several points of interest along the promenade, including a bust of Helensburgh’s most famous son, John Logie Baird – inventor of the television.
The John Muir Way long distance (134 mile) walking and cycling route starts or finishes in Helensburgh, depending on which direction you travel. As a boy, Muir set sail for a new life in America a stone’s throw away from Helensburgh.
Helensburgh Blossom trees in bloom
There’s lots of lovely green space in and around Helensburgh, so it’s no surprise the town’s known as ‘The Garden City of the Clyde’. A highlight of visiting in spring is seeing Helensburgh’s famous blossom trees in bloom.
After our walk along the promenade, we wandered to the town centre along a lovely street lined with blossom trees.
Helensburgh Outdoor museum
Our walk led us to Colquhoun Square, named after Sir Ian Colquhoun of Luss. He built Helensburgh in the 18th century and named the town after his wife. Can you guess what she was called?
Colquhoun Square is surrounded by shops and cafes and is home to Helensburgh Outdoor Museum.
We enjoyed viewing the exhibits displayed on granite plinths. It was a good way to learn some town history, without having to read wordy information boards. My favourite exhibit was ‘Stookie Bill’ – a replica of the ventriloquist dummy head used by John Logie Baird in his television experiments. Other plinths featured The John Muir Way and a local shipwreck (more on that later).
Some retail therapy
Visiting a town with fab independent shops like Helensburgh, means a spot of retail therapy is a must. We love tweed, so Tweedie seemed like the perfect shop for us.
Tweedie sell a gorgeous selection of leather and tweed items for humans and their four-legged friends. Their tweeds are designed in-house and made by the Islay Woollen Mill, so they’re unique Tweedie. The colours are exquisite and showcase the natural hues found in Scotland.
As a dapper dog Mum, I made a beeline for Tweedie’s Dapper Dogs range. I tried a lovely, russet coloured tweed on the boy and it suited him perfectly. Tweedie very kindly gifted him a bow tie and neckerchief, and when I tried to buy a matching collar, they insisted on gifting that too, despite my protestations.
With the boy kitted out, it was time for us to browse. A knotted tweed hairband caught my eye, so I bought it. It’s my new favourite thing, and looks really nice on.
Lunch: The Beachcomber Cafe Bar
We had a table booked for lunch at The Beachcomber Cafe Bar on the promenade.
The cafe has cute, nautical themed decor and a large outside terrace.
Mr G and I were excited to find ice cream floats on the menu – a childhood favourite. If you’re not familiar with the ice cream float, the recipe is simple. It’s made by pouring fizzy juice over ice cream. Mr G chose Coca Cola for his drink, while I opted for Scotland’s favourite Irn-Bru.
As we drank our retro drinks, the boy tucked into a pupachino.
Food wise, we had soup (chicken and rice for me and lentil for Mr G) and sandwiches (tuna for me and chicken and pesto for Mr G). The food was great and the soup warmed us up nicely for our next activity.
Boat Trip: You and Sea, Rhu Marina
You & Sea operate out of Rhu Marina. The family owned business is run by husband and wife team Euan and Nathalie Carruthers and Euan’s dad Max. The family are supported by a team of instructors and skippers who run RYA training courses and boat tours.
Taking us out on Jola, would be Euan and Trainee Skipper Aneesh.
Euan pointed out landmarks and places of interest as we sailed on the Clyde.
From the sea, we got a completely different perspective of the various Clyde coast towns and villages we’ve visited over the years. On land, you don’t really appreciate that they’re surrounded by hills and gorgeous countryside.
For me, You & Sea’s boat tour offered something a wee bit different, because it included a visit to a shipwreck.
In January 1974 MV Captayannis was in the Firth of Clyde waiting to unload a cargo of sugar, when a collision ripped a hole in her hull. She capsized and partially sank. 48 years later, she’s still lying in the Clyde on her side. She’s huge up close and so cool to see.
Our You & Sea tour delivered on the wildlife front too. We spotted seals, eider ducks and a variety of seabirds.
We spent over two hours on the water with Euan and Aneesh, but the time flew by. It was a fantastic trip with a knowledgeable, professional and friendly crew.
Accommodation: Riva Boutique Restaurant Bar & Hotel
Back on dry land, it was time to check out our accommodation. Riva Boutique Restaurant Bar & Hotel is located on Helensburgh’s waterfront. The exterior is colourful and stylish, and the colour and style continue into the interior too.
Our second floor, king room had a sea view. We could see MV Captayannis, lying in the Clyde.
The room was spacious and comfortable with a cool retro vibe. It had a record player too, with a selection of vintage vinyl to play – yippee.
I loved the bathroom. It had vintage fixtures and fittings, green metro tiles and a glass wall with strategically placed frosting to protect your modesty while showering.
There was a bed, bowls and treats for the boy, which delighted him no end – as you’ll see from his smile in the photo above. We were equally delighted to find chocolates and a bottle of prosecco chilling on ice for us.
We put a record on, popped open the prosecco and spent a relaxing hour listening to music as we drank our perfectly chilled wine.
Dinner: Sugar Boat
That evening we ate at Sugar Boat (named after the town’s famous shipwreck) on Colquhoun Square, a five minute walk from our hotel.
The bistro wouldn’t look out of place in New York or London with its exposed brickwork, hip industrial style interior and island bar.
After ordering drinks we studied the menu. The dishes were simple and unpretentious.
We started with soup of the day – cauliflower with a pesto reduction, served with toasted ciabatta. I was first to taste it and immediately went into raptures. Soon Mr G was waxing lyrical too. It was easily one of the best (if not THE) best soups we’ve ever had. Praise indeed from Scotland’s number one soup lovers.
For my main course I had ox shin ragu, potato gnocchi and Parmesan. I love gnocchi, but ox shin isn’t something I’d normally choose from a menu. I’m glad I did though. The meat was rich, melt in the mouth tender and delicious and the gnocchi was cooked to perfection.
Mr G had Sugar Boat fish pie, with parsley mash and purple sprouting broccoli. As a fish lover, the dish was always going to be a hit with him.
We finished our meal with two fabulous desserts – rich chocolate mousse with berry ice cream for me and salted caramel tart with creme fraiche for Mr G.
Before leaving Sugar Boat, I popped into the wine and kitchenware shop attached to the bistro. The shop is described as selling nothing you need and everything you want, and that’s spot on. I didn’t need a pizza plate, but I left with one.
Day Two: Cardross and Helensburgh
On day two of our Helensburgh trip, we woke feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Before heading out to explore, we sat down to a tasty Riva breakfast.
The hotel menu offers a good choice of breakfast options. I had the Riva roll, which is filled with sausage, bacon, egg, cheese and tomato chutney. For Mr G, it’s not breakfast if it doesn’t contain smoked salmon, so he had his favourite eggs royale.
Breakfast eaten and caffeine levels topped up, we were ready to explore.
Visit: Geilston Garden
Our first stop of the day took us to Cardross a few miles east of Helenburgh. We were there to visit Geilston Garden which together with Geilston House, is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.
We arrived to find cheery, spring daffodils carpeting huge swathes of the garden. It looked gorgeous.
We wandered around the Clyde coast estate listening to birds singing, bees buzzing and a stream flowing through the garden.
After exploring the grounds of Geilston House, we took turns to visit the formal walled garden, which isn’t dog friendly. The 200-year-old garden looks like something from the pages of a children’s story book. It’s magical.
I spent ages there, enjoying the tranquillity and quiet calm.
Hermitage Park and the Park Pavilion Cafe & Kiosk
Later, back in Helensburgh, we visited another nice green spot. Hermitage Park is a mix of formal garden, woodland and field. It’s also where you’ll find the Park Pavilion Cafe and Kiosk, which is dog friendly inside and out. We popped in to pick up a treat for the boy – Scoop’s doggy ice cream. He loves doggy ice cream and licked the carton clean in no time at all.
Visit: The Hill House
The Hill House is the undisputed jewel in Helensburgh’s crown. It was commissioned by Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie at the turn of the 20th century. He chose the visionary young architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design his new family home.
The Hill House is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and it’s currently three years into a ten year restoration programme. The render used to cover the house let moisture in, but not out. This caused cracks to form and Macintosh’s masterpiece was at risk of collapsing. To save the house for generations to come, the National Trust for Scotland built a huge box around it. The box’s metal roof acts like a gigantic umbrella, while its chain-mail walls allow fresh air to circulate, to help with the drying process.
Dogs are welcome inside The Hill House shop, box, cafe and gardens (except the kitchen garden), but not inside the house.
Inside the box
From the second we arrived at The Hill House, the boy was spoiled rotten by the fantastic team who work there. They were so kind to him, giving him biscuits and compliments galore. He was in his element.
We started our visit, upstairs in the box where metal walkways allow you to walk right round the exterior of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s incredible house and over the roof too. It’s not for the faint hearted if like me, you’re afraid of heights. I shuffled round holding onto the railings, my knuckles white.
Mr G on the other hand loves heights and climbing, so the Star Wars(esque) walkways were right up his street.
Back at ground level, we explored the exterior of the house with the boy, before taking it in turns to view inside.
I was wowed from the second I set foot over the threshold. The interior was undeniably Mackintosh – both Charles and his equally artistic wife Margaret.
It was such a calming house too, beautifully lit and design wise, so ahead of its time. Everywhere you looked there were Mackintosh’s iconic roses and geometric designs – and all original too.
I could happily live in The Hill House and never feel stressed (unless I had to pay the insurance premiums that is).
After viewing the house, we popped into the gift shop for a browse. We left with several bars of artisan chocolate, some Scottish lip balm and a Charles Rennie Mackintosh tea towel for my new kitchen.
The Artist Patisserie
After spending the day exploring, we were ready for a sugar fix, so popped into The Artist Patisserie for cakes. The patisserie is a family business run by Maddie who looks after the shop side of things and her parents’ Gina and Julian who create edible works of art. Gina and Julian worked as pastry chefs in a number of five star establishments, including Cameron House Hotel, before setting up The Artist Patisserie.
It took us ages to choose a cake each. Maddie kindly talked us through her parents mouth-watering creations. We finally settled on a blood orange flavoured cake for Mr G and a strawberry one for me.
Back at our hotel, we ordered cocktails to have with the cakes in our room. Uncannily, the cocktails we chose matched our cakes.
Both cakes and cocktails were delicious. The cakes were light and fluffy, with a pleasing mix of flavours and textures. They were perfection.
The cocktails were fresh, fruity and a great accompaniment to our edible artworks.
Dinner: Cattle and Creel
Later, we headed out for dinner at Cattle and Creel a popular seafood and steak restaurant on Helensburgh’s seafront.
The restaurant was stylish inside and had a nice relaxing ambiance.
We started with Loch Fyne angel rock oysters on ice, served with shallot vinaigrette and Tabasco, plus garlic focaccia with balsamic vinaigrette and dukkuh. The shallot vinaigrette was a first for me with oysters, but the flavours worked well together.
I had battered Peterhead haddock, with hand cut chips, peas and tartar sauce for my main course. The batter was crispy, the fish white and flaky and the chips cooked just right.
Mr G had a half Loch Fyne lobster, served grilled with garlic and herb butter, skinny fries and a side salad. His verdict was – superb.
We skipped dessert, as we’d had cakes earlier. Before leaving the restaurant we passed on our compliments to the chef, who we learned hailed from Pennsylvania. We swapped stories about having Philly cheese steak for breakfast, running up the Rocky steps and visiting the quaint Amish town of Intercourse, Pennsylvania before saying goodbye and heading back to our hotel to unwind after another busy day.
Day Three: Rhu
We enjoyed another tasty breakfast at Riva Boutique Hotel, before reluctantly checking out of our lovely sea view room to visit our final itinerary stop of the trip.
Visit: Glenarn Garden
It seemed fitting that our visit to ‘The Garden City of the Clyde’ should end in a garden. Glenarn Garden is located in Rhu, a pretty conversation village on the Clyde. The 10 acre private garden is part of the Gardens of Argyll scheme, which consists of 18 Argyll gardens.
Glenarn Garden has been a 40 year labour of love for owners Sue and Mike Thornley. The couple were working as architects in Glasgow when they fell in love with Glenarn House and in its incredible Victorian garden, filled with stunning rhododendrons.
For a £5 honesty box donation (which goes to a Scottish garden charity), visitors are free to explore Glenarn Garden at their leisure and dogs on leads are welcome too. We were lucky enough to be given a tour by owner Sue. She really brought to life the history of Glenarn House and how the stunning garden evolved over time. Her knowledge of plants and their fancy Latin names was impressive.
Even in early spring, Glenarn Garden was a riot of colour.
Sitting beneath a tree at the top of the garden and gazing out over the Clyde, it was easy to see what made Sue and Mike fall in love with the place.
Glenarn Garden is a hidden gem and a little corner of paradise in Argyll.
We really enjoyed our spring break in Helensburgh. It had everything we love within easy reach – sea, mountains, green space, independent shops, great eateries, fab accommodation and cool visitor attractions. The town is the perfect destination for a spring break, and all year round too for that matter.
Our accommodation, food and experiences were provided on a complimentary basis, however all opinions are my own.
Until next time …