8 October 2014

Puffin spotting in Anstruther

Mairéad Dwane explores the East Neuk of Fife. With piles of fresh seafood, a gorgeous and lively nature reserve, and museums that are actually fun, it’s a great base for a family break. Just add salt and vinegar.

The first puffin we saw from the May Princess was a thrill. There he sat, bobbing on the surface just off the starboard side, small but close enough to make out his carnival beak and white eyemask. We all craned to make him out; some took hurried snaps. Little did we know how many picture-perfect puffins were waiting for us on the island. 120,000 of them, quite used to tourists, huddled in groups of 20 or more, ready for their close up.

A territorial tern launches an attack on visitors to the Isle of MayPhoto: RNLI/Rob McDougall
A territorial tern launches an attack on visitors to the Isle of May

The Isle of May National Nature Reserve stands sentry at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, the unofficial capital of Scotland’s East Neuk. The former centre of the Scottish herring industry, Anstruther’s harbour is now home to more yachts than trawlers. It’s also home to some of the best fish and chips you’ve ever tasted – reason enough to choose the town as a base for exploring this friendly corner of Fife.

A cosy Neuk

The East Neuk runs along the firth’s north-east coast, from the sheltered bays around Elie (great for blue-flag lifeguarded beaches) to the cobbled old village of Crail (where you can choose your live lobster, have it cooked and take it away for a posh picnic). Each of the Neuk’s fishing villages has its own character – and its own cosy pubs to discover. They’re connected by the Fife Coastal Path, waymarked and easy but scenic walking along the waterside.

The 117-mile Fife Coastal Path runs from the Forth Estuary to the Tay Estuary.
The 117-mile Fife Coastal Path runs from the Forth Estuary to the Tay Estuary.

The nearest big town, St Andrews, is famous as the home of golf, and there’s a good choice of fairways around. It’s also a university town, so there are plenty decent gigs during term time. If you prefer your music a little more high-brow, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is based on campus.

Good advice from the Lobster Hut in Crail Harbour
Good advice from the Lobster Hut in Crail Harbour

I spent 2 days in the area, sampling (well, okay, scoffing) seafood and spending as much time on the water as I could. Highlights included generous smoked-fish-based breakfasts, pretty historic harbours at Crail and Pittenweem, and a close encounter with a family of grey seals. But 2 days in the Neuk is just not enough. So I asked the local RNLI lifeboat crew for their picks: the things they suggest to visiting friends – from either side of the border.

The crew recommend: Things to do

The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
Take the helm at the Scottish Fisheries Museum
Take the helm at the Scottish Fisheries Museum

Do you know your fifie from your scaffie? Your zulu from your sgoth?* The Scottish Fisheries Museum tells the story of fishing in Fife and all around Scotland. And not just the act of fishing itself: sailmakers, riggers, knitters, gutters (known as herring lasses), curers, coopers and traders all get a look-in. The hands-on exhibit on life onboard gives kids of all ages the chance to crawl into a typical crewman’s bunk, or wear the captain’s hat and take the helm!

Elie Watersports

Sheltered Elie Bay, 15 minutes west of Anstruther, is our lifeboat crew’s choice for watersports – calm enough for beginners and families, but with more challenging conditions just outside the bay for experts. Elie Watersports offers windsurfing, sailing, canoeing, pedal boats, waterskiing, boat trips, inflatable rides and bike hire.

Thinking of trying a watersport? Get the RNLI’s advice here.

Scotland’s Secret Bunker, Troywood

Explore an underground military command centre, built during the Cold War to run Scotland in the event of nuclear attack. Despite the serious subject matter, the Secret Bunker is good furtive family fun. You can explore the command centre, dormitories, radio studio and chapel. The bunker is a 10-minute drive inland from Anstruther, and pretty clearly signed for a supposedly secret location.

The crew recommend: Food and drink

Anstruther Fish Bar
Sample Scotland's finest fish and chips at the Anstruther Fish BarPhoto: RNLI/Rob McDougall
Sample Scotland's finest fish and chips at the Anstruther Fish Bar

Right on the town harbour, the Anstruther Fish Bar has a string of awards to its name – including UK Fish and Chip Shop of the Year in 2008 and 2009. The quality has not dropped, and the hungry queues that form in the early evening know it. We bought supper for the crew here after their Wednesday exercise. In proper Scotsman style, two of them plumped for haggis suppers.

The Cocoa Tree, Pittenweem
It's hard to leave the Cocoa Tree cafe without buying a bag full of chocolate from Adrienne
It's hard to leave the Cocoa Tree cafe without buying a bag full of chocolate from Adrienne

They take chocolate seriously here. Rich cakes, hot drinks, pancakes, milkshakes … even the soup starts with vegetables fried in cocoa butter. Flavour your hot chocolate with chilli, ginger, orange or vanilla, or enjoy a scone with jam from the local Ardross Farm. Pick up some chocolates made on-site on your way out. An unmissable stop for chocoholics – though definitely one for the grown-ups.

The Waterfront, Anstruther
Local brews and evening chat at the Waterfront in Anstruther Harbour
Local brews and evening chat at the Waterfront in Anstruther Harbour

Clean, modern and child-friendly, the Waterfront takes simple food, locally sourced, cooks it well and serves it overlooking the firth. It felt criminal not to feast on fresh seafood, but I couldn’t resist a gentle introduction to haggis – served stuffed into a chicken breast. The restaurant and bar share the same space, so you can choose from a selection of local ales, draught and bottled, to accompany a good dinner.

Get more insider tips from the crew in our video.

Festivals

St Andrews Voices

23-26 October

A celebration of singing in various venues around the lively university town of St Andrews, just a 20-minute drive from Anstruther. Events include candlelit classics at the intimate St Leonard’s Chapel, an open choral workshop at the university’s Younger Hall, and a cream tea with vintage jazz sounds in Rufflets Country House Hotel.

Winter Cambolicious, Cambo Estate

8 November

Taste a huge selection of Scottish ales and ciders, as well as whisky and gin produced right on the Firth of Forth. With local food, live music and fairground games like coconut shy, you don’t have to be a drinker to enjoy Winter Cambolicious. In fact, accompanied under-18s go free.

The RNLI in Anstruther

The volunteer crew at Anstruther have two lifeboats: the Mersey class Kingdom of Fife and the D class The Rotary Centenary Queen. Between them, they launched 22 times in 2013, rescuing 28 people.

On 1 August 2012, the crew saved the lives of Paul and Sean Harrison whose motorboat Princess (a former lifeboat herself) was thrown onto rocks at Crail. The inshore lifeboat, helmed by Barry Gourlay, appeared through the surf just as the two were about to jump overboard. Barry received the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry in recognition of his seamanship and bravery.

The lifeboat station, on the harbour front, has a gift shop and viewing gallery. The lifeboats are launched on exercise most weekends, with the inshore lifeboat also going out most Wednesdays. Check dates and times on the Anstruther Lifeboat website.

Do you live or holiday in Anstruther? What have we missed?

Every 2 months, Spotlight visits the beautiful areas around RNLI lifeboat stations. Next time we're heading for Union Hall in West Cork. What should we do there? And where should we go next?

Let us know in the comments below.

* They’re all types of 19th-century sail fishing boats.