The Outdoor Hebrides - An action packed island hopping adventure.
When I was asked by the Outer Hebrides to come and have an adventure on their islands I jumped at the chance. Having just completed the Hebridean Way cycle 2 weeks earlier I had glimpsed what they had to offer and I was excited to see more.
Being a last minute packer as always, and with a range of activities planned, I threw the essentials into my rucksack from Tiso and tried to ensure I had everything I needed. Now some people may get caught up in having different clothes for every day, but when I am embarking on an outdoors/camping trip I tend to pack less. I always find I generally wear the same clothes and if you are planning on lots of water activities then you'll be in a wetsuit or swimming stuff most of the time anyway. Well that’s how I justify packing less to myself! The forecast was mixed so I made sure I had a few waterproofs and I was ready to go.
First port of call was to head to Edinburgh to pick up our camper van from Bunk Campers and to meet my fellow bloggers and instagrammers Neil and Ali who were joining me on the trip. We were given a tour of the van and the boot was packed out with all of our gear before it was time for the drive to Skye, where we were staying for the first night before catching the early morning ferry to Harris.
The drive north was stunning as always and we couldn't help but pull in at Sligachan for a quick photo opportunity on the way past. Our first destination was the campsite at Uig ferry terminal on the Isle of Skye. With stunning views over the cliffs of Uig it was the perfect spot to pitch up for the night. After a quick bowl of pasta rustled up in the van, (I definitely need some van cooking tips) I took a walk down to the waterfront and watched the glow of the setting sun reflecting off the cliffs. The sound of the sea and shalders on the shoreline soothes my soul. I think being an islander means I am immediately more content when I am by the sea or on an island, so I couldn't wait to spend a week island hopping the Outer Hebrides. The midges soon took me out of my daydream and it was back to the van for a good nights sleep.
An early rise and it was time to join the queue for the Calmac ferry from Uig to Tarbert in Harris. Now I may have mentioned this before, but I love Calmac. Not only do they symbolise the west coast Scottish islands, but for me, they symbolise a road trip, an adventure and most importantly, my holidays! Ferry boarded and a full breakfast ordered and devoured before a walk on deck to watch the Isle of Skye fade into the distance. Despite having been on hundreds of Calmac ferries I still get excited by the adventure of it all and I love watching as we sail past the sights with the wind in my hair and the taste of sea spray on my lips. I even love that one car alarm that always seems to go off to kill the ambiance. Maybe Calmac could put a sign up...........DO NOT SET YOUR CAR ALARM!
We disembarked at Tarbert in Harris and took the stunning sunny drive over the Clisham before heading for our first adventure of the day at the Scaladale Centre, where we met Kate, the fourth member of our group. Sean and Jen, from the Scaladale Centre were there to greet us and give us our itinerary for the day, which began with some mountain biking followed by coasteering before we pitched up for the night and enjoyed a beach BBQ. Kitted up and safety brief signed, we set off for one of the easier sections of trails. I love cycling, I cycled around Shetland growing up, and as such I would say I was a fairly confident cyclist, having often cycled on tracks and trails. So when I was told we were mountain biking I felt fairly confident that I would be a natural. Little did I realise that so much of mountain biking is putting in some hard work to go uphill in order to get the epic downhills!! A few exhausting cycles up followed by some fairly fast downhills and it is easy to see how people get the bug. Plus, it was nice to try something a bit different after following the roads of the Hebridean Way previously.
Mountain biking over we headed back to the vans for some well-deserved lunch before our next activity. The sun was splitting the trees (or should that be peat stacks?) and I was looking forward to jumping into the nearest bit of water I could find. We retraced our route back over the Clisham and headed towards Hushinish beach on the west coast. I knew on the drive along the single-track road, that this place was going to be spectacular. The views were already amazing. Eventually we turned a corner and Hushinish was in front of us. Gorgeous white sand met by turquoise blue water and the best thing about it.........barely a person about.
We donned our wetsuits and helmets and plunged into the remarkably mild water, setting off around the coast in the shadow of Scarp, a once uninhabited island off the coast. The water was amazing and Sean and Jen took us to some great spots for scrambling and jumping off. Despite having been coasteering a few times before, I still get a rise of panic when it comes to jumping off higher cliffs, even though I know I will do it.
To say I was buzzing afterwards was an understatement. I love being in the water. Dried off with sea salt in my hair and the sun setting meant it was time to pitch our tents before tucking in to the beach BBQ. The food and company was amazing and I can honestly say that at that moment whilst sitting on the beach with the waves crashing on the beach and the amazing glow from the sunset I was completely content. I really do love being Scottish all of the time, but moments like this just cement it for me even more.
We stayed on the beach for way too long as the light refused to fade and it was nearly midnight before I finally crawled in my tent. Even at midnight there was still a stunning glow in the sky and I struggled to zip up my tent and shut it out. I wanted to eek out every single second from that day.
Early rise at Hushinish, tents packed away and it was time for another action packed day in the Outer Hebrides. Today’s activities where in North Uist and included painting with the amazing Ellis O'Connor, followed by horse riding on the beach, all finished up with a wild swim. This meant another lovely crossing with Calmac before we headed to Baleshare beach to meet with Ellis. I have followed Ellis for years on instagram and have been lucky enough to meet her once previously whilst on the same ferry to Eigg. I have always loved Ellis' art and I feel like since she has made the Outer Hebrides her home, her art has gone from strength to strength and I'm so pleased to see her doing well.
We met Ellis on the beach for a masterclass in painting, and her positivity is infectious. Not only was she encouraging and helpful with our poor attempts at painting but her general outlook on life is inspirational. Ellis runs Drawing Workshops where she takes small groups outdoors to show them how she works and is inspired by the landscape and I cannot recommend it enough. Even if you realise you don't have a creative bone in your body, time spent with Ellis is worth it alone. She radiates goodness and inspiration.
Next stop was Uist Community Riding School for horse riding along the beach. This has admittedly been on my bucket list for some time, so I was delighted to hear we were doing it on our trip. I have been horse riding a few times and every time I do it I love it even more. Horses are beautiful animals and it seems like such a therapeutic hobby, but with an extensive list of hobbies already I figure this one is better left to day trips with no responsibilities or kit to buy!
We set off along Airport beach with the horses requiring little direction. They know this route well and needed zero input from us. It was fascinating to learn from the staff about the different personalities and friendships that each horse has, and how mine, unfortunately was scared of the water, so wouldn't go near it when all the other horses at least got their hooves wet! We slowly made our way back to the stables and it was time to say goodbye to our horses and head for the water once more.
The local swimming group, The Hebridean Sea Swimmers had arranged to meet us at the beach and take us for a short dip. The cloud had cleared leaving behind a beautiful soft haze on the horizon and calm seas. Seeing as it was June there was no need for a wetsuit and we took to the water. I love the initial shock of getting into the sea. The water feels cold but not uncomfortable as you walk in, and I love the feeling when you have to take the plunge and submerse yourself in the cold water. It makes every bit of skin tingle, but before long it feels like a warm bath. Whilst the others were content to take a quick dip I opted to take a swim out to a rocky outcrop with the The Hebridean Sea Swimmers. It's amazing to see so many people enjoying wild swimming and I couldn't have met a friendlier bunch. It really was such a joy to spend time with them.
I swam back to shore taking in every second I was in the water, it really is good for the soul and looking across the calm water from sea level is one of my favourite views.
A quick change and attempts to tame my wild, salty hair failing we headed for dinner before we made our way back to our accommodation for the night at The Wee Haven in Benbecula.
Not only is this a luxury camping pod but they also have a yurt and do yoga and massage therapies. The perfect spot to relax after a long, but amazing couple of days. It also meant I could have a long overdue shower and wash all the sea salt out of my hair. The Wee Haven micro lodge was beautiful but I opted to stay in the Yurt having never stayed in one before. With comfortable beds made up on the floor I felt like I was sleeping in a homemade den. The sky was spectacular as I went to sleep with the only thing disturbing me being the occasional midge or moth that had snuck in through the door.
Well rested and most importantly clean, we woke to a different landscape in the morning as the fog had set in. I love the eerie silence of fog and I enjoyed our drive south toward Eriskay where we were catching the ferry to Barra for a day of water activities. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas and due to the fog the first few crossings where cancelled, so what better excuse to go for a walk on the beach. As the fog started to lift the colours of the beach came to life and I was almost disappointed when the ferry appeared on the horizon, cutting short my hopes for a quick dip.
Once on Barra we headed to Isle of Barra Surf and Coastal Adventures in Castlebay where the first port of call was snorkelling with seals. Our guide for the day was Andrew from Barra, a local whose passion for his island, the sea and the outdoors is undeniable. I felt like I had met a kindred spirit. We got kitted up and set off across the machair for a snorkel. The water was beautifully calm with the last of the haze still clinging to the water. As soon as you put a snorkel on and dip your face in the water it really feels like you have entered another world. The feeling of the cold water on your face and in your ears with seaweed brushing past your face and skin makes you not want to come back up. There were some seals nearby who seemed cautious initially but as they got used to us they became a bit more curious. Being from Shetland means I am fairly used to seals, but they still fascinate me whenever I see them.
Snorkelling over it was time to head back and do some kayaking. I have kayaked several times before and done a bit of island hopping, but since I started paddle boarding I haven't been in a kayak, so I was anxious to see if I still had it. The sky was a bright blue with some cloud still lingering over the hills. I paddled alongside Andrew and we chatted about being islanders and what it meant to us both, realising that no matter what island you are from, there is a sense of belonging that you can't quite put your finger on, and that it immediately gives you a unique bond with fellow islanders.
We paddled around Kisimul Castle and enjoyed the views before it was time to head back and catch our ferry to South Uist, stopping to watch a stunning Hebridean sunset en route.
Our accommodation for the night was Howmore Hostel, a beautiful traditional blackhouse that now serves the weary traveller looking to stay somewhere a bit different. The accommodation is basic but there is a fantastic kitchen and from what I have heard if you are lucky there may be some home baking on the go on your arrival. After an action packed day I was out like a light after I climbed into my sleeping bag on my top bunk.
We woke to the final day of our trip and were met by hazy skies once more. This meant more delays as we tried to get to Harris from Berneray for our final activity of the trip in Lewis. We were off to meet Lewis who runs Hebrides Fish 'n' Trips. I had heard good things about this trip and more importantly Lewis, who runs them. If you have visited Harris Distillery then you will recognise him as the man who collects the sea kelp which they use in Harris Gin.
We arrived and met Lewis and immediately I knew we were in for a treat. He has amazing knowledge, passion and love for his home and the area he works. He also has an amazing eye for photography as the photos in his office demonstrate.
Further safety brief signed and myself initiated as a temporary crew member and we were off into Loch Erisort. Lewis told us about the local White Tailed Sea Eagles that nested on the Loch and within minutes they appeared. It really was a sight to see.
Lewis told us about the wildlife in the area and talked us through his knowledge of seaweed and how he ensures it is sustainable. His passion is spellbinding. We did some fishing and hauled up some creels and then we met Barry the Bonxie. I won't go into too much detail about him but his and Lewis's relationship is very special. I won't say anymore than that, but what I will say is book a trip with Fish 'n' Trips as you won't be disappointed. I am sure there are plenty of companies doing similar trips but the selling point for this one is Lewis himself. We were out on the boat for 3 hours and you could see that for every one of us it was the highlight of the whole trip. Lewis was engaging, funny, knowledgeable and passionate.
We were sad when our trip came to an end but we were heading to the Cabarfeidh Hotel in Lewis to enjoy the crab we got earlier from the creels.
With a hotel room to myself, I had my second shower of the trip and enjoyed looking not as feral for our last night together. I headed down stairs to the beautiful restaurant where we were served up the delicious crab from earlier along with some scallops and smoked salmon. The food was divine!! Eating seafood on an island is something everyone must try. The freshness and quality is outstanding and it really had been cooked to perfection.
Three stunning courses devoured and it was time for bed. I was so sad to be leaving in the morning, but I had one more thing to look forward to.....
BBC Radio Scotland had asked to if I would like to speak about a new tourist scheme which would introduce an Island Passport for people who wanted to visit the islands, and as a keen island bagger myself I was happy to get involved. A 6am alarm call and I was off to the BBC Alba Studio in Stornoway to get involved in the chat. Having never been on radio before I was nervous and excited, but the highlight was being introduced as "Adventurer and all round Outdoors Woman, Bee Leask"! My radio debut complete it was time to head to the ferry terminal to meet the rest of the gang and jump on our final Calmac ferry to Ullapool.
As island hopping trips go, I think I can safely say this has been the most action packed. The Outer Hebrides are full of beautiful beaches and turquoise waters, but it is also full of amazing activities and accommodation and most importantly, amazing, friendly people, all with the same thing in common......that they love these islands and they want anyone who visits to fall in love with them too. I certainly know I have.