“Bit like driving on the moon this, isn’t it?” said my husband. Although neither of us have been to the moon, I had to agree. We were fresh off the ferry from Tarbert and heading South on the Isle of Harris, and the landscape opening up before us was other worldly. A rocky mountainscape of hills, rocks, grass and moss, scattered with small lagoons, bays and secret coves. Cutting through this expanse was a single track road, full of hairpin bends and blind corners with sheep wandering freely everywhere.
We spent 3 amazing days on the Isle of Harris. We walked on white sandy beaches, dipped our toes in the blue Atlantic ocean, watched seals sunbathing and visited the legendary stones of Callanish.
My Scottish Road Trip post has a day by day account, but I wanted to write this post about some tips and must-knows for a first time visitor.
The Isle of Lewis and Harris is located off the North-West Coast of Scotland and forms part of the Outer Hebrides. So, ferry is the only way to get to here. There are several ferry options: you can get a ferry from Ullapool (in the North of Scotland) to Stornoway (on the Isle of Lewis) or you can go from Uig (on the Isle of Skye) to Tarbert or Leverburgh (on the Isle of Harris). We chose to go from Uig to Tarbert as it was the closest to where we were staying and the ferry crossing time was shorter than Ullapool to Stornoway. It also meant that we would get to traverse through the Isle of Skye before catching the ferry from Uig.
We arrived at Uig well in time to catch our ferry after having spent half a day on Skye. The ferry crossing was similar to other vehicle ferry crossings we had done before. You drive up, show the tickets at the gate and park in the designated lane at the harbour. When instructed, you drive into the ferry and park up.
The Uig-Tarbert ferry is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (or CalMac) and took 1 hour 40 minutes. Both on the outward and the return journey, the ferry was late by about 45 minutes, so it’s best to allow for some extra time for your ferry crossing.
If there is one thing you must know when going to Lewis and Harris, is that no shops are open on a Sunday. This is specially important if you are staying in Harris. Stornoway has a single shop open on Sundays but that’s it. If you are staying in South Harris, Stornoway is a 3 hour round trip. So, if you are self-catering and arriving on a Saturday afternoon, bring enough food to last you through till midday on Monday. Tarbert and Leverburgh both have convenience stores, but these are closed on a Sunday. (Interestingly, they were open on bank holiday Monday, when we visited).
If you fancy eating out or if you are staying in a hotel or B&B, there are several restaurants available on the Isle of Harris, (see here for a list) but these get booked up very fast. So make your dinner plans early and book restaurants. Online booking is non-existent, so you have to call the restaurant, the old-fashioned way. You may have to move around a bit to get a phone signal though. Which leads me on to discuss…
In my view, this is what makes the islands great. A 3G/4G signal is non-existent, and even the normal phone signals drop off a lot of the time. Depending on where you are staying, you will have access to the internet, but this is usually via satellite, and tends to be on the slow side. So, do all your googling and research before you get to the island, then leave your phone in your bag.
The main road on the Island, the A859, is a single carriageway (i.e. one lane in either direction) but all other roads (that we saw) are single track roads. The roads are extremely windy on the South of the Island and full of blind corners and summits. Sheep often cross or even sit in the middle of the road. Don’t assume they will get out of the way, because they won’t.
Where to Stay
The island has a number of hotels and B&Bs and plenty of self catering cottages.
We stayed at Coll Lodge on the South-East coast of Harris. The lodge has a lounge, kitchen/dining area and 3 good-sized bedrooms and to top it all off, a sauna. It was very comfortable and furnished in the style of a Nordic log cabin. The lodge is located on Finsbay, which attracts a lot of wild life. There are also several pools nearby for fishing (and fishing permits and equipment can be arranged through Coll Lodge). We also had a lovely bottle of wine and plenty of information about the islands awaiting us.
Things to See and Do
There are a lot of walking routes throughout the island. You can have you pick of long/short walks and different terrains: mountains, rocks, marshes or beaches. See here for a list. Many walks are well signposted. Phone signals are hit and miss (see above about Phones), so take a proper walking map and compass.
The island’s single track roads are quiet, empty and great for cycling. You can hire bikes from BikeHebrides and Sorrell Cottage B&B in Leverburgh.
The West Coast on the Isle of Harris has many beautiful beaches that stretch for miles and miles. Northton, Bovre beach and Luskentyre are all beautiful, clean and mostly empty. Mind you, the water is very, very cold.
I’m no birdwatcher, but even I saw many different types of birds on the island. There’s also plenty of seals that come up to sunbathe in the many bays and coves dotted around. There are some coin operated telescopes dotted around the island. But better still, take some binoculars.
You can take a trip to one of the many other near by islands, or take fishing trips or wildlife tours. We didn’t have time to try it this time, but it’s on my list for next time. There are many companies that offer trips, but Sea Harris and Kilda Cruises are based in Tarbert in South Harris.
Again, not my cup of tea, but there are many opportunities for fishing either in freshwater in one of the many inland lagoons or sea fishing. You need a permit for fishing, but there are many companies that can arrange the permits and equipment.
Scotland’s very own Stonehenge, the Callanish Stones are on the North West coast of the Isle of Lewis. The stones have been dated back to 3000 BC and are well worth a day trip from Harris. You can walk right up to the stones, entry is free and its open 24 hrs. The site also has a visitor centre (not 24 hrs), with a cafe, shop and a small exhibition. There is a small charge for the exhibition.
If you want to take a something to remember the Island, there are a few unique choices:
- Harris Tweed: An obvious purchase from Harris is anything made from Harris Tweed. I’m not a big fan, as they are bit too coarse for my liking (not to mention the hefty price tag). There are several shops available on the island, but probably the most accessible is near the Tarbert pier.
- Art: The Isle of Harris is dotted with many independent art galleries. Some of these also double up as cafes. They are signposted on the roads, so you can stop by, have a drink and look for a painting to take home.
- Harris Gin: Isle of Harris has its own Whiskey distillery which started in 2015. Their first whiskeys should be coming out in 2020 or later, and until then, they are producing gin. The distillery is located right on the pier, so well worth a quick look around whilst you are waiting for the ferry.
I of course, stuck to my usual policy, and bought a souvenir mug, to add to my collection.
Have you been to the Isle of Harris? Are there any tips that you think are worth knowing? Or perhaps you are thinking of going – Is there anything you’d like to know? Leave a comment below and let me know.