Six Reasons To Go Island Bagging With CalMac Ferries
'Bagging' is the act of collecting in Scotland. You've heard of munro bagging in the Cairngorms and castle bagging in Aberdeenshire, but what about island bagging in the Hebrides? Here are six reasons to go island hopping with CalMac ferries, regardless of the season. We (Gemma and Craig from Two Scots Abroad) enjoyed four days of island hopping in Autumn through the Isle of Skye, North Uist, Harris and Lewis.
1. See More of the Islands
Why visit one island when you can hop over four? Four days, four islands, four ferries, the perfect get away from city life. Naturally, the longer you have the better because there is so much to see in the Hebrides.
Drive to Skye via the Skye bridge and on up to Uig in the quiet west coast corner of Skye. Spend some time taking in the popular attractions such as Kilt Rock and The Old Man of Storr. These are extremely busy during Summer, a good reason to visit off-season.
Sail to North Uist to see the postcard-famous forecasting stone at Berneray before taking the ferry to Leverburgh at the bottom of the Isle of Harris.
Work your way up the west coast with pit stops at the beaches (you might have to share some with the local cows mind you) and spend the night in Tarbert. If you have time, spend a second night in Tarbert so you can explore the Isle of Scalpay Lighthouse and Golden Road on the east of the island (we did not have time do this, a reason to go back!).
Before you head to Lewis, enjoy the winding road which leads to Huisinis Beach (it can take up to an hour with photo stops to get there, be careful - this road is deceivingly challenging!). Look out for three surprises; the world's most scenic tennis court, Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and lots of Highland coos.
There is so much to do in Lewis that you could easily spend two nights on the island. Don't miss Callanish Standing Stones (just like Outlander but don't touch them, the cafe is also recommended), Carloway Broch (nine meter tall broch house), the secluded Bosta Beach, The Blackhouse at Arnol (traditional houses) and finally all the way to the tip of the island to see the Butt Of Lewis Lighthouse, give Cape Wrath in the distance a wee wave! To get back to Scotland's mainland, you catch a ferry from Stornoway to the music-loving town of Ullapool.
Alternatively, start at Stornoway sailing from Ullapool and complete the itinerary in reverse. With this option, your ferry trip will be from Armadale to Mallaig but that doesn't have to be the end of the adventure. I recommend you drive back to the central belt passed the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct and look out for the Harry Potter train, then through the mystical mountains of Glencoe. Glencoe is one of my favourite spots in the world (and I travel a lot).
2. The Landscape
One of the main reasons to go island hopping with CalMac is to see the change in landscapes from island to island.
We drove through the jaggy Cuillin Mountains of Skye and set sail from the sleepy village of Uig, arriving at rugged North Uist and then hit the water again for the hilly Isle of Harris.
Our last ferry journey left in the dark from the busy town of Stornoway and arrived in the cute fishing town of Ullapool in daylight - yes, we witnessed a sunrise as we sailed.
The beaches. I'm sure you've seen images of the turquoise seas and thought it must be the Bahamas, until you discover that those beaches are actually on your doorstep in Europe!
Harris is home to Luskentyre Beach and Huisinis Beach, dreamy banks of white sand surrounded by striking blue water. Naturally, it's not quite swimming temperature when you visit off-season, but it sure summons a hypnotic state staring at that sea. You really do see the water turn from blue to green when you island hop by ferry.
Although you think you have enjoyed the island landscapes in Spring or Summer, a trip to the islands in late Autumn differs wildly. Goodbye blue skies, hello moody tones and Winter sun rises. Don't forget the potential for snow on the mountains too. Fancy dipping your face in the water at Skye's Sligachan Bridge then?! Eternal youth awaits...
3. The Food
When I asked our Facebook community for tips for this road/ferry trip, the majority of responses involved one thing: our bellies.
From 'the best' fish and chips in Skye to 'honest' homemade fair at Croft 36 in Harris, you'd need a second stomach to sample it all (or a second trip!).
It's not just about the food Harris gin is all the rage and I was assured that even as a non-gin drinker I'd like it. I am a convert but I have to confess, I sampled it with lemonade which I'm sure seasoned drinkers would tell me is cheating.
For Craig, Isle of Skye Brewing Co. was a great find tucked away in Uig on Skye, and of course, there is the water of life, whisky. You'll see peat, which gives certain whiskies that smoky taste, all around Lewis.
4. Support Local
From Fyne Ales to Arran ice-cream, much of the produce sold aboard CalMac ferries is Scottish grown or Scottish made.
Not only this, CalMac employs 1600 people from deckies to customer service representatives. The ferry ports keep areas of islands in business throughout every season.
On the morning ferries, you'll be sitting next to snoozing locals, and don't be surprised to see sleeping bags! It's not just tourists with cars that sail between islands, these ferry rides are lifelines for Scots getting to work. You might also spot a furry friend or two.
Expect to see and hear the Scots language aboard CalMac vessels. Signs and tannoy messages come in UK English and Scottish Gaelic. A real Scottish experience.
The obvious way to support locals while you are island hopping is to stay in local accommodation like the family-run Hebrides Hotel in Tarbert, Harris or the cosy ensuite bed and breakfast, Earlish 22 in Skye.
5. Beat Overtourism
Skye, Arran and Orkney - these are just three of Scotland's islands yet three of the most popular amongst tourists. There are actually 95 inhabited islands in Scotland! One of the biggest issues in Scottish tourism at present is over tourism on the likes of the Isle of Skye.
150,000 people visited Skye's Fairy Pools last year. Years of lack of infrastructure has resulted in deterioration and challenges for locals who live on the island. So much so that they've started charging £5 to park at the Pools in order to raise money to build a new car park to handle the numbers.
As the CalMac ferry port is in the Trotternish peninsula in Skye (Uig), this encourages tourists to move out from the top attractions and to visit a lesser-known area.
Having visited Skye twice before, we were delighted to stay in Uig. We watched the sun set over the harbour, visited Isle of Skye Brewing Co. and dined on Sunday roast at the Uig Restaurant. Locals also recommend visiting the Fairy Glen and its miniature cone-shaped hills.
Visiting off-season is another way to combat over tourism. We had the beaches of Harris to ourselves (OK, there were quite a few Highland cows!) and did not have to wait long on any of our meals. There was more chance to speak to the locals too because the shopkeepers and museum representatives were looking for the chat!
6. That Special Feeling
This is going to sound cheesy and I know everyone says it but you just can't describe that feeling you get when visiting Harris. Is it the isolation? The locals? The fresh air? The landscape or the vast amounts of water? It's probably a combination of all these factors but I definitely left happy, well rested and wanting to return.
Booking Island Hopping With CalMac
Naturally, you can book one way and returns tickets with CalMac, but if you are looking to do some island bagging during your road trip like we did you are best booking the Hopscotch ticket.
This ticket lets you choose between 32 options and the ticket is valid for 31 days which means you can island hop for a month! Check out the 32 Hopscotch routes on the CalMac website for more details.
On the Islands
Some of the roads you'll encounter on the islands are 'A' roads. These are single track roads with 'passing places'. Respect the rules, locals use these roads too. Sheep and cows use the A roads too! Our road trip took place at the very end of October, there was no snow but we saw snow poles at either side of the roads for the coming months.
Fuel is naturally more expensive in the Highlands and Islands, fill up before travelling and top up along the way. If hiring a car, double check what type of fuel - diesel or unleaded. It's a costly matter if you fill up with the wrong one.
Check your oil gauge, water levels and tyre pressure before setting off on your road trip. Double check the spare tyre. Pack a blanket, food and water in case of emergencies. Never travel without car insurance or holiday insurance if visiting from afar.
4G is patchy (non-existent in North Uist) and WiFi can be sketchy so add your proposed itinerary to a maps app and download before taking the ferry. Take a note of important information like accommodation directions. Remember you may need to collect ferry tickets at the port office before boarding so screenshot or print off confirmations.
American Express was not accepted at any of the stops we made on any of the four islands we visited.
It rains in Scotland, come prepared. Investing in a quality raincoat and waterproof walking boots are our top tips for staying dry. Don't forget hat, gloves, scarves and layers if island bagging in Autumn or Winter (even Spring, we've experienced snow in Skye in April before). Look up, the stars are spectacular!
The Isle of Harris and Lewis has been a bucket list dream for years and I can say that our trip did not disappoint. One of the highlights was actually a surprise, setting sail from a dark and gloomy Stornoway (Lewis) and watching the sunrise from the big CalMac windows with the snow-capped mountains at either side of the ferry. You can experience this too if you go island bagging during Autumn/Winter!