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09/10/2014

Discover Scotland's islands under your own steam

Our friends think we're nuts. My son's best pal has gone to the Maldives; our daughter's bestie is in Portugal. But enthused with the halcyon memories of our pre-marriage cycle tour of the Western Isles in a late summer heatwave, we decided our kids (10 and 12) would be enriched with a true Scottish island hopping Hebridean adventure.

This time we would be fully divorced from the car - left in the car park at Oban. Everything we needed would be carried on our bikes, courtesy of an off-road bob trailer, two panniers, and a Dutch dog trailer. The packing was done with military precision and took a week. Each person was only allowed two tees and three pants, waterproofs and minimal toiletries. If we smelt, hopefully there would only be a few sheep to offend.

After a 4am start and 3-hour drive to Oban (lovely empty roads at that time of the morning) we parked the car, set up the bikes and set off into the drizzle of a dreich highland morning.

 

The thrill of cycling your bikes onto a CalMac ferry cannot be underestimated. As we entered the bowels of the ship, a giddy grin spread over my face - the adventure had begun. This was much more fun than driving. What I love about a CalMac ferry is that it feels like you've started your holiday already, and not simply travelling to get there. You can wander around, enjoy beautiful views, scan the seas for wildlife - basking sharks and seals are regular sights - and even sunbathe!

CalMac ferries have progressed enormously since we started exploring Scottish islands. They still retain their gritty, Northern Scottish charm, but now have much improved facilities and customer service.  There are plenty of sitting areas for dog owners - we like to spread out in the circular areas, where the kids can watch TV, we can chat to fellow passengers, and the dogs can make friends too.

 

After such an early start I was tempted to sneak off and have a snooze on the reclining seats at the front, but couldn't resist tea and toast in the restaurant. In my opinion CalMac makes the best cuppa outside of my own kitchen.

In fact the food is not bad at all these days, there's a varied menu with healthy and kids options too - long gone are the days of deep fried tea and coffee.

There are also plenty of local suppliers - beer from Colonsay brewery, biscuits from Stornoway, salmon from South Uist, whisky from Islay, and music from Tiree's Skipinnish and Barra's Vatersay Boys.

But the best thing about the ferry is the people. The entire crew is friendly and approachable. From the guys loading us all up, to the officer greeting us as we boarded, to the kitchen staff.

Overall we planned four ferry trips during our adventure, but ended up on six. Our trip had been planned meticulously months ago, and we were travelling with the prevailing winds from south the north. However, the weather had other ideas. The day after our arrival the wind changed direction completely and a strong north wind set in for the week. However fit you are, cycling every day into the wind with two kids, all your kit and a dog trailer is soul destroying. The plan needed to change.

 

After spending an extra day on Barra we decide to head straight up to North Uist where we had arranged a wildlife boat trip with Nick from Kallin Harbour on Grimsay. After speaking to the office of Hebridean Coaches, they agreed to take us and our bikes up to Carinish where we could stay at the brand new Moorcroft bunkhouse (more of a lodge than a hostel). We caught the ferry from Ardmhor to Eriskay, and Ben went to get some lunch whilst the kids and I spent a pleasant hour picking up sea urchin shells on the stunning beach and waiting for the bus. When the empty bus arrived it started to rain and to our shock the driver refused to take us with our bikes. Even after my frantic call to the office again, she barely opened the window to say no. Disaster.

As the ferry hooted to signal its departure, we dashed back on it, knowing that we would have more options for accommodation on Barra than Eriskay. The ferryman could see how upset I was and came straight over to see if he could help. He spoke to a few passengers and amazingly managed to secure us a ride for two of us and the four bikes with a man and his trailer who would be on the final ferry back to Eriskay later in the day. So we'd be able to get to Carinish as planned and stay in the Moorcroft bunkhouse. Result! We spent much of the afternoon hanging out at the ferry waiting room in Ardmhor, chatting to another cyclist, and a quick ride to Barra Atlantic to get some hot smoked salmon for tea, before getting the final ferry back to Eriskay on what was becoming a familiar journey. Lewis, the bikes and I went with Donald, whilst Ben and Jemima hitched a ride with Karen from New Zealand. Our holiday would have been ruined but for the generosity and support of the CalMac team and their passengers - true Hebridean hospitality. I can't thank them enough.

 

The highlights of our holiday:

  • Watching the daily flight land and take off on Barra beach - such a special sight.

  • Watching a pair of sea eagles on the Lady Anne wildlife trip near Grimsay.

  • The lovely Barra-ians who lent us their car so we could take the kids swimming at Castlebay and eat delicious scallop pakoras at Kisimul Cafe.

  • Buying amazing seafood from Mary at Barra Atlantic and Kallin Harbour on Grimsay - we feasted like kings for a fraction of the price.

  • Cycling to Kallin Harbour - stunning purple and pink heather all around, and it felt like we were heading to the ends of the earth.

  • Watching a ferret being taken for a walk on Baleshare beach - random.

  • The cycle along the machair way on South Uist - stunning, peaceful, gorgeous black houses and heavenly beaches with white sand that slips through your fingers like soft velvet.

  • Barra and Vatersay beaches with giant Atlantic rollers - get your wetsuits on and bring out the boogie boards. 

  • Looking at shells on Eriskay beaches - and inspecting original Whisky Galore bottles.

  • Cappuccinos, hot chocolates and cake in the Hebridean jewellery cafe on south Uist. They take such pride in flavour and presentation, it's a sophisticated city cafĂ© in the midst of the Hebrides. We browsed in the shop and bought a silver Celtic heart pendant and rainbow coloured Heelan' Coo key rings

  • Feasting on a slap-up roast dinner at Temple View Hotel, Carinish.

Sometimes it's hard to describe the Western Isles to people who have never been there. It's a very special holiday and the memories linger for far longer than, say, a European beach holiday. The pace of life, the people, the scenery, the hidden gems to be discovered are unlike anywhere else in the world. I'm so glad that we can pass down our love of the Scottish islands to our children, and that we can have such memorable family holidays there together.

 

Day 1:
08:30 ferry to Lochboisdale arrive 13:40.
Cycle to Eriskay 12 miles and get ferry at 16:35 to Ardmor.
Cycle 3 miles to Croft 183 hostel.
Total distance: 15 miles

Day 2:
Day on Barra and Vatersay: 4.5 miles to Castlebay then further 5 miles to Vatersay beach.
Total distance: 20 miles

Day 3:
Day on Barra 4 miles to airport beach
Total distance: 4 miles

Day 4:
Day on Barra 8 miles to Western beaches plus visit to Barra Atlantic for fish shopping
Croft 183 hostel.
Total distance: 16 miles

Day 5:
11:10 Ferry to Eriskay 3 miles to Ardmor (3 times!) Then cadge a lift to N Uist.
Accommodation new Moorcroft bunkhouse at Carinish.
Total distance: 3 miles

Day 6:
Cycle to Baleshare 6 miles then Grimsay 5 miles for boat trip from harbour.
Moorcroft bunkhouse at Carinish.
Total distance: 22 miles

Day 7:
Cycle to South Uist via Machair Way and Gatliff hostel 37 miles.
Accommodation Uist Storm Pod, Lochboisdale.
Total distance: 37 miles

Day 8:
Cycle to beach near Kilphedar 4 miles.
Ferry back from Lochboisdale.
Total distance: 8 miles

Day 9:Lewis' 13th birthday.

 

 

 

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