Away With the Ferries

27 January 2017



As someone who grew up in the Hebrides the ferries to the islands were somewhat taken for granted, as a child they were a means of escape to the wider world, as a student they returned me home at end of every term and now as an adult they spirit me back for all too infrequent family visits.  In my 40 years the ferries have changed and traditions modernised but the services to the islands remain like a decompression chamber between highland and island.  A slow, relaxing adjustment from mainland to island time.

This year, in particular, the Calmac sailings to Lewis have come in for scrutiny with the announcement that services from Ullapool to Stornoway would be affected by modernization work on the pier at Ullapool. Although not as dramatic as first envisioned the disruption is nonetheless a big inconvenience for visitors to the islands with a bit of extra planning required to get the most of your holiday.

The main upshot of the essential maintenance work is that there will be no vehicles taken on the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry between April 18th and May 20th. Passengers will be carried as usual with two sailings a day. For the duration of the work, an alternative vehicle service will run from Uig on the Isle Skye to Stornoway. This extra sailing is actually shorter than the Ullapool one and will be in addition to an enhanced service to Tarbert on Harris.

Instead of panicking, as those over a certain age in the islands are fond of doing (family included) I think this should be viewed as an opportunity, a chance for visitors to explore a new part of Scotland en route to the islands, to check out the road less travelled and look into some alternative ways of getting to Lewis.

Lonely Planet guidebooks used to have a mantra “getting there is half the fun” this doesn’t just apply to far flung and exotic destinations though. A drive through Skye will be a journey to remember. Depending on where you are departing from this may actually be quicker than going all the way to Ullapool but with the added bonus of discovering all that Skye has to offer on the way. There are many reasons why we love Lewis but we have to admit that for mountains and malt whisky then you should definitely stop over and check out the Cuillin Ridge and the Talisker distillery.

One Calmac journey that doesn’t fill me with nostalgia was the old ferry from Kyle. The bottlenecks and tailbacks that were once a feature of the journey are fortunately now a thing of the past as the Skye Bridge, completed in 1995 and toll free since 2004 now spirits tourists across the water in a super efficient manner.  It may not be as romantic a voyage as before but the bridge has done wonders for the economy and has really opened up the island to casual visitors.

This increase in visitors has meant there is now a fantastic range of things to see and do on the island. You could have a lunch stop at an award winning seafood restaurant, a diversion to one of the most famous distilleries in the country or simply stop and take in the majesty of Scotland’s most impressive mountain range. If shopping is your thing then there are plenty of craft shops, local produce suppliers and high end designers to temp you to tarry a while.

The road to the Isles is an evocative name for the A830 from Fort William to Mallaig, for those approaching from the direction of Glasgow the opportunity to take in this iconic journey is surely too good to miss. The detour and ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye adds only a little to the journey time but the reward of stunning scenery, history and a chance to see the “Harry Potter Train” more than compensates.

Two further options at different ends of the price scale would be to fly to the islands or take public transport. Arriving by air is a unique experience; on a clear day you can almost see the entire Hebrides spread beneath you and if you are lucky you will land on one of the most scenic airstrips in the world, the beach on Barra. A Number of car rental companies now operate on the islands and you can pick up a car directly at the airport in Stornoway.

Personally I am using this disruption as an excuse to finally cycle round some of the more remote parts of the islands I grew up in. It is obviously not the solution for every holidaymaker but with the decrease in traffic on the islands it seems like the perfect opportunity. Bikes can be carried free on the twice daily passenger service and if you are feeling really active then in the past keen kayakers have left their car at one side and taken their sea kayak on as luggage. For an adventurous couple keen for something similar then Tigh Bhisa would be the perfect base with some dates still available for this Easter.

If you are thinking of booking a last minute break or planning an extended summer holiday then LHH still has availability for some of the most amazingly located properties on the islands such as Ceol na Mara, Scotisay View Cottage and Aultbeithe. Easter weeks are filling up fast but availability is good after 11th April. Call us now or check our website for last minute special offers and up to date information