Isle of Skye sightseeing, hiking, directions, cottage rentals, and much more!
Everyone has their druthers when visiting the lovely Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland - mine happen to be good home cooked, preferably organic food, a cozy cottage, a small rental car and my own two feet -- in order to explore where most of the tourists don't bother to go -- because it is too much work, or not in the standard guidebook.
The first thing that strikes you about the highland of Scotland is that they really are all mountains and water!
You've seen the pictures, you've read about it on the internet, you've read other peoples' accounts, and yet, when you get there ... wow ... it really is mountains and water ... and sky. Don't forget the amazing sky. It's constantly changing. Usually if raining in one part of sky, it's clear, or at least not raining elsewhere. So you learn early to get up, look at the sky, and then plan your day.
Take a look at one way to plan your trip along with relevant tips.
Scotland has a great rail system. Consider using it for part of your trip. If you book in advance over the internet you can get some fantastic deals. Here's how we got to Skye.
We flew into Edinburgh, arriving early in the morning. Jet lagged. We took a blue bus #100 directly to the train station (buying a round trip or "return" ticket).
The fast train up to Inverness was soothing, required no mental capacity, allowed us to get up and move around, snooze, have a picnic and generally adjust to the new time zone in a pressure free manner.
When we got to Inverness we took a taxi directly to our accommodations - for the major hotels, it's just a few minutes' walk.
If you drive from Edinburgh, not only are you coping with adjusting to driving on the left while jet lagged, but you have a long drive to your destination.
Most people take the main route to get to Skye: the A82 south along Loch Ness, and then the A887 and A87 west to Skye. Most people means a lot of traffic, and I've heard that there are a lot of accidents on that road. I'll come back to that later.
We took the A835 and then the smaller A832 and A890 west and then southwest from Inverness.
Once we got off the main road there was virtually no traffic and we watched layer after layer of mountains unreel before us as we worked our way down to the coast. Because we were headed to Skye, we struck south after Loch Carron, but the country to the north - the Applecross Peninsula and points north are spectacular.
We spent a week on the mainland, just east of the bridge to Skye at Kyle of Lochalsh, before we went to Skye.
The National Trust of Scotland holds the lands of the former Balmacara Estate. This several thousand acre parcel includes 80-some cottages and homes, the restored Balmacara Square (which includes the Haymarket, a deli with excellent organic meals), 10 or so wonderful walking trails, and the Lochalsh Woodland Gardens.
If you are bound straight for Skye, arrange your time so that you have 2-3 hours to walk in this rather amazing forested garden - located on a mile of hillside above Loch Alsh.
From dense azaleas, rhododendrons, bamboo, and exotic species to a quiet pine nook above rocks and seals (in the mornings) - it's a lovely refreshing walk. We stayed for a week close by the garden and it was just grand.
Think of Skye as a set of Peninsulas:
Trotternish features sweeping hillsides, which rise up gently from the sea and then plunge abruptly on the east side in sheer cliffs. These offer stupendous beauty and silence. They are wonderfully worth climbing up to! (Another reason to spend a week in Balmacara warming up!)
The area features great waterfalls, wonderful car tours, both adventuresome and mild hiking, boat trips, castles, and the bells and whistles if you wish them.
For those of you are ardent shoppers - Portree has great shops, but we found the little shops along the way, such as in Edinbane, more interesting.
With a few exceptions, we ate at home both for simplicity, economy and comfort.
Although we never ate at Skye's top restaurant, The Three Chimneys, near Dunvegan (you'll need a reservation a week ahead during high season), everywhere we ate had great food.
We found everything we needed in the local Coop food store. We especially enjoyed the fresh produce and awesome fresh strawberries grown by Robert Brooks at the Fruits of Skye. It’s located just a few miles north of Uig on Trotternish.
Since so many people have stopped by asking for tea or coffee, the Coop plans a tiny shop up on top of the hill near the road to serve fresh berries, tea, coffee, and a few scones or muffins.
There's a B&B at Staffin on the east side of Trotternish that also serves organic food, and we were able to buy organic herbs from them.
In addition, on Tuesday-Saturday, you can buy fresh seafood on the dock in Portree, and no doubt other places as well. Try things you've never had - they're great. And get kippers just one time for the record, but be prepared for their "robust" odor.
I found that making up a couple of baggies with spice mixes and taking them with me made it very easy, i.e.,
Most cottages have an abundance of salt and various odds and ends from previous visitors - but you never know what you'll find.
We were able to find a lot of organic grains and produce even at the Coop.
Be sure the cottage agent or local person who lets you in tells you specifically where the various switches are for hot water ... it once took us two days to find the switch. The outlets, and the power for the stove, washer, etc. have switches at the outlet, or at the connection to the wall. If the stove won't turn on, that's why.
You'll find that any cookbooks in the cottages use weights rather than our western cups and tablespoons - be forewarned. Also be forewarned that the stove will be centigrade. So figure out your major temperatures before you go.
There are hotels and hostels on Skye.
Some feature breakfast, some feature dinner also, and some feature rooms only. They range from minimalist to luxurious.
And then there are bed and breakfasts. I haven't met a B&B that I didn't like.
The owners of the B&B will know the best hiking trails around them. Many of the B&B's in the country also offer dinner. But from most parts of the Island, Portree or a great local restaurant is not more than 10 miles away.
We like cottages the best.
We enjoy savoring the uniqueness of each, the owner's (and past visitors') reading tastes, and the comments left in the guest book by previous visitors.
We enjoy being on our own steam, not having to dress for breakfast, not bothering our friends if we choose to stay up late reading or (god forbid) watching TV. Mostly, we really enjoy the feeling of coming home after each outing.
Here's our particular technique for finding a great cottage. And we've really batted 100% on location. To our way of thinking, its location, location, location - and we like locations with little traffic, quietness, and a great view. Here's how we find them.
The largest roads on Skye are two lane with short passing stretches.
The smallest are single lane with frequent very short passing places. There are not a lot of them. We drove almost all of them in morning outings, and reserved our afternoons for hiking.
Make a point of taking the tiniest roads over the tops of passes. The views are incomparable.
When you see a couple of cars parked by the side of the road in a tiny parking area, there's something there - it probably won't be on your map.
Here's where the 1:50,000 maps come in handy: The larger maps just pass these little places by and most tourists also pass them by because they aren't marked by signs. And some places like the magical fairy glen with its realistic stone formation "Castle Ewen" are barely visited at all.
We found the other drivers to be extremely courteous (you have to be when there is only one lane!).
A couple of tips for the single-lane roads.
I'm torn between telling you about our favorite hikes and not wanting to share them. But any of the little books in the bookstores or very excellent tourist information centers will tell you -- that's how we found them.
We left the book we bought behind as a gift for future visitors, but here are the ones we remember with greatest fondness.
There's a brochure of the local Balmacara hikes in the kiosk at Lochalsh Gardens.
We did the shorter walks first to warm up and get in shape. All are interesting, beautiful and different from each other. There are midges in the mornings and evenings and on still days. Have bug repellant. We used citronella oil - which did a wonderful job.
Lochalsh Woodland Gardens
Several trails wind through a pine/beech wood - and after about 1/2 mile you reach the forested gate of the gardens - which continue for another 1/2 mile or so.
Again, there's a brochure in the kiosk. These forested trails are an entirely different nature than any of the walks above the highway. The trails are well maintained, with interesting and quite varied plants.
We think the finale is the walk west from the entrance road to Balmacara Square, continuing up to a loch for a six mile round trip afternoon.
You pass from the road up a meadow through blackberries into a youngish pine plantation.
Next is a beech forest with extraordinarily beautiful 8-10' in diameter trees, moss and great peacefulness. (All the trees are labeled w/ little number - the Trust must keep close tabs on the health of these trees.)
Finally you pass onto the open hillsides above Loch Alsh. Short grasses, heather, stone outcroppings, your own "personal mountain" of the SE of Skye standing just across the way, the water and boats.
Do this on an afternoon on a lovely partly cloudy day. Return home across this moorland, as the sun gets low, the clouds glow and the water turns golden.
There are lots of little books of Skye walks. We recommend getting one of them to give you something to focus on.
Here are the walks we enjoyed the most.
Make this an afternoon for the children (including big children) and don't be in a hurry.
The Fairy Glen, just east of Uig, is an unusual array of perfectly conical little hills covered with sheep trails and bracken. There's a stone formation at the top called Castle Ewen. There's a lot more than you can see from the road. It seems simplistic, but it’s really magical.
At the top of Castle Ewen, (easily climbed on a good, though narrow trail), my 21-year old son remarked on what an incredible place it would be to have to play in with your friends as a child.
After our exploration, we drove up the road on the opposite side of the valley - just to see the area in perspective. Quite fascinating.
This is on every must do list, with good reason.
Many people hike up there. It's a steep climb, no fooling, but absolutely worth it.
Once you get up to the Old Man, there is a valley up behind between the Old Man and the cliffs called the Sanctuary, also with good reason. Only an occasional raven calls, and eagles soar, and people whisper.
We then walked along the level path and continued north for about a 1/2 mile to a nice plateau peninsula to see the view northward.
From Portree you can walk right along the water on a paved path curving to the north around the harbor.
This trail continues right around the base of the cliff to the north and you begin to climb. You can work your way up to a farm road and then with a little more exploration either up on the bluffs further north, or as we did, around and back to the south to the cliffs looking down on Portree.
Up there the moorland grasses and heather take over and the day takes on a golden quality in September.
The day we made this hike it was raining all around, including the peak just opposite us on the other side of Portree harbor. But it was sunny in our middle. Grand.
On the way to Skye, we took the northern route to have less traffic.
Even though we knew that the main drag would have more traffic we decided to go that way on our return to Inverness, just for the new road. We're glad we did, and we think we made the right decision in going the other route initially.
Yes there was traffic. But the glens and views were stupendous - and we appreciated them all the more having been on Skye. It made
us realize that there was a lot more to be explored on this road.
Since A87 is on the way to Skye, everyone seems to have the ocean destinations in mind rather than these stunning mountains.
We'll be back.
All images are copyrighted by Fotolia and used with permission.
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