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Travel Guide: Isle of Skye
Visiting the Isle of Skye
By Jennifer Miller
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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 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.
Diversion to Balmacara AreaWe 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 azalas, 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.
The PeninsulasThink of Skye as a set of Peninsulas: Trotternish, Waternish, Duirinish, Cuillins area, and Sleat, along with the Isle of Raasay. Trotternish features sweeping hillside which rise up gently from the sea and then plunge abruptly on the east side in sheer cliffs of stupendeous 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.
FoodWith 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 foodstore. We especially enjoyed the fresh produce and awesome fresh strawberries grown by Robert Brooks at the Fruits of Skye. They are located just a few miles north of Uig on Trotternish. Since so many people have stopped by asking for tea or coffee, they plan 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.
A few tips about cooking:
AccomodationsThere are hotels and hostels on Skye. Some feature breakfast, some feature dinner also, and some feature rooms only. They range from minimalist to luxuruous. 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, 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.
Car ToursThe 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 land roads.
HikingI'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.
Balmacara Area There's a brochure of the local hikes in the kiosk at Lochalsh Gardens.
A final wordOn 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.