Scotland has been voted the most beautiful country in the world by Rough Guides readers. The country has made it onto must-visit lists from the New York Times to Condé Nast Traveller. And to top it all, the island of Lewis and Harris has been voted the best island in Europe – and fifth best in the entire world – by Trip Advisor travellers.
I’m almost certainly biased (I do live here, after all), but no matter your location, you can’t fail to appreciate everything this island on the edge of the Atlantic has to offer. Read on for six reasons why Lewis and Harris should definitely be on your travel list this year.
1. Spectacular scenery
The view from the machair at Luskentyre beach in Harris is one of my favourite views in the world: pure white sand, turquoise seas, and the mountains of North Harris looming on the horizon. Beaches of this Caribbean calibre cover the west coast of Harris – Seilebost, Horgabost, Nisabost, Scarista – making driving the road somewhat hazardous, as it’s hard to divert your eyes from the stunning scenery at your side.
Uig in Lewis also offers spectacular beach vistas, while the rolling moorland and lochs that make up much of Lewis show a more subtle beauty.
2. History and legend
The Outer Hebrides has one of the most visible archaeological landscapes in the UK. There’s the outstanding sight of the aCllanish Stones (much more atmospheric than Stonehenge) and nearby Dun Carloway, one of the best-preserved Iron Age brochs in the country.
For an insight into a way of island life gone by, there are the blackhouses – the Arnol Blackhouse and Gearrannan Blackhouse village. Other historic sites worthy of a visit include St Clements Church in Rodel, St Moulag’s Temple in Ness, and the Ui Church in Point. The local museum, Museum nan Eilean, is currently closed, but is expected to re-open in 2015 with a new home in the renovated Lews Castle.
3. A vibrant and unique culture
As the heartland of the Gaelic language, the Outer Hebrides offers a unique holiday experience, even within Scotland. Although English is now the main language, Gaelic influences are still strong; more than half the population is fluent in the language, and street signs in rural areas are often in Gaelic only.
It’s influence is seen in traditional music, music which features at local open-mic nights as well as the award-winning Heb Celt Festival, held annually on the Castle Green in Stornoway. Visitors this year will be treated to the added excitement of the Harris Tweed Hebrides Tattoo as part of Homecoming 2014, a carnival-style celebration of bagpipes, music, singing, and dancing scheduled for August.
Focusing on tradition, however, would be telling only half a tale: the contemporary arts scene in the island is a vibrant one. An Lanntair hosts regular exhibitions, concerts and films, not to mention the fabulous Faclan book festival that’s held every year on the cusp of winter, attracting the likes of Richard Dawkins, Jon Ronson, Peter May and Jenny Colgan.
Fashion can be found here too, in the form of Harris Tweed – the luxury, hand-woven, government-protected fabric seen on catwalks around the world. Created by weavers in their homes throughout the islands, the “champagne of fabrics” is currently enjoying an international renaissance, featuring in collections from designers near and far (think J Crew, Chanel and Alexander McQueen). Head for Harris Tweed Hebrides and By Rosie in Stornoway for local purchases.
4. Endless outdoor activities
With the unhindered might of the Atlantic pounding the west coast of the island, water sports enthusiasts are in their element. Experienced surfers make the most of the waves at Dal Mor and Eoropie beaches, while the opportunities for sailing, fishing, and spotting wildlife on dedicated boat trips are endless.
Then there’s kite surfing, golfing, climbing, hill-walking, bird-watching (eagles are often overhead in the Harris hills)… the list goes on. And for those of you feeling a little less energetic, there are even segway rides around Stornoway.
New to the outdoor scene for 2014 is croft tourism. Domhnall Macsween, the man behind popular Ness blog Air An Lot, will be giving tourists the chance to be ‘air an lot’ – on the croft – from this spring, adding an exciting new experiential travel option for visitors to Lewis.
5. Award-winning, luxury accommodation
There is a wide selection of locations to lay your head after a day of outdoor exploring. In addition to hotels and B&Bs, options for self catering accommodation have soared in recent years, and some have even picked up prestigious national awards. Whitefalls Spa Lodges offers secluded, modern luxury in Breasclete on Lewis; while the Broch House, part of the extensive Borve Lodge Estate in West Harris, is the epitome of luxury with a local edge – think tailor-made slate, local stone and wood interiors – and a wonderful view of those beaches mentioned earlier.
6. Fresh, local fare
Fresh, local food is available in abundance here. Whether it’s tender meat from the croft, straight-from-the-sea scallops, beautifully baked bread, or locally distilled whisky from Abhainn Dearg, you’re guaranteed to find something worth savouring.
This is the home of the (in)famous Stornoway Black Pudding. It’s a delicacy I have only recently discovered to be absolutely delicious, and I’m despairing that I have missed out on it for so many years. HS1 and Digby Chick are popular restaurants in the island’s capital, and 40 North on the west side of Lewis makes sandwiches that could compete easily with those at any New York deli. Further south, Hotel Hebrides and The Temple Cafe in Harris are excellent options for dinner and a drink.
So there you have it: six solid reasons to visit Lewis and Harris this year. Whatever your travel style – from luxury relaxation to exhilarating adventure – Europe’s best island has something to suit you.
Have you ever visited Lewis and Harris? Would you like to? What do you love most about the island?