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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Mean Moody and Magnificent - The West Highlands and the Isle of Skye

View from Sleat, Skye across to the mainland. Here it's possible for it to rain and be sunny at the same time.


I'd forgot how beautiful the Scottish Highlands are. We took the road North from Glasgow, up the west side of Loch Lomond. It begins to get 'highlandish' about halfway up the Loch (Mainland Britains Largest if i remember correctly) when you see Britains southermost Munro (hill over 3000ft), Ben Lomond, across the water.

Eilean Donan Castle, just down from Kyle of Lochalsh

After an initial baptism into the scenery, things take a turn for the better when you pass Tyndrum, and the haunting Rannoch Moor, which flows into the more haunting Glencoe, scene of the famous massacre of the McGregors by the Campbells, and of a million other battles, including that in the opening scene in Highlander. A road, a railway and the West Highland Way all funnel through here, and suddenly your in the highlands proper, hitting the sea along the road that leads to Fort William.

The Church at Glenfinnan (probably haunted)

Fort William itself is nothing more than a functional tourist town, full of sameish restaurants and hotels, tourist info. and of course surrounded by beautiful lochs and hills. There are a couple of dodgy nightclubs too. Less said about Fort William the better.

On the way to Mallaig (for the ferry to Skye) you pass Glenfinnan, which has the famous Jacobite Monument, an amazing view, and of course the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is where Harry Potter always seem to cross on the train. Actually this whole trip was voted the most scenic in the world twice in a row now and i'd definitely recommend it (the West Highland Line goes from Glasgow to Mallaig, which is where the ferry to Skye is.) The Ferry is £29 one way for a car by the way, but only £4 or so by foot.
Menacing Skye

If you go the other way to Skye, by road (its free) then you have a different treat. The scenery is great, but the highlights are the famous Eilean Donan Castle which you'll recognise from Highlander, Loch Ness, and one recent James Bond film. The Skye Bridge itself gives you an amazing view too, well worth walking over if you have a chance.

Menacing Sky

Skye however was a different league altogether. Every corner you turn, a scene greets you straight out of a postcard. Here's a quick guide -

SLEEPING -

Every second house is a Bed and Breakfast, so this is not an issue.  You can book a place in advance at any tourist info (i.e. in Glasgow for example) You can also camp which is probably a much better fun option than a hostel, and cheaper. We stayed in the Ardvasar Hotel, (better known as the Edgar Savisaar Hotel) just 800m left from the ferry terminal. Breakfast ended at 9.30 which was annoying and in true country style, the internet didn't quite reach the rooms. The Isle of Skye is bigger than you might think so i'd recommend a place more centrally located if you want to explore the whole island - for example near Portree would be perfect, or the hotel Sligachan (which also has a campsite/caravan place, restaurant etc etc and for some reason a little house for the Order of St John (where they secretly plot world domination from the lee of the surrounding Cuillin Mountains)

Anyway, the location is basically right in the middle of the Island, surrounded by the Cuillins, just south of Portree, but easy to drive to other sights like Dunvegan Castle etc etc.  Its also a heart stoppingly beautiful setting, with the river and loch, and dark brooding mountains threatening to eat you every time you look up.
Random View to the mainland

EATING -

Skye is, surprisingly a foodies delight. Seafood restaurants are all around, and there are even two curry houses and a chinese. The most well known restaurant is the three chimneys  - it also provides 5 star accommodation. Its the most surreal place i've ever seen. We took a single track road up, left as you enter Dunvegan - pass the fire station/hut and you're going the right way. It was a deserted road for 4 miles or so, then suddenly here we were, at the highest rated restaurant in the North - which was basically a pretty little cottage. It was empty but of course was fully booked for the £60 a head dinner- you must phone in advance to book, otherwise it's impossible. but i've heard the food is amazing. The menu is all about fresh local stuff, mostly seafood, which is tasty. The weird thing was that not a single person was around, apart from one weird rich looking old American Baldy, who turned up with his pretty female companion of half his age (ok ok i can't really criticise this scene except that i'm not bald and look poor)

If you can't get in there and want a similar experience, the Old School in dunvegan nearby is also pretty good and has the same fresh seafood gastrovibe, is full of American tourists who have never eaten fresh food before, and is a wee bit cheaper (not much)

The road to the permanently fully booked 3 Chimneys (with tomorrows lunch on the right)

On the other side of the Island is the famous Michelin Starred Kinloch Lodge where you can also stay for some Oligarch level price per night.

Apart from that there are loads of chip shops, and random pub food style places for £10 a head in Portree, or any hotel (Broadford has a hot dog stand and only one or two quite ok Restaurants.)

DOING -

Well why did you come to Skye?

Most people come for either outdoor life or a romantic getaway. Its most certainly one of the most beautiful places i've been to, even when it rains. I was sitting in a cafe (in Struan, its pretty and has a bookshop, so jump in if you have a chance) drinking my £1 cup of tea. And looked out the window and there, like something from Narnia, is a giant waterfall flowing off a cliff into the sea. Surreal is not the word (actually it is the word, why do people talk like that?)

View from the Old Man of Storr, just before the Goblins attacked 

So for the walkers, hillwalkers, and climbers - The Old Man of Storr is an easy 30minute climb and you get an amazing view (mine was of a thunderstorm on one side and sunshine on the other) It's just north of Portree, in fact you can even see it from there, so drive 15 minutes north and you're there. It was quite busy when i went, it felt rather weird to hear accents and languages from every corner of the world in this random and remote place (we heard Estonians, Finns, Aussies, Americans, Koreans, Spanish and French, plus of course the Ubiquitous Germans)

Further north of there is the even weirder rock formations of The Quiraing (pronounced like Kerrang!) which are a bit more testing but quite fine and great if you wan't to pretend you're on a green version of Mars.

The main mountain range though are The Cuillins , where you can do some real stuff with ropes and not wearing flip flops (which is what most people walking up the Storr would do)

What else to do ?

You can visit  Dunvegan castle in North Skye, it's quite interesting although i'd say not worth the £9 entrance fee, unless you wan't to chat with the Laird, a youngish, kind of Highland Hugh Grant sorta guy. The Gardens are beautiful though, and you can get a boat to hang out with some seals (which i did 25 years ago when i went. My main memory is of my Mum moaning at me all the time to keep in the boat as i was hanging out to touch the seals.)

There are also a whole load of trips and guides around. If you're safely ensconced in a hotel they can help. Randomly there's a reptile centre and a (more apt) Sea Eagle centre. There are a million untouched beautiful beaches nearby (especially check south of Mallaig)

Theres another castle open - Clan Donald Castle beside the Ferry terminal in the south of Skye. They were the arch rivals of the Macleod's and trounced them in the Battle of Coire Na Creiche  which by the way, was the battle at the start of 'Highlander' , although it was filmed in Glencoe and the Castle Eilan Donan. It was also the last battle on Skye.

WEATHER - ahhhh one other thing. It never gets really cold here - It's on the gulf stream and you even can see the odd palm tree (add to the surrealism of the place) but be warned. It never gets really warm either. And it rains every day. I have never been to Skye and it hasn't rained at least once. It can be
raining and sunny at the same time too, which is mighty strange.

Ok im off to Japan soon, so more later!

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