Visiting a major tourist destination without the tourists
DESTINATION ISLE OF SKYE
The Isle of Skye is located off Scotland’s northwest coast and is the largest island in the inner Hebrides archipelago. Known for its picturesque coastal villages and fractured coastline full of peninsulas and narrow lochs, Skye is an outdoor lovers mecca. If the island was made into a jigsaw puzzle it would challenge even the most advanced dissectologist.
Inverness to the Isle of Skye
On a chilly morning in late November we departed Inverness after a 2-week stay for the Isle of Skye, located off Scotland’s northwest coast. Travelling by bus (highly recommended) south along the Glen Mor (Great Valley) and the Caledonian Canal the first leg of our journey was filled with jaw dropping scenery.
Heading west across the Northwest Highlands toward the coast the landscape turned various shades of seaweed, butterscotch, carrot and burnt sienna while countless miles of sleeping, uncultivated grasslands signaled the impending change of seasons. With snow beginning to accumulate at higher elevations we could sense that the time to break out the down jackets would soon be upon us.
After all, we were headed to an island in the North Atlantic, in late November and snow was already beginning to fall in the mountains.
Four hours into our journey we crossed over the Skye Bridge and continued on our final leg to Portree, the largest town on, and capital of, the Isle of Skye. This compact, charming 200 year old fishing village would serve as our base camp for the next eight days.
Arriving at the bus station in Portree we off-loaded our bags and headed out in search of lunch. Finding our airbnb could wait! Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in the Merchant Bar in the lovely 20 room Bosville Hotel, one of Portree’s finer boutique hotels.
Ten minutes and a cold glass of beer into our lunch break at the Merchant Bar we were greeted by Graham Kelly, the affable and cordial hotel manager. Graham exuded his own unique brand of good humor and bonhomie that percolated from every word. He immediately made us feel welcome, not only to his establishment, but to the island itself.
“You’re here at a good time” he said “you should have the island to yourselves”. That was good news indeed considering that we just arrived from a 2-week stay in the hustle and bustle of Inverness.
When we finished our lunch Graham extended his graciousness even further by offering to drive us up the hill to our base camp. “You don’t want the carry your gear up THAT hill” he said. As we loaded our bags in his VW GTI hatchback we soon found out that it was indeed a very steep climb!
Several days later we would find ourselves taking another ride with Graham. However, this one was not a simple drive up the hill to our place but a white knuckle, 50 mile-an-hour romp across the island to his home…in the dark!
One of the pearls of wisdom that Graham shared with us was that if we wanted to explore the island we needed to rent a car. While the bus system operates with a respectable degree of regularity during the tourist season it is anything but reliable once the crowds die down. Good call.
So…that afternoon we contacted Morrison Car Rental, the island-wide rental car agency, and arranged to be picked up the following morning at 9am. Imagine that, a car rental company that actually picks you up.
Sure enough 9am the next day a driver arrived and drove us down to the hill the office to meet Stephen (the owner) who graciously asked for my drivers license, took NO deposit and wished us safe driving as we headed off on our first ever left-hand-side-of-the-road driving experience…in a car with the steering wheel on the right. Good thing I ordered an automatic.
“Keep your headlights on at all times” he said as we walked out the door.
Considering that I had not driven a car in close to two months and have never driven on the opposite side of the road, leaving the lights on would be the least of my concerns!
A visit to an Old Man
With the freedom of a car we were now able to get around the island on our own.
First stop…the Old Man of Storr.
The “Old Man” as islanders call it is arguably the most famous hike on Skye and certainly one of the busiest. It is also one of the most photographed landscapes on the island.
The day that we arrived lady luck was on our side as we parked on the side of the road near the trailhead with only six other cars. In the high season this would be impossible as lines to park anywhere can extend for upwards of a mile. Rough math will tell you that’s well over 300 cars, minus the busses and excursion outfitters. A short distance away there was a construction crew putting the finishing touches on a new, and very large, parking lot to accommodate the anticipated traffic destined to arrive on the island the following spring.
The initial part of the gravel trail took us past a vast pine woodland that had recently been harvested and replanted. The detritus from the clear-cutting was left in dozens of pristine piles that dotted the hillsides like giant tepees.
As we zig-zagged our way through the second leg of the path we marveled at the slopes covered with a mix of green and yellow-gold grasses that gave them a woolly appearance. The sky was clear (for now) and the rocky outcroppings of the Trotternish escarpment looked like an enormous sleeping dinosaur against the impossibly blue background. We got the sense that if was to suddenly come alive all hell would break loose.
As impressive as this amazing collection of rocks are the surrounding views from the top also took our breath away. From our vantage point we could see across the Sound of Raasay to the islands of Raasay and Rona and beyond to the Scottish mainland.
We lingered for about an hour until noticing that the weather was changing quickly as afternoon clouds began to roll in from the east, signaling a potential downpour. Hearing tales of how quickly the weather can change we beat a hasty retreat to the car to experience more of the north-east coast.
Back on the road the storm clouds abated long enough for us to enjoy the remainder of the afternoon rain free. As we drove around the northern tip of the island with its increasingly narrow, white knuckle roads, we realized just how isolated we were and towns with names like Duntulm, Uig, Earlish and Snizort, had us laughing at our inability to pronounce them.
Darkness comes early at this latitude and time of year and with the sun fading fast it was time to head south and return to basecamp. Driving on the opposite side of the road…in the dark. I’ll leave that to the locals
A walk among the Fairies
Twenty miles southwest from Portree lie the beautiful, crystal clear blue/green Fairy Pools set in an impossibly beautiful glen.
This was a stunningly beautiful walk through a long, and gently sloping, valley with views toward the Black Cuillin mountains, one of two mountain ranges that dominate the island. From a distance the river Brittle that feeds the waterfalls and pools looks like a giant scar running the length of the valley to the base of the mountains. By all accounts it appeared as though the left and right sides of the valley had been stitched together by the hands of a clumsy monster.
Up close however, tells a completely different story.
Crossing the road from the parking lot and dropping down the long descent into the valley we were immediately transfixed by the beauty and immensity of the landscape and the cold, grey, snow-capped mountains in the distance. At this time of year the valley floor is a dormant palate of coffee colored grasses and sleeping heather whipped by the ferocious winds coming off the Cuillins. Come early summer the valley will explode in a carpet of emerald green and vibrant purple running halfway up the face of the mountains.
After two tenuous river crossings we saw the first waterfall that marks the beginning of the magical pools. This first fall is the highest and drops into the deepest pool. As we continued up the trail the numerous pools were a vibrant mix of blues, greens and turquoise depending on the light, which shifted dramatically throughout our three hour hike.
Looking up toward the mountains we could see snow beginning to collect at the higher elevations which, along with torrential rains, is the source of the freezing cold waters of the river and its pools. Those who dare to swim in these frigid waters are in for a big surprise. It’s no wonder that wetsuits are highly recommended.
As we reached the end of the trail the wind began to pick up and an icy, biting rain was fast approaching, forcing us to turn our backs on the mountain and head back. A relatively dry trail with safe river crossings can change in minutes when the weather turns ugly. Best to play it safe.
With plenty of daylight left we were not content to head home so we drove to a black sand beach not far from the Fairy pools. There we stood in complete silence, save the lapping of the waves coming off the Cuillin Sound. With a few bleating sheep in a distant meadow we were, once again, completely alone.
It was a spectacular way to spend the day, made all the more so by the lack of tourists. Travelling during the off season does have its advantages.
Fly like an eagle
After a couple days of hiking we were anxious to get on the water. The best way to do this was to hire an experienced skipper who knows the sights, sounds and hidden reaches of the surrounding waters.
Enter Captain Iain, one of the most experienced skippers on the island and one of four crewmembers with the outfitter Stardust Boat Trips. With his impressive credentials spanning 40 years (25 years on Skye) we knew we would be in good hands with Iain.
As we departed the harbor in Portree under blue skies with a smattering of clouds the excitement onboard was palpable. With the two of us along six other passengers we had plenty of room to move about the boat. We chose the upper deck for the best views. Although it was a bit windier than down below it was the place to be.
As we skirted the shoreline of the Isle of Raasay Iain filled us in on the flora and fauna. Had he not pointed out the sheep grazing on the incredibly steep hillsides I am certain that we would not seen them. With their winter coats on they were very well hidden among the rocks and grasses.
Even harder to spot were the two White Tailed Sea Eagles nesting high above the water. With their tawny coloration there were nearly impossible spot without binoculars. But there they were, a majestic couple with their enormous eight foot wingspans, making them the largest and rarest bird of prey in the UK and the 4th largest species of eagle in the world.
Iain positioned the boat about half a mile from the shore, stepped out of the cabin and pulled a fish from a large bucket on the deck. Feeding time. Being a keen photographer himself Iain wanted us to have the best opportunity to see, and photograph, these enormous birds up close. What better way to entice them off their perch than by waving a large fish in the air.
Although we could barely see the eagles they could certainly see us, and the fish in Iain’s hand. These top gun birds of prey possess an acute vision that allows them to spot a fish in the water…from a mile away! With a few waves of the fish over his head Iain tossed it in the water. Within moments there she was, flying low and fast over the boat before making a tight turn and moving in for the kill.
To observe a bird this large from 20 feet overhead is a sight we will never forget. As she drew closer to the water and snagged the fish with her enormous talon it was absolutely breathtaking. Off she went to share the morning catch with her mate, who Iain told us rarely leaves his perch, leaving the majority of the hunting to the female
The skill of the huntress was certainly on full display that day.
Turning the boat around Iain took us past a large commercial fish farm that raises upwards of two million salmon per year. We had seen operations like this from the road but never close up. Setting aside any discussion about the virtues of farm raised versus wild fish, it was an impressive sight to see the numerous tanks bubbling with countless salmon. Behind one of the giant tanks we spotted a large ship offloading feed for the ravenous fish.
Man feeds fish. Fish feeds man.
With our time on the water coming to a close Iain turned the boat back toward Portree. Approaching the harbor with its brightly painted buildings set against an ominous, grey sky it was easy to sense that the island would soon be in the grip of winter.
In search of golden eagles
After seeing the majestic White Tailed Sea Eagles the previous day we decided to go in search of the Golden Eagle, the island’s land based bird of prey.
Having returned our rental car the previous day we boarded an early morning bus to Sligachan, home to eight pair of golden eagles and the best place in the UK to see (if you’re lucky) these rare creatures of the sky. The bus stop was at the Sligachan Hotel, which was a great place to fuel up before our 3 hour hike into the John Muir Trust / Cuillin Special Protection Area, home to the eagles.
Before heading into the wide valley that faced the far off Cuillin mountains we took another trail parallelling a river that fed several raging waterfalls with water as crystal clear as the Fairy Pools. We were later told by some friends that had we continued on this trail, for a substantial distance, we would have come around to the backside of the Fairy Pools. Substantial distances are easy to come by in these parts.
After an hour of following the river we reversed course and headed to the Special Protection Area and the “Land of the Eagles”. Passing the hotel we crossed over a river and climbed a wide trail laid with large boulders. The view from the top of the stairs was breathtaking and the scale of the landscape was simply mind boggling.
We walked for over an hour yet it seemed as though we had not taken a single step, such is the grandeur of this park. Looking across the valley we could barely see the river that we had just come from. It appeared like a shiny sliver of white against the vast expanse of peat bogs.
The clouds came and went in layer upon grey layer, reminding us that mother nature is in full control out here.
When the wind kicked up it did so in ferocious gusts making it difficult to walk. If the eagles were out today this would be the perfect time for a subsonic, downwind flight across the valley.
There would be no spotting these elusive creatures for us today however. The only birds taking flight were a couple of Royal Scottish Air Force Typhoon combat aircraft flying training sorties through the mountains. No screeching golden eagles. Just the ear-splitting roar of jet engines echoing through the mountains. Not sure that old John Muir would approve.
Time to catch the bus to Portree.
We waited at the bus stop in anticipation of our return to Portree. And then we waited some more. While waiting we joked that we should have kept the car another day! The bus never arrived. We were forewarned.
Through the kindness of a bartender at the hotel, we hitched a ride back to Portree. Mark drove very fast. He knew the road. We arrived in one piece.
A white knuckle ride to dinner with friends
During conversations with Graham, the Bosville Hotel manager, we discussed the idea of having dinner with him and his partner, Samantha. They live in a quite location on the other side of the island so a date was set to join them for dinner at their place.
On the evening of our planned dinner we met Graham at the hotel at 6pm. and hopped in his car for the 20 minute ride across the island. And what a ride it proved to be!
Reading the narrow two-lane road as though he had a head-up display on the windshield, Graham drove at speeds that would raise the hair on the most seasoned rally drivers neck. With me riding shotgun and Fernanda in the back seat he reached speeds upwards of 80 kilometers an hour, which seemed much faster considering that it was pitch black.
Heightening the suspense was that there was not a stretch of straight road longer than 50 yards! It was one sharp turn after another with steep drop offs into the fields. Adding to the excitement, Graham never left 3rd. gear keeping the revs on his GTI high as he carved up the tarmac.
“I know these roads very well” Graham said as we chatted away. That…was only mildly comforting.
Breathless, we arrived at their home and Samantha greeted us at the door as though we were old friends. With shoes off, heart rates stabilizing and glasses of wine in hand we set about making friends with this globe-trotting, gracious couple.
Over the next couple of hours we swapped travel stories, shared snippets of our lives and melted into couches around their fireplace after dinner. The evening could have dragged on much longer but Graham had hotel business to attend to in Portree. We bid farewell to Samantha and hopped back in the GTI for another romp across the island.
Somehow the return trip did not seem as hair-raising. Chalk that up to the wine!
The advantage of time
Deciding to take a two-year sabbatical to travel the world meant that we could visit places without the usual need-to-see-everything in two days syndrome. If we liked a place, a city or a countryside farm we could stay as long as we wished.
Our nine day stay on the island of Portree was a good example of this. The extended stay allowed us plenty of time to relax, take longer hikes, linger over dinners and simply enjoy the web of life that is often hard to capture when you’re dealing with a shorter time frame.
Stay longer. See less. Experience more.