What’s the best way to reach the Isle of Skye?

I first visited Skye in 1993 when the Skye Bridge was a mere glimmer on the horizon. Back then we took the ferry for the short journey from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin. When the Skye Bridge opened in 1995 it used the same crossing and signalled the end of this ferry service.

Since then the Skye Bridge has proved a huge success in increasing tourist numbers and allowing quick and easy access to the island. Yet as a holidaymaker I’m drawn to the idea of a ferry ride; it makes me feel like I’m on a proper journey. Fortunately there’s another option, the tiny community owned Glenelg ferry. So which is better – the bridge or the ferry?

Glenelg-Skye ferry

The Glenelg ferry is the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world. It crosses the straits from Glenelg to Kylerhea on Skye every 20 minutes between 10am-6pm.

If it’s scenery you’re after then the ferry wins hands down! From the A87 turn off at Shiel Bridge it’s about nine miles to Glenelg, a drive of around twenty minutes.

View over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail from Bealach Ratagan
View over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail from Bealach Ratagan

The first section is a steady climb, around hairpin roads and through woodland, until you reach the Mam Ratagan viewpoint. The vista over Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail is stunning, and worth the detour even if you don’t plan to get the ferry.

The panorama was ever changing, with rain, clouds and sun throwing up different shadows on the mountains. Annoyingly, the dreaded midges were also out and about, limiting the time we spent outside the car gazing at the hills.

Rain clouds on the road to Glenelg
Rain clouds on the road to Glenelg

The road itself is quiet and easier to drive than I expected. Although I was unnerved at one point by a logging lorry coming up fast behind me. Fortunately it’s easy enough to pull over and let locals pass. That said, even if I was a local I think I’d want to stop and saviour the scenery.

The road to Glenelg
The road to Glenelg

Heading on through gloriously green pasture land we experienced what we came to call ‘Skye weather’ (despite still being on the mainland). This consisted of sun on our faces and torrential rain just behind. You’d never realise from the photograph above just how ominous the weather was right behind us!

We arrived in Glenelg just as the MV Glenachulish departed. It didn’t matter though as this gave us a few minutes to browse the small gift shop and watch the turntable ferry. The car deck is rotated around during the crossing so that drivers are able to drive on and off easily. Not something I was really aware of when we were on the ferry so good to see it in operation.

 

Queuing for the Glenelg ferry
Queuing for the Glenelg ferry

A few minutes later the ferry returned and we were directed on. The ferry takes a maximum of six cars and twelve people. Even though Skye was extremely busy when we visited there were only a couple of other cars waiting to travel.

Glenelg ferry arriving in Skye
Glenelg ferry arriving in Skye

The journey across the Straits took less than ten minutes. There’s not much space to move around on the ferry so we sat in the car, keeping an eye out for the sea eagles that inhabit the area. No luck though.

Once on Skye we drove up to meet the main road towards Portree. I found this road trickier than the mainland side. It’s single track with a couple of stomach lurching blind summits. Added to this, the rain had finally caught us which meant reduced visibility despite my window wipers being on double speed.

The downsides to the ferry? Firstly, it only runs between Easter and October so if you’re visiting outside these dates use the bridge instead. It doesn’t run in inclement weather either; check the sign at Shiel Bridge to see if it’s open before you make a wasted journey. There’s also a £15 cost (car and four passengers) which means the Skye Bridge is the way to go if you’re on a budget.

Skye Bridge

There’s not much to say about the Skye Bridge. There’s none of the anticipation or adventure that you get with the ferry crossing. Despite the obvious presence of water you hardly realise you’re crossing to an island, just carry on driving along the A87. But it’s almost always open, it’s free and fast. It does its job.

Skye bridge
Skye bridge

Which did we prefer? The Glenelg ferry won hands down for us. But try it yourself, take the ferry one way and the bridge the other.

The third way – Mallaig to Armadale ferry

There is one further option from the mainland, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Mallaig to Armadale. The boat is weather dependent but runs year round and is a great option if you plan to visit southern Skye. A single journey for a car and two passengers costs approximately the same as the Glenelg ferry.

More info:

  • Check the Skye Ferry website for service dates, times and fares.

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Exploring the Isle of Eigg, Inner Hebrides

Have you ever visited somewhere that felt so perfect that you didn’t want to leave? That’s how we felt after our short break on the Isle of Eigg.

Reached by a 1.5 hour ferry ride from Mallaig, Eigg is one of the Small Isles south of Skye. I’d been a little worried our journey would be choppy but the sea was calm. Instead the excitement was provided by the dolphins following our boat and a minke whale spotted blowing nearby.

Welcome to Eigg
Welcome to Eigg

Glebe Barn

Our Calmac ferry docked at Galmisdale, the main port on the island. We’d booked a self-contained flat annex at Glebe Barn which also offers hostel accommodation to visitors. Stuart, the owner, found us wandering on the pier, picked up our luggage and pointed out the house on the skyline, aptly comparing it to Father Ted’s house on Craggy Island. He explained we could either walk along the road or take the adventurous route via the shoreline. We played it safe and walked the road route for our first trip but soon realised the shoreline route was much quicker.

Glebe hostel, Isle of Eigg
Glebe Barn hostel, Isle of Eigg

The flat annexe consisted of a main living area, kitchen and bathroom. It usually sleeps 2 people but can accommodate 2 extra children if you don’t mind a bit of a squeeze in the bedroom. Although we had a separate entrance we were also connected to the rest of the hostel by an internal door. This was handy for the kids as they could pop down to the common room to play table football, their main source of entertainment. Unless you count watching golden eagles from the kitchen window!

Shell collecting on Glamisdale beach, Isle of Eigg
Shell collecting on Galmisdale beach, Isle of Eigg

After unpacking our bags we headed out to find the alternative route between the hostel and Galmisdale. The path from the hostel heads down through the bracken to meet up with the shoreline. Using this route it was, in theory, possible to walk to Galmisdale in about 20 minutes. However, this does not take into account stoppage time to sift through the shells at Galmisdale Bay beach.

Shells on Galmisdale beach
Shells on Galmisdale beach

Galmisdale

I have visited several places which promote themselves as shell beaches. But the understated nature of Galmisdale Bay beach, which must contain hundreds of thousands of shells, makes it one of my favourites. Added to which the peace and views of the mainland make it a place I’ll remember for a long time.

Our planned destination was the cafe-bar near the pier in Galmisdale. Yet the shell beach wasn’t the only distraction. The light was perfect for photography and the boats in the harbour made for great subjects. Dragging ourselves away from the view we finally made it to the bar and rewarded ourselves with a drink.

Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Galmisdale Bay cafe, next to the pier, is a magnet for both tourists and residents. Open every day during the summer months it offers home baked food during the day, turning into a popular bar and restaurant most evenings.

Alongside the cafe we found the Isle of Eigg store and a small gift shop. We’d bought our own food with us as I wasn’t sure what was available on the island. I needn’t have bothered lugging bags of pasta as the store was well stocked although understandably more expensive than the mainland.

Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale pier, Isle of Eigg

Leaving the bar we took the road route home as the sun was setting and we hadn’t bought torches with us. The sky turned pink and purple and it was difficult to keep our eyes on the road. Visitors are not allowed to bring cars on to the island so we were quite relaxed about road rules. However we soon discovered most of the locals had cars and some drove pretty fast, presumably because they weren’t expecting much traffic or pedestrians!

Sunset on the Isle of Eigg
Sunset on the Isle of Eigg

Eigg is 5 miles by 3 miles with plenty of walking opportunities. The next day we explored the north of the island, visiting the stunning beaches at Laig and Singing Sands. You can read more about our walks here.

As we walked we saw plenty of evidence of how environmentally aware the islanders are. Eigg generates its own electricity through a combination of hydroelectric, solar and wind power. Waste has to be burned or taken to the mainland so there’s imaginative local re-use and recycling.  Even the small school has been awarded the Eco-Schools Green Flag award.

View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg
View of the mainland from Isle of Eigg

On a sunny summer day I could imagine giving up a hectic life on the mainland and taking up crofting on Eigg. Back home a quick look on Rightmove threw up a couple of building plots and a house we’d admired in Galmisdale Bay. But we visited in summer. I’m pretty sure reality would kick in around October when the weather and a bored teen would take the shine off the idyll.

Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg
Boats, Galmisdale, Isle of Eigg

Later that day we still had some energy left after our walk in the north so it was time to return to our favourite shell beach. The kids found a rope swing over a stream nearby and messed about on this before heading towards the pier. As it was Sunday evening the cafe-bar was closed so no refreshment stop but we still enjoyed our evening stroll.

Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg
Galmisdale Bay, Isle of Eigg

We spent the morning of our departure exploring the area around the Cathedral and Massacre caves before heading back into Galmisdale. On Monday mornings during the summer there’s a craft and produce market in the Community Hall, along with a cafe run by Eiggy Bread. We’d seen hardly anyone else on our Eigg walks so it was a shock to see so many people, both tourists and locals, in the hall for coffee and a chat. We soon realised why when we ate the best food of our holiday, a delicious plum and almond tart.

Isle of Eigg community hall
Isle of Eigg community hall

We still had a couple of hours to fill before our return ferry departed so took a final stroll along the coast. I spotted a colony of seals out on a group of rocks and we sat and watched them.

Seal watching, Isle of Eigg
Seal watching, Isle of Eigg

The funniest moment occurred when a gull flew in low over the seals and almost every one of them launched into the sea. It was hilarious to watch. I wonder whether this happens every time a gull flies over?

Seals, Isle of Eigg
Seals, Isle of Eigg

It was a reluctant walk back to the ferry pier. We’d only stayed for 2 nights but all of us had fallen for the island. Our departure was accompanied by the island piper, playing her bagpipes at the end of the pier. I’m not sure we’ll ever return to Eigg but our short visit will remain in my memory for a long time.

Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry
Boarding MV Lochnevis, Eigg to Mallaig ferry

Read part two of our Isle of Eigg adventure, detailing our walks, here.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Fort William, then picked up a hire car for the final stretch to Mallaig. Read more about our journey here.
  • We used the Calmac ferry from Mallaig to Eigg. A return ticket costs £13 for adults, children aged 5-15 years are half price.
  • The self-catering annexe at Glebe Barn costs £52 per night for 2 people. There is an additional charge of £12 per person if additional beds are used.
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Riding the Needles Breezer; an open top bus on the Isle of Wight

A couple of weekends ago we decided on an impromptu trip to the Isle of Wight. We belatedly realised that trying to book a late afternoon car ferry on a sunny Sunday just a few hours before travelling is rather expensive! Time for Plan B; travel as a foot passenger and use the island buses.

After our trip to Hurst Castle I was hesitant  to rely on buses but it turned out fine. The Isle of Wight has an excellent bus network with regular and tourist routes. We decided to ride the open top Needles Breezer which markets itself as one of the most spectacular bus rides in England.

Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight
Needles Breezer bus, Isle of Wight

Needles Breezer

The service starts in Yarmouth so after arriving in Cowes we caught a connecting service via Newport. Fortunately the bus services and Red Jet are joined up; we never had to wait long for a connection.

From Yarmouth the Needles Breezer covers a circular route, first heading to the south coast at Freshwater Bay before turning west towards Alum Bay and the Needles then back past Colwell Bay to its starting point. The big attraction is the open air seating up top. All passengers make a beeline for these seats despite the risk of overhanging branches!

Open air seats on the Needles Breezer
Open air seats on the Needles Breezer

We spent the day travelling around this route, hopping off at points of interest. The Needles Breezer service runs between March and November and as there’s a bus every 30 minutes we were able to fit quite a lot into our day.

Yarmouth

If you like boats then Yarmouth is the place to be. There’s a chandlery, yachts, car ferry port and sailing school all just a few minutes walk from the bus stop. For us it was a convenient stopover with toilets and cafe high on our list.

Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Yarmouth also has the longest wooden pier in the UK and a castle, built by Henry VIII (an incredibly busy man), although we didn’t visit as we walked out through Fort Victoria Country Park instead.

Fort Victoria Country Park

Fort Victoria Country Park is about 20 minutes walk from Yarmouth town centre. A former artillery fortification it now houses several small attractions (an aquarium, planetarium and model railway) but we just enjoyed a walk along the beach and back through the woods.

View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
View of Hurst Castle from Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

My main reason for visiting Fort Victoria was for the view of Hurst Castle on the mainland. We’d visited the castle a few days previously and wondered what it looked like from the island. As you can see from the above photo we now know!

Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight
Fort Victoria Country Park, Isle of Wight

Back in Yarmouth we boarded the bus, sitting up top of course, and enjoyed a ride through the Isle of Wight countryside. It is rather exciting and bumpy being  driven through the lanes at speed. Sit on the left hand side if you enjoy encounters with branches!

The bus passed the site of the first Isle of Wight Festival (a field, no need to get off) and the pretty St Agnes thatched church.

The Needles

The ride up to The Needles stop is the trip highlight. Sitting on top it felt like we were hugging the edge of the cliff as the bus climbed towards the Needles viewpoint. It’s quite safe though and there are spectacular views of the coloured cliffs at Alum Bay.

The Needles, Isle of Wight
The Needles, Isle of Wight

We’ve seen the Needles several times before but I always enjoy the view of the white rocks against a blue sea. In the past I’ve visited the Needles Old Battery, whose guns once defended the Solent. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been before but we had plans for a walk so gave it a miss this time.

Tennyson Monument

Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight
Tennyson monument, Isle of Wight

From the Needles we enjoyed a great walk along Tennyson Down to Tennyson Monument. This was built to commemorate Lord Tennyson who lived nearby and walked on the down daily. It’s an easy and popular walk across the Downs, with great views along the south coast of the island.

With the benefit of hindsight we should have got off at the Tennyson Down bus stop, walked up to the Monument and then along to the Needles where we’d be able to rejoin the bus. Instead we had to backtrack and cover part of the route we’d already been on. On the plus side we got to ride up to the Needles again and as we managed to just miss one of the buses we were able to pop in for a quick drink in Highdown Inn.

Alum Bay

Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight
Alum Bay sands, Isle of Wight

We didn’t get off at Alum Bay. Whilst I would have loved to take the kids down to the beach on the chairlift to see the coloured sands the rest of the site just didn’t appeal. Heaving with tourists, there are multiple ways to spend money ranging from a sweet factory demonstration to Jurassic Golf. From the looks of Trip Advisor some people love it, many don’t, but it’s just not our kind of place.

Colwell Bay

We were running out of time at this point so our last stop was a quick visit to Colwell Bay. From the bus stop it was a 5 minute walk down to the beach.

Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight
Looking out over Colwell Bay, Isle of Wight

We’d managed to time our visit badly as the tide was in and there was no beach to be seen. Most people were sunbathing on concrete ledges so we bought some ice creams and sat in a shady spot to enjoy them.

There were loads of families swimming and enjoying paddling. It was a hot day and the sea certainly looked as if it would be warm. After a quick check my son confirmed it was freezing!

Ice creams finished we headed back to the bus stop for our final journey on the Needles Breezer back into Yarmouth. From Yarmouth we backtracked to Cowes and our short ferry crossing to Southampton. I had been a little unsure about relying on the buses to see the Isle of Wight but the Needles Breezer is a great service and one I’d recommend even if you do have the use of a car on the island.

More info:

  • We travelled on the Red Jet high speed ferry between Southampton and West Cowes. The crossing takes about 25 minutes and is for foot passengers only. There’s no need to book or check in before your journey, simply turn up, buy your ticket and travel. Our family day return cost £31.90 for 2 adults, 2 children.
  • Our family bus pass cost £25. This entitled us to ride on all Southern Vectis buses on the island for the day. Southern Vectis, the island bus company, offers a Downs Breezer and the Island Coaster hop on hop off services too. I had notionally thought of taking the Needles Breezer, then transferring to the other tourist services to see the whole island. Whilst this is possible in peak season it does mean you’d spend most of the day on the bus and I quickly decided to just focus on the western side of the island.
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A day trip to Herm

Small islands have always held an attraction for me. Perhaps it’s because we live as far inland as possible on this island of ours that we often choose to holiday on an island. And if there happens to be another island nearby that’s even better!  So it’s probably not surprising that on our recent trip to Guernsey we spent a day on Herm, the smallest of the Channel Islands open to the public.

herm coast
The north coast beaches of Herm

Herm island is 3 miles from Guernsey, and reached by a 20 minute crossing on the Trident ferry from St Peter Port.  As soon as you step off the ferry it feels like you’ve been transported to a different era.  Most noticeably, cars and bicycles are not allowed on the island, although there is a tractor luggage service for those staying the night.

herm nrmermaid
Fisherman’s Beach, Herm

Upon arrival we only just managed to make it past the gift shop, as the kids discovered that it hid a large toy selection with lots of options to spend pocket money on.  After dragging them out, with the promise of a return visit, we headed off along one of the signposted trails.

Our first destination was Shell Beach on the north coast of the island.  As you may guess, it takes it’s name from shells, which are washed up by the Gulf Stream.  Don’t get too excited though, as these are generally fragments of crushed shells rather than large tropical conches!

acrosscommon
View across the common to Shell Beach, Herm

This beach often appears in lists of ‘top beaches to visit’ and it didn’t disappoint.  It was stunning; with white sand, turquoise waters and a rather cold sea breeze – so we ate our picnic hidden in the shelter of the sand dunes.

herm
Kayaking territory

After lunch the kids spotted kayaks for hire, and persuaded dad to take them out, in turn, on a double kayak. Neither had been kayaking before, but the sea was calm (albeit freezing) and there were plenty of islets to explore and yachts to look at. They both agreed it was the highlight of their entire holiday.  Being a non swimmer, I took advantage of the small beach cafe whilst the kids were kayaking.

herm2
I couldn’t stop taking photos of the beaches….

Further along the coast is another popular beach, Belvoir Bay, which is smaller but in a sheltered position.  We bypassed this on the cliff path as we wanted to walk around the island but it looked just as inviting as Shell Beach. Herm island is only 1 1/2 miles long, and 1/2 mile wide, and in theory takes about 2 hours to walk around.  However, I defy anyone not to get waylaid at one of the beaches!

walkingisland
Walking the cliff path on Herm

At the aptly named Puffin Bay we were lucky enough to see 5 puffins bobbing in the sea.  Take binoculars as they’re tricky to spot, although once you’ve found them they’re easy to identify.

All too soon it was late afternoon and time for the ferry back to Guernsey.  After another visit to the gift shop, we boarded the ferry, and waved our goodbyes.

herm coastalpath
View from the coastal path

If you’ve enjoyed reading about our day trip to Herm you might also like to read more about our family walks in Guernsey and the beautiful wildflowers which adorn the island in early summer.

Kids view:

The kayaking was awesome!

General info:

  • The boat to Herm runs 5 or 6 times per day during the April-October season.  Check where the return journey is from, as it picks up at a different spot at low tide.
  • Try to visit on a sunny day. It would be a very different experience on a wet or windy day.
  • You can stay overnight on Herm island.  There is a hotel, self-catering cottages and a campsite.

Costs:

The return ferry from Guernsey to Herm costs £11.50 for adults, £5.50 for children and £1 for infants.  There are slightly cheaper fares if you visit on the first ferry of the day.

Kayak rental on Shell Beach costs £10 per hour for a single or £15 per hour for a double seater.

More details: www.herm-island.com

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