TRAVEL: A SHORT BREAK ON SKYE

Anna Melville-James gets away from it all on the largest and most popular of the dramatic and beautiful Hebridean islands

The ancient Celts called it The Winged Isle; the Vikings praised it as the Cloud Island; nowadays, those in search of tranquillity would call it the perfect solution. It may be the largest and most popular of the Hebridean islands, but it is still a wild, Gaelic kind of place with its volcanic rocks, glass-surfaced lochs and spectacular mountains. Go to uplift the soul and recharge the batteries.

When to go

With weather conditions ranging from sunny through squally to downright tempestuous, Skye is an island of elemental contrasts throughout the year. Tourist high-season runs from June to roughly the end of September, incorporating the best of the weather and the worst of the midge season. Take repellent if you pack nothing else. Out of season, an emptier Skye offers crisp, icy weather and misty lochs as well as a much-reduced gnat problem. Wear waterproofs and the year is your oyster.

Getting there

The benefit and bane of Skye lies in its remote location. Driving from the south is recommended only if you can share it and you have plenty of time. A better option is a fly-drive, with daily services to Inverness by easyJet (tel: 0990 292929) from pounds 48, and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) from pounds 100. Auto Shuttle Express can convey your car to Scotland while you travel by rail or air (tel: 0990 502309). Otherwise, hire a car at Inverness for the four-hour drive to Skye.

Trains from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh cost pounds 24.70. Scotrail (tel: 0345 550033). From there you'll have to cross the toll bridge at pounds 5.70 per car each way. Trains from London Kings Cross to Kyle start from pounds 81 return. The sleeper train from Euston to Inverness with connections to Kyle, costs from pounds 99 return. National Rail Enquiries (tel: 0345 484950).

Coaches travel to the Isle of Skye and Lochalsh from Glasgow and Inverness with connecting services to most main cities in the UK. Citylink (tel: 0990 505050); National Express (tel: 0990 808080).

Ferry links from the Scottish mainland at Mallaig to Armadale cost pounds 4.40 per person and pounds 25.50 per car for a five-day return (passengers only out of season) from Caledonian MacBrayne (tel: 01475 650100).

Getting around

Driving is by far the easiest way to get around and a car is essential for those who want to see most of Skye in a short time. Public transport exists, albeit of the "one bus a week" variety, and services and timetables can be obtained from Tourist Information. However, with isolated settlements and yawning expanses of mountain and moorland in between each, it is strictly a last resort. Travelling with the mail on the Post Bus Service is again more of a novelty than a practical solution, although the eccentricity makes it worth trying at least once. Details from Tourist Information.

For the more robust, cycling is an exhilarating way to see the spectacular scenery at close range on generally quiet, mostly single-track roads with a variety of inclines to test your fitness. Fairwinds Bicycle Hire (tel: 01471 822270); Island Cycles (tel: 01478 613121).

Where to stay

For a small and relatively unspoilt island, Skye is well equipped to deal with visitors. Accommodation ranges from budget-friendly b&bs as numerous as the sheep that scamper along the roads, to five-star hotels. At the luxury end of the market, the House Over-By, adjoining the Three Chimneys (tel: 01470 511258), offers six, split-level double bedroom suites with en-suite bathrooms (pounds 140 per night for two people sharing, including breakfast). More Malibu condo than middle of the Highlands, they have minibars, CD-players and dimmer-switch lighting, all strangely decadent in the middle of a bout of stroppy Highland weather.

The Flodigarry Country House Hotel (tel: 01470 552203) has seven en-suite rooms, some in the nearby cottage of Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, with stunning sea views, priced from pounds 49 with breakfast.

The Clan Donald Visitor Centre, Armadale (tel: 01471 844305/ 944227) comprises six self-catering cottages in the grounds of the centre, looking across the Sound of Sleat to the mainland, and the Flora MacDonald suite. Prices per week from pounds 310 in low season for a cottage sleeping four to six people, and pounds 330 for the Flora MacDonald suite, sleeping four people. Short-break deals available on request.

Outdoor activities

This is rugged country for rugged visitors. The northern MacLeod territory of Skye is majestically bleak and harsher than the southern Macdonald stronghold of Sleat, "The Garden of Skye", but both offer hill-walking for those who want to breathe some of the freshest air around. The vertiginous, patterned Kilt Rock and the eerie pinnacles of the Quiraing all make for bracing exploration, as do Coral Bay, Trotternish Ridge and MacLeod's Tables in the north.

Less of a stroll and more of a commitment is the renowned Cuillin Ridge, 30 challenging mountain peaks, drawing climbers from all over the world. The symmetrically weathered cones of the Red Cuillins and the jagged ridges of the Black Cuillins provide some of the most dramatic scenery in the Highlands. Not for inexperienced climbers, the peaks should be conquered only in the company of an experienced guide, especially as magnetic rock will send your compass whirling. Contact Skye Highs (tel: 01471 822116) for mountaineering courses and private guiding. For other outdoor sports, the Whitewave Outdoor Centre (tel: 01470 542 414) offers kayaking, windsurfing, and archery. Pony- trekking is available at the Skye Riding Centres (tel: 01470 582419), and for loch fishing for brown and sea trout, permits must be obtained from Portree Angling Association (tel: 01470 582 304).

What to see and do

This ancient isle has been inhabited since prehistoric times and is rich in archaeological and historical sites. Iron Age brochs, stone circles and castles are dotted all over, reflecting the brooding and often bloody history of the island. Dunvegan Castle (tel: 01470 521 206), the 800- year-old seat of the MacLeods, is still inhabited by the 29th chief, John MacLeod of MacLeod and his family. The fortress is set in gardens alongside Dunvegan Loch and is open throughout the year. Among its attractions are Jacobite relics belonging to Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.

The History of Clan Donald and the remains of the family seat, Armadale Castle, can be found at the Clan Donald Visitor Centre, Armadale (tel: 01471 844305). The centre's stunning gardens reflect the sheltered, temperate climate of southern Skye, while indoors, anyone with a Macdonald in the family can trace their ancestry at the genealogy centre. Other ghosts of castles past include ruins at Duntulm near Uig, the original seat of the Macdonalds, Knock Castle in Sleat and Castle Moil by Kyleakin.

The Aros Experience Exhibition Centre, Portree (tel: 01478 613649), tells Skye's history from the islanders' perspective. There is a cafe, an audiovisual exhibition, and guided forestry walks are also available.

The Museum of Island Life, seven restored crofts depicting life on Skye in the last century, is worth a visit when it's not raining - it's on an exposed moor. When the rain does come down, visit the Skye Serpentarium (tel: 01471 822209).

For a wee dram after all that activity, make your way to the Talisker, Carbost (tel: 01478 640314), home of the peaty single- malt Highland whisky, and get drunk on just the smell of fermenting barley during a guided tour of the distillery.

Food and drink

Skye cuisine is generally a hybrid of traditional Scottish dishes and innovative outside influences. The Three Chimneys, Colbost (tel: 01470 511258) is an intimate, candlelit crofter's cottage with big views and a clutch of culinary awards. The chef, Shirley Spear, uses local seafood, including mussels plucked that morning from the nearby loch. A gigantic seafood platter is pounds 55 for two people. Meals are simple and imaginative, accompanied by a broad wine list. A three-course fixed-price menu is pounds 27.50 and the a la carte menu starts at pounds 25 for three courses.

Skeabost House Hotel (tel: 01470 532202) is a former hunting lodge set in 12 acres of secluded gardens. A generous buffet menu (pounds 7.85) is available during the day, and otherwise, menus at pounds 18.50 for three courses, with the emphasis on fish and game. Sample the Skye prawns, local salmon, scallops and lobster, so fresh it jumps off the plate.

Kinloch Lodge (tel: 01471 833214), home of the high chief of Clan Donald and the renowned Scottish cook, Lady Claire Macdonald. Log fires, portraits of ancestors and family heirlooms add to the atmosphere. Five-course dinner menus are available from pounds 37. Skye crab and Skye-grown organic salad leaves and roast rack of black- faced lamb are recommended.

Flodigarry Country House Hotel and the Water Horse Restaurant, Staffin (tel: 01470 552203), in the shadow of the towering Quiraing, offer panoramic sea views over Flodigarry Island. Four-course menus are pounds 28.50, bar meals from pounds 7.95.

For fish and chips, the shop in Portree is recommended. To be eaten while sitting on the harbour wall and watching the sun go down.

Out of town

Island-hopping Highland-style means visiting the surrounding, smaller Hebridean isles of Raasay and Rona at the top of Skye, and Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna at the bottom, off the Sleat Peninsula. All the islands are areas of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife havens for species ranging from Golden Eagles, porpoises and red deer to white-tailed sea eagles. Caledonian MacBrayne (tel: 01475 650100) runs cruises and day returns to all the islands from the mainland or Skye.

Further information

Contact Skye Tourist Information, Portree (tel: 01478 612137), and the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board (tel: 0990 143070).

Anna Melville-James flew with easyJet (tel: 0990 292929; www.easyjet.com) to Inverness. Car hire was from Sharps Reliable Wrecks (tel: 01463 236684).

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