The lady behind the counter in the Harris Tweed shop placed a length of fabric on the counter, between the tea towels and the heather bath oil. How can I describe the softest greeny-blue imaginable? That couple of metres of cloth contained all the colours I'd seen walking in the Western Isles - flecks of pink and brown dancing on a mossy ground. I had to have it. Half-an-hour later I packed a couple of sandwiches and walked up the hill out of the small fishing port of Tarbert, nestling on the short isthmus of land joining Lewis and Harris. It was completely still, with not a breath of air, and a clear blue sky. As long as I kept up a fast pace the midges couldn't land. I passed white stone cottages with gardens full of daisies, orange scyllas and pink foxgloves, and workmen digging a hole in the road, wearing green netting over their red, sweating faces.
After a mile, I left the road to Scalpay and headed up through the heather on a wide track, following an old postman's trail. The views were magnificent, but I was bathed in sweat and the midges were ferocious every time I paused to admire my surroundings. At the cairn on the top there was enough breeze to keep them at bay while I ate one of the best sandwiches I can remember - thick, soft white bread slathered with butter encasing ham and chutney. Refreshed, I dropped down the hill towards a long promontory, with an extremely steep descent zig-zagging to a narrow inlet with an empty shingle beach - not a house or a person in sight. At the far end, out of view of my fellow walkers, I stripped down to my pants and bra and jumped into the sea from the rocks - wow! It was like swimming in crushed ice. As I got my breath back I swam up and down the clear waters, away from the irritating midges and the kelp lining the shore. Later my guide told me that this was the spot where the Queen would be brought ashore from Britannia, for a picnic on the grass behind the beach.
After a reviving chocolate bar, I climbed up the cliff facing me and rejoined the postman's path rounding the steep headland, past the sad group of abandoned houses at Gearraidh Lotaigear (the last inhabitants left in the 1940s). Eventually I rejoined the road which was built to Reinigeadal in the 1990s, rendering the postman's daily trek redundant. A minibus took me on a switchback road back through the lakes and rocky crags of Lewis, to our boat, moored in the tiny port at Tarbert.
We set sail at 3pm. Several passengers were busy with watercolours on the back deck. Our passage across to Skye was unreal - the sky was hazy and the sea as still as a millpond. I saw a couple of small whales and a shark as I lay cocooned under a pink tartan blanket on a teak lounger. We passed steep cliffs, golden in the late afternoon sun, then long waterfalls dropping into the sea. I was beginning to think that I could really take to this sailing lark.
I don't normally like being cooped up with the same people day in and day out, but when some friends had started enthusing about a cruise they'd taken off the Western Isles of Scotland, I was curious. They told me the cabins were really comfy, the staff fun, the food excellent, and that every day you got off the boat and walked somewhere different. A year later we made the journey up to Oban to join them for a week on the Hebridean Princess, a small (50-passenger) luxury vessel which specialises in cruises combining walking or cycling on the remote islands scattered off the west coast of Scotland. And having spent hours stuck in traffic jams trying to explore Skye on narrow roads, trapped behind coaches and tourist buses, I was looking forward to a car-free seven days, far from the honeypot destinations.
The other passengers were a cross-section of middle-class professionals, a whole family of boffins, farmers, a sprinkling of single ladies, and a handful of wealthy Americans as well as a discreetly gay Australian couple. Some loved the boat so much they were back for their third and fourth trips, and after a few days I could see why it was so addictive. Breakfasts were sumptuous - kippers, haddock, fresh fruit and porridge - I'd have to sign up to every walk going if I wasn't going to pile on the pounds. Then we divided into walkers and strollers, the former going for hikes lasting into the afternoon, often taking a packed lunch, and the latter piling into a minibus for a scenic drive, lunch and a nap on the way back to the boat.
On our first evening, we sailed south from Oban, past Jura and anchored off Islay, reaching Colonsay after breakfast. There I walked along an old drovers road to a white sand beach on the far side of the island, then back through the beautiful grounds of Colonsay house. The weather was grey, windy, threatening rain, and the bus driver told me that tourism was down 30 per cent, mainly because of the lack of Americans (too anxious post 9/11) and Germans (economy in tatters). The island was a series of hillocks and tufty headlands, and I passed a couple of B&Bs and a small hotel on the way back to the jetty. After lunch, we sailed to tiny Iona off the coast of Mull, one of the most beautiful (and visited) islands in the whole area. Now the sky was a deep azure blue as I took a short walk up from the jetty to the remains of the Augustinian nunnery and on to the magnificent Benedictine Abbey, which was founded in 1200 and is the best-preserved medieval building in the whole of the Hebrides. The nave gradually drops down to the altar, and to the right sits the vulgar white marble Victorian tomb of the 8th Duke of Argyll. In the arch high above, facing the pulpit, is a carving of a grimacing face. The impressive cloisters, heavily restored, lead to a small museum with spectacular medieval tomb carvings. Outside, in the graveyard overlooking the sea and the view of Mull, lies the grave of the former Labour Party leader, John Smith. On the way back to the pier I passed an impressive organic vegetable garden belonging to the Iona Island hotel, full of runner beans, courgettes, cabbages and daisies, with a wooden seat for admiring the view.
Next day we sailed between Tiree and Coll to the small harbour at Castlebay on the south-western shores of Barra. Not a very distinguished collection of mostly pebble-dash houses, fishing piers and all the usual detritus connected with scratching a living from the sea. But a small coach took us over the headland south and on to the beautiful small island of Vatersay, connected to Barra by a causeway. Then around another curve in the road and we passed the remains of a 1940s seaplane which crashed during the Second World War and is still clearly visible from the road.
The narrow strip of land that connects both ends of Vatersay had two beautiful beaches on each side. My friends and I walked over the sand dunes and down the empty western side, climbing up over the headland along a marked trail at the southern end, with wonderful views of the tiny islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay all the way to Barra Head. The strong wind sent tiny fluffy clouds scudding through the blue sky overhead. Descending through closely cropped pastureland to a white sand beach, my friend Deborah and I bravely stripped off and ran into the pounding waves. It might have looked like a turquoise and white seascape in the Caribbean, but the water temperature was distinctly northern. To warm up we climbed over the headland and walked back along the mile or so of the eastern beach, past a couple of abandoned fishing dinghies and some lobster pots.
That night a sudden wind churned the waves, and so we moored off Castlebay, sailing through calm seas north next morning to Eriskay, connected to South Uist by a short causeway. The eastern side of the island was mountainous and rocky, but the western terrain was totally different - * * long, white sandy beaches with flat pastureland behind. Here we took a narrow track down to the sea, through sand dunes and on to a windswept shore. I changed behind a bluff - and jumped over some waves for a brief refreshing dip, mindful of the undertow, not going out of my depth. After a long beach walk we headed inland past a thatched cottage with an extraordinary vegetable garden. Then a picnic in converted stables, a walk around a graveyard where tombstones were covered in green lichen. We re-boarded the boat at Lochmaddy in time for afternoon tea in the sun, eating cake and drinking tea as if we were in the tropics.
How I loved my cabin, with its double bed, loads of storage space, and bathroom with a full-sized bath. The next day we docked in Harris - and I walked the postman's route - before cruising past the spectacular coastline of Skye. The weather finally changed again and it was rough seas and a choppy trip ashore to the bothy at the head of Loch Coruisk, past brown seals basking on the rocks with the backdrop of the Cuillin Hills. We walked over smooth lava-like rock, through boggy patches, almost to the far end of the loch. The setting was magical, the light ever-changing, the hills ahead dark and gloomy, with low cloud. On the way back, Deborah and I slithered like seals over the rocks and swam in the loch - the coldest yet. A bit of effort was needed to get a grip and clamber out. Back by the jetty we were offered hot coffee and biscuits before a fish and chip lunch on board.
Sailing on to Eigg, the skyline was dominated by the mountain of An Sgurr, which rose up like a squat column, from lush green fields dotted with white cottages. It was the prettiest island yet. The others cycled across the island in the sunshine, while I collapsed with a book.
Our final full day was spent visiting Tobermory on the isle of Mull, whose picture-book harbour was crammed full of tourists. I bought a pretty silver and opal bracelet in the local jeweller's and enjoyed a stroll through Scotland's answer to St Ives. Then, we sailed south through the sound towards Oban and the rain set in. Undeterred, Deborah and I went ashore at Craignure and took bikes for a ride to Duart Castle, the Maclean family seat. Fabulously frightening dungeons, a great view from the battlements and a very good tea shop in the converted stables, followed by a chat with Lady Maclean by the Aga in the family quarters. Then a 20-minute pedal through driving wind and rain back to the jetty, soaked to the skin. Time for a hot bath.
Our last dinner was very dressy - time to get the jewellery out. We had champagne before dinner, haggis and fine red wine with five courses, followed by more drinks and a lot of swapping of addresses. The best thing about this cruise was visiting places that you could never reach in a car, and being able to walk in isolated landscapes day after day. The boat meant we always had a comfortable base to return to - hot water, great beds and delicious meals. Sure, it's expensive, but I can see why this kind of travel is so addictive - it beats camping, waiting for ferries and sitting in traffic jams any day.
The closest airport to Oban is Glasgow, which is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk). Virgin Trains (08457 222333; www.virgintrains.co.uk) and GNER (08457 225225; www.gner.co.uk) operate services to Glasgow from around the UK. First ScotRail (08457 550033; www.firstscotrail.com) has sleeper services from London to Glasgow and Fort William, with connections to Oban.
The seven-night Hebridean Princess (01756 704704; www.hebridean.co.uk) Footloose to the Isles cruise next departs on 27 April 2006 from Oban. Prices start at £2,660 per person full board, including shore visits and tours.
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