I’ve just completed what was unquestionably the most exhilarating week of my life. On Wednesday morning I left at 8:30 am with Haggis Adventures on the 5-day Hebridean Hopper Tour. We went to Lewis and Harris Island in the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides and all over Scotland, led by the amazing tour guide Jamie. I’ll try (and fail) to keep this short, but honestly I couldn’t say enough about this amazing trip.
About the Haggis Adventures‘ Hebridean Hopper Tour
This five-day tour runs from Wednesday to Sunday, May through September. The price is £239 (£229 for students) plus £104 for pre-booked accommodations. The tour leaves from High Street and Blackfriars Street, about 250m east of St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (click here for location). Unlike some of the tours I’ve been on in Edinburgh, all Haggis tour guides are Scottish, and Jamie was absolutely perfect. His knowledge, humor and attention to detail made the tour as perfect as it was.
The key locations of the trip include the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands, Loch Ness, Callanish Standing Stones, Hebridean blackhouses, a whisky distillery visit, Eilean Donan Castle and Glencoe. Beyond that, we were at the whim of Jamie, who based the rest of the tour on the composition of the group, the weather and the time. And fill the time he did! I already considered Scotland my favorite country in the world. Now I have no idea how any country will ever beat it. There are places in the country which are literally out of this world, as you’ll read about further on.
There are definitely some key things you should pack for this trip. This is Scotland, so expect any type of weather. I didn’t see a drop of rain in my five days, but that’s extremely rare. Plan for rain with a raincoat and waterproof clothing, not an umbrella (the wind can be too strong). But also bring sandals, shorts, swimming clothes, a towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, etc. If you’re headed up during the summer I’d recommend insect repellent, such as Smidge, for the midges (Scottish mosquitoes).
When you take the tour yourself, get there around 8 to check in. You can also use the time before the tour to get to know your fellow travelers. The buses hold about 30 people, and they’re usually fully booked in the summer. I got lucky with a tour of only 18 other travelers, and we had the maiden voyage on our brand-new bus, complete with automatic transmission, better than average air conditioning and a fridge on the bus!
While anyone can certainly do this tour, I think the younger demographic would enjoy it more. There’s quite a bit of hiking available (not required) and the hostel nights can be quite wild. But all ages are certainly welcome. I was more than fortunate to have such a wonderful team to travel with, and we all bonded excellently. The wonderful stories, wild dancing (thanks Davor and Cameron) and wacky photos from everyone contributed to my favorite week ever!
Is it worth the money? A car rental for six days will cost around £60 or more, and the gas for the 750+ miles of travel is around £110, depending on your fuel economy. The ferry from Ullapool to Lewis and Harris Island is £50 for the car and £10 for each passenger, and Lewis and Harris to the Isle of Skye is £30 plus £6 per passenger. That alone is £266 for one person, or £141 for two people sharing the costs. But that doesn’t include all the activities, knowing where to stop, the guided tour and other attractions included in the tour, not to mention the wonderful camaraderie. So is the tour worth it? HELL YES!
I’ll give a detailed story of my trip, but I’m not going to spoil the tour by giving away all the facts, historical notes and jokes from the bus. And please realize that as good as these photos are, they are nothing compared to seeing the places in person. I’m actually looking forward to doing this trip again someday, and everyone is welcome to join me! If you go without me, tell them I sent you.
Day One – Beginning the Adventure
After leaving Edinburgh, we had a short photo stop at the Forth Bridge and then continued to Dunkeld where we were able to see the cathedral and pick up lunch. After that we had another photo opportunity at the beginning of the Scottish highlands, and then Jamie stopped at a Clootie Well outside Inverness. A clootie is a strip of rag or cloth, and clootie wells are pilgrimage locations in Scotland and Ireland where the water is said to cure ailments. It was a little creepy to see the thousands pieces of cloth and small dolls tied to trees. I also tried a taste of the spring water. I don’t think it cured anything, but I didn’t croak either.
Our next stop was Rogie Falls on the Blackwater River, so named for the coloration from the surrounding peat. Not a long hike to the waterfall, but a wonderful view once you arrive. If you want a bit of a climb, you can make it right up to the falls. Just a few minutes after this was Corrieshalloch Gorge, with amazing views from the suspension bridge 60m above the water.
Finally we arrived in Ullapool for dinner (I had fish and chips) before we took the ferry over to Stornoway on Lewis and Harris Island. The ride was nearly 3 hours long, and we went straight to the hostel when we arrived. The Heb Hostel happens to be the only hostel in town, and one of only two on the island. But what an incredible hostel. Comfy beds, a fully stocked kitchen, and the most incredible tree house ever! Unfortunately the tree house is not insured for renting as a room, but that’s where I would want to sleep! The garden also included a barbecue built into a giant tree stump, and another barbecue in a small hut! The only thing that could have been improved was the Wi-Fi, but not everyone is a blogger like me, and you should enjoy your vacation without being tethered to the internet (except to backup your photos).
Not a lot of activities this day beyond traveling across the whole country up to the island. Not so for the rest of the tour.
Day Two – Exploring Lewis Island
The second day started at 7:30 am, when I got up for a shower and then the complementary breakfast at the hostel. The group then had some time to chat before we were picked up at 8:45.
Our first stop was the Abhainn Dearg Distillery (pronounced Aveen Jarræk), the first whiskey distillery in the Outer Hebrides. It’s essentially a family-run establishment on their farm, but while they don’t have the output of the major distilleries, they still make a fine whiskey! We got a tour of the distillery, an introduction to the distillery process and a tasting. This was my first visit to a distillery, and I’m glad it was with a small group with a personalized tour, instead of a large, touristy factory.
The next stop was the Callanish Standing Stones. There are over 1000 surviving circles of stones in the UK, with Stonehenge by far the most famous. But that one is a tourist trap costing nearly £20 (plus transportation) and you only get to walk around the perimeter. The stones on Lewis Island are free (once you get there) and you can walk between the stones, have a picnic there and not be surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. There are certainly a lot of theories about the purpose of the stones, but if you don’t believe in magic…well…I’m sorry.
Fifteen minutes more driving and we arrived at Dun Carloway. Dun means fort in Gaelic, and the one in Carloway was one of the best preserved ones. It’s actually up for debate whether this building, called a broch, was an actual fort or just a dwelling. Either way, it’s a structure unique to northern and western Scotland dating back to around 2000 years ago! I think it would have been really cool to live in one, even if there were animals living downstairs.
Then we went to the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. Similar to the Open Air Museums of northern Europe, you can see how the inhabitants lived on the island in the time of thatched roofs and household looms. I also got to watch an elderly man working the loom in the house. He’d been trained since he was 16 years old, and was quite proficient at it. He didn’t really like it though when I showed him a slow-motion video of the loom. It wasn’t the right speed for his liking.
Our final stop of the day was the Butt of Lewis lighthouse at the northernmost point of the island. These cliffs might not be as high as the Cliffs of Moher, but they are no less spectacular. You can wander along the numerous promontories with fantastic views of the coast line. I may have been a little too wild when I managed to scale down one of the cliff faces to the water far below, but at least I was able to climb back out.
Finally we returned to Stornoway, the “capital” of the Isle of Lewis. We had a little time to freshen up, and then we all went out to the local Thai restaurant for dinner. It’s true that I was spoiled in Thailand with their street food, and I don’t consider anything else in the world up to par. But the Thai Cafe in Stornoway, managed by a sweet Thai lady, does an excellent job. I had the Hot Pan, filled with stir-fried marinated chicken, pork and beef, peppers, mushrooms, ginger, onion, garlic and carrots. Yum!
That was the end of day two, but not the end of Lewis and Harris Island.
Day Three – Exploring Harris Island
If I thought Lewis Island was amazing, I hadn’t seen anything yet!
The first stop of the day wasn’t really anything special. It was the Memorial Cairn to the Pairc Deer Raiders. Simply put, Lewis and Harris Island (technically one island but sometimes regarded as two islands since their landscapes are so different) is steeped with history, turmoil and ruins.
The highlight of the journey was next was Luskentyre Beach. Where do I even start? I heard a rumor that a photo of this beach was once mistakenly used to promote a resort in Thailand, and I can totally believe it. There’s no development here except for a couple small bungalows and trailer hookups. Walking out to the beach, you’ll be able to see wild horses and sheep grazing along the trail. Once you reach the water (only a couple minutes from the small parking lot) you’ll really think you’ve stepped into the Caribbean or SE Asia. Maybe it doesn’t look as good when it’s overcast, but on a sunny day like when I was there, the waters virtually radiate blue and green. There aren’t any waves in this sheltered bay, and some would consider the water cold. But to me it couldn’t have been more perfect. After all, who would have expected to get a sun tan in northern Scotland in the middle of spring. In fact, one person on the tour even got sunburned!
After getting our iconic HAGGIS photo on the beach (see the photo at the top), I was the first one into the water, followed by several others. I then hiked up with Anthony (another guy in the group) high up the hill for some amazing scenery shots (better to see the depth and color of the water). Finally I walked along the beach (dodging jellyfish in the sand) until it was time to go. In 2013, CNN rated this beach as #16 in the world. Personally I think it should be higher, but I haven’t been to any of the top 15 so I can’t judge. I just know this spot was key in completely solidifying Scotland as my favorite country in the world.
I would have been fine if the tour ended there, but Harris still had more to offer. Our next stop was St Clements Church and Alasdair MacLeod’s tomb, situated at the southernmost point of the island. There wasn’t a lot to see, other than one of the most magnificently carved tombs of its era in Scotland. From there we went for another great walk along the cliffs and hills overlooking the sea. Well, everyone else went for a walk. I went for a run down to the water for more great photographs. The tour slogan is Wild and Sexy, and I was holding up the Wild portion.
The rest of the Isle of Harris looks like it’s from another planet. It was the filming location for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it looks like Jupiter might. A truly surreal landscape, and nonstop viewpoints the whole way. Since there are only a couple roads in this part of the island, there is hardly any traffic even on a busy holiday weekend with perfect weather. Actually, the highest amount of traffic was the bikers who travel the Hebridean Way, 185 miles across the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
Finally, it was time to get the ferry to the Isle of Skye. The ferry goes from Talbert on Harris to Uig on Skye and takes nearly 2 hours, except that our ferry was considerably late. Once we arrived on Skye, we had just enough time to get down to the hostel and get dinner before everything closed up. I went cheap and made use of the hostel’s incredible self-catering kitchen. Nothing special, but I am on a budget after all.
Day Four – Isle of Skye
Yes, Skye is my real name. So nice to have my own island. And not just any island. One of the most beautiful places in the world.
The problem with the Isle of Skye is there is just so much to do there. While the island is only 639 sq mi (about 20 x 30 miles) you could spend weeks exploring the whole island. Many of the most amazing places aren’t even on Google Maps. Others are inaccessible by car. In fact, there is only one road on the island with a single lane that both directions of traffic share.
Originally Jamie hadn’t planned to take us to the Fairy Pools, since in the previous week they had been inaccessible due to the high water level over the path. But a couple other travelers and I talked him into it.
We got to the fairy pools at 9:30 in the morning. Clouds still clung to the mountains but the weather was warm and the wind wasn’t even strong. I jumped in last year, but this time my trunks and towel were still wet from Luskentyre Beach and I didn’t enter the water more than putting my head under one of the waterfalls. That’s why there is the Law of the Traveler, and I’ll be back there in a couple weeks to jump in.
I could go on and on about the Fairy Pools, but I think I’ll just write a blog post just for them someday, and update this post when I do. By the way, can you see the underwater hole where you can swim to the waterfall?
Our next stop was The Old Man of Storr. OH MY GOD! I missed this location last year when I went to the Isle of Skye. Why? The photos from here are some of my favorite that I’ve ever taken! Karl and I ran all the way up to the pillar itself for the most breathtaking view of the landscape. This was probably the most crowded place of our whole trip, and even this wasn’t that bad. But the views! Wow! I could have spent the whole day up there, wandering through the numerous trails and marveling at the impossible rock formations. It’s no wonder that this location has won “photo of the year” competitions.
With so much to do on Skye, we had to leave all too soon, and next went to Lealt Falls just a few minutes up the coast. By itself, this place is spectacular. But after everything else I’d seen in the tour, I was just on beauty overload. However, there were some amazing rock formations to climb for a tranquil rest.
Our last main stop on the island was at the Sligachan Old Bridge, where Jamie had four of the travelers reenact the story for which the river is famous. This was also the spot where one of the travelers realized she had left her camera at Lealt Falls. While the rest of us had pints at the tavern there, Jamie took her back to the falls where the camera was still waiting to be rescued on the grass. Yep, Scotland is quite safe…most of the time.
Just after we left the Isle of Skye, we made a quick stop at Eilean Donan Castle. We didn’t have nearly long enough to explore, so that goes onto the bucket list for next week as well. While getting photos, I walked by a guy who looked really familiar. I walked by him again a couple minutes later, and kept staring at him while he stared at me. Finally I said “Rob?” the same time he said “Skye!” He’s the manager of the tour company I got a tour with the last time I was on the Isle of Skye. I’m always amazed at how small this world is.
From there we drove to Morag’s Lodge in Fort Augustus at the bottom of Loch Ness. We were late for dinner, but since Haggis Adventures owns the hostel, we were accommodated with their home cooking as soon as we arrived and got settled in. I had the haggis and chicken, which was absolutely delicious! I don’t know if you’ve ever tried haggis, but if not, you must! If you’re vegetarian you can get the veggie option. The meat version is one of my favorite foods. I love the flavor and the spices are delicious. Just don’t ask what’s in it. After all, it’s not the only good food in the world which has an unappealing recipe.
After dinner, I had a complementary boat tour with Cruise Loch Ness. I’m a little surprised that Kayleigh was the only one who joined me for the trip, since getting to see the sunset on the loch was purely stunning. It wasn’t just a boat ride. We also had a full briefing by TJ on the boat about the history of Loch Ness, the surrounding landscape and all the facts and figures concerning the lake itself. The Loch Ness monster was a key part of that, but you’re just going to have to do the cruise yourself to get that data. Like I said, I’m not going to spoil the tour by giving away the data.
We got back from the cruise just in time for the pub quiz. Maree, who also cooked our wonderful dinner, did a great job managing the whole group (plus others already at the hostel) in the quiz. I’m happy to say the team I was on won! I covered all the travel and geography questions, although I was ashamed to get a couple of the questions about Scotland wrong. In the last pub quiz I did in Edinburgh, I managed to come in last place, so this was a nice change.
The night ended with karaoke and fun in the bar. It was the final night that the whole team was together, as half were on the 10-day tour which continued the next morning at 7 AM to the Orkney Islands. The photos they’ve been sending since going up there have been wonderful too, although I think Harris and Skye are still better.
Day Five – Glen Coe and the Return
The morning started off with a quick stop on the shores of Loch Ness for another photo opportunity. Yeah, what an opportunity!
Next we went to the Commando Memorial at the base of Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the UK. I really wanted to hike up the mountain, but I was told that that’s a full-day activity. So that goes onto the bucket list as well for June. The memorial itself was definitely interesting, and busy too. The commandos have a fascinating story, but you’ll have to do the tour to get that information (or cheat and Google it).
Another quick photo stop at Inverlochy castle and then we went to Glen Coe. How is Scotland so beautiful??!!! I’m literally at a loss for words trying to describe this landscape. Again, we didn’t have nearly enough time to explore the area. Just long enough to run halfway up the side of the cliff, and then back to the bus. I suppose you could say the biggest disadvantage of the tour is that it goes too fast, since 5 days just isn’t enough to see all of the most beautiful places in Scotland. You could spend months seeing everything (and I definitely plan to). If you want the highlights, Haggis Adventures’ Hebridean Hopper is definitely the tour to do!
After Glen Coe we had a late lunch in Callander, where most of us had a picnic of Scottish pies and sausage rolls on the river. Then we had our final stop at the Wallace Monument. Not the most impressive attraction, but still worth a visit. Someday I’ll also have to go back and take a tour of the tower itself, which we didn’t have time for this trip.
Finally we made our way back to Edinburgh, arriving just after 5 PM. Our tour was over. But my adventures in northern Scotland had just begun. I have three days after the end of the tour before I leave again to explore and camp all around the mainland and islands for another 19 days. But if I learned anything from this Haggis Adventures Tour, it’s that this still isn’t enough time. Which is why I’m happy to call Scotland my home, and continue exploring the rest of this country for the rest of my life (along with the rest of the world).
Summary of the Haggis Adventures‘ Hebridean Hopper
As you can tell, this tour was absolutely fantastic, and I would recommend it to everyone. I think the younger generations would enjoy it more, but I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out. I’m already looking forward to doing the tour again, as well as other tours with the company. There are several other tour companies, but I haven’t done any of those tours myself so I can’t really compare.
All I can say is that my tour with Jamie and the team was absolutely perfect. Literally couldn’t have been better. I’m already talking someone into doing the tour with me in August, and I’ll be back up to Morag Lodge next week when I head back up to explore more of the highlands.