The best 5 island destinations to visit this Spring
Author: Robin McKelvie
As the long cold months of winter finally start to ease we turn our thoughts to spring and the promise of longer nights, warmer temperatures and even - if we're lucky - some great spells of sunshine.
Spring for me is one of the best times to explore the Scottish isles. Buds start to appear on trees, bulbs start to force their way up from the frozen ground and all manner of fauna decides it's time to either shake off hibernation or crank their lives up a gear.
Taking a ferry ride in spring is glorious as splashes of colour start to be painted back into the Scottish landscape. If you're in the mood for a fun, life affirming spring break then read on as I've got five great island escapes you can sail to with CalMac that are just brilliant in spring.
Heard of the West Island Way? No, that's not a typo! I genuinely do mean the West Island Way, one of Scotland's least heralded long distance walks. It stretches for 20 miles from the rugged southern reaches of Bute all the way up the spine of the island to its hilly northern extremities. Arran is much touted as 'Arran in Miniature' thanks to the Highland Boundary Fault that runs right through it, putting one side of the island in the Lowlands and the other literally in the Highlands. The same applies to Bute and on this long distance walk you actually have the chance to walk right across a line that is far from imaginary. In geological terms it is the stark divide between two plates and the change in the landscape as instant as it is dramatic. The Way is ideal to visit in spring as the wildflowers start to emerge (quite early this far south), the lambs are brightening up the fields and the beaches are warming, but not yet filling with crowds. I recommend allowing at least two days to tackle the whole route, longer if you've time.
2. Whisky Galore
The Inner Hebridean gem of Islay is magical in many ways in spring with its geese migrations and machair wildflowers, but it is also a great time for whisky lovers to sneak in a wee trip. Islay for me boasts the best whisky touring in Scotland with eight superb distilleries tucked within one easily navigable island. The distilleries are open in spring, but not clogged with visitors. Three of my favourites lie handily right on the southern reaches of Islay and are easily reachable from the ferry port at Port Ellen. I recommend taking a taxi to the furthest away, Ardbeg, and then using the new walkway to make your way back to Port Ellen, taking in Laphroaig and Lagavulin on the way. All three have well stocked shops and great tours, with Ardbeg the highlight for me as they offer a tour that takes you up to their water source at Loch Uigeadail. Ardbeg also sports an excellent café that attracts as many locals as visitors especially at this time of year and also manages to infuse whisky into some of the dishes. Read the 8 delicious reasons to visit Islay blog for more details on the 8 working distilleries on the island.
If it is wildlife you are after then Mull ticks all the boxes. The island capital of Tobermory is world renowned these days as a centre for marine research and marine mammal tourism. Head out on a boat tour from here and you can expect to see seals, porpoises, dolphins and maybe even whales! The boats start operating again in spring. I recommend venturing out with Sea Life Surveys. In the air you will see migrations across Mull, but the main stars are the island's golden and sea eagles, who will be starting to rouse from their winter slumber. If you have never seen a sea eagle, also known as a white tailed eagle due to their distinctive white rear, it really is a majestic sight dwarfing all other birds as it soars through the Hebridean sky. Where the water meets the land you can look out for otters all along Mull's coastline - I've even seen them frolicking on the beach below the CalMac ferry as we came into dock in Craignure! Last but certainly not least on land spring is a great time to view red deer. The largest land mammal in the British Isles thrives on Mull. Spring sees them start to move back up to the higher slopes again.
I'm putting South Uist and North Uist in here (along with Benbecula, which connects them) as they are all utterly spectacular in spring and you can travel between all three across causeways. They are so spectacular because spring is when the machair all along their western coastal fringes starts to burst alive with an eye popping, breathtaking smorgasbord of colour as all manner of wildflowers explode into life. If you have never seen the machair in bloom you really must try to at least once in your life. The grassy dunes of the machair also come alive with a sweep of small birds, including the elusive corncrake. You will certainly never mistake its unique call, but you will be doing well to spot one. Well done if you do! If you are new to the machair the Balranald RSPB reserve is an ideal starting off point as there is a wee interpretation centre that fills you in on what you can expect to see before you set off along the reserve trails and sweeping white sand beach. Once you've got into the swing of things you can just choose your own stretch of Outer Hebridean beach and set off on your very own Springwatch.
I'm taking these two 'islands' together as they are physically joined at the hip despite their many distinct differences. Each spring gets me more and more excited about the Isle of Harris Distillery. It won't be long now before their first singe malt (to be classified as Scotch it must be matured in oak barrels for at least three years) blinks its way into the world. They have already got the superb Isle of Harris Gin, which you cannot pick up in the shops, but is available at the distillery. It's the malt, though, that I'm really waiting for! In the meantime there are distillery tours and a great café to relax in after you have been checking out the local machair. Harris for me has the best beaches in Scotland too, with these wide Atlantic sandy oases devoid of many people in spring so the chances are you will have them all to yourselves! If you're a fan of Outlander Lewis is a must. The island is replete with historical sights, including arguably the finest stone circle in Scotland at Calanais. You can come here and touch the stones and dream of transporting yourself through the centuries Clare Randall style!