Loganair can get you to the Outer Hebrides in under three hours, which makes it perfect for a long weekend break. Here's how to spend your time there
“We’re just pulling back around the runway as one of the doors has popped open” - words that are pretty high on the list of those that you don’t want to hear when taking off in a small plane. But they were the words being issued from the cockpit on our Loganair flight up to some of the UK’s most remote islands.
I was travelling on the new route offering the first direct flights from London to the Hebrides. Having taken off from Southend airport at 8.30am on a Friday morning after a surprisingly comfortable night in the neighbouring Holiday Inn, we’d touched down in Glasgow to let people off before the onward flight to Stornoway.
The flight is ‘direct’ rather than ‘non-stop’ because while the route does have you touching down in Scotland's second city, London passengers do not need to disembark the plane. Our travel information said that the total travel time from Southend to Stornoway would be a little under three hours and had us landing at 11.10am – although we would now face a slight delay. These things happen when a door unaccountably pings open on the runway.
As we made our way ever further north, cloud descended – hardly shocking for this small, remote corner of the British Isles – so our first sighting of Lewis and Harris were merely small patches of green peeking through a shroud of grey. A surprisingly close stretch of beach flickered through a gap and we touched down at 11.30am – just three hours after leaving Essex.
With the cloud came the inevitable mizzle, making sightseeing a no-go, so we headed instead for one of the island’s newest attractions – the . Sleek and modern, the distillery overlooks the harbour so that it’s one of the first things visitors see when arriving by ferry. “It looks like a church – only we have a different kind of spirit here,” Scalpay-born Alexander Macleod quips as he sweeps us off on a tour. “Why don’t we start with a wee dram?” Why not indeed?
He leads us past the traditional peat fire – lit in the heart of the distillery each morning, even in summer, to give everyone a warm welcome – into the tasting room. As Alexander explains the large, complex flavour abacus made of tweed which dominates one of the walls, we sip on a very basic yet very feisty form of what will one day be the distillery’s primary export.
Founded by Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell with the intention of bringing both locals and visitors alike back to the island, the distillery feels very much like a family project, with a social ethos at its heart. And while 'The Hearach' whisky here isn’t ready yet – it will be another couple of years before it matures into a single malt worthy of the name – the gin is doing a roaring trade.
Having already won a number of awards, this clear spirit, made Hebridean with a twist of sea kelp, is perhaps known almost as much for its beautiful bottle – paying homage to the rippled sand, tweed and colour of the isles – as it is for its unusual flavour.
The tour concludes and we poke around in the gift shop for a few minutes before making a dash for it through the rain to the car in order to travel north towards the Callanish Stones and Whitefalls Spa Lodges, our remote yet glorious base for the weekend. As we journey from the youngest attraction on the island to one of the oldest, I feel a pang of empathy for the soggy cyclists navigating the surprisingly undulating terrain and am glad we decided to rent a car instead of attempting to see it all on two wheels.
As we explore the island on four, it becomes apparent that this place isn’t designed for speed. The roads are winding and slow and you can forget buying anything on a Sunday – nearly everything is closed bar one solitary petrol station near the airport.
Over the long weekend, we make it to every corner of the island and visit its most famous attractions – Gearrannan Blackhouse Village and Dun Carloway broch. At the Callanish stones (calanaisvisitorcentre.co.uk) we see more people than we’ve seen all trip, including a girl flouncing and posing around the ancient site as if trying to recreate moments from Outlander – thank you Instagram – but much of the rest of the island seems rather quiet, even on a summer weekend.
While the weather was far from fair, it didn’t detract from the wild, rugged beauty of the island, and when the sun did peek through from behind the cloud, it only heightened the beauty.
On the west coast there are sensational beaches – the famed Luskentyre as well as lesser-known beautific spots such as Cliff and Dalmore – that, when the light hits them, could easily be mistaken for the Caribbean. To the southeast is a rumpled, lunar-like landscape that feels a million miles away from the soft sands of the west.
But by far my favourite spot on this island with two names was the drive out from Tarbet towards Hushinish – opposite the island of Scarp. Here, the B887 takes you directly in front of the grand Amhuinnsuidhe Castle Estate with its tumbling waterfall. If you have time, you can turn off just before this and head up to the North Harris Eagle Observatory to try and spot rare golden eagles (Harris has one of the highest densities of breeding golden eagles recorded in Europe).
We passed still lochs that mirrored the heather-strewn hills, pulled over to watch a stag grazing and got caught in the middle of a traffic jam caused by longhaired cows. Tiny Hushinish has a long, quiet beach and a rest stop for campervans. It’s a peaceful little haven at the end of a stunning drive that is about as quintessentially Scottish as you could hope for.
As I boarded the flight back towards Southend, the sun finally broke through to show the island in all its glory as we flew above it, revealing the little roads that we’d traversed over the course of three days.
So did I feel fulfilled after a long weekend? Absolutely. Was I tired? A resounding yes – I’d spent most of the short break driving. But I had seen a lot. Sure, I would have preferred longer – this is a place of such striking beauty that a week here would be well spent. But the flights have made it more accessible for those short on time – and annual leave – opening this small corner of Britain up to long weekenders. Who needs a European city break when we have this on our doorstep?
What to do
- Horse riders will enjoy a pony trek with Traigh Mhor Pony Trekking across the sandy beaches of the northeast coast (trek experiences from £30, 3 hour beach ride from £100; tolsta41.com).
- To get a different view of the island, head out on a boat trip with Seatrek (2 hour rib boat trip from £32 per person; seatrek.co.uk).
- A tour at the Isle of Harris Distillery takes one hour and 15 minutes (£10 for adults, £5 for children; harrisdistillery.com).
Where to eat
Uig Sands Restaurant is a new addition to the island but offers delicious yet reasonably-priced cuisine with superb views (uiglodge.co.uk/uig-sands).
Where to stay
Whitefalls Spa Lodges offers two beautiful lodges in a remote setting just a five-minute drive from the Callanish stones. The highlight here are the vast windows, stunning views and spectacular bathrooms complete with spa bath and infrared sauna. A stay at Whitefalls Spa Lodges costs from £650 for a long weekend Friday to Sunday (whitefalls.co.uk)
How to get there
Loganair provides services six days per week between London Southend and Stornoway, with fares beginning at £79.99 each way including 20kg of complimentary luggage (loganair.co.uk).
For early morning flights from London Southend, a stopover at the Holiday Inn is recommended (southendairport.com).
More information: visitscotland.com
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