It’s the Outer Hebrides. Just go. Save, plan, book, get on a plane and go.
It was a trip I had wanted to go on for a couple of years and my first “Instagram” influenced vacation (I think I’ve finally arrived to the era of social media). I first saw this cold water swimming paradise via feed from Immerse Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, is a grouping of islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland. I had no idea Scotland even had little islands, so I looked it up and yes, sure enough there they were and even on the Google Earth map they looked tropical! I stuck a pin it in and chalked it up to “one day” sort of like how I have a picture torn out of an airline magazine with an advertisement for the Dry Tortugas National Park that’s been in the back pocket of my wallet since 2012. One day, one day I will go.
Fast forward to 2022 and a work trip to London over my birthday took me back to that Instagram page and all I could see was clear water. Clear blue water. Clear blue tropical water. Clear blue cold tropical water. Clear blue cold tropical water with sunshine. Clear blue cold tropical water with sunshine and soft sand beaches. Clear blue cold tropical water with sunshine and soft sand beaches surrounded by lush green hills with purple flowers begging me to go.
Before I even looked at my swimcation budget for the year, my flight was booked, I had made a favorites list of AirBnBs as well as hotels to research, my car rental request was in, my time off was blocked on my calendar at work, and I was registering for swims through Immerse Hebrides. This was going to be my vacation, my vacation of all vacations, to shut down the laptop, relax, stay in a picturesque Scottish croft cottage, swim, and be present. Aside from my panic when I discovered that there were no more cherry bakewell tarts in the local store because I had **cough** accidentally purchased their entire stock in the days prior, it was everything I expected it to be and more. I loved and I mean LOVED everything about the Outer Hebrides.
It’s common for swimmers after a particularly tough channel crossing or marathon swim to feel as if they left a little piece of them in the ocean. For me, that was the Outer Hebrides. It changed me. The people changed me. The connection to nature was familiar, yet challenged my perspective on everything I had known. A piece of me stayed in Scotland, it’s out there waiting for me to return, like my heart saw what it could be. One day, one day I will go back.
In the meantime, this is my ploy to get you to go! It’s not the easiest to get to and if you’ve never driven a manual vehicle or driven on the opposite side of the road….. well, you’ll learn real quick. Because it’s not the easiest place to get to, it involves planning, and a healthy budget, but oh my gosh, IT IS WORTH IT!!! I could say it is like Hawaii, but it is better. I could say it is like the dreamy swimcations along the Mediterranean, but it is better. I could say it is like any of the Caribbean islands, tropics, or Pan-Asian paradise islands, but it is better. It the Outer Hebrides and there isn’t a bad place to swim, walk, or eat (and if you get a chance to try a cow pie, just do it). Here’s what I did the six days I was there and after you read and decide you’re going to go, I have some helpful tips at the end of each section!
Hebridean Swimcation Day 1: Get settled in at our cottage, Old Croft Cottage, visit the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, and Port Stoth Beach
My dream vacation to the Outer Hebrides began with arriving in style on Logan Air from the London City Airport (via Edinburgh). While you can take the train or ferry, flying was the quickest and most convenient as I wanted to make the most of my time on the island. I decided on the Isle of Lewis and Harris because that was where Immerse Hebrides was located and this swimcation was going to be the swimcation of swimcations. My mom came along with me for a mother daughter drip, which was a much needed break for the both of us. After checking into our AirBnB on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, we took the afternoon to get groceries, visit the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, and Port Stoth Beach.
Day 1 Tips: Get a pint at your connecting airport…. which even applies to orange juice where the pint was less than a cup of coffee. Midgies and noseeums exist in Scotland, a rental along the coast with wind will keep them away (Stornoway had lots of little midgies – happy to be on the coast). When renting a car, make sure to request early in advance if you need an automatic, they’re scarce. Be patient, relax, and look out the window on the plane when flying into Stornoway, it is amazing!
Hebridean Swimcation Day 2: Gearrannan Blackhouse Villiage, Garenin Beach
The second day was all about relaxing. We learned about the history of crofting life on the island visiting Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, rock scouted along Garenin Beach, and took in views of the island from up top the hill on our hike. It was sunny, windy, lavishly green with beautiful wildflowers all around. In the evening we explored to coastal area and cliffs by our cottage, ooohed and aaahed at all the cute sheep, and met our two horse horse neighbors who love carrots (we were given the okay to give a few by our hosts). It was a lazy day, but much needed before the days of swimming ahead.
Day 2 Tips: Relax, expect wind along the coast all the time, and get outside and walk to experience the local hiking. Most tourist places are quiet to visit during the week and crowds only pick up on the weekends when the ferry boats come over. Getting out during the week days will allow for a more relaxing experience in the countryside.
Hebridean Swimcation Days 3 and 4: Garry Beach, Traigh Mhòr and Tolastadh Úr beaches
The next couple days we went to the East side of Isle of Lewis due to heavy winds on the West that resulted in a cancellation of one boat trip with Immerse Hebrides as swimming was extremely unsafe in the high surf and whitecaps. Good news is that when you’re on an island, what isn’t good on one side is usually good on the other…. And it was! I did my first long open water exploration swim of the trip at Garry Beach and loved it! I saw my first jellyfish of the trip, swam over beautiful white sand and crystal clear waters, did my first solo cave swim, and had a blast even under a passing rain shower.
The heavy winds persisted for another day, so we ventured back to the East side visiting Traigh Mhòr and Tolastadh Úr beaches where I shared the 1.5 mile stretch of beach with a couple surfers, but otherwise had the water to myself and a few whales in the distance. The water flowing out of Abhainn Geiraha, a river whose water is copper from running through peat fields turned the delta into a rainbow. Extremely dreamy and felt like I was swimming through a storybook.
Days 3 and 4 Tips: Don’t get down if the weather picks up, go to the other side of the island! It was gale force winds on one side and completely flat on the other. Everything, and I mean everything is closed on Sundays for family and faith. Stock up on food and gas the day before so your adventures on Sunday can continue without a hitch. Also, don’t forget to bring an underwater camera for fun photos!
Hebridean Swimcation Day 5: Birthday Private Charter with Immerse Hebrides to Little Bernera!
As my birthday ended up being overseas, I decided to treat myself to a birthday private charter tour of some of the sites around Loch Ceann Hulabhaig, where we saw the Callanish Standing Stones from the water view, learned some of the history of the area, saw eagles, and 18 seals!
After the tour, the RIB boat took us across and outside the island into the Atlantic, showed us some secret beaches along then way. Then (and my favorite part) I hopped off at Little Bernera for a lagoon and outer perimeter swim, through the waves to another secret beach for a short hike up to Beinn an Teampuill chapel and graveyard. It was an adventure swim, the first time in a long while I really felt the push and pull of the waves, exposed in the open ocean, and I missed it. I missed it so much. The sea spray in our hair, the wildlife, the cold. The unknown. I felt home.
Day 5 Tips: Norma with Immerse Hebrides is fantastic to work with! They have group swims anywhere from beginner level to advanced, island hops, hike and swims, overnight trips, or bespoke tours all at very reasonable prices. If you’re unsure what you want to do, try a few or work with Immerse Hebrides to create something just for you. Stop into little shops on the way back from your swim and try the treats and goodies too!
Hebridean Swimcation Bonus Day 6: Stornoway, Tiumpan Head Lighthouse, Port of Ness, Aiginis Beach and Bayble Beach
This was the day of our departure, but we still managed to squeeze some good stuff in and make the most of the trip by opting to take a later flight. We visited the town of Stornoway, which was cute and had some good gift shopping as well as a store filled with a new stock of cherry bakewells. We took a drive out to the peninsula to visit Tiumpan Head Lighthouse, which is famous for whale and wildlife viewing (I saw some orcas), visited Port Ness, Aiginis Beach, and Bayble Beach. If you’re a cold water swimmer in search of a Hawaiian paradise without the heat, good people, good food, then Isle of Lewis and Harris swimming with Immerse Hebrides is the swimcation for you!
Day 6 Tips: Enjoy the last day! Taking a later flight worked great for us as it gave us additional time to hang out on the island. There was lots we didn’t see, for example, we never even made it to the Isle of Harris or some of the historical monuments. There’s A LOT to do on the island, more than you would think. It is important to figure out what you want to do most so that you can make the best out of your time.
So….. ready to go on a swimcation with me?!?!