Isle of Lewis - Give ‘em a Minch
Kirstin Innes lets the weather – and an exceptional guesthouse – set the pace for a weekend hidden away from the world on Lewis.
‘Up here, you really just have to appreciate the weather by the moment,’ says Marion Fordham, as she picks us up from Stornoway’s tiny airport to drive us to out to Broad Bay House, the guesthouse she and her husband run in a crofting community right on the edge of the Minch.
This proves to be excellent advice for spending a weekend on Lewis – with nothing very much planned beyond ‘relax’ and ‘appreciate scenery’, and conditions ranging from blazing sun to near-gale rain and back again in a morning – we’re quite happy to let the weather determine our activities. We arrive a week after Lewis’ religious community has made the papers protesting at the advent of ferries on Sunday, a reminder that weekend activity will be necessarily restricted by the particular tempo of island life.
However, mostly, Broad Bay House itself sets the pace for our break. I’m trying not to fawn, but really the house alone is an exceptional holiday destination. Marion and husband Ian built it themselves three years ago – like an increasingly large number of Lewis residents they’re from England, but came up one year for the annual Hebridean Celtic Festival, fell hard for the island and moved up from London. It’s not completely isolated: there are neighbouring crofts dotted along the coast, and a quick walk up the road gets you into Back village. But step out of the garden gate, and you’re alone on a cliff top covered in wildflowers, above sea that is actually turquoise, white sand, the only noises waves and the occasional seagull. Broad Bay House caters happily to ramblers, cyclists, surfers and sea canoeists, but even just existing, being on the beach, aligning your breathing to the motion of the tide and watching the birds, feels like time well spent.
Broad Bay House is one of the only Visit Scotland five-star destinations on Lewis, and independent review site Trip Advisor has picked it as the top place to stay in the Hebrides. It’s a deceptively large house (there are four gigantic double bedrooms and a large dining/living space with three glazed walls looking across the bay) with a faintly Scandinavian feel to it; beautifully minimalist furnishings, glinting, wild paintings and pieces of sculpture by local artists picking up the colours from the sea at various times of the day. What’s really, really special about the house, though, is that while everything (from the pin-sharp in-room sound system and Molton Brown toiletries to mattresses so dense they practically compel you to sleep) testifies to that five-star rating, there’s nothing of the anodyne luxury retreat about Broad Bay. It’s suffused with personality: idiosyncratic grace notes ranging from the excellent selection of books and DVDs in the guest library, the birders guides, binoculars and well-stocked iPod for use in the living area, in-room CDs by local folk artists with a polite note suggesting you listen to it if you have the time, to the complementary basket stuffed with coffee, wine and snacks: a far cry from the usual grudging two-shortbread-and-Nescafe combo.
Then there’s the food.
Our first evening is spent on the beach with a Broad Bay picnic: salad, chicken, homemade almond tart and bread, Stornoway smoked cheese and a selection of hot-and cold-smoked salmon, all from local producers. We hole up in a little smugglers’ cove with the whole expanse of the beach before us and drink toasts to the sky. The beach is deserted and, aside from occasional beams from the lighthouse across the bay, it’s very easy to believe there are only us and the seagulls left in the world. It begins to get cold round about 10pm as the sun is setting, so we clamber back, the late evening light warming and sharpening the colours of sea, grass and flowers till we can almost taste them. Or maybe that’s just the whisky we’ve procured from the excellent selection of island malts in the honesty bar.
We stagger out of bed at 4.45am, fall into dressing gowns and pad out onto our room’s deck overlooking the sea, to watch the whole bay on fire as the sun rises. By the time we wake up again the house has come back to life and Ian is busily cooking breakfast (porridge, local haddock, home-made bread and poached eggs). Between the rain and the Sabbath we’re happy to spend a cosy morning watching the storm from behind glass, before it clears in time for a long bracing walk along a beach to nowhere. Dinner is served at 7pm; Ian is back in the kitchen again, with a four-course menu of all-organic, locally sourced produce (he trained with Nick Nairn and recently received a silver Eat Scotland award) and we sit up in those amazing windows with the bay spread before us, eating tender rack of lamb and trying to remember the names of the eight island cheeses on our cheese board, stuffed, and utterly at peace with the world.
Flybe operated by Loganair operates flights four times daily, Monday to Saturday, to Stornoway from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. There is also a Sunday flight from Glasgow. Caledonian McBrayne also runs regular ferries from Lewis, seven days a week
Bed and breakfast at Broad Bay House starts at £64.50 per person (based on two people sharing, and dependent on the season). See www.broadbayhouse.co.uk
What to do
Stornoway has a surprisingly large number of good (if expensive) restaurants for a relatively small town. Unusually for an island fishing port, there’s also a castle and extensive woodland. An Lanntair is the main arts hub for the whole of the Hebrides with a well-curated year-round programme of exhibitions and live performance, and look out for the Sounds in the Grounds Festival in Lewis Castle on Sat 22 Aug: this year’s headliner is Malcolm Middleton. For advice on putting together a sporting holiday, see www.visithebrides.com