This article has been written with the support of Calmac.
Wonders of the west coast: discover the spectacular in Scotland's islands
From bird-watching to the Northern Lights, get swept up in the natural beauty of the Western Isles
Swim with sharks, top up your tan on near-tropical beaches and sleep under skies full of stars. If you're still saving up for that six months in South-east Asia, quench your wanderlust on wonders of our own. From dolphins to dinosaurs, discover the wonderful world of Scotland's islands.
First things first, hit the beach. Trust us – you won't need a filter to make your beach shots look beautiful. Who needs Croatia when you've got beaches like West Beach on Berneray which is straight out of a holiday brochure. Even a Thai tourist guide used it as a substitute for Kai Bae, because it was better looking.
But there's plenty of competition for the beach with the biggest wow factor on Scotland's islands. White powder sand, glittering turquoise sea – you're scoffing inside, but it's true. Check out Kiloran Beach on Colonsay, Tangasdale on Barra… the list of lovelies is long. And you'll probably have them to yourself. So pack that bikini… but, you know, a warm jumper won't go amiss either.
You don't need to be Brian Cox to be wowed by the sky at night in the Hebrides. Whether you're on Mull or Skye, the skies light up in ways you could never have dreamed.
Just imagine there are no street lights – and there aren't on Coll as it's officially a Dark Sky island, one of only two on the planet. That makes it one of the best places in the whole country to gaze skywards.
So, as S Club 7 once advised, reach for the stars. But take a torch, especially if you've spent the evening in the pub sampling a long-haul flight of whiskies. Gaze at galaxies, pick out planets, spot shooting stars, and even be entertained by the awesome Aurora Borealis – the greatest lightshow on Earth. You won't want to go to sleep ever again.
See wildlife, new and old – sometimes, very old
Rewind a few million years, and the Isle of Skye was one big Jurassic Park. These days it's the best place in Scotland to find fossils. On remote islands like Mingulay and St Kilda, you might be lucky enough to see an icthyosaur leaping from the waves or a pterodactyl swooping along the cliffs. Okay, maybe not even after a few single malts, but you never know.
You may not see dinosaurs, but the deck of a ferry is one of the best places from which to see sea creatures like porpoises, dolphins, sunfish, minke whales and killer whales. On Coll, you can even swim with sharks. Don't worry, they're basking sharks so they aren't aggressive – they're just eight metres long. Easy.
Flock to the birds
Basking sharks don't get angry, but birds do. Go wondering about near nesting arctic terns on Tiree, and they'll set about you. But they're just looking after their kids, wee balls of fluff with stubby legs. Arctic skuas are kind of scary, but beautiful too, while bonxies are just plain frightening.
Sea eagles are awesome, and puffins are not only beloved of little old ladies but also actually damned funny things and so tame they'll pose for photos. True story.