As I curl my toes into fine white sand on an empty beach stretching under an azure blue sky, and gaze across a brilliant turquoise sea to distant islands, while my toddler happily splashes along the shoreline, I feel completely at peace.
I could be on a Caribbean island but I’m somewhere a little closer to home. A tad chillier, but equally idyllic.
Whether you arrive by air or sea, the small island of Barra makes a breathtaking first impression. A small link on the chain of Outer Hebridean islands that includes Harris, Lewis and North and South Uist, Barra has many claims to fame. Chief among them is the only place in the world where scheduled flights land and take-off from a beach.
Descending in a tiny aircraft over The Minch to land on a sweeping two-mile expanse of white sand is a true bucket list experience. The five-hour ferry journey from Oban also ends in spectacular fashion, as Kisimul Castle, on a tiny island just off Castlebay, Barra’s main village, comes into view.
It’s a sight I’ve yet to tire off in the years I’ve visited Barra, since meeting my partner, Sean, whose family has called this small Scottish island home for generations. We last visited in August for an essential reprieve from working at home while desperately trying to keep our hyperactive two-year-old, Ben, entertained.
Rented accommodation on the island – self-catering houses, B&Bs and four hotels – has remained closed since lockdown but is available to book for next year. While the island was open to campers and caravans when we visited, we stayed with Sean’s parents, who have a house by the shore in Earsary, on the eastern side of the island.
Waking to a stunning sunrise over the ocean and the sound of birdsong and seals leaping playfully from the sea was a perfect antidote to the craziness of the coronavirus pandemic. Given Barra’s many allures lie outdoors, there was still plenty to do.
For pristine beaches scattered with seashells, smooth pebbles or pure white sand, Barra does not disappoint. Travel north for Triagh Mhor and climb the sand dunes for a secluded beach that hugs the Atlantic. Nearby, you’ll see a house where Compton Mackenzie penned Whisky Galore.
Head further north to Eoligarry for views of Fuday, Eriskay and South Uist. Circle back along the west coast for more brilliant beaches in Cleat and Tangasdale.
At the southern tip of Barra lies Vatersay, an island connected by a causeway. It is home to Vatersay beach, an iconic and regularly photographed spot for its wonky beach gate set between sand dunes that leads to stunning bay views. Here, we encountered few people but lots of local wildlife, including a herd of gallus cows known to gather by the shore in hot weather.
Walking or cycling around the island reveals views of the machair (moorland carpeted with wildflowers), rugged coastlines, the remains of old crofts and sheep and white horses roaming free.
Driving along the Barra’s winding single-track road is an experience in itself. Every bend unveils another spectacular view, passing places allow for one-way traffic and flocks of sheep always enjoy right of way.
For the adventurous, sea kayaking, surfing and cliff jumping is available, while a boat tour to Mingulay, an uninhabited island south of Vatersay home to numerous seals and often dolphins, offers a wonderful day out.
Even the food here is memorable, as many eateries capitalise on locally-caught seafood. For a delicious curry, visit Cafe Kisimul in Castlebay, Hebridean Toffee serves sweet treats and the best hot smoked salmon baguettes, while Joan’s Pizza home delivers delicious freshly-baked homemade pizzas (the seafood option with fresh scallops is divine). For cake and coffee, seek out Macroon’s Tearoom within the Castlebay Post Office or Ardmhor Coffee at the northern ferry terminal. Castlebay is also home to Bùth Bharraigh, a fantastic community-owed shop, and Barra Gin, which makes its delicious island spirit with locally foraged seaweed.
While the island has remained covid-free, tourism, on which many locals depend, has taken a hit. With staycations proving a safe bet for 2021, Barra is an exciting and idyllic option for tourists that ticks all the boxes for an unforgettable escape.
Barra, weather complying, is perfect for walkers. It’s highest point, Heaval, takes a few hours to climb. Conquer it to enjoy views across the island and to find the statue of the Madonna and Child.
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