30 May 2013

Outer Hebrides Tour Part V: The Isle of Lewis

Despite being geographically all one island, everyone talks about the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis as separate entities. After cycling the one road that links these two regions it is not at all hard to see why.

The road from Harris to Lewis

We started up the steep hill on the A859 expecting it to end just around the bend. It did ease up a bit but  the expected descent never came. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more on what was one of the busier roads of the trip (though still nothing compared to the southeast!).  It was a cloudy and chilly day which made things even tougher, and we stopped by the side of the road near the turnoff to Rhenigdale for a snack, wondering where this mountain had come from and why none of the blogs we had read had saw fit to mention it!

Stopping near the top of the climb on the way to Lewis
Soon after, the road finally turned downwards, only for us to pick up a headwind, so the cycling wasn't that much easier. At the bottom we were officially welcomed to the Isle of Lewis which Alberto was convinced was 'much flatter than Harris'. Where he gets these strange ideas I'll never know.  Throughout this entire stretch we hadn't passed a single building of any sort, to say nothing of a building where we could find food!

We could see that the town of Airdbruaich was coming up and hoped to find something there...but the town came and went without any commercial enterprises to speak of. Instead we pulled into a bus shelter (to escape the wind) next to the Bonnie Prince Charlie Memorial to make a lunch out of the food we could find in our panniers--cheese and tomato sandwhiches were the main items on the menu. It was already on the late side by this point so we knew we needed to press on -- back out into the wind it was.

Lunch in a bus shelter
We had entered back into civilisation though and it wasn't long before we came to the next town, Baile Allen and spotted a gallery/cafe with a sign saying 'Cyclists Welcome'. It was all the invitation we needed to escape from the elements and have a hot drink. The tea and scones were very good, if the owner was a bit of a character. She reminded me of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter.

But it was past 5pm and we had our sights set on Stornoway where there was a campsite (it had been too many days without a shower!). The scones left us feeling a bit funny for the first few km but we soon settled into a rhythm and were thrilled to be rolling into Stornoway at 7pm. We made a beeline for the Coop as we weren't sure what time it would close (turns out 11pm so we had nothing to worry about). It is a gigantic Coop, definitely the biggest I have ever seen, and to us it was like we had hit the jackpot. We wandered around in a daze after a very tough day, trying to figure out what to buy and overwhelmed with choices. We ended up with lots of good stuff including steaks for dinner!

The campsite was just down the road so we made our way there and got the tent set up before sundown. There's nothing special about the location or facilities but it was nice to be able to take a long hot shower. They even had a hairdryer which at that time felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me! By the time we had set up camp, showered, and Alberto had briefly forayed into Stornoway for fuel for the stove,  we didn't get around to cooking until nearly 10pm and didn't get to bed until midnight.

Bacon for breakfast
The following morning we had a massive breakfast with more treats from the Stornoway coop including bacon. We planned a bit of a sightseeing day, as there seemed to be actually more stuff to 'do' in Lewis, and we knew we had to stay close enough to Stornoway to head back the following morning for our afternoon ferry. We were on the road about 10:30 to head to the west coast of Lewis via the Pentland Road, an inland lane that takes you through the heart of Lewis' peat bogs. It was a lovely, very quiet road and very scenic, although with quite a different feel to the scenery on Harris. We had a tailwind on this part of the journey which certainly helped a lot--once we hit the coastal road it was a different matter.

Pentland Road
We made it to Callanish and checked out the famous standing stones there. They were not too busy and it was nice to be able to walk around and through them. We then had a coffee and cake at the visitor's centre there and chatted with two women cyclists who were credit-card touring on road bikes with only a minimum of luggage. They had come from Tarbert that morning! They told us about a beach nearby, Dal Mhor, and said it was a great camping spot if we decided to camp in the area. It was still early so we decided to wait and see as we headed up the A859, into the headwind, towards Carlabagh and Na Gearannan.

Callanish standing stones
Na Gearannan is a traditional village of blackhouses (as they are called) which was abandoned in the 1980s as the dwindling numbers of aging residents could no longer handle the harsh life that was required by living in those houses. It has now been revitalised as a tourist centre with information about traditional island life. We spent some time checking out the village and ran into our Newcastle campervan friends again in the gift shop.

It was mid-afternoon by that point, and we decided just to head to Dal Mhor and make an easy day of it for once. It would have been very quick to get there along the coast via a footpath but we took the road instead as the path didn't seem suitable for bikes. Once more into the headwind and up a few more hills, and we were there.

Camp at Dal Mhor
It did not disappoint. It was once of the best locations of the whole trip, and with public toilets as well. There was a cemetery just next to the parking lot, overlooking the ocean. Not a bad place for a final resting spot! We picked an out-of-the-way spot for the tent and put it up, then went for a walk up the hill nearby to take in the views. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, with a car arriving every now and then with people taking a look around and then heading off again. Then a car pulled up which had MTBs, skis, and surf boards, and a dog. That's a good way to travel! The couple came out and went surfing for a little while, then got back in their car and headed off.

Taking in the views from above
We had an early (as in, before the sun went down) dinner of pasta followed by cous cous and prepped things for breakfast so that we didn't have to cook in the morning. We were in our sleeping bags by 9:30pm for our last night in the Hebrides.

Sunset at Dal Mhor
At 7am the next morning we were up, and on the road by 9:30 to head back to Stornoway, again via the Pentland Road. We enjoyed it as much as we had the first time around, even though we didn't have the same cracking tailwind. We arrived in Stornoway around 11:15am and again headed straight to the Coop to buy some salmon for Alberto and some lunch food for the ferry ride. We also went to the Hebridean Chocolates factory on a residential road nearby and bought some gifts (and of course some chocolate for us!)--it was delicious.

We went into town and Alberto stopped in at a pharmacy to pick up some sunscreen, as his nose and ears had gotten quite badly burned and were even blistering slightly. Finally we stopped at the Stornoway Fish Smokers where we ended up with some smoked cheddar cheese. We got some for us and some to give to our Newcastle campervan friends, who we knew would be on the same ferry.

Soon we were boarding the ferry back to the mainland, with only the final push to Inverness ahead of us before the end of our Outer Hebrides tour...

(to be continued!)

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