BEIRUT

Travel & Tourism

In Scotland, take a walk on the mild side

  • his October 2013 photo shows an intricate pattern in the sand at the wide beach in Berneray, Scotland. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows the airport runway on the island of Barra in Scotland. It’s one of the few airports in the world where the beach is the runway. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows hikers in Holyrood Park overlooking Edinburgh, Scotland from Arthur's Seat. It is the highest point in Edinburgh and a lovely echo of the Highlands within a short walk of the city's downtown. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows an old cemetery on the island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Some plots appear to be marked by chunks of rock instead of carved headstones. A hiking trail passes alongside the cemetery. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows the Gatliff Trust-run hostel on the island of Berneray, Scotland. The hostel is steps from the sea, and from crumbling farmhouses called crofting houses. A marked trail nearby allows an easy day hike around the tiny island. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows the startling white-sand beaches on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. The beaches are an easy draw for travelers, though getting into the cold water above your ankles in cooler weather takes some courage _ and a squeal. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows Loch Coruisk, a lake on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, as seen from the vantage point of a 15-mile round-trip trail. But the freshwater lake is just steps from the sea, so when the weather is clear, a boat trip to the lake is possible from elsewhere on the coast of Skye. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows the Inveroran Hotel in Inveroran, Scotland. It’s a charming old hotel convenient as a lodging for hikers on the West Highland Way. Local fishermen who regularly dine here sometimes provide the salmon served in the restaurant. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

  • This October 2013 photo shows the summit of Ben Nevis, near Fort William, Scotland. At 4,400 feet, it's the highest mountain in all of Britain. In foggy conditions, it takes a half-hour or more to emerge from the clouds as you descend the trail. (AP Photo/Cara Anna)

TARBERT, Scotland: I don’t have much to tell you about Scotland, really. It’s true, they have whiskey, and kilts, and some people speak with an accent so thick that you wonder whether you’re hearing English or Gaelic. All of that’s fun. But I’m just here to tell you about the walks I took.If you’ve heard anything about the weather in Scotland, you’ve heard the word “wet.” Or perhaps “boggy.” Or “ever changing.” These conditions make even more impressive the large collection of footpaths that are the best way to explore the stunning countryside.

The most famous one is the West Highland Way, a 150-kilometer trail from Glasgow into the remote and moody Highlands. It ends shortly past the foot of the highest mountain in the U.K., Ben Nevis, which can be walked up and down as a day hike, if you’re fit. Near the summit, I saw small children and dogs.

The way was my appetizer for more walks to come. I did its northern half, skipping the lowland part of the hike and heading straight into the landscape so heart-skippingly shown in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.” It’s easy; there are hotels or hostels at every stage, and even baggage transport service.

The single most useful tool for planning walks in Scotland is the popular website WalkHighlands.com. The site breaks down dozens of trails, with frank talk about muddy or risky conditions. It also links to that other essential tool, ordnance survey topographical maps.

And then there are the photos. WalkHighlands does what other trail guides don’t: It shows what the scenery looks like at several different stages of each walk. Before leaving for Scotland, I spent hours clicking through trails and shopping for landscapes.

That’s how I came across the path to a place called Rhenigidale.

It looked like a modest walk, just about 8 kilometers long, but the details that emerged made it more and more intriguing. It seemed the tiny seaside village in the string of islands called the Outer Hebrides had a hostel, one that didn’t take advance bookings but rarely would turn anyone away, especially if they arrived on foot.

It seemed so remote, somehow so unlikely, that I emailed to make sure. The reply was prompt. “The hostel door is never closed,” Peter Clarke, the chair of something called the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust, replied. “You may put your overnight fees in cash, or by check, in the honesty box. If it is not in the hostel, the warden usually visits in the morning and early evening.”

To this triple-locked New Yorker, it had the whiff of a fairy tale.

The next sign that I might be on to something came in an article by British author Robert Macfarlane, who has written movingly about nature and exploring it on foot. He called the winding old postman’s path to Rhenigidale, its only land route to the outside world until a road was completed in 1989, “one of the most beautiful paths I know.”

And once in Scotland, after finishing the West Highland Way and happily making day hikes around the Isle of Skye, I found that speaking of Rhenigidale could have a profound effect. One especially excited bus driver nearly ran off the road. A hostel manager beamed and confided, “No tourist has mentioned that for months!”

There’s something satisfying in taking a vacation and actually getting away from it all. As my ferry left Skye for the Outer Hebrides, it was decided: No Internet. No phone, even if it had signal. After the ferry docked in the village of Tarbert, I bought simple provisions at a small grocery – oats, tea and lentils – because Rhenigidale has no shops, just a handful of homes. And the next day, Sunday, everything on the stoutly Protestant island would be closed, except the churches.

The path soon split from the paved road out of Tarbert and climbed into the low, stony hills. It eventually topped a rise, and there was the sea, which the track began to follow. There were ruined stone houses, the snuffling of porpoises and rabbits skittering out of sight. It’s a lovely place to watch for the aurora borealis, and the stars.

In my two days at the hostel, no one appeared but the friendly warden, Kate Langley, who lives with her husband and children across the road. She knelt in the cozy sitting room of faded maps and cushioned chairs and lit the coal stove. On a little radio, BBC Scotland played bagpipe music and folk songs.

I almost wished for a pipe and slippers. I spent a startling amount of time just standing outside with a mug of tea.

The modest Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust also runs two other rustic hostels in stellar locations for those who wander through the islands, many of them by bike in the bracing winds. Some say the repurposed farmhouse on the small island of Berneray is the best, with its front doors and outdoor benches just a few steps from the sea. But there’s no pilgrimage-like approach, since the public bus service stops a couple minutes’ walk away.

The third hostel, on the island of South Uist, is next to a ruined churchyard and a short walk from the Atlantic, past rich stretches of colorful machair, or shell-sand and wildflowers. The hostels make excellent bases for walks on sprawling white-sand beaches and climbs of the nearby hills. In the summer tourist season, the islands bloom with galleries, B&Bs and local seafood.

While the Gatliff hostels don’t have the perks of more traditional getaways, notably laundry or the drying rooms that many places have for wet gear, each has the essentials – full kitchens, heat, electricity and hot water. That’s in addition to simplicity, a sense of place and stunning, changing skies.

“Three weeks ... in Scotland?” more than one person had asked, with a touch of doubt. Absolutely.

If You Go...

WALKHIGHLANDS: walkhighlands.co.uk

GATLIFF HEBRIDEAN HOSTELS TRUST: www.gatliff.org.uk

WEST HIGHLAND WAY: www.west-highland-way.co.uk

 
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Summary

I'm just here to tell you about the walks I took.If you've heard anything about the weather in Scotland, you've heard the word "wet".

These conditions make even more impressive the large collection of footpaths that are the best way to explore the stunning countryside.

The single most useful tool for planning walks in Scotland is the popular website WalkHighlands.com.

Before leaving for Scotland, I spent hours clicking through trails and shopping for landscapes.

Once in Scotland, after finishing the West Highland Way and happily making day hikes around the Isle of Skye, I found that speaking of Rhenigidale could have a profound effect.

In my two days at the hostel, no one appeared but the friendly warden, Kate Langley, who lives with her husband and children across the road.

On a little radio, BBC Scotland played bagpipe music and folk songs.

The hostels make excellent bases for walks on sprawling white-sand beaches and climbs of the nearby hills.


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