St Kilda

A few weeks ago, I fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition and visited the remote North Atlantic archipelago of St Kilda. As a young woman, I read The Life and Death of St Kilda, by Tom Steel, and ever since I have wanted to go there. This year, to celebrate my 60th birthday my friends and family contributed to the costs of the trip.

St Kilda

For most people, a trip to St Kilda will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s not an easy place to get to and can be quite expensive but, for me, it was everything I hoped for and more. Remote, dramatic, haunting and beautiful, the memories will stay with me forever.

St Kilda, a World Heritage Site, is a remote group of volcanic islands 40 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides and almost 100 miles out in the North Atlantic from the Scottish mainland. It consists of four islands, Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray, whose spectacular sea cliffs and stacks are home to one of the most important seabird colonies in Europe and the largest population of gannets in the world.

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History

For me, it is the human history of St Kilda that captured my imagination. Until the early 1900’s, a small community of between 100 and 200 people had lived there for around 2000 years. Their main source of food and fuel was the seabird population, and they were extraordinarily skilled climbers, scaling the towering cliff faces to hunt birds and gather their eggs. Life was unimaginably hard for the small community and it became even harder in the 19th and 20th centuries as contact with the outside world increased. The population dwindled, due in part to the introduction of previously unknown diseases, and in part to members of the community emigrating overseas in search of a better life. They gradually became less self-sufficient and more and more dependent on supplies from the mainland. In 1930 only 30 islanders remained only seven of whom were able bodied. The people were starving, and the decision was made to evacuate.

Today, the tiny village remains as it was when it was abandoned. A curved row of little cottages overlooking the bay, the church, the school and the store and over 1000 stone storage huts known as cleits, that are scattered all over the islands. The only people who live on the island now are the National Trust wardens and a handful of Ministry of Defence staff, conservation workers and scientific researchers.

Getting There

We decided to use Harris, in the Outer Hebrides as our base. Because the trip is dependent on weather conditions, it is essential to book provisionally for two consecutive days, increasing the chances of your trip going ahead on at least one of these. We decided to stay on Harris for a week to increase our chances even further. There had to be at least one day out of seven that the weather would be kind to us.

We arrived on the Saturday and settled into our little Air B&B cottage for the weekend, before our trip on either Monday or Tuesday. The weather on Sunday took a serious turn for the worst, and it was no real surprise when we got an early phone call to say our trip was scheduled for Tuesday.

Monday was actually a beautiful day on Harris and we were a little perplexed as to why our trip had not gone ahead that day. Warm sunshine and cloudless blue skies from dawn till dusk. Turquoise blue waters and endless empty white beaches. If it wasn’t for the stiff breeze, and lack of people, it could have been the Caribbean. The stiff breeze, however, was the real reason our trip had been postponed. Boats are not allowed to dock on St Kilda in case they introduce alien rodents into the unique and delicate ecosystem. Visitors must therefore transfer to a small dinghy to reach the shore. In windy conditions, as we later discovered, the swell in Village Bay can make this a risky exercise, and sometimes albeit impossible.

There are a few companies that offer tours to St Kilda. We chose Kilda Cruises, based on Harris and run by Angus Campbell and his family. One of the crew called us on Monday evening to tell us the trip was almost definitely going ahead the next day. They had been having problems with windy conditions over the previous few weeks, and Angus was taking a run out to check the situation, before it could be confirmed.

A trip to St Kilda with Kilda Cruises costs £225 per person. Boats leave about 8am and return about 8pm. The 45-mile journey takes about three hours. Kilda Cruises have two boats, Orca III and Hirta. We travelled on Hirta, a fast and comfortable 55-foot motor cruiser with inside and outside seating for 12 passengers. You need to dress for all eventualities. The North Atlantic is an extreme and unpredictable environment. Warm layers, waterproofs and sturdy footwear are essential. You’ll need to take enough food for the day, and plenty of water, as there are no cafes or convenience shops on St Kilda. Cameras and binoculars go without saying.

The Trip

We joined the Hirta with our 10 fellow adventurers at Leverburgh Pier just before 8am as planned. We were excited when it was confirmed that conditions were sufficiently improved, and we would definitely be travelling. We settled in and, following a short briefing and a few introductions, we were on our way. I don’t know much about boats but the Hirta felt like a sturdy craft that could handle whatever the elements had to throw at her.

There were three crew members on board. Angus and his deputy skipper (whose Gaelic sounding name I am ashamed to say I did not catch) and Neil, the Kilda Cruises equivalent of cabin crew. Under Angus’s watchful eye, the deputy, (let’s called him Hugh for sake of argument) steered the boat and Neil looked after the passengers. All the crew seemed to be ex-fishermen. They managed to strike the perfect balance between relaxed informality and quiet competence. Tucked in behind our little tables, browsing information about the islands and their wildlife, we all felt completely safe in their more than capable hands.

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The only thing that could possibly spoil your trip to St Kilda could be seasickness. Even on a good day, the North Atlantic swell is formidable, and it wasn’t long before several of the passengers were making good use of extra-large disposable beakers on our tables. I had anticipated this as a possibility and had taken some prophylactic anti-sickness medication. My “macho” partner had declined my offer and let’s just say he lived to regret it and leave it there. When they said Neil would look after our every need they were not kidding. He was wiping up vomit, dishing out tissues and emptying beakers for the entire journey.

About halfway into the journey, with Harris long out of sight behind us, Angus pointed out the faint outline of Boreray, and the stacks, looming on the far horizon. Out there, with nothing but the dark rolling ocean around us for as far as our eyes could see, it’s hard to find words to describe how mysterious they appeared as they arose from the water. A few seabirds came out to greet us, growing in numbers the closer we got. Fulmars, gannets and petrels soaring and gliding alongside the boat, guillemots and puffins bobbing and diving on the surface. There was no doubt in my mind that we were now entering their world.

Hirta

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The majority of our time at St Kilda, was spent on Hirta, the main island. As anticipated, the transfer to the shore was precarious as the boat and the dinghy pitched in the swell, but it all added to the sense of adventure. We were met by the warden, who gave us a brief introduction to the layout of the island, some safety advice and some suggestions as to how to spend our four hours there. After being advised to be back to the pier by 3.30pm, we were free to wander at our leisure.

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Hirta, is essentially a wide, horseshoe shaped, natural amphitheatre that encircles a bay. The old village consists of a small row of cottages that follows the natural curve of the slope a few hundred metres above the water. Wild Soay sheep, unique to the islands, roam between the dozens of cleits that litter the slopes and surrounding hillsides. Apart from the bleating of the sheep and the calls of the seabirds it is almost silent. The island is surprisingly green and, at first glance, its slopes deceptively gentle. However, behind the cottages a rough footpath, known as The Gap, rises to the top of the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom. The moderately strenuous hike up ends abruptly at the terrifying edge of a sheer drop into the churning ocean below.

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As well as climbing The Gap, we spent our time on Hirta exploring the abandoned village and browsing the exhibits in one of the cottages that has been converted to a tiny but highly informative museum. Later, we ate our picnic sitting on the bench outside, basking in the afternoon sunshine, before a quick obligatory visit to the little gift shop run by the wardens, followed by tea and homemade cake back onboard the Hirta.

Boreray and The Stacks

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Before heading back to Harris we sailed around the archipelago for an hour or so, taking in the magnificence of Boreray and the stacks, and their multitude of squawking feathered residents. This was the most spectacular part of the trip for me. Rough, dark seas, waves crashing and frothing against the bases of vast towering rocks. Rocks that rival the world’s tallest buildings in height but far surpass them in rugged magnificence, their peaks rising into skies that teem with millions of seabirds.

We finally headed home around 4.30pm, proverbially, rosy cheeked, tired and happy. Those who had suffered on the way out were suitably dosed up and calmer seas meant everyone was able to enjoy the return journey, and the added bonus of several sightings of different types of dolphin and a very special encounter with a young male Orca. The day was complete with a plate of the best fish and chips I’ve eaten for a long time, washed down with a glass of Skye Gold, at the Anchorage in Leverburgh.

If you want to read more about St Kilda I would recommend any of the following:

(click on the image for a link to Amazon)

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Discover the real Barbados!

Are you one of the many people who have visited Barbados for a holiday and, in the usual way, booked your trip through a travel agent and spent a couple of weeks in an all-inclusive, beach-front resort hotel?

IMG_0171We’ve been regular visitors to Barbados for over a decade now and it saddens me when I hear people say they have been to the island, but have rarely ventured beyond the confines of their hotel. Barbados is a country with a rich and interesting history and culture. There is much more to experience there, than simply lying on the beach all day. The local people are hugely proud of their beautiful island and are warm and welcoming to visitors who make the effort to explore its charms.

If you’re thinking of visiting Barbados and want to see more than the view from your sun-bed, taste some real Bajan food and drink, meet Bajan people and have a totally authentic Caribbean experience, why not think about travelling independently? It’s easy, fun and safe and, better still, can be less expensive than the typical all-inclusive package.

Getting There

British Airways and Virgin fly direct to Barbados every day from Gatwick, and Virgin now operate flights from Heathrow on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Expect to pay between £500 and £600 per person for a return flight, but sometimes more in peak periods. It is possible to pay less with some of the budget airlines if you are prepared to make a couple of stops. However, by the time you have paid extra for your seat, your bags and food and entertainment for the eight hour journey, these apparent savings are often diminished.

When to Visit

IMG_0223People often ask what time of year is the best to visit Barbados? Personally, I’d be happy to visit Barbados at any time of year. The temperatures are constant, in the high twenties all year round. Being a tropical island, rain showers are common all year but rarely troublesome enough to drive you indoors. The official wet season is between June and December and the dry season during our winter, between January and May, which is the peak tourist season. However, prices can be high and the island busy during the dry season, and it’s sometimes worth risking the odd shower or two to get a better deal.

The Crop-Over Festival begins in July and reaches its peak in August, and this is when the island is at its busiest and prices at their highest. This is the period that we tend to avoid but, if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind the crowds, Crop-Over is a vibrant and colourful spectacle that revellers travel from all over the world to take part in.

Accommodation

There are a multitude of villas and apartments available to rent all over the island. We prefer to use websites that allow you to book private properties directly through the owner, avoiding the additional fees and charges that come with booking through a travel company or agent. A good place to start is www.homeaway.com. We have been using them for years, have stayed in some beautiful properties and have never been disappointed.

Where to Stay

So, where on the island should you stay? There are three distinctly different areas to choose from.

The luxurious and expensive west coast is where most people head on their first visit. It’s easy to see why. Calm turquoise seas, white sandy beaches and a plethora of luxury hotels and high-end shops and restaurants, combine to make a popular playground for the rich and famous. The downside is that it can be crowded, and drinks and food are a bit pricey compared to other areas.

The south coast is the other main tourist area but is less expensive than the west. The capital, Bridgetown, is situated on the south coast and the area is considerably more built up and crowded than other parts of the island. It has its merits though, including a good choice of shops, bars and restaurants. If you are going to Barbados for the nightlife, the south coast is the place for you.

We have fallen in love with the wild and rugged beauty of the Atlantic east coast. The north east is remote and impractical for shopping, eating out and getting around the island, but the south east corner is ideally located for the airport and the main road network. Rental accommodation is plentiful and reasonably priced. A three-bedroomed villa with a private pool can cost between £2000 and £3000 for two weeks, depending on the time of year and the location.

Getting Around

Without a doubt, to see the best of Barbados you’ll need to hire a car. This can be expensive, usually around £500 per week, so we prefer to shop around and book in advance online, often opting for one of the smaller, family run businesses like MAH Cars who provide more flexibility and a personal service. You can pick up your car at the airport but most companies will deliver to your accommodation when convenient, avoiding that stressful jet-lagged journey from the airport on unfamiliar roads.

Self-Catering

IMG_0139The joy of a self-catering holiday for us is the opportunity to make the most of the local produce. One of the first things we do after we arrive is take a trip down to the fish market at Oistins. You can buy a whole Mahi Mahi (known as Dolphin in Barbados), Tuna, Shark or Swordfish, depending on what the catch brought in that day, and get the fish monger to fillet it and cut it into steaks for you, for about £20. Pick up some home-grown vegetables at one of the roadside stalls and pop into the local supermarket for some Bajan staples and a bottle of Mount Gay rum and you will eat and drink like locals.

Eating Out

If you fancy a break from cooking and, let’s face it, washing up, there is no shortage of places to eat out. But please, try some of the local eateries that serve traditional Bajan food and are much better value that some of the international restaurants. Some of our favourite places include:
Oistins Fish Fry – next to the fish market, several open-air food stalls serve freshly grilled fish, rice n’peas, coleslaw and macaroni pie. On Friday and Saturdays the entertainment here goes on until the wee hours. (average £10 p.p.)
Fishermans Pub – situated in Speightstown up on the north west coast, this little seafront establishment serves delicious Bajan food day and night in a “rustic” environment. (average £10 p.p.)
Atlantis Hotel – for a special treat why not try their Sunday traditional West Indian buffet in an elegant setting with stunning views over the wild Atlantic. (average £30 p.p.)

Beaches

The west coast is famous for its white sandy beaches but there are beautiful beaches all over Barbados. We love these two in particular:
• Miami Beach – on the south east corner near Oistins and, while frequented by the locals, never crowded – this is our absolute favourite. It has everything – soft sand, calm seas, shady trees, and a food van that serves rum punch and flying fish sandwiches.
• Foul Bay – an absolutely stunning east coast paradise. Usually deserted and unsuitable for swimming due to the rough seas, this is wonderful place for a walk or simply basking in the sun taking in the power and beauty of the ocean.

Things to See and Do

IMG_0456Apart from beaches, the list of other things to do in Barbados is endless. Here are just a few suggestions:
• Races – have a day out at the Bridgetown Races on selected Saturdays
• Drive In –enjoy two movies for £5 at the outdoor cinema near Christchurch
• Seaside walks – all beaches are public access in Barbados. Walk the south coast Boardwalk or the west coast beaches from Paynes Bay to Holetown. Pop into the sea to cool off, or stop for an ice cold beer whenever the mood takes you.
• Catamaran Trip – no trip to Barbados is complete without a catamaran trip. Morning or afternoon excursions include unlimited rum punch, a Bajan buffet and swimming with turtles. One of the best is http://www.coolrunningsbarbados.com

So why not give it go? Experience the real Barbados! Have an authentic experience, save money and support the islands’ economy at the same time. Go independent on your next trip to this wonderful island!