Many of us jet abroad on our holidays in search of sun, sea and sand. Yet it is possible to find glorious beaches, crystal-clear blue seas and stunning countryside much closer to home.
The Outer Hebrides, a collection of islands just off the west coast of Scotland, boasts wild and rugged landscapes alongside miles of white sands and sparkling waters. It's a great place for walking, diving, surfing, or just taking in the breathtaking views.
Where to go?
If you've got two weeks to spend, an island-hopping holiday is the way to go, as ferries run regularly between the islands. As an initial base, the Outer Hebrides' biggest town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis is ideal. Not only can you take in the extraordinary Callanish Standing Stones, it's also worth stopping for a spot of mouth-watering seafood, or getting some bracing sea air on Uig Sands. The Atlantic coastline also makes for some of the UK's best surfing.
From Lewis, you can drive across the thin strip of land to Harris, famous for its tweed. Spectacular beaches once again await, but it's also a great place for wildlife spotters, boasting golden eagles and buzzards, grey seals, otters, the native Eriskay pony, and it's worth taking a boat trip as sightings of bottlenose dolphins, minke whales and basking sharks are certainly not unheard of.
The island of Barra, meanwhile, is a must for beach lovers. At Cockle Strand, you'll find miles of beautiful white sands and azure waters, which you'll often get entirely to yourself, while Vatersay is also well worth a visit. From Barra, head to the Uists. North Uist is once again home to long, white beaches, as well as an RSPB nature reserve, where migrating birds, otters and seals are regular sights. If you're a keen walker, head for the Ben Langass stone circle, where you can marvel at the incredible views of this rugged landscape.
The Hebrides offer a wide variety of activities for a range of interests, so whether it's golf, cycling, walking, or fishing, wildlife spotting or simply cruising the islands, there is certainly plenty to keep visitors entertained.
Where to stay
From guesthouses and B&Bs to hotels and holiday cottages, the Outer Hebrides are well-equipped for tourists. Depending on your particular interests, you may find that designing your own tailormade holiday is the best way, and the Visit Scotland website is a great way to find accommodation of all types in your chosen locations. Alternatively, take the stress out of arranging your break by letting a holiday company do the hard work. Try the likes of Hart Holidays, Hebridean Hopscotch Holidays or McKinlay Kidd for a one-stop shop that can organise your tour of the islands to your specifications.
Depending on where you live, getting to the Hebrides can mean a long drive. However, cheap flights are available both to the islands and between the larger isles, so it is worth checking prices. As mentioned ferries are readily available to take you between the islands, with some firms offering 'hopscotch' multi-ticket discounts. If you have arrived by air, it is worth considering car hire, which gives you the freedom to travel around the stunning countryside.
When to go
Scotland is not renowned for its guaranteed good weather, and whenever you go, it can be very changeable. However, mid-April to June usually guarantees the best of the weather - May tends to be the most reliable month, while June has the advantage of longer days. If you're willing to brave some serious wind and aren't worried about the cold, however, a winter trip provides some spectacular sights.
Have you taken a break in the Outer Hebrides? What would you recommend seeing or doing? Leave your comments below...