My three Venture North blog posts have coincided with the seasons changing around us. I started writing in late spring, as the cumulus of yellow gorse were fading, making space for the lush green of bracken. The next piece was written in late summer when an early and lusciously rich bloom of heather turned the landscape into a sea of purple with the rowan trees just starting their incredible annual display of vibrant red berries. Now, in November, the colours have changed once more. I look out onto our forever changing croft to indulge in the yellow gold displayed by the larches just about hanging on to the last of their needles and the rich bronze-brown of the winter bracken. My all time favourite winter colours on the croft are the hundreds of birches that cover the hillsides - their skeletal silver-white trunks and boughs blending into those wonderful purple tops that glow a vibrant burgundy in the low winter sun.
Given the myriad of colours you will see throughout the year, what better theme for my third and last post than that of diversity and variety - of seasons, activities and experiences.
Let’s start with the seasons because I don’t have to look further than the road that runs alongside the bottom of our croft, part of the North Coast 500’s Drumbeg loop, to see that it has gone much more quiet over the last few weeks. The steady flow of visitors has given way to a trickle since early November. Lochinver’s main street is quiet in the afternoons and an impromptu mid-day visit to Achmelvich Beach comes with a good chance to have the whole expanse of pristine white coral sand all to ourselves.
So, is ours just a spring-to-autumn destination, ‘closed’ for winter? Or is it worth venturing north ‘off-season’? What will you see, whom will you meet, what to expect?
This being my 9th winter of living in Assynt I can definitely say it’s worth coming, although it will inevitably be a very different experience from what you would enjoy earlier in the year. For everything you win you will lose something. The nearly 20 hours of daylight that are so characteristic for spring and summer will shrink to about 8. How can that be a good deal? Well, have you ever tried to get up early for a sunrise in June or fallen asleep before getting anywhere close to the hint of sunset in July? No problem at all at this time of the year when you can enjoy a leisurely holiday-lie-in and still wake up to stunning shades of orange and pink. If you are lucky the sky will treat you to another display of colours at sunset, on a wide (nearly) empty beach.
Because there is no need to get up extra early during your holiday you can afford to stay up late to enjoy the starry nights, quite possibly just outside your accommodation, or in one of our designated Dark Sky locations. If you live in any area with a lot of light pollution, or are used to just the normal luxury of streetlights, you will be amazed by the awe inspiring experience of looking up at the milky way and the vast expanse of stars. Some of you might even be in for one of those very special treats - the merry dancers of the Aurora borealis that is gracing our nights skies every so often with stunning displays of colours and movements.
I mentioned accommodation - Assynt, like other areas in the North, is still open for visitors, although many hotels, hostels and B&Bs take a winter break. Winter closure offers a well deserved pause for staff working for months without a break, but also reflects an economic need as lower visitor numbers inevitably result in downscaling resources. But as a winter visitor, with a bit of research you will find those offering winter beds, and there is definitely an ample supply of self-catering options, enabling you to create your very own home-away-from home in the Highlands. Whilst there will be less choice of restaurants and eating-out options you can still treat yourselves to a special night out, and if you have opted for self-catering, our varied local produce can still provide a wonderful taste of the area.
Touring the North from late autumn to early spring definitely requires planning, as you would not want to be caught out without a place to stay or eat during the long winter nights. But then isn’t planning sometimes the real fun part of travel, helping to build up anticipation? Traditional guide books still offer valuable tips, which you can supplement by the wealth of information available online resources, provided by Venture North, Discover Assynt and other organisations.
Whatever the season is you come to see us, there will be plenty to see and do. Which brings me neatly to another aspect of variety - the winter sights and activities. If you have read some of the previous blog articles, and seen images of the far North you will probably remember some big, if not overwhelming landscapes like majestic Suilven and the wide open beaches of the North. You will have seen images of summit camps and canoeing on remote lochs, mountaineers tackling one, two three peaks a day. Sea kayaks exploring the coastline and islands, snorkeling and fishing expeditions. Touring bikes all the way up from Lands End or just out on a day trip and resilient walkers on the Cape Wrath Trail. In my first blog post I declared that it’s perfectly enjoyable to explore the North on a driving holiday, but I also encouraged you to leave the car and explore. So what kind of explorer does it take, the hardcore mountaineer and adventure tourist? Or is there a middle ground for those simply keen to explore our wild north without going to extremes?
Indeed there is. For every big, fast, strenuous adventure in Assynt there is always a small, easy, leisurely adventure to go with it. Let’s start with the mountains - by all means summit them, but if you are not the hiking or mountaineering type, they still offer an amazing experience if explored from the bottom. There are paths that take you right close to them or give you amazing vistas. Other paths will take you to magic, secret places. We have a wealth of waterfalls, regularly topped up by rain (even rain has its benefits!) and some of them easily accessible without needing to venture too far off the beaten track, like Kirkaig Falls. If you want to stretch a bit further than ‘just walking’ why not explore along one of the ‘peat tracks’, right into the heart of the wilderness?
Many will associate the North-West Highlands in particular with wide open heathland and rocky coastal stretches, and whilst that describes the majority of our landscapes there are small pockets of lush green too. I mentioned Culag Woods in my first blog post as one of the places with which I fell in love with on my first visit and it has remained a firm favourite. It’s another of our very special microcosms, bringing together a variety of fauna and flora in one very special area. Long before I first read about Japanese ‘Forest bathing’ I loved slowly and leisurely exploring these woods, indulging in the amazing richness and lush of moss, the varied lichen, trees and fungi in the autumn. Stretching down all the way to the coastline the area marries woods and sea, with several pebbly beaches dotted along its boundaries. Often visitors in our area are on dedicated quests to spot something ‘special’ - dolphins, whales, otters or golden eagles - it’s quite possibly to see all of them, but don’t get too hung up on what special means. There’s a very special bog in Culag Woods for example, which is a paradise for dragonflies, fascinating to observe in their habitat. Or visit in the evening, listening for the hoots of the Tawny Owls that were encouraged to nest in the woods. And there are the magic huge Grey Herons of course - it’s awe inspiring to see them swoop into their nests at the top of the tallest spruce trees near the harbour during nesting season.
Our little corner of the Highlands caters for all tastes in accommodation and food too. From luxury and boutique hotels with Britain’s most northern Michelin star restaurant, to self-catering properties and welcoming B&Bs, hostels and bunkhouses, there is choice whatever you like best. If you love camping,waking up and looking down on the clouds from the top of Suilven might be magic, but there are many more easily accessible corners for wild camping that make you feel you are in the middle of nowhere. Even if you don’t camp wild there is a variety of options. If you travel in a campervan pull over and spend the night at a scenic spot, or pick one of our amazing campsites located on the best beaches like Clachtoll or Achmelvich. And in Clachtoll you can even go for luxury glamping in The Little Abodes - jacuzzi with a sea view included!
The sea is never far away in Assynt and offers visitors so many options. The Scottish Wildlife Trust initiated the North-West Highland Snorkel Trail earlier this year with nine fantastic snorkelling sites along Scotland's north west coast. So get your wetsuit ready in search for fish, crustaceans, snails and starfish to name but a few. Prefer to stay above the waterline? No problem! For the adventurous, get one of the sea-kayaking guides to take you out, or if you prefer freshwater then opt for a trip in a canadian canoe along the big lochs or try your hand at fly fishing from one of the dozens of rowing boats available. For a more gentle experience, you could go on one of the boat trips that Inver Cruises offers - dolphin sightings are common throughout the summer months and very exciting.
Those who prefer to stay on firm ground can opt for a stroll along the beach, looking for shells or gazing into the amazing rock pools along the shore. They are beautiful windows into a marine world, with a wealth of creatures and sea weeds living and thriving between the tides. Talking of beaches, even there few are alike. There are white shell sand beaches reminding you of the caribbean, or the more amber shades of the sandstone sand beaches. And not to forget the rocky beaches, with the most incredible array of rock types of all shades and colours, a great demonstration of the varied geology of the area. Ever since our son was little(r) his favourite outing was to Kirkaig Beach, turning over rocks to look for butterfish and crabs. At the age of 7 this is still a firm favourite and as a family we’ve all learned to love the ‘crab hunt’, with the shrieks of “That one’s a nipper!” when we find a bigger specimen! Personally I love that very beach for its amazing colours …when the sun shines onto the pebbles and seaweed covered by just an inch of crystal-clear water, it creates the most magical kaleidoscope of living colours. Living here as a young family has very much opened our eyes for all that’s on offer. From being very outdoor-active we went to accommodating a baby, then a toddler (baby carrier backpacks - great!), then a very slow walking young child, building up speed and stamina. We are now just starting the more ‘serious’ walks and more remote wild camping or bothy trips.
I hope you are persuaded to come and explore the diversity of experiences that Venturing North, to Assynt and beyond, offers Our region is as much a paradise for those looking for adrenaline rush and strenuous activity as it is for those who are simply looking for a relaxing and rejuvenating holiday amongst stunning scenery. Why not mix and match, bring your family - young and old, or mix a few of those ambitious outdoor days with some easy ones?
And even if you think there’s no way to beat the views from the top of Suilven - have a go at gazing into a rockpool with the eyes of a child - you might be surprised!
Photo Credits: Monika Strell, Chris Puddephatt, Tim Hamlet. Louise Tunstall