Vast sandy beaches, flowers of the machair, a bike ride you won't forget
Harris and Lewis, though named seperately are a single island. Harris is the southern part, Lewis is in the north. Lewis is mostly open moorland, Harris is mountainous but very scenic, the east coast is rocky. The west coast is flatter, with vast sandy beaches. While Harris is hillier than Lewis it is more scenic and you should try to find time to cycle right round South Harris. If however you are going north, and are faced with the choice of cycling up the west coast or the east coast the west is probably the best choice - it's certainly less hilly!
Harris Tweed is cloth that has been handwoven by the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra in their homes, using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. This is the definition of Harris Tweed contained in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 and it ensures that all cloth certified with the Harris Tweed Orb symbol complies with this definition and is genuine Harris Tweed, the world's only commercially produced handwoven tweed. For centuries the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra have woven the cloth: Clo Mhor in the original Gaelic- 'The big cloth'. As the Industrial Revolution reached Scotland, the mainland turned to mechanisation but the Outer Islands retained their traditional processes. Lewis and Harris had long been known for the excellence of the weaving done there, but up to the middle of the nineteenth century, the cloth was produced mainly for home use or for a local market. Nowadays of course it is exported all over the world. More of the cloth is in fact produced in Lewis but you can still see Harris tweed being woven in Harris on the west coast at Luskentyre - take the dead end road off to Luskentyre beach to get to them: Luskentyre Harris Tweed Co. tel: 01859 550261.
The Outer Hebrides are noteable for numerous lochs. Some of these are brackish and others are dark and acidic, water lillies are quite common and many have populations of trout and charr. Birds include dunlin, redshank, plover, lapwing and the islands are the last stronghold of the corncrake. Nearly every beach seems to have a population of sandpipers. The islands are formed on the oldest exposed rock in the world, Lewisian Gneiss. This is grey coloured with bands of white and dark minerals contorted by the pressure of the earth. These were formed over 3000 million years ago, similar rocks are found today in Canada to which this part of Scotland was once joined.
Possibly the best place to arrive in Harris is at Leverburgh. Called after soap magnate Lord Leverhulme, it's nothing special, but you will have come from North Uist via lovely Berneray. Ahead on the west is a vast stretch of shell sand: Scarista Beach. The road on the west coast of South Harris is not too hilly, running through the machair. You pass the island of Taransay, recently the site for the BBC television programme 'Castaway'. Shortly after this there is a steady climb of about three miles. At the end of the climb the road turns north again going directly to Tarbert.
If you'd like to get a flavour of the east coast turn right at the top of the hill and go to Tarbert via the Golden Road. Along the way you'll pass a place where you can see Harris Tweed being woven. The east coast of Harris is rocky and barren but with little coves and hundreds of small lochans full of water lillies. At the south end is St Clement's Church at Rodel. Dating from the 16th century it has some outstanding medieval stone carvings. The east coast road twists and turns past small hamlets perched on the Lewisian gneiss that these islands are made from - the oldest exposed rock in Europe. It is rarely flat. At Ardvey on Loch Stockinish you can turn east to cycle to Tarbert via the Golden Road or keep on the main road for a more direct route.
Tarbert, the terminal for the Skye ferry, has B&Bs, shops, several hotels, an independent hostel, and a tourist information office (01859-502011). An interesting place to stay is at Rhenigadale on Loch Seaforth. This was once the most remote community in Britain, accessible only by sea or over a hill track. There is a croft-type hostel in the village (no phone, no advance booking). The overland route is now a road which makes it easier to get there. There is plenty to explore around North Harris. Go along the side of West Loch Tarbert . Several rough tracks, passable on a mountain bike, lead north into the remote mountains of North Harris (restrictions in stalking season).