Barra has been on aviation enthusiasts’ bucket lists for decades. And still, there are new #avgeeks (like myself) who only managed to tick this one off just now. Well, just ‘ticking it off’ doesn’t do this journey justice.
What started as a nerdy trip for the sake of a special flight turned into a beautiful micro holiday – one I wish it would have lasted a little longer.
And yes, it’s totally manageable as a side trip while in London or other parts of the UK.
You’ll find many reviews only focussing on the quirks of the flight, so I’ll try to expand a little on the beauty that is Barra. In case you haven’t heard of Barra yet or just never ever thought of going – read on!
The Isles of Barra and Vatersay, home to roughly 1,200 people, are the most southerly inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland. A place that wouldn’t have been on my list if it weren’t for the flight. A big mistake as I found out later.
Isle of Barra: Getting there
Okay, I couldn’t write an article about Barra without talking about the flights at all. It’s a special flight landing at a truly unique airport. Or should I say beach?
Well, same same really, as Barra’s airport has no tarmac; planes land directly on the beach which makes BRR the only airport in the world where scheduled commercial flights use a tidal beach as the runway.
There’s only one (air-)route to Barra and that’s via Glasgow. Scotland’s flag carrier, Loganair, operates up to two flights per day using three beautiful Twin Otter turboprops, two 7 year old Series 400 and a 42 years old Series 300.
The flights don’t come cheap though and a can go up to £160 (about $220) for a return trip. While you won’t get any special amenities, snacks or drinks, you get amazing views and, even if you’re only a little interested in aviation, you’ll be rewarded with views straight into the flight deck.
Seating is an interesting one with only 19 seats on board. You’ve got 7 rows, mostly in a 1-2 configuration, although they currently seem to block a seat each row. While you might be able to select row 1: Don’t. It’s used by the pilots for storage and you’ll likely be moved once boarded. You also get much better cockpit views from row 2, which I went for.
Be warned if you haven’t flown on a Twin Otter before: They are really-really loud and I appreciated my noise cancelling headphones even more than usual.
Due to the flight schedules and to remove the risk of missing a flight I decided to arrive in Glasgow a night in advance and stay at the Courtyard Glasgow Airport, a 10 minute walk away from the terminal.
A final word on the flights: Watch out for bad weather as flights might get cancelled. I lucked out to be on the first flight out to Barra after three straight days of cancellations due to fog.
Where to stay On Barra
Barra offers a range of options from campsites to B&Bs and semi-upscale hotels.
There are a handful of campsites on Barra and I spotted many camper vans on the roads. If this is your turf, the one in Borve on the west side looked particularly pleasing – right by a beautiful white beach.
I decided to stay in a hotel. As far as my research went, there are basically four options for you: The Castlebay Hotel or the Craigard hotel, both in the south in Castlebay; the Isle of Barra Beach hotel in the west; and the Heathbank hotel in the north-east. They all share a Google rating around 4 out of 5 stars.
Based on availability, I chose a sea-view room at the Craigard, which came at a £145 price tag, breakfast included. Not necessarily an absolute bargain given the basic-ness of the room but seemed on par with the other options and the season.
If I were to go again, I’d probably look to the Isle of Barra Beach hotel as it’s right by (yep, you’ve guessed it) a beautiful beach. They also have four e-bikes which can be taken out for a ride at no extra costs according to their website, something to be factored in if you follow my first tip. First tip? Glad you asked!
Here are my top three tips to make the most out of your stay on Barra.
Get yourself a bike
There are a few options to get around Barra. You could book a tour with the local taxi drivers or get a rental. Barra Car Hire will leave the car outside the airport, just pick up the keys in the ‘terminal building’ and you’re good to go.
But why not consider exploring the island on a bike?
Tony from Barra Bike Hire is your man. I arranged the rental in advance and I’d recommend calling him up to make sure you get the bike you want. Speaking of which…
This is the part where I almost feel a bit ashamed to confess what I went for: An e-bike. With my 32 years and reasonable fitness I probably could have managed without, but ultimately this wasn’t a race but an easy way to see the island.
Starting in Castlebay you can ride along the ring road either going east or west.
If you want to get over the biggest hills first, go east, which is certainly the more challenging bit, as the west side is pretty flat. That’s what I did. To the north, I took a quick break at the Ardmhòr ferry terminal café which was lovely. On the way back to Castlebay I made a (not so) little detour to Vatersay in the south. This is another pretty hilly bit and I felt completely vindicated about taking an e-bike for the day.
All in all, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice to rent a bike and it was a brilliant way to see the spectacular nature of Barra.
By the way: If you’re really into cycling, take a look at the ‘Hebridean Way’, a multi-day cycling tour spanning nearly 200 miles across 10 islands!
Stay a little longer
As an aviation geek, I love to book quirky flights. Originally I planned to take the early flight out, spend a little more than an hour on Barra, only to fly straight back to Glasgow. The other side of me loves to explore new places though. So I went for one night on the island.
Call me ignorant, but at the time of booking, I had no idea HOW breathtaking the Hebridean landscape can be. If I’d do this again, I’d probably stay two days or even a little longer and take the ferry and explore the adjacent islands.
Better Call Asty!
Who’s Asty you might ask? Another Barra superstar!
Not only is he one of the island’s few taxi drivers, he’s also Castlebay’s harbour master and virtually knows everyone on Barra. He’s the type of person whose number you want on speed dial if you need any help.
I first met him when he drove me from the airport to Castlebay while making it a fun and fact filled 20 minute ride. Later that day I ran into a group of Irish lads on a sailing trip who settled down next to me for dinner. They absolutely raved about how he managed to get them a last minute place to sleep, source drinks for their trip, and the list goes on and on.
Bonus Tip: Say no to 19 langoustines
For dinner I chose to stay at my hotel which also functions as the island’s pub. While the locals were absorbed in a league cup match inside, I enjoyed my dinner on the beautiful terrace overlooking the bay and Kisimul castle. Goes without saying that I sampled the local seafood. After a lovely portion of scallops, I went for langoustines where I had to choose between 5, 10 or 15. 15 seemed excessive but still manageable. Until the chef came out and said he had another four spare ones that he can’t sell otherwise so I could have them. 19 langoustines later, I can confirm that there is such a thing as too many langoustines, however lovely they may be.
Let’s talk money
It’s worth pointing out the total costs for this trip were around £600 (around $825). It adds up quickly if you actually stay on the island compared to a quick return on the same day.
To give you an idea, here’s a quick breakdown: LHR-GLA return on BA: £95; Courtyard hotel at Glasgow airport: £65; GLA-BRR return on Loganair: £160; Craigard Hotel on Barra: £145; Taxi from Barra airport to Castlebay: £20 each way; Bike rental: £30; Food and beverages: £60+.
My personal verdict: Worth it.
Things I Wish I Had Done
I originally thought I might struggle to fill a couple of hours on the island but that was certainly wrong. Here’s a quick list of things I would have done if I had more than a just-under-24h stay.
Go on a boat trip
There are a couple of tour operators (e.g. Mingulay Boat Trips or Hebridean Sea Tours) that offer boat trips to neighbouring islands south of Barra, as well as the opportunity to spot puffins, seals, whales, dolphins and more.
Walk up to the highest hill
Heaval is the highest summit on Barra. At a hight of 383 meters, it’s not exactly Mt Everest but according to locals, the terrain can be steep and proper hiking footwear is definitely recommended. Halfway up to the summit you’ll also pass a Virgin and Child statue, watching over the island.
Enjoy the beaches
While Barra might not offer the same water temperatures as Barbados, there are some truly spectacular white beaches along the west coast and Vatersay in the south. Bring your swimwear and get ready for a day of sunbathing on a dreamy beach.
Visit the Heritage Center
Currently due to Covid, the Barra Heritage Center is closed. Asty (see above) had a great interest in my weird aviation related hobby and mentioned a section about the airport at the heritage center with photos of the very first flight to Barra in 1936, 85 years ago.
Hop over to Kisimul castle
Kisimul castle, also known as the castle in the sea, is only accessible via a very short boat ride as it sits in the… well… bay of Castle…bay. Unfortunately, just like the heritage center, the castle is currently closed to the public. And speaking of Kisimul, right by the sea is Café Kisimul, a Barra hotspot which it seems I missed out on. Apparently their currys are delish!
Have you been to Barra and feel like I missed anything? Leave a comment!