The perfect trip: The Scottish Highlands
Sandwood Bay: Best for beach
Don O’Driscoll drops to his knees to pull a small bouquet of bog myrtle from the sandy grassland underfoot. He breaks a few of its green leaves, and a basil-like scent mixes with the faint smell of sea salt. To Don – a ranger for the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to the protection of wild land – no detail of the natural world that surrounds him passes by unnoticed. During the four-mile walk that is the only means of accessing the isolated Sandwood Bay, considered by many who have seen it to be Britain’s most beautiful beach, he reveals more of its treasures: an emerald-green tiger beetle racing through long grass, a tiny rabbit’s skull and pieces of tree bark curled naturally into tiny scrolls. With his handsome, tanned face, curly black hair and single gold-hoop earring, he has the appearance of a friendly pirate searching for treasure. ‘I’m a bit of a magpie,’ he confesses, ‘always picking things up’.
As we near the shore of the freshwater Sandwood Loch, Don abandons the path and heads up a green slope, his black and chocolate-coloured labradors Charlie and Molly scampering at his side with tongues lolling. At the crest of the hill, Sandwood Bay reveals itself – a mile-long sweep of golden sand backed by tall dunes. ‘What do you think?’ asks Don with almost paternal pride. ‘Is a paradise found a paradise lost?’ Not in this case – the beach looks to have been transplanted here from the Caribbean. ‘It’s the clarity of water and lightness of the sand give it that aquamarine colour,’ Don explains. ‘The Viking name for this place is Sandvatn, meaning sandwater.’
Clambering down a grassy crevice over sun-warmed rock pools and on to the beach, Don ducks and begins sifting through the sand to reveal empty razor clams, queeniescallop shells and shiny scraps of mother of pearl. ‘It’s the small things that make me happy,’ he says. ‘There are new discoveries every day.’ At the back of the beach, Don points out the engine of a Spitfire – partly submerged by sand – which crash-landed here towards the end of WWII.
Sandwood also has a rich folkloric history, born in part by its comparative isolation. ‘There’s supposed to be mermaids and ghosts here,’ says a sceptical Don. ‘I think some people aren’t used to being in such wide, open spaces, so their minds work overtime.’ Behind the dunes are the ruins of a 19th-century farmhouse called Sandwood Lodge. Said to be haunted by the ghost of a 16th-century sailor shipwrecked from the Spanish Armada or a victim from a Polish vessel that sank on the bay, in truth it is nature that claimed this building – removing its roof, carpeting the floor with grass, and leaving its windows open to the fearsome winds blowing off the sea.
Where to eat
Old School Restaurant & Rooms near Loch Inchard, six miles south of Sandwood Loch, occupies a former primary school and specialises in venison, steaks and seafood (mains from £12).
Where to stay
Situated in Ullapool, 40 miles from Sandwood Loch, The Ceilidh Place is one of the most characterful places to stay in the Highlands. En suite rooms come with a small library of books, eclectic artworks and hot-water bottles. There’s also a pantry for hot drinks and an honesty bar, plus a spacious café-bar – the best place to eat locally – downstairs (rooms from £100).