I'd heard great things about the beach at Luskentyre on the west coast of Harris [map]. The east coast of the island is nothing to write home about, not unless you like bleak granite-strewn lunar landscapes (the "Jupiter" scenes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey were filmed over that side of the island). But the fertile west coast is something else and, as it turned out, so utterly worth a visit.
At Luskentyre a narrow triangular river estuary snakes down to the sea [photo]. At high tide the bay is (just) covered by water, but pause a while and the central meandering ribbon of blue shrinks to reveal shallow-sloping powder-white sands to either side [photo]. A peninsula of grass-topped dunes (complete with its own primary school!) sticks out across the river's mouth [photo]. Sweeping deserted beaches stretch out at low tide along the front of the dunes, both here and across the stream beneath Luskentyre's old cemetery [photo]. Gulls and oystercatchers squawk and circle low to guard their nests on the rocks - but only when human beings approach, and there really aren't very many of them. Gentle waves lap up against the shoreline, beyond which lies an impossibly blue sea resembling more a Hawaiian lagoon than Atlantic waters [photo]. The entire bay looks absolutely magical in the sunshine, though admittedly rather less mesmeric beneath typical Hebridean drizzle.
But the key to perfection isn't just the sand, sea and solitude, it's the surrounding scenery. To every side of the beach stand dark looming hills, even offshore where a long lumpy island rises up out of the turquoise waters [photo]. This is Taransay, once home to three small crofting villages but more recently reborn as the site of Castaway 2000. You remember, it was the BBC's first venture into reality TV, with a bunch of oiks and misfits left to fend for themselves on a deserted island for a whole year. The island doesn't look so cast away when viewed from Luskentyre, just a mile or two across the Sound of Taransay, but in heavy rain and winter gales life here must have been pretty bleak. The current landowners now run day trips to the island, departing from nearby Horgabost. I bet the view looking back towards Luskentyre is stunning, but alas I never woke up quite early enough to catch the boat out. Maybe next time. [tons of photos of Taransay]