SAILING into the aquamarine waters of the harbour at Tarbert, you instinctively know you’ve arrived somewhere special. Needless to say, Harris’s main settlement doesn’t disappoint.

Nestled in the valley where north and south Harris meet, on the shores of Loch Tarbert, this charming port offers a warm Hebridean welcome and an ever-expanding range of attractions. A hub for Hebridean culture – around 60 per cent of the islanders speak Gaelic - and a centre for Harris Tweed, Tarbert is an increasingly vibrant and cosmopolitan place that acknowledges its past while embracing the future.

The surrounding area, meanwhile, is wild, windswept and ruggedly beautiful, with the white sandy beaches, stunning mountain vistas and expansive sea lochs that continue to beguile locals and visitors alike.

Historic highlights

Tarbert, like the other coastal villages in Scotland that share its name, is characterised by a narrow strip of land where two lochs meet. Vikings apparently dragged their longboats across the strip and into the West Loch to avoid sailing all the way around the Sound of Harris.

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From the late 18th century, the village established itself as a fishing port and from 1840 onwards a new pier served the mail steamer from Uig on Skye. A Harris Tweed mill was in operation in the village by 1900, around the same time whaling became lucrative to the area.

In 1963 the first car ferry route was established, revolutionising transport to Harris for islanders and making it a viable tourist destination. Uig to Tarbert remains the shortest route from mainland Scotland to the Western Isles.

Harris is a religious place, with a significant proportion of the islanders attending “free” churches. Many amenities and facilities remain closed on a Sunday, which is often referred to as the Sabbath.

Harris's popularity as a tourist destination has skyrocketed in recent years and it regularly tops dream destination lists and adorns covers of glossy travel magazines. The island's quality of life and sense of community is also attracting permanent residents.

What to do

Make the Harris Distillery ( an early port of call. Opened in 2015, this “social” distillery is very much a community venture, employing local folk (who happen to come from all over Europe) in every aspect of the business, from the distilling to the tour-guiding and catering. The Hearach whisky needs a bit more time in the barrel before it can be sold as a single malt, but the Harris Gin produced here, flavoured with local sugar kelp, deserves the plaudits it has received from around the world. With a fantastic café (more of which later), great shop and chatty staff, you can easily spend a day here.

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If the conditions allow – expect strong winds at some point during your visit – a boat trip from the harbour gives a whole new perspective to island life, offering great opportunities to spot and photograph wildlife including otters, seals, whales and a rich array of birdlife. Choose to sail around the island, or perhaps out to the Shiant Isles. More intrepid travellers may wish to take the boat to mythical, now uninhabited St Kilda. Go to for details. You can also take the CalMac ferry to Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist. See for sailings.

Culture buffs should keep an eye on what’s happening at Tarbert Community Centre ( Scottish Opera recently performed there, and a range of music, dance, theatre and community events, such as workshops and talks, take place year round.

The weather plays an important role in all aspects of Hebridean life, regardless of the season. With this in mind, regular Harris visitor Garry Scott recommends keeping a few wet weather ideas up your sleeve, especially with children in tow. “On a rainy day, head to the excellent sports centre and swimming pool, where you can easily wile away a few hours,” he says. “There are plenty of floats in the pool for the kids and there’s a lovely health suite with sauna, as well as a well-equipped gym.” The centre is located in the Sir E Scott school in the west of the town. See for prices and opening hours.

Take a stroll round the Direcleit peninsula. Just up the hill from Tarbert, it's an easily accessible route with stunning sea views.

Where to eat

For lunch, the café at the Harris Distillery brings in people from all over Harris – and even neighbouring Lewis – for its wonderful homemade soups, breads and oatcakes, as well as locally-sourced seafood and cheese platters, and some of the most delicious home baking you’ll find anywhere. The coffee is excellent, too. Don’t be surprised if you become a regular during your stay.

For dinner, the Harris Hotel serves up great fish and chips, while the venison sausages at the Pierhouse restaurant are popular choice.

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If you’re prepared to go a bit further afield for your supper you'll find some of the best food in the Western Isles. It’s 20 minutes to the North Harbour Bistro on the Isle of Scalpay, joined to Harris by bridge, which serves up local seafood and lamb in relaxed surroundings. Susan McKenna says: "The roast halibut and scallops with king prawns is simply superb, as is the lemon sole. Going there is such a treat."

The Machir Kitchen at Talla na Mara – “centre by the sea” – 20 minutes from Tarbert, offers an elegant, contemporary menu accompanied by views across the white sands of Niseaboist.

Meanwhile, the takeaway van Taste ‘n’ Sea at Bowglass, 15 minutes from Tarbert, has been pulling in locals since October with its burgers, seafood goujons and paninis.

Where to shop

Essence of Harris, on The Pier, makes its own scented candles and bath and body products, all inspired by the smells, tastes and textures of the island.

The big Harris Tweed shop on Caberfeidh Road sells the island’s signature product by the metre, showcasing the work of local weavers. It also stocks tailored jackets, skirts and hats, as well as bags and accessories.

Those looking for a more contemporary take on traditional tweed will want to visit the Urgha Loom Shed, down a single-track road five minutes drive from Tarbert. Weaver Joanne Owens, originally from Liverpool, creates beautiful modern designs on the loom in her shed-come-studio, for sale by the metre or made into homeware.

The Charity shop in the Tarbert car park usually has some lovely Isle of Harris wool and local knitted items at very reasonable prices, while the nearby butcher’s counter at general store AD Munro is particularly good, selling quality steak, Harris lamb and Stornoway black pudding. The petrol station at Ardhasaig on the outskirts of town often has free range eggs and tasty home baking.

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Where to stay

Built in 1865 overlooking Tarbert Bay, the Harris Hotel offers cosy rooms and a friendly bar in which to enjoy a dram. Rooms from £119.

Ardhasaig House has stunning views of Loch Tarbert and the Harris Hills and serves good food. Rooms from £70.

In the tiny village of Rhenigidale, overlooking Loch Seaforth, 20 minutes from Tarbert, Sith-Phort cottage offers a cook’s kitchen with Raeburn, mid-century styling, an open fire and a lovely garden. Sleeps five. From £750 a week.

Next door to the cottage is the hostel run by the Gatliff Trust, with comfortable beds for walkers at £16 per night.

What to do nearby

You can’t go to Harris without visiting its famous west coast beaches. Luskentyre, the most well known, is 20 minutes from Tarbert, Seilebost is just a few miles further south. The more remote Huisinis – from where you can see St Kilda on a clear day – is well worth the rather gruelling 40 minute drive.

Experienced hillwalkers will want to conquer the Clisham horseshoe, which includes the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides, at 799m.

Rated five-star by VisitScotland, the lovely Ardbuidhe Cottage Gallery at Drinishader, at the north end of the of the Golden Road, features oil paintings by Willie Fulton.