There are thousands islands in the UK and Ireland. Our experts pick the 10 best islands to sail to this summer
Where are the best islands to sail to in the UK and Ireland?
To visit an island in your own boat is an enchanting experience, and the epitome of independent travel.
Although many sail or charter in bluewater archipelagos like the Caribbean and the Pacific in search of that perfect desert island or cruise Scandinavia’s rocky islands with
their bleak beauty, our homewaters offer plenty of chances to escape from the mainland.
There are more than 6,000 islands in the United Kingdom and Ireland, more than enough for a lifetime of cruising.
Our experts have chosen 10 of their favourites – some are small, wild and isolated, like Holy Island off Northumberland or Inishbofin on Ireland’s west coast.
Others are well populated with vibrant communities, such as the self-governing Isle of Man or the sub-tropical Isles of Scilly.
All of them offer memory-making unique cruises.
The Western Isles, Scotland
Recommended by Ken Endean
In this long island chain, most of the settlements developed on the fertile, sandy soils of the western flank but it’s exposed to the Atlantic, with very few good havens.
Through the period of the Highland Clearances, some (not all) of the old landlords had good intentions, which helped to maintain a substantial and industrious population – think Harris Tweed – with a well-established system of crofting.
The more protected eastern side, by contrast, is deeply incised by sea lochs, with anchorages in sheltered inlets that wind between rock outcrops and scrub-covered hills, and have not changed much since the Vikings arrived.
The wild, raw hinterland makes this feel like a very primitive cruising ground.
The islands’ main town is Stornoway, which has most facilities, including car hire if you wish to explore inland, and the preserved ‘black house’ village at Gearrannan is certainly worth visiting.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to The Western Isles
The Western Isles, also known as the Outer Hebrides, are separated from Skye and the mainland by The Minch, which has a reputation for wind-against-tide turmoil.
However, the islands are a breakwater against Atlantic swell and in most weather the water on their eastern side can be surprisingly placid.
Plan your outward crossing to suit the wind direction and expect dramatic ornithology if you have a chance to sail through the precipitous Shiant Islands.
Have the anchor ready because only a few places have visitor moorings.
The Small Isles, Scotland
Recommended by Jonty Pearce
The Small Isles, the collective name for the islands of Canna, Rùm, Eigg, and Muck, lie north of Ardnamurchan Point in the Inner Hebrides.
A proverbial Scotsman was said to have been ‘born in Eigg, lived in Rùm, and died in Muck’, and the islands each support a small local population yet can be circumnavigated in a matter of hours.
Each has usable anchorages, though Canna and its moorings offer the only all-weather security.
Packed with history, they are all also important for their wildlife; mountainous Rùm for its deer, Manx shearwaters, and the introduction of white-tailed sea eagles, and Canna for Atlantic puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, shags, golden eagles, and red-throated divers, which can also be spotted around the whole archipelago.
The stiff climb of the Sgùrr of Eigg is an instantly recognisable landmark, while peaceful Muck, the smallest island, offers gentler walks and maybe an excellent rewarding cake from its café afterwards.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to The Small Isles
In good weather, local navigation round the islands is fairly straightforward, though keep alert for outlying shoals, tidal streams with back eddies, and the magnetic anomaly to the north of Compass Hill on Canna.
Apart from being destinations in themselves, The Small Isles offer reasonable shelter for those waiting to round the exposed Ardnamurchan Point, and are a good choice to break any north/south journey.
Make sure you use the Clyde Cruising Club’s pilot guide and the Antares charts (www.antarescharts.co.uk) to enter any of The Small Isles anchorages with confidence.
Jura, Inner Hebrides
Recommended by Sarah Brown
There is something about Jura, whatever the angle of approach, that captures the imagination.
The iconic Paps of Jura can seem to tower over the island and the sparsely populated landscape coupled with the coastal distillery at Craighouse lends a timeless quality to the scene.
Jura offers interesting and accessible sailing, easily reached from popular destinations such as Gigha and Crinan. Craighouse has a lovely pub and useful shop, while Loch Tarbert offers that all too elusive wild and remote experience within reasonably easy reach of home comforts in safe havens such as Ardfern and Croabh Marina should the weather turn.
Remember to admire George Orwell’s retreat where he wrote 1984 on the north-east shore on your way to the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to Jura
Outer Loch Tarbert has some sheltered spots but for full shelter the middle pool requires some careful pilotage based on transits and marks originally devised by Blondie Haslar famed for the Haslar steering gear, the Corinthian spirit of the Jester Challenge and not least leading a dramatic attack on German shipping using folding kayaks.
For the bold navigator, the inner pool offers even better shelter.
Craighouse offers relatively easy pilotage from the north or south, but isolated rocks and the outlying islands require attention.
Isle of Man
Recommended by Jerry Coleman
Although one of the British Isles and a Crown Dependency, a passage to the Isle of Man feels like a foreign trip.
The island is famous for its motorcycle racing heritage – the TT races and the Manx Grand Prix – its Victorian steam and electric railway system which includes a branch line to the top of Snaefell mountain, and the horse trams on Douglas Promenade.
Manx National Heritage (www.manxnationalheritage.im) operates several excellent museums.
Cruising round the island offers some fabulous scenery, the chance to spot a wide variety of sea life, like basking sharks and whales, and many sea and land birds.
The tidal range can be over 8m so tidal currents are strong and due care is required in your passage planning.
Ashore, all of the seven ports where yachts may call can provide the traditional hospitality, usually in abundance, and all the local yacht clubs welcome visitors.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to the Isle of Man
The Isle of Man lies in the middle of the north Irish Sea.
Tidal currents are very strong at both north and south extremities, reaching 6 or 7 knots so plan to keep them under you, a wise strategy anywhere in the Irish Sea.
There are marinas with flap gates in Douglas and Peel, deep water moorings in Port St Mary and Port Erin harbours and drying harbours at Ramsey, Laxey and Castletown.
Buy Manx Sailing and Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions, Tidal Streams & Anchorages of The Isle of Man by Jerry Coleman at www.msandcc.org
Bardsey, North Wales
Recommended by Jonty Pearce
Bardsey Island floats serenely off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, though the separating stretch of water is not always calm; Bardsey’s Welsh name, Ynys Enlli, translates to ‘The Island in the Currents’ and Bardsey Sound’s 6 knot tides run through vicious overfalls.
In medieval times three pilgrimages to Bardsey was considered the equivalent of one to Rome, and despite its diminutive size, Bardsey occupies a prominent place in history; St Cadfan’s monastery survived until Henry VIII’s dissolution with only the 13th century bell tower and a Celtic cross commemorating the 20,000 saints said to be buried on the island now remaining.
Bardsey Island Trust runs the island as a place of pilgrimage for religion, ornithology, and naturalists; being a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserve sited
on migration routes, it is also home to 30-odd species which regularly nest on the island including Manx shearwaters, choughs, oystercatchers, and little owls.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to Bardsey Island
The approach and entry in settled weather is straightforward, though care must be taken with the tidal races of Bardsey Sound.
Bastram Shoal and The Devils Ridge can produce dangerous breaking seas in wind over tide conditions.
The sole anchorage is in Henllwyn Cove beneath the dominating lighthouse, and should be approached on a bearing of 270° avoiding any visible rocks to the south of the entrance.
The holding is poor on weed and rock, and a shingle drying beach allows landing.
There are no shops or facilities apart from a small souvenir stall in the bird observatory.
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Recommended by Norman Kean
Twelve miles north of Slyne Head, Inishbofin has the best natural harbour on the coast of Connemara.
The island sits four-square in the path of a boat heading round Ireland, so not surprisingly it’s the single most popular port of call on the west coast.
With a population of 160, Inishbofin is a lively place, and is renowned for its traditional music sessions.
These take place in the three hotels and in Day’s Beach Bar, and attract musicians from far and wide. Many sessions are spontaneous and can go on all night.
The island has beautiful beaches and attracts many visitors, by ferry as well as in yachts.
Overlooking the harbour entrance are the ruins of a star fort built by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in 1656.
Inishbofin was the last place in Ireland to hold out against the Cromwellian invasion, and the fort was used at one time as a prison for proscribed Catholic clergy awaiting transportation to the colonies.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to Inishbofin
Inishbofin is 24 miles by sea from Roundstone and 40 from Kilronan in the Aran Islands.
The simplest approach to the island from Slyne Head passes outside High Island.
The natural harbour is well marked and lit, with a high-intensity Port Entry Light.
At the time of writing there are no visitors’ moorings, and the bottom in the harbour is fairly hard and shaly in places, so care must be taken to ensure the anchor is well bedded in.
It is often possible to berth at the inner pier, which is used by the cargo ferry.
Isles of Scilly
Recommended by Ken Endean
These islands form what is arguably the best compact cruising ground in north-west Europe.
Limpid water and golden sand bars with a backdrop of craggy rocks, and sub-tropical vegetation warmed by the Gulf Stream.
The main islands would all fit inside a 6-mile square, and yet it is possible to spend a fortnight exploring the archipelago without staying more than one night in any place.
Many of the visitor buoys are in less-than-ideal locations and no mooring or anchorage offers protection from all wind directions, but it is easy enough to move between anchorages, to suit wind shifts, particularly with a yacht that is equipped to take the ground in the most sheltered bays.
The inhabited islands have pubs and shops, with laundry facilities on St Mary’s and Tresco.
Allow a full day for a visit to Tresco’s famous Abbey Gardens. And plan to return in the future, because Scilly is addictive.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to the Isles of Scilly
Most crossings from the mainland are made from Mounts Bay, where Newlyn is a convenient starting point for a 40-mile passage.
Pilotage guides generally recommend entering the islands by the big-ship route through St Mary’s Sound, but in westerly winds this channel and Hugh Town Harbour will both be agitated, so I prefer to enter via Crow Sound, allowing a relaxed approach on flatter water with plenty of time to identify the rocks and navigation marks before selecting a suitable anchorage.
Isle of Wight
Recommended by Jason Lawrence
Located some 4 miles south of the mainland, the Isle of Wight and Solent offer cruisers a vast variety of experiences.
From sandy beaches to busy harbours, secret anchorages to lively pubs, the island has something for everyone.
The Solent can be like an inland waterway with many activities taking place from numerous hubs.
Racing from Cowes, fishing from Yarmouth, club racing at Bembridge and Seaview and beach barbecues on the sand at Seagrove bay, there are any number of locations to drop the hook.
When the evening draws in, shelter can be found in the marinas of Bembridge, Cowes and Yarmouth, or anchorages in Newtown, Osbourne and Priory Bay.
Restaurants in Cowes, Yarmouth, Bembridge, the Folly or the upper reaches of the Medina can all be accessed by water taxi or dinghy, and there are pubs with live music and food.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to the Isle of Wight
It’s always good to arrive in the Solent with the tide astern.
Coming from Poole, Hurst should be approached at slack or on the flood to give a smooth ride through the small race.
Once through, the Solent opens up with Yarmouth being the first available berthing.
Approaching via Selsey Bill, care should be taken around the Owers, but then its plain sailing right down the middle of the Solent, avoiding Ryde Sands, to your destination of choice.
With the right tide, Wootton Creek can make a great lunch stop at the Royal Victoria YC. Cowes is the main marine hub on the island.
Mersea Island, Essex
Recommended by Nick Ardley
Mersea Island was ‘colonised’ by the Romans who loved the local oysters, which are still fished here today. Watch for withy marked beds when navigating.
The best East Mersea anchorages are above Mersea Stone at the delightful Pyefleet. Beyond are private moorings to Pewit Island.
Ashore is a wild marshland paradise and ancient fort.
There’s a fine walk to the Dog & Pheasant Inn. West Mersea is a major centre for traditional sail. Regatta and cadet weekends are fabulous but busy.
Trot moorings are available, allocated by boatmen (VHF CH. 80). Fine all-tide landing. Beware water taxi wash towards low water, which is when birdlife is most active.
Ashore are fantastic local fish eateries and the West Mersea YC (www.wmyc.org.uk).
Walk into town past an eclectic array of houseboats.
A picturesque church delights; there are cafes and stores for all needs. The Mersea Island Museum (www.merseamuseum.org.uk) is a must. Love it!
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to Mersea Island
The area is reached via the Wallet or Swin channels. East Mersea is accessed via the River Colne, which is well marked.
For West Mersea, cruisers need to sail the River Blackwater to Mersea Quarters, west of the Nass Beacon.
The Quarters is buoyed by clubs and yards.
East Coast sailors know, but the area around Eagle, Knoll and Colne Bar is where three water bodies converge. It can be boisterous in adverse conditions.
Farne Islands, Holy Island & Coquet Island
Recommended by Jane Russell
Each of these small islands off the Northumberland coast will draw you to St Cuthbert, 7th century saint of spiritual healing.
As prior and bishop of Lindisfarne he lived on Holy Island for many years, but he also spent long periods as a hermit on nearby Inner Farne, and on Coquet, 20 miles to the south.
Cuthbert’s life, and the magical solitude of these rocky outcrops, still resonates with many today and a cruise along this coast is certainly a fitting pilgrimage.
But a journey to these islands is also shared with a multitude of migrant birds, including rare roseate terns and thousands of breeding pairs of puffins, and grey seals pup there every autumn.
Landing is either prohibited or seasonally restricted on both Coquet and the Farne Islands, so Holy Island is the place to step ashore – in peace where Vikings once slaughtered.
Sail to the best islands in the UK & Ireland: Getting to Farne Islands, Holy Island & Coquet Island
In settled conditions you can anchor in Coquet Road, north-west of Coquet Island (and just off the entrance into Amble with its welcoming marina).
If approaching from the south via the Coquet Channel, make sure you have enough rise of tide over Polder Ware Spit.
For Inner Farne, head to The Kettle anchorage, north-east of the island, accessed most cleanly from the Inner Sound.
For Holy Island, from Ridge ECB head in on the leading lines and anchor in the pool south of The Heugh.
Tides run strongly here, and it can become uncomfortable at high water in west-southwesterly winds.
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