The solitude was almost eerie as I paddled further into the clear water. A breeze whipped my hair and the sea lapped gently against my board. Then I spotted a whiskered old boy bobbing around, watching me from just a few feet away. His bald head, half-submerged in the ripples, glinted in the sun. I blinked – and my curious companion came into focus as one of the more numerous residents of this small Scottish island: a grey seal.
Apart from him and his flippered friends, plus a few oystercatchers and perhaps the odd basking shark below, I had the bay to myself. Uncrowded waves, white sand and dunes are what make Tiree, the outermost island of the Inner Hebrides, a surfer’s paradise. Thanks to record sunshine hours, warm Gulf Stream water and the number of surf spots along its 46 miles of coastline, the island has earned the nickname “Hawaii of the north”.
The perfect location, then, for Scotland’s first surf and yoga retreat, Surf Tiree, which ran two weeks of retreats this summer, with more planned for next year. My one-hour flight from Glasgow revealed colours you would expect to see on a tropical island – seas of jade and emerald dashed with ivory sand. And thanks to the winter winds the landscape is strikingly flat and treeless.
The airfield is dotted with small, grey buildings with corrugated roofs and crumbling walls, remnants of the island’s military past. Due to its strategic location on the edge of the Atlantic, Tiree was an important RAF base during the Second World War – and a handful of concrete hangars and mission huts remain, with some now used for storage or as livestock shelters. Its remoteness also led to plans to evacuate the Royal Family to Canada from Tiree in the event of an invasion.
Some 2,000 Allied servicemen and women were stationed here (compared with today’s dwindling population of about 650), and English suddenly took over from Gaelic as the dominant language.
My base for the week was Island House, a nine-bedroom property surrounded by grazing sheep and set on the banks of a loch occupied by swans and otters. The following morning I woke up to blue skies and made the five-minute cycle to the Community Hall for yoga led by Helen Clare, who specialises in teaching athletes and surfers.
A hare darted across my path as I bounced over the final cattle grid and looked out for the island’s famously shy but noisy corncrakes. “Yoga and surfing are perfect partners,” Helen said as we rolled out our mats next to windows facing the sea. “They both require core strength and mental focus.”
And that’s just the beginning. The deep, rhythmical breathing of Vinyasa Flow kept our movements relaxed and fluid – crucial for surfing – while various positions used the same muscles. “You’ll know this feeling from paddling,” Helen said, padding round the room and adjusting our poses as we lay face down, arching our backs in Cobra pose. Chaturanga (hovering inches above your mat in a low plank) mirrored popping up on the board, while gazing forward and aligning our hands and feet helped our balance.
I wasn’t quite as balanced when I moved to the water. Scrambling to my feet for three shaky seconds in the surf at Balevullin, on the north-west coast, the yoga mat seemed like a distant memory. Happily, Blackhouse Watersports instructor Marti Larg was on hand to help me pick the right wave and – when my arms ached from paddling – give my board an expert boost towards the shore. Every time I plunged into the drink, I was surprised that it wasn’t icy. “This may be Scotland but we have hot summers,” Marti said as we headed back to the beach hut to change out of our wetsuits. “It can reach 30C.”
Any small island with beaches facing in all directions will have somewhere to surf. But Marti, who has lived on Tiree for 15 years, believes that this island’s lack of hills is an added attraction. “Unlike other islands in the Hebrides, Tiree is flat so clouds scoot past us,” he said. “It’s the sunniest place in the UK and surfers prefer to catch a wave in the sun, like in Hawaii.”
Sunniest spot or not, long summer days mean plenty of time for extra activities. As well as daily yoga and surfing lessons, Surf Tiree guests also have the option of kitesurfing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and trail running. The wind – which attracts top windsurfers for a national competition every October – was thankfully absent for our beach cook-up that evening – fresh lobster, caught in the sea in front of us.
Warming my hands by the fire, I gazed towards the waves I’d earlier been sharing with my supper, watching the sky turn gold as the sun finally set for the day.
The writer travelled with Cheapflights.co.uk, which offers flights from London City to Tiree, via Glasgow (British Airways followed by Flybe) from £202 return. You can also get the ferry (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk) from Oban.
Surf Tiree (surftiree.com) will run from 28 May to 11 June 2016. Prices are from £585pp for four nights, and from £975 for six nights, including full board and all activities.
Blackhouse Watersports (07711 807 976; blackhouse-watersports.co.uk) offers surf and sleep packages throughout the year from £299pp for groups of four to six people for five nights. Price includes self-catering accommodation and surf lessons (two hours per day).
Helen Clare (07734 431 458; helenclareyoga.com) runs yoga retreats around the world.