To many it is known as the Whisky Isle with it’s eight distilleries across the island but as we recently discovered on a guided tour of Islay this Queen of the Hebrides has so much more to offer than the water of life. Although our stay was short it was most definitely sweet and with the help of our STGA (Scottish Tour Guides Association) Blue Badge Guide, Ann from Come See Scotland we crammed a lot into the two and a half days we were there.
With a full itinerary planned by our guide we looked forward to seeing as much as possible of Islay without rushing or cramming things in. With Ann’s local knowledge of the island we knew we would be in safe hands.
Our guided tour started the minute we set off from our meeting point near Glasgow after loading all our bags into one vehicle and bound for the Kennacraig ferry. Tales of Loch Lomond, clan history, a military road, mountains and a photo stop at the very scenic Rest and be Thankful followed by lunch in Inveraray with some of the best reflections I have ever seen.
The blue sky continued and the ferry crossing was calm and showed the Paps of Jura, with their dusting of snow, off really well. Although the air was bitterly cold I couldn’t help but stay outside and admire the view.
Arriving at Port Askaig we were soon off for our first glimpse of Islay life, with Ann regaling us with stories of her family holidays here as a child. It quickly becomes apparent why our tour guide has this life long love for this hebridean gem.
If you Google “Hebridean Beaches” you will be smacked in the face (not literally) with images of Luskentyre or Scarista; white sands and turquoise waters that rival the Caribbean but I think Islay can definitely hold it’s own. Admittedly, the weather wasn’t very kind to us when we went to Machir Bay but with the sand dunes and a 2km white sandy beach stretching out before us we could see it’s potential. I am one of those people who enjoys going to the beach in winter to get a bit wind swept but this was something else; totally exposed to the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean and from here next stop west is the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador! The colours of the water, clouds and sky still looked like an artist’s canvas, so imagine what it would look like on a sunny day.
We also paid a short visit to one of the coves at Ardnave before being pelted with some of the most painful rain I have ever experienced. Again, it looks really pretty but on this occasion we didn’t get to see it in all it’s glory. This area is home to otters and seals and would make a great wildlife lookout when given the right weather.
There are plenty of coastal walks around the island but The Big Strand is the daddy of all beaches here, with 12km of sands and waves to fly kites, surf or walk along.
With it’s diverse landscape; broadleaf woodlands, mud flats, heather moorland, lochs, rocky coastline and mud flats, it is easy to see why Islay is a haven for wildlife. Over winter it is home to thousands of barnacle geese, more birds than I have ever seen in my entire life all around the island.
Loch Gruinart is home to the RSPB reserve and it was here that we saw large numbers of lapwings, just like fighter pilots they change direction and the curious noise they make rivals something from Star Wars. Totally enchanting to watch.
Everywhere we went there were birds – oyster catchers, curlews, eiders, buzzards, golden plovers, to name but a few. Ann had mentioned that all year round the residents and visitors can be treated to birding treats as the seasons change, I’m just glad we took our binoculars. We did briefly spot a male hen harrier whilst out driving one day too.
Otters also thrive along many stretches of the coastline, patrolling for food and if you’re lucky you may see them asleep on the rocks. Good eyesight, a lot of patience and sometimes a bit of luck is involved as we know from previous trips to Mull.
Throughout our stay we also spotted roe deer and brown hares.
It seems lady luck wasn’t with us very much for this particular trip to Islay when it came to looking for wildlife and not even the seals at Portnahaven and Port Wemyss made an appearance. But that’s part of the experience, isn’t it? Not actually knowing if you will spend an hour watching an otter catch and eat a crab or hear the corncrake, what is important is the time enjoying nature and your time away. Well, it is to us (although it is always good to actually see something!).
To the Dude, this was heaven. All his Christmas’, birthdays all rolled into one and we were booked in to do a Warehouse Tour at the distillery of his favourite whisky, Lagavulin. Imagine his excitement!
The beauty of having a tour guide is that all the finer details have been sorted in advance, you don’t have to think about remembering tickets, printing off email confirmations or even knowing what time of day it is and this was no different. When we arrived for the “liquid brunch” (as it became known) at the distillery, Ann was quick to announce our arrival and we were led through to a waiting area that resembled someone’s home. All wood panelled walls, a peat burner, comfy leather armchairs and bookshelves.
Doing the Warehouse Tour meant that we would learn more about the maturation process by tasting samples drawn straight from the barrels in order of their age. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this type of tour and wondered how it would differ from the many distillery tours I have done in the past few years. The most obvious difference was the amount of whisky that is nosed, held up to the light and sipped; six distinct colours, taste, alcohol percentage and oils from the various ageing whiskies.
Our host, Ian, was quite a character and clearly knowledgeable after working at the distillery since before I was born! He even gets his own plaque on a cask in the warehouse. A legend indeed.
Next stop, just next door (a mile or so down the road) lunch at Ardbeg for a certain person to get something to eat and soak up all the alcohol! The food here was delicious, using locally sourced produce.
If you are staying in Port Ellen then making use of the Three Distilleries Pathway is a must. A 5.5km accessible route for walkers, bicycles, wheelchairs and pushchairs to safely make their way down to the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries. Personally, If I were doing all three of these I would start with breakfast at the far end (Ardbeg) and work my way back toward Port Ellen.
Talking to the locals it appears that Islay life bustles with events of all sizes throughout the year. Organised cycle rides, live music, Walk Islay festival, nature talks and of course the world famous Islay festival of Malt and Music.
We were lucky enough to get a table for dinner at the Port Charlotte Hotel on a Wednesday (also Valentine’s Day) and the bar was absolutely rammed with (mostly) locals, out to enjoy an evening of traditional music. This is a regular thing so if you are visiting it will be well worth checking this out.
Of course there are hogmanay celebrations too if you fancy a more personal experience than Edinburgh.
There is accommodation here to suit all budgets, taste and needs. We were lucky enough to visit a B&B and self catering cottages to get a taste for what is on offer.
The Glenmachrie Bed and Breakfast is just a few miles south of Bowmore would be a brilliant base for exploring. We had a quick visit and tour around, the kind hospitality of Rachel and Alasdair was heart warming and after tasting some home baked cake it’s easy to see why the breakfasts here have won awards! It really is a home from home.
Next stop for us was to have a look around Islay Beach Cottages with a view of Port Ellen, Carraig Fhada lighthouse with a wee beach metres away from the front door. Two cottages: a one bedroom guesthouse and the other with three bedrooms. Both with open plan living space, huge picture windows and wood burners. Perfect for family holidays or couple hideaways.
There are campsites across the island and a youth hostel in Port Charlotte too.
And it’s goodbye to care
With such a short visit planned I was scared that it would feel rushed and that we would not get to relax. Given that we only had two and a half days I feel that Ann planned our itinerary perfectly, of course there are some things out of any Blue Badge Guides hand and that is the weather! But you just have to crack on with it. We had a free sand facial scrub on the beach (read: sand blowing into our faces) followed by a hydrotherapy circulation treatment (read: pouring rain), what’s there to complain about?
If you’ve seen the popular car sticker “Islay….. and it’s goodbye to care” you might wonder what on earth is that all about, I did. It’s a slower pace of life, it’s a generosity and hospitality, it’s a raw beauty, it’s a cheery wave to each car you pass on the road and a waft of whisky in the air. It’s a reason to come back again and again.
I’m really pleased we had a guided tour of Islay that gave us an insight into the wild side, history and people that make this hebridean island well worth a second look.
**I would like to thank Ann of Come See Scotland for her time planning our trip, knowledge, enthusiasm and kind hospitality. In return for Ann’s time and skill I have written this post to share her beloved Islay. Ann is available for guided tours across Scotland and comes highly recommend her. All images and words are my own.