Scotland’s Isle of Islay (pronounced EYE-la) has been a dream destination for me every since I fell under the spell of Scotch malt whisky. Islay is renown for their characteristically smokey whiskies, and it sees a lot of whisky aficionados as a result. But the fact is that visiting Islay requires dedication; it sits in the sea to the southwest of the mainland reachable only by ferry or flight.
Islay finally made the list on my seventh trip to Scotland, my most recent spin through the Inner Hebrides, and I decided to spend a week there. From Lochranza on Arran, I ferried over to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula, drove for about 15 minutes to Kennacraig, and ferried over to Port Askaig on Islay. It was a trip that required fairly precise timing, but everything went off without a hitch and the entire journey lasted about six hours (including the longish drive to my accommodation on Islay).
Is it all whisky? Was it worth it? Read on.
As I drove south from Port Askaig to the Oa Peninsula, my first impression of Islay was that it’s an empty, lonely place – and that’s saying something for Scotland! Islay is shaped like a crab claw with the sea loch of Loch Indaal splitting the island into two sections. The island is generally low land with wide stretches of peat bog (perfect for making that smokey whisky), though there are some hilly/rocky areas on the Oa Peninsula, the southeast, and the northeast. Fine sandy beaches are everywhere, but especially in the northwest.
Distances are longer than they appear on maps as the roads are mostly single-track and winding. There are only a couple of true towns on the island. It’s a rural yet close-knit place where everyone – and I mean everyone – waves at each other from their cars when passing on the street. Most people work in the whisky industry or the tourism supporting it; it’s literally in the blood here. Islay’s whisky business generates a shockingly large amount of money, but it isn’t being used to modernize or change the island. The Ileachs, citizens of Islay, like it just the way it is.
All that said, Islay is certainly a whisky destination. There’s a dearth of accommodation here, and the place is overloaded every year during Feis Ile, the marquee malt and music festival. The island has its share of natural beauty and ancient monuments, but it’s not a must-visit stop for the average vacationer to Scotland. If you are in any way influenced by whisky, however, consider a 2-3 nights on Islay using the short-hop flight from Glasgow (45 minutes).
Islay’s only main road connects the island’s ferry terminals, running from Port Askaig in the northeast through Bowmore en route to Port Ellen in the south. Bowmore is the largest and most central town on the island, and unless you’re shooting for solitude it’s the only option you should consider for accommodation. Bridgend is a nice little crossroads also quite central that makes a nice back-up. Port Charlotte, on the island’s western “claw,” is lauded as the island’s prettiest town but the truth is that its white-washed buildings look similar to the rest of the island’s towns. Port Ellen and Portnahaven are simply too extremely situated to make good bases.
I stayed in the wild and windswept Oa Peninsula to the west of Port Ellen and felt disconnected from the life of the island. Long drives cramped my planning and proved costly in regards to fuel.
Sights & Activities
Islay has eight working distilleries and there are only seven days in a week. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig cluster on the south coast of the island to the east of Port Ellen, and I saw more than a few pilgrims walking among them. This trio is responsible for Islay’s smokey whisky image and makes a perfect day out. To the north, Bowmore distillery anchors the heart of Bowmore town, and the distillery’s tasting room has an awesome view of Loch Indaal. Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries hug the coast north of Port Askaig and make some delicate, delicious drams in austere settings. Finally, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman – the island’s newest entrants – hold court to the west and arguably make the island’s best drams (though it’s all a matter of taste).
If you’ve had enough whisky, visit the American Monument in the Oa or check out the Kildalton Cross down past Ardbeg. There’s also the Machrie Golf Club, loch fishing, and loads of beautiful beaches like Machir Beach, Claggan Bay, and Kilnaughton Beach to explore.
Eating & Drinking
Islay’s eating and drinking options are limited. In Port Ellen, the island’s second largest town, there are maybe three places that serve dinner and one (rough) pub. The café at Ardbeg does excellent, affordable lunches, and the Port Charlotte Hotel is easily the best combo restaurant/pub on the island. The Bridgend Hotel and the Harbour Inn in Bowmore offer upscale menus with upscale prices. Maharani in Port Ellen does passable Indian food. I also heard that The Holy Coo in Bowmore and The Cyber Café in Port Ellen provide nice meals.
Beyond the excellence that is the Port Charlotte Hotel, Duffy’s Bar in Bowmore is another drinking hole that has a townie feel. The Ardview Inn in Port Ellen is another spot to quaff a few pints, though it can be horrendous or decent depending on the clientele. Finally, don’t pass up the tasting rooms at the distilleries – they’re where I did most of my drinking.
Notes from the Field
If I were to plan another trip to Islay, I’d fly in from Glasgow and rent a car on the island. I was lucky to have good weather during my ferry crossings, but many people weren’t so fortunate as there were many ferry disruptions while I was in Scotland. Flying bypasses this possible messy situation. I’d look for accommodation in Bowmore with special attention on the Bowmore Cottages. Three nights is enough time to visit key distilleries, ancient monuments, and beautiful vistas without overstaying your welcome.