Today we’re returning to Scotland’s islands with a new batch of Scotland Itinerary Ideas that provide you with suggestions, ideas, and travel hooks for various regions around Scotland. If you’ve ever dreamed about, or even considered, visiting Islay, you’re in luck. Even if you haven’t, read on because you might just find a new destination to sweep you up. I have largely focused on specific topics throughout the life of Traveling Savage, however, now is the time to provide information at a higher level to help you in your trip-planning, idea-generation phase.
These Scotland Itinerary Ideas articles will collect many of my previous articles on the selected region into one place, along with my assessment of their criticality for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin planning your next trip to Scotland.
As always, don’t hesitate to pepper me with questions.
Islay is a place of dreams for many, a peaty island nearly equidistant from mainland Scotland and northern Ireland that embraces this liminal situation. It is a land of soft, rolling hills, sandy seaweed-strewn beaches, and rich, smokey whisky aging in countless warehouses overfilled with barrels buffeted by the salty, oceanic winds. Life happens here at a slow pace, a measured pace, that has more to do with treasuring moments than with any curmudgeonly disdain for the more populated regions of Great Britain. There’s a strong sense of pride for the people and products that hail from Islay – the Ileachs – and gratitude for anything and anyone that has found its way to their shores, for Islay is not the most bounteous of places nor is it the easiest to reach. As such, there’s a distinct lack of apathy in the air, and what a refreshing lungful that is.
Things You Can’t Miss
A day (or two) of distillery tours. Given Islay’s modest size it sure has a lot of distilleries. Eight, in fact, with a ninth in the works. Many hold this land to be the mecca of Scotch whisky, though whether that’s true or not will forever be debated by the Speyside aficionados who hesitate to even consider Islay’s classically smokey drams as single malts. Regardless, Islay’s distilleries are an enormous reason to visit the island and you would be terribly, terribly remiss to skip them. Near Port Askaig, the primary ferry terminal, you’ll find Caol Ila and Bunnahabhainn waiting for you. Continue southwest and you’ll find the road forking to Bowmore or Bruichladdich and Kilchoman. Along the south coast, just east of Port Ellen, stand Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, which represent the most potent of the bunch. Every one is worth a visit, but I particularly enjoyed my time at Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig.
Finlaggan. Just off the main road from Port Askaig down to Bowmore you’ll find Loch Finlaggan with its eponymous ruins on Eilean Mór. What a stunning and atmospheric site! Finlaggan was once the seat of the Lord of the Isles and Clan Donald, and you can wander among the ruins after crossing a footbridge to the island. Finlaggan’s prominence occurred between the 13th and 15th centuries, and the nearby cottage houses a comprehensive museum detailing the site. With just this simple view, your dreams of romantic and mysterious Scotland will be realized.
Islay’s many beaches. With some 130 miles of coastline and 20+ beaches, Islay provides many options for a day on the sand or shingle. Of course, you’d have to originate from a fairly northerly clime to consider sun-bathing here. Islay’s beaches are hauntingly beautiful but also buffeted by frigid winds, especially on the westward, Atlantic-facing side of the island. These beaches, places like Machir Bay, Claggan Bay, and Kilnaughton Beach, are great places to wander, bird watch, and soak in Islay’s moody atmosphere.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
The Kildalton Cross. Continuing northeast past Ardbeg distillery on unmarked roads you’ll eventually come to the Kildalton Cross. This monolithic high cross in the Celtic form has stood in this spot for more than 1,200 years. The Kildalton Cross is considered by many to be the finest surviving Celtic cross in all of Scotland, and to look on it in the flesh you would not doubt such claims. It’s beautiful and moving and a wonder that it has stood inviolate for so long. Let the spirit take you here after a dram at Ardbeg just down the road.
Craic at the Port Charlotte Hotel. The Port Charlotte Hotel recently made my top five favorite pubs in Scotland list, and that was in no small part thanks to the craic (good time) to be had here on a nightly basis. Wednesday nights, in particular, are great because local musicians hunker down in the corner of the beautiful pub/restaurant and bust out trad tunes as patrons quaff pints of local ale and ponder the ridiculous selection of Islay whisky behind the bar.
Cutting peat at Laphroaig. I’ve already mentioned that every distillery on Islay is worth a visit, but I want you to consider booking Laphroaig’s Water to Whisky Experience, which involves walking to the distillery’s water source, tramping across their peat bog to experience cutting peat, and a tour that involves valinching your own whisky from the cask. This is a pricey endeavor, but well worth it if you are whisky fan or, especially, a lover of Laphroaig.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
Hike the Mull of Oa. The Mull of Oa is a ball of land jutting into the sea west of Port Ellen on the south end of the island. I booked my accommodations in this region during my visit, and it gave me plenty of time to explore this most rugged section of Islay. Of particular interest is the American Monument on the extreme southwest coast of the Mull of Oa. This is a touching and somber memory to those Americans who died near here in WWI. Paths line the cliffs of Islay in the area and make for gorgeous hiking above the sea.
Drive the Rhinns of Islay. Islay is shaped like a lobster claw, and the tip of the western pincer is a beautiful place known as the Rhinns of Islay. You will pass through mixed moorland, bog, grassland, and marsh if driving from Port Charlotte to Portnahaven or Port Wemyss, but otherwise this part of Islay feels very far out of the way. Finish up this beautiful drive with refreshment at An Tigh Seinnse, a nice pub in Portnahaven.
Visit the Isle of Jura. I may never forgive myself for failing to make the minuscule ferry trip to Jura during my time on Islay. Don’t make the same mistake as me. Jura should be part of any visit to Islay as the ferry takes less than 10 minutes and provides you with the opportunity to explore an island where deer outnumber people 27 to 1. Not to mention, you can also visit the excellent Isle of Jura distillery and gaze at the Paps of Jura while enjoying a dram.
Logistics and Salient Bits
Bases. If you’re picky, like me, sleeping on Islay can be tricky. I’m always seeking the best location and the most comfortable accommodation (and a certain aesthetic, if I’m honest), and I rarely compromise. I’ve stayed at self-catering on the Mull of Oa, and, while a perfectly enjoyable place, it felt very far removed from the life of the island, and Islay is a pretty spartan place even in its liveliest centers. Your best bet for basing yourself on the island is to stay in Bowmore. It has an excellent central location, a fantastic distillery, and it’s the busiest place on the island (which isn’t saying much). Next time I return, I will do everything in my power to stay at the Bowmore Distillery Cottages. I had a chance to tour them and they were beautiful. Alternatively, I’d consider staying at the Port Charlotte Hotel, especially since it’s also the best pub and one of the best restaurants on the island. Staying here would put you near Bruichladdich and Kilchoman distilleries and the Rhinns of Islay, but quite far from Port Ellen and the trio of distilleries on the south coast.
Be forewarned, Feis Ile is the massive whisky festival that happens every May where all the accommodation on the island is gobbled up for a full week.
Transportation. Getting to Islay can be done quickly via a short-hop flight – if the weather is good – or the long way involving anywhere from one to three separate ferry rides. Once on the island, it’ll come as no surprise that I recommend renting a car. You can either ferry it over from the Mull of Kintyre or rent one after you land at Islay’s airport. Either way, a car gives you that flexibility to explore Islay’s beautiful landscape. Of course there is public transportation across the island in the form of buses, but it seems like such a shame to miss out on what makes Islay and Scotland so special: Its gorgeous landscape and vistas. You do have to be careful – especially on Islay – given all the excellent distilleries littered around the island. Don’t make foolish decisions. And you might want to brush up on Islay’s hand-waving lingo, too.
Food & Drink. It took me a little while to track down the best places to eat and drink on Islay as – to be fair – the island isn’t loaded with incredible restaurants. There are some, however, so don’t be discouraged. The Port Charlotte Hotel, which I’ve mentioned several times already, is the best place to enjoy a meal and a night of drinking. The views over Loch Indaal really add to the experience. In Bowmore, the Harbour Inn is a classy restaurant that highlights local produce in their dishes. The Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg makes shockingly good food and you might need some after a tasting there. On the drinking end of the spectrum, the Ballygrant Inn just off the road to Port Askaig is a comfy bar with an incredible whisky selection. Near Bridgend, be sure to stop in to Islay Ales for a taste of the local ale and a peek at the small-scale operation. Just about every distillery has a tasting room, too, and Bruichladdich lets you pop in for a taste even without a tour.
I hope this post has given you some ideas for how to spend a trip to Islay. For a boatload more information about Islay, check out Islay Info. When the weather is spitting and cold, just pop into one of the distilleries or pubs and enjoy the warmth of the people and their spirits.