Scotland Itinerary Ideas: Islay

by Keith Savage · 40 comments


The view from Islay

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

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.


AudreyNo Gravatar September 2, 2016 at 12:10 PM

Hello, there!

I’m planning my first trip to Scotland, which will include 4 days on Islay, mostly inspired by my husband’s love for Islay scotches. This post was SO helpful in both helping me prepare AND get excited for our trip. Thank you!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 6, 2016 at 9:15 AM

You’re very welcome, Audrey!

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DonellaNo Gravatar June 14, 2016 at 3:05 PM

My husband and I are planning a trip to Islay soon and will be traveling with two children – an almost two-year-old and an infant. Do you have any advice for Islay with kids? Especially related to any distilleries that do or do not allow children to accompany parents on yours? Thanks!

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HayleyNo Gravatar February 22, 2016 at 2:36 PM

Just wanted to thank you, Keith (and knowledgable commenters). I’ve been researching online regarding a trip to Islay daily for nearly a week, and despite going through all the official sites (and many, many others, too!), I hadn’t even heard of Feis Ile until your blog, and didn’t realise how restrictive the ferry schedule was (though I had yet to really investigate sailing times). Cannot thank you sufficiently for striking such a perfect balance between wanderlust and practicalities!!! Thank you very kindly! (Now off to read all your other posts…! Thanks again for sharing with the world!!!)

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 22, 2016 at 2:43 PM

You are most welcome, Hayley. Welcome to the site!

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ErinGNo Gravatar September 25, 2015 at 12:48 PM

How long of a stay do you recommend on Islay. My husband and I are planning a trip for late April and I know we want to spend some time there, just cannot figure out how long. We want to hit about 6 of the distilleries and a handful of “places of interest”. Your information on this site is super helpful and interesting thank you for sharing!!

Cheers,
Erin

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 25, 2015 at 12:54 PM

Hi Erin,

Thanks for the kind words. To hit six distilleries and other sites of interest you’ll need about three full days/four nights on Islay. It’s possible you could do it in three nights if time is short, but that would depend on what time your ferry arrives to Islay.

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ErinGNo Gravatar September 27, 2015 at 10:48 AM

Thank you! Is it better to arrive by ferry or by plane? I feel a bit scattered, trying to determine when and where and how long to stay at all the places we would like to go. It is so hard to decide what to see and visit and what to hold off on until the next visit.

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Jim StuhtNo Gravatar September 25, 2015 at 2:12 PM

If you have the ability to adjust your timetable (and are a lover of Islay whiskies) you might think about hitting the annual Feis Ile (Islay Festival of Whisky and Music) which always runs the last week of May. It’s an 8 day party that draws folks from around the world and is an absolute blast! (We attended the 2014 Feis.) From Saturday thru the following Saturday each distillery hosts an “open day” with tours, music, lots of free drams, and generally a grand old time. Even if you can only stay for part of the Festival, I would reccommend it.

Other than that, I agree with Keith that 2 distilleries is the max per day if you want to take the tours at each. If you only want to visit the sites and maybe hit the visitor center/shop at some of the distilleries, then you could probably stuff everything into 2 really busy days. But by doing so you will miss some of the really lovely spots on the island – the Kildalton Cross, the American Monument, Machir Bay, Finlaggan, and the Islay Woollen Mill among other lovely natural areas.

Whatever you decide, hope you have good weather and come to love Islay and its’ people as much as I do!

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ErinGNo Gravatar September 27, 2015 at 10:50 AM

Thank you Jim. I wish I could change the dates of our trip to attend the Feis Ile but I cannot. But thanks for the other information 🙂

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Cheryl MackayNo Gravatar June 29, 2015 at 7:21 AM

Thanks for all the great information on the site, I’m looking for some advice. My husband is 40 in January and I want to take him to Islay for a whisky tasting trip over that weekend as he’s wanted to go for a long time. I know the weather is obviously going to be risky and some of the distilleries are closed but will this still be vaguely possible do you think, if so what would you advise as best as far as transport and things to see at that time of year are concerned?

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ArminNo Gravatar June 29, 2015 at 7:45 AM

Make it a long weekend, as in January most of the distilleries will be closed on Sunday. Flying is probably but not certainly the safer option, they are more likely to still fly when the ferries are cancelled because of high winds.
Contact the distilleries well in advance to find out what tours they are offering the weekend in question, book the special tour of his favourite distillery for him (and yourself if you want to join in).
If your budget allows book the best hotel possible, one with an open fire and well stocked bar to relax in the evening.
Go for a bracing winter walk in Machir Bay

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Cheryl MackayNo Gravatar June 29, 2015 at 8:37 AM

That’s fantastic, thanks Armin for the quick reply, at least it’s possible then. Any recommendations on hotels, he likes Caol Ila and Bowmore best but I know Bridgend is a good place to base yourself.

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Jim StuhtNo Gravatar June 29, 2015 at 10:38 AM

To my mind the Bridgend Hotel is the best on the island. We’ve stayed there whenever we were on Islay and without a doubt Lorna and her staff can’t be beat! And if Caol Ila & Bowmore are your points of interest, you couldn’t be more centralized. I’m sure Armin can give you lots of specific spots to visit, but you absolutely have to stop at the Kildalton Cross – it is the best preserved Celtic Cross in the Hebrides (if not the world) and the site is secluded, lovely, and serene. (Plus you have to pass Laphraoig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg to reach it!) Enjoy what has become my favorite place in Scotland, the wonderful Isle of Islay.

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Cheryl MackayNo Gravatar June 29, 2015 at 10:42 AM

Great, thanks Jim for the advice, it had been mentioned to me that it is a good central point to stay and even better if that’s the best place to stay! Thank you for the tips, I’m sure it’ll make a holiday to remember, we already love the West Coast!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 30, 2015 at 9:30 AM

Hi Cheryl,

Glad to see Armin and Jim have helped answer your question while I was away. Ferries and distillery hours are the two biggest concerns for that time of year, as Armin pointed out, but as long as you get that sorted out a trip in January is certainly possible!

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Cheryl MackayNo Gravatar June 30, 2015 at 10:33 AM

Thanks Keith, it’s looking like the particular distilleries we’d most want to visit are open and still running tours then so it’s all looking good. Thanks to everyone for the advice,!

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Mary SimmondsNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 5:23 AM

I’m going to be staying at Findhorn for two weeks in July and then meeting a friend on Islay for six day in August. I won’t have a car, so can you tell me the best way to get to Islay from Forres by public transport? Is it better to go by bus down to Oban and catch a ferry (or fly), or is it better to go by train to Glascow and fly to Islay? Or catch a ferry from Kyntyre? So many choices! The problem is, I’m nervous in small planes, and I also get seasick on rough seas. Do you think the weather in July would mean calm seas and/or smooth flying?

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ArminNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 5:33 AM

I’d travel to Glasgow, then take the bus to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. In July the weather should be mostly quiet.
Travelling via Oban would restrict you to Wednesdays and Saturdays as that crossing to Islay is only possible those days. Kennacraig runs daily.

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Mary SimmondsNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 5:36 AM

Thank you, Armin, for your quick reply. Do you think I will miss out on amazing scenery by not coming down from Inverness to Oban? Or is the train trip from Inverness to Glascow scenic also?

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ArminNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 5:49 AM

Haven’t taken the train, but I should think the one between Inverness and Glasgow should be quite scenic as well, as you will be passing the Cairngorms (Aviemore), Perth and Stirling.
In addition you will get some great scenery on the journey from Glasgow to Kennacraig through Argyll, passing Loch Lomond with Ben Lomond, going over The Rest and Be Thankful, passing (and shortly stopping in) Inveraray and more. I drive that route several times a year and still haven’t got tired of it.

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Mary SimmondsNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 5:55 AM

Sounds wonderful – I’ll definitely go that way. It probably means an overnight in Glascow, but that is probably a good thing. Any recommendations? Thank you for your advice.

ArminNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 6:02 AM

Haven’t stayed in Glasgow for a while, but when I have I’ve usually stayed in The Victorian House or the Willow House (both in Renfrew Street). They are just a stone throw from the famous Glasgow School of Art and more importantly for you about 10 minutes walk from Buchanan Street Bus Station.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar June 8, 2015 at 8:37 AM

Hi Mary,

Armin’s Islay expertise shows through here – his advice is good. When staying in Glasgow, I really like the West End of the city near Kelvingrove Park. I’ve stayed at the Alamo Guest House a couple of times and recommend it.

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Olga SadaevaNo Gravatar March 22, 2015 at 8:46 AM

Keith, what an incredible blog! Im planning on visiting Scotland next month and reading your posts along with the comments is incredibly helpful to design the journey itinerary 🙂
Thanks!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 22, 2015 at 12:04 PM

Thanks for the kind words, Olga! Glad you’re finding this place helpful 🙂

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HoggaNo Gravatar January 21, 2014 at 9:59 AM

that bull has seen some shit

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Katie FeatherstoneNo Gravatar January 17, 2014 at 10:17 AM

Very interesting to read another travel blog about where I live. A nice selection of spots.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 17, 2014 at 11:30 AM

Cheers, Katie!

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wanderingeducatorsNo Gravatar January 16, 2014 at 2:25 PM

Need to go! My parents had a wonderful time exploring Islay.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 16, 2014 at 3:58 PM

Hurry, before it sinks beneath the ocean!

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StephanieNo Gravatar February 2, 2014 at 11:04 AM

I’m not sure if it’s exactly the same person, but Wandering Educators left a review of the converted Coast Guard house my boys and I are staying at on the Kenmare Estuary in mid-March. Then we are heading to Scotland but I’m not sure we will have time to catch a flight to Islay and I’m guessing the ferries will be out of the question that time of year?

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Jim StuhtNo Gravatar February 2, 2014 at 11:17 AM

Normally the ferry booking wouldn’t be any problem, but I got an email from Calmac recently that due to some problems in their system (I’m guessing one of their vessels needs some repair) they have put Islay on a 1 ferry schedule which cuts the service in half for the present time. That could make connecting more of a problem. (I sure hope they get everything sorted in time for the Feis in May!)

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ArminNo Gravatar February 2, 2014 at 11:44 AM

Not sure what you mean with not having time to catch a flight, but keep in mind that visiting Islay by ferry is very time intensive. The drive from Glasgow to Kennacraig is about 2.5 hours, you need to be at the terminal at least 30 min before departure and the ferry itself is another 2 hours.
Otherwise March should be fine, provided you plan ahead and book ahead. The winter storms and related cancellations should hopefully over by then (although can still happen). Hopefully by the time you get there it will also be back to a two ferry service.

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KenNo Gravatar January 16, 2014 at 7:22 AM

I’ve said it before but my next trip has to be to the western isles. I’ll definitely make the hop to Jura since their 16 year old Diurach’s Own is one of my favorite drams.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 16, 2014 at 3:59 PM

It would be nice to have a personal yacht to cruise among the islands.

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Jim StuhtNo Gravatar January 15, 2014 at 1:18 PM

Can’t agree enough that the sights on Islay make it a perfect getaway. Other isles may have more impressive scenery but the Ileachs make any stay on Islay memorable. (The multitude of distilleries doesn’t hurt either – especially if you’re a lover of the “Peat-Monsters” as I am!) One sight you may have missed is the Islay Woollen Mill – the machinery is turn of the century (19th/20th) but the products they produce are gorgeous — and Gordon (the owner) is a most gracious host and tour guide!

This summer we will be staying at the wonderful, centrally-located, Bridgend Hotel during the Feis Ile. (We stayed there last trip and the hotel, dining, and staff are wonderful.) I figured that if it was good enough for Alfred Barnard on his pre-book travels, it had to be a winner!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 16, 2014 at 4:01 PM

Indeed, Skye and Mull do have more impressive scenery, and prospective visitors should understand that ahead of time. Bridgend is a nice, central location, though there is little else there beyond the hotel and a petrol station.

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ArminNo Gravatar January 19, 2014 at 1:27 PM

There’s a bit more than that to Bridgend: Islay House Square is within very easy walking distance, which has the community gardens, the brewery, Islay Studios, the batik studio and much more. Also Bridgend Woods for a nice woodland walk (if you so desire all the way to the Islay Woollen Mill) is right on your doorstep.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 20, 2014 at 2:38 PM

Thanks for the extra info, Armin!

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