Help us make the most of an Islay trip this spring?
January 23, 2010 3:28 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever been to Islay in Scotland?

We're planning to visit Islay in late April/early May. We're fans of both Islay scotch and birding, and the island has both. We're looking for any advice about things to do, places to stay, how to get there (fly from Glasgow? drive/ferry in a rental car?), and anything else you think we should know.

Info on distillery tours and birding particularly appreciated. We'll be traveling there from Liverpool.
posted by gingerbeer to Travel & Transportation around Islay, Scotland (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I've never been, but I hear if you buy a bottle of Laphroaig, they'll give you a free dram at the distillery.
posted by chicago2penn at 4:50 PM on January 23, 2010

Best answer: Yes! It's amazing. Virtually the first thing we saw upon leaving the ferry at Port Askaig was a golden eagle being mobbed by a lone buzzard. The birdwatcher who was giving us a lift said, "People always say 'Oh you just saw a buzzard' when you say you saw a golden eagle. Well: not this time!" That was by a pair of wee lochs north of the 'main' road from the ferry (Port Askaig doesn't have much else) to Bowmore.

We'd come by ferry from Kennacraig, on the Kintyre peninsula, and the reason we needed a lift was that my bike had bust a spoke on the road down to Kennacraig, at speed, with me and full panniers on the bag (--> unrideably buckled wheel). This meant that for our few days on the island we had to get around mostly by bus, with a little hitching. It worked out reasonably well, especially as we were in Bowmore one night and then on the other side of Loch Indaal, near the Bruichladdich distillery, for a couple more. This was at the very start of April 2006.

Getting there: if you're driving from Liverpool, instead of driving through Glasgow and then the _extremely_ circuitous road to Kintyre (Glasgow to Campbeltown as crow flies: 50 miles; by road: 137, if I remember correctly), consider going via Arran. Worth a visit in itself, and also probably quicker (if you time it right) getting the ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick, on Arran, and then driving round to Lochranza in the north-west of the island (15 miles, amazing views all the way) for the frequent, 5-minute ferry to Claonaig--from there it's only a few miles across Kintyre to Kennacraig. If you bring bikes rather than a car this is definitely the way to go--no train from Glasgow to Kennacraig, which is nothing but a concrete pier and a ticket office, and it's a very long way, and you'll often find yourself on the main road. Bikes are free, I think, on Calmac ferries, and the island-hopper tickets you'd need to do the trip aren't expensive. Prices for cars are on the website. From Kennacraig the ferry goes to Port Askaig or Port Ellen depending on the day. Port Askaig has nothing but a small hotel, a pier, and eye-widening views across the Sound of Jura (the tiny ferry to Jura also leaves from there); Port Ellen is bigger but kind of charmless, overshadowed by big warehouses for generic blended whiskies.

If you're not driving from Liverpool, then yes, flying from Glasgow might be a better bet--the views must be fantastic (they're great from the ferry) and it's much quicker. Presumably you can hire cars at the airfield on Islay, or they match the buses with the flights, or someone will give you a lift (it's good for that).

Obviously you'll do your own exploring, and hopefully you're spending longer there than us (four days, not enough, will go back at first opportunity). A few things, though:

--best food on the island is at the Port Charlotte Hotel, or it was three years ago;
--all the distilleries do tours; we went to Bruichladdich, since we were staying next door, and it was fine, but I now know that I prefer the malts that come out of Bowmore, Caol Ila, and (above all) Lagavulin;
--three of the distilleries (count 'em!) are on one dead-end road that runs from Port Ellen east along the island's south coast; this is also where the highest hills on Islay are, and there are some fine views--combining windswept walk with distillery tours is possible;
--Kilchoman might have bottled some of their malt by now; the beach over there, on the west side of the island, is amazing;
--from Portnahaven on the south tip of the western part of the island you can see the Donegal coast on the horizon;
--from all over the island you can see the Paps of Jura, and one day I swear I'll get over there and climb them;
--the Natural History Centre in Port Charlotte is run by wonderful people: I left a note in their log book saying I thought I'd seen a kite take off from a fence post and blast over the skyline (triangular tail, see--even a glimpse is enough); the volunteer there told me they weren't usually seen on the island, but some time after I'd got home they wrote to me and said that several other people had spotted a black kite that must have been swept onto the island for a brief visit. I also read up about how and where seals sleep in their library (fascinating stuff--ever wondered?);
--the views north to Mull from the north coast of the island are also wonderful;
--we had mostly bright, windy weather (start of April, remember); there were fairly frequent showers which, while out walking, you could see coming from miles away over the sea--this gave ample time to prepare (not that there's much shelter, but there's some), and the wind that blew them in blew them away again a few minutes later;
--the B&B where we stayed in Bowmore wasn't especially memorable, and anyway, why go to Islay to stay in a town (admittedly small)?
--the one by Bruichladdich was lovely; I _think_ it's the one I found on Google Maps called Skerrols;
--if you're okay hostelling, by the time you're there the SYHA at Port Charlotte will be open for the season (opened the week after we were there); if you want a night on Arran on the way there or back, the one at Lochranza is very nice and was closed last year for a full refurbishment;
--now that I actually earn money, though--I didn't at the time--, if I were treating myself I reckon I'd give the beds at the Port Charlotte Hotel a go too;
--people we met whose bikes hadn't broken down did a day (or 2-day?) trip to Colonsay and said it was gorgeous;
--it was amazing, as I think I've already mentioned about nine times: nearly four years later, my head is still full of the things I saw in those few days.

Okay, I think that's enough for now. Hope I'm not bigging it up too much. If the weather's awful while you're there and you hate it and think it's rubbish, I apologize! MeMail me if you'd like any more specific information about anything I've said.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 5:07 PM on January 23, 2010 [11 favorites]

Hmm. You can tell I liked it...
posted by lapsangsouchong at 5:08 PM on January 23, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, lapsangsouchong. That's all helpful.

We're trying to decide if we should rent a car and drive, either from Liverpool or from Glasgow, or fly from Glasgow.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:54 PM on January 23, 2010

I can recommend the Laphroaig distillery tour - IIRC, it's the only distillery on the island that still has its own malthouse, rather than using stuff prepared at the large central maltings and brought in.

You can go onto the floor and see the barley being smoked over the peat fires, and pick up a few grains to eat - that was how I came to first recognise the taste of peat in Islay whiskies. Aaah - still taste those grains now when I have a wee dram of Laphroaig...

But that was the only distillery tour I did, so I don't have anything to compare it to. (Although I can vouch for the deliciousness of the macaroni cheese in the cafe at the Ardbeg distillery!)
posted by penguin pie at 5:41 AM on January 24, 2010

but I hear if you buy a bottle of Laphroaig, they'll give you a free dram at the distillery

If you buy a bottle in the UK at the moment you can sign up to the friends of Laphroaig and they will give you a square foot of land near the distillery, I think the site says you then get shown it if you ever roll up there. Don't know if this applies elsewhere.
posted by biffa at 5:44 AM on January 24, 2010

Bowmore also has their own malting, as well as an interesting tour and exhibit.

I visited Islay three years ago, and stayed at the Harbour Inn, a short walk from the Bowmore distillery.
posted by iviken at 2:14 PM on January 24, 2010

I think you get a square foot of land at the Laphroaig distillery no matter where you buy the bottle from; I bought my bottle in Singapore and have been informed that I now own a square foot of land in Islay. How awesome is that.
posted by nihraguk at 7:32 PM on January 24, 2010

I visited last spring with a fairly large group; stayed in one of the Bowmore cottages and did the Ardbeg distillery tour (among other things).

I can't add much to lapsangsouchong's post, but I would recommend staying in one of the cottages that the distilleries offer. They are well set up and quite comfortable.
posted by joeycoleman at 3:39 AM on January 25, 2010

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