No Scottish isle boasts as many whisky distilleries as the hallowed ‘Whisky Isle’ so get stuck in to its nine distilleries. Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig tempt in the south in whitewashed Victorian splendour, with eponymous Bowmore in the island capital similarly historic, plus it handily has a town attached. Bruichladdich sits across the other side of Loch Indaal on the Rhinns of Islay peninusla, while Kilchoman lies just inland from Machir Bay on Islay’s north coast. Ardnahoe recently joined its siblings – Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila – out east on the Sound of Islay.
Each distillery boasts its own tours and tastings. Make sure to try a few as they vary and you may end up making a real discovery. My favourite café is at Ardbeg, which has a great shop, too. The team are adept at making first timers feel welcome. If you want small-scale, Kilchoman is the place; its production is woven around a working farm.
The island capital is a whitewashed charmer. It sports its own excellent distillery – which heats the local swimming pool – as well as a range of wee shops, cafes and restaurants. Its most striking building is the ‘Round Church’, said to have been built in its unique shape so that the devil did not have a corner to hide in.
Bowmore is a great place to potter around and the sea salt tang is never far away as it sits right on the water. If you like whisky, check out The Lochside hotel with its atmospheric whisky bar and waterfront terrace. I try to stay away from The Lochside as it stocks my favourite malt – the heavenly Ardbeg 17-year-old. It’s no longer made so you won’t find many places on the planet that still offer it as a dram.
Islay may not have any Munro mountains, but it has a great range of hikes and most are easy to tackle even in winter. A walk along Big Strand – a 12km sandy beach – is a bracing one. Even more dramatic is pushing around from its southern tip in search of Soldiers Rock, a striking rock pinnacle that echoes Orkney’s Old Man of Hoy.
A poignant hike is out to the Mull of Oa peninsula, where the 131m American Monument is dedicated to the brace of troop ships that tragically went down here in tempestuous seas during the First World War. The highest hill, Beinn Bheigeir, at 491m, is one of Islay’s seven Marilyns. It’s a bit of a yomp and you will need to work out transport there and back as it’s a slog in and out. As with all walking in Scotland make sure you have the correct gear, a map and compass – plus someone in your party who can use them. Remember to tell someone where you are going, too.
Getting out on the water is the best way to follow in the boatsteps of the Lords of the Isles and appreciate Islay’s geography and history, as for thousands of years getting here by sea was the only way.
Islay Sea Adventures operates a range of trips on its fleet of vessels, with everything from wildlife sailings in search of sea eagles, otters and whales through to foodie-orientated seafood adventures. The highlight are the hand-dived scallops, which are cooked on a barbecue while you take in the delights of the Special Area of Conservation. The adventurous can race off on a powerful RIB in search of the Gulf of Corryvreckan, the third largest whirlpool in the world and the stuff of Scottish seafaring legend.
Kayak Wild Islay are the guys if you want to get out on the cobalt Atlantic. After meeting at Port Ellen for a quick check on your skills and a safety briefing, you’ll set off to explore the island’s wildlife-rich and endlessly scenic coast. You can choose to tackle a half day or make a whole day of it. In my experience you will likely want more time on the water – unless you’ve never kayaked before and you make the painful mistake of using your forearms for paddling too much.
Islay may be famous for its whisky distilleries, but the rise and rise in popularity of Scottish gins has not gone unnoticed by the islanders. Bruichladdich’s Botanist is already fairly well known and available in many bars off the island. More niche is a relative newcomer, Nerabus Islay Gin. Its small batch, heather-infused gin tastes crisp and clear and is best enjoyed with a slice of lime and sprig of rosemary. You can visit its welcoming small distillery and shop too.
Islay’s neighbour is a brooding, deeply mountainous beast. It’s much wilder than Islay and indeed sports only one real road, as well as a distillery, shop, hotel, bar and a population of around 6,000 – red deer, that is! In a land ravaged by the 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances, today fewer than 200 hardy (human) souls inhabit remote Jura, which you can reach on a short ferry trip from Islay.
One famous visitor was George Orwell. The house where he wrote 1984 – after almost drowning in a boating accident in Corryvreckan – still stands. A more recent arrival is Lussa Gin, which produces an excellent small batch spirit.
The Paps of Jura meanwhile are an unmistakable trio of rounded mountains that are a real test with their steep scree-sliced slopes.
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