Cosy hotels, Islay distilleries, good walks and fabulous food
Such a wonderful experience did we have on the Isle of Islay that I felt I had to share it with you. We enjoyed warm hostpitality, amazing food lovingly made with local ingredients, fresh sea air and whisky. Lots of whisky!
We left Edinburgh quite late in the evening and arrived at our over night destination The George Hotel in Inveraray. It was a dark, drizzly, murky evening but a warm welcome awaited us inside. Established in 1860, and simply oozing Scottish charm and character.
The bar, with its exposed stone walls and welcome roaring fire was stocked to the hilt with a fine selection of whisky, craft gins and real ales. The low ceiling was festooned with twiggy branches adorned with coloured fairy lights. Moodily atmospheric and no doubt full of spirits of the past. If walls could speak!
We dumped our bags in our very comfortable room and headed straight back down stairs for dinner. I had chargrilled lightly smoked Loch Fyne Salmon, Loch Fyne being just down the road. Donald chose pan fried Scottish venison. Both delicious.
We had a great nights sleep, I would have loved to linger and enjoy a soak in our roll top bath and a relaxing breakfast but we had an early ferry to catch and the journey from Inveraray to the ferry terminal in Kennacraig takes a minimum 1 hour so we had to get a wriggle on and look forward to breakfast on board the Calmac ferry instead.
We arrived in good time and just as day was breaking. It was a still, drizzly morning, not quite fog but not quite rain. The sort of stuff that gets you wet. Those who know me know how much I love driving onto a ferry, the engine noise the smell of diesel mingled with salty sea air and enticing aromas coming from the galley kitchen, a mixture of island folk going about their business and excited travelers.
The wind sock hung limp and two swans float along side the still docked ferry, perfect reflections in the water. The low lying hills and trees in receding layers of grey, monochrome but beautifully mysterious and serene. Filling me with a sense of calm. A curlews evocative cry stirs something in side me I cannot explain. It reminds me of our years living on Unst in the Shetlands, a wild remote place. Robert Burns could
“never hear the loud solitary whistle of a curlew in a summer’s noon without feeling an elevation of soul”
Any way, I really digress and we havn’t even made it onto Islay yet!
There is more of a breeze out in the Sound of Jura, having filled our boots with a hearty, full Scottish breakfast which should see us through until tea time tomorrow, we settle back to enjoy the two and a half hour crossing to Port Ellen at the south end of Islay.
Our first impression of Port Ellen was how much it reminded us of the Shetland Isles in terms of geography and it’s practical, functionality. We spilled off the ferry with everyone else and decided to give Oliver Dog a little leg stretch at the Port Ellen Lighthouse.
We wandered along the coastal path following the sign posts for the Singing Sands.
As we walked, a terrible odour hit me, it turned out to be a wild goat and her kid. By heck they reeked, it reminded me why I don’t like goats cheese! They bounded off sure footed across the rocky beach, leaving their fetid stench behind!
Much happier for a walk, we headed back to the car to make a bee line for the American Monument on the Oa, a rocky peninsula in the south west of the island.
We parked in the RSPB car park and made our way up to the monument, built by the American Red Cross to commemorate the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto, torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. A truly impressive memorial to the many lives lost.
Back towards Port Ellen again and then along the coast in the other direction. We drove along a coast hugging lane. Birch trees edged the road, dripping in green lichen, a sure indication of fresh air. Rhododendron bushes buds still tightly shut but promising to provide beauty and colour in the coming spring. Crumbling stone walls thickly caked in moss. We passed by the Laphroig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg Distilleries and made plans to visit them tomorrow.
Our first night on Islay was to be spent in the Islay Hotel on Charlotte Street in Port Ellen. Olly Dog was made to feel most welcome and he was so well behaved considering he’s just a Naples street ragamuffin. The staff were all incredibly friendly and local to the Island which is something that I’m always glad about.
We left Olly to keep the bed warm and headed down stairs for dinner. Because it was out of season and mid week the restaurant was not open but we were more than happy to enjoy dinner in the Whisky Bar. As you would expect the bar was groaning under the weight of Islay malt whisky, not to mention Islay and Jura gins and real ales. Donald had Islay venison chilli and I had rack of Argyll lamb, both sooo good. A night cap was most definitely in order. Laphroaig, like Marmite, love it or hate it. We love it.
The next morning breakfast was served in the dining room over looking the harbour and a very fine breakfast it was too. Coincidentally we discovered via facebook that friends of ours from our time living in Naples were on Islay at the same time as us so we prolonged breakfast and had coffee with them before heading off for a day of distilleries.
A handy walking/cycling path links Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries, great if no one is volunteering to drive and all with in easy staggering distance of Port Ellen. I was happy to drive though, it being a little too early in the day for me to partake!
I love Laphroaig’s #opinionswelcome campaign. The walls on the way into the distillery are lined with hilarious quotes such as ,
“Essence of Grandad by the fire in his stinky pullover tapping out his pipe. Pure contentment”
Before heading for our nights accommodation we thought we’d enjoy a stroll on the beach. Islay boasts numerous sandy beaches, we went to Machir Bay on the west coast, two kilometres of dunes and beach. It was late afternoon and there was not much daylight left so we had the whole beach to ourselves.
Tonight’s hotel was the cosy Bridgend Hotel just 20 minutes from Port Ellen. Faces a glow from the fresh sea air, we checked in.
We stepped into the warmth and were immediately welcomed by a very friendly member of staff who more than reinforced our impression that Islay folk are indeed an affable bunch. Inside simply oozed Scottish charm, but in an understated way.
What a fabulous meal we had, Islay scallops, venison from the local estate and my all time favourite dessert, bread and butter pudding. I think if I had to choose my last ever meal this just might be it, contending only with my Mum’s roast beef dinner! High praise indeed. There is a real emphasis on amazing local produce, even the vegetable come from the neighbouring Islay House community gardens.
We sat in the lounge afterwards nursing a whisky and just enjoying the fire with it’s flickering, hypnotic flames and homely smell of wood smoke.
After an exceedingly comfortable night and another fabulous Scottish breakfast of porridge, followed by eggs, bacon, sausages, haggis, mushrooms, toast and copious amounts of tea, we checked out and set off for another day of exploring.
We visited the rest of the Islay distilleries, Bowemore, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, which I would love to talk about more but I’m conscious not to let this article compete in length with ‘War and Peace’! We also happened upon the Islay Woolen Mill and were so glad we stopped, owner Gordon Covell was so happy to give us an impromptu guided tour. The excellent range of top quality woven fabrics much coveted by Royalty and the Hollywood film industry alike.
After a really full day it was time to head for Islay House and our home for the night. Wow, what a fabulous find. It felt less like hotel and more like a (very wealthy) friend’s home. Once more we were not disappointed with the warmth of our host’s welcome and were very happy to accept a room upgrade. I sat and wrote my diary in the bar, enveloped in a comfy leather arm chair, bolstered with tweed cushions, sea views through the grand sash windows. I could really make myself quite at home here.
We had another great nights sleep. Breakfast was beautiful too. I had porridge with berries, cream and whisky followed by scrambled egg, avocado and bacon whilst Donald had his final fling with a full Scottish. We have been so spoilt.
Back on the ferry leaving from Port Askaig, mainland bound, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness to be leaving this wild and beautiful place with it’s cheery friendly folk, it’s wonderful food and an abundance of our favourite whiskies.
So a big thank you to everyone who made our trip to Islay so special, we can’t wait to come back again.
Do you have a favorite Islay whisky? Is Islay somewhere you would like to include in your Scotland visit? Let me know your thought’s below.
In the mean time, happy planning.