After visiting the Isle of Arran earlier in the year, I was eager to continue exploring more of Scotland’s islands. Islay was the next destination, chosen after a conversation with my dad about its whisky after he and Mum visited earlier in the year. My best friend has gotten more interested in whisky over the last year or two, so she was also eager for some tastings. Islay is one of the major whisky regions in Scotland, with a dozen distilleries and distinct peaty flavour profile. However, Islay also has plenty to see for non-whisky drinkers! So, we both arranged a day off work for an Islay long weekend trip (with Jura included too!).
Although Scotland is a relatively small country, it still takes a long time to reach its more remote corners. Our long weekend trip to Islay started on the Friday afternoon, with the long drive from Edinburgh to Tarbert, nestled halfway down the Kintyre peninsula on the West Coast. These are the moments I’m very grateful for my friend agreeing to drive all weekend since I haven’t driven in years! It was a wonderfully scenic drive though, traveling up through Loch Lomond National Park and then down the shores of Loch Fyne. It took around 3.5 hours though, so we had arranged to spend the night in Tarbert. We arrived in the early evening and had time for a quick stroll around the picturesque harbour. The West Coast in general is known for its seafood, so I broke my semi-vegetarianism to enjoy some for dinner!
The next morning we were up bright and early to make the short drive over to the Calmac ferry terminal at Kennacraig. This is the main terminal to reach Islay, though you can also go from Oban via Colonsay, on a less frequent schedule. Islay has two ports itself, Port Ellen and Port Askaig, but on such a small island, it doesn’t make a huge difference which one you arrive into. We had a 2.5-hour crossing to arrive into Port Ellen mid-morning.
The first day of our Islay long weekend trip revolved around distilleries and my friend getting to drink and not drive. So, we had strategically booked to stay in a glamping pod on the Three Distilleries walking route just outside Port Ellen. But since our tasting wasn’t until the early afternoon, we made use of the car to pop over to Bowmore first. This is one of the larger towns on the island, which naturally does have another distillery. We got a good view of it down by the waterfront, with the name painted along its sea-facing side. Most of Islay’s distilleries do this and we had spotted Port Ellen’s as we arrived on the ferry. We wandered through the white-painted houses lined with black, typical of most of the villages here.
There were some cute shops and cafes to browse, and we stopped in Labels for coffee. It was filled to the brim with vintage-themed trinkets, posters, and art. Bowmore is also known for its round church – so there are no corners for the Devil to hide in. We couldn’t visit inside, as it was closed, but we walked up the hill to have a look. Then, it was time to head back towards Port Ellen, taking in the views of Islay’s remarkably flat landscape along the way. Many of the roads are single track as well, so you have to pull in to let others pass. The drivers were all very friendly too, waving whenever you passed each other, whether on a single or double track!
Lagavulin Whisky Tasting
We dropped off the car at our pod, scenically located in a bay on Islay’s east coast. From there, it was a short walk to Lagavulin Distillery, where we had booked a tasting session. We arrived early and had some time to look around the shop. Lagavulin provided one of the ‘Game of Thrones’ themed whiskies, for House Lannister. They also had a special Nick Offerman bottle available, due to his character’s love of Lagavulin in Parks & Recreation. They held the tasting in a simple room decorated with old whisky memorabilia, and we sat around a long table with our guide at the head. My friend and I were the only females in a room with a dozen men, but we were delighted that our guide was female too!
We got four whiskies to try, all of which were classically Islay peated, but not overwhelmingly so. Some of the others in the tasting were clearly well-experienced whisky drinkers, but rather than us feeling intimidated by them, they were actually super helpful and informative. Between them and the guide, we definitely learned a lot! Including that my friend and I have very different tastes – we both liked the opposite whiskies to each other! I’m clearly my father’s daughter, though. When I texted my favourite pick to Mum, she replied that it was also Dad’s and he had a bottle of it at home from their visit!
Ardbeg & Laphroaig Distilleries
The Three Distilleries walk is what it sounds like – a walking trail that links three of Islay’s distilleries. Ideal when you both want to drink the whisky and not need to drive! We hadn’t booked tastings at the others but wanted to visit their shops, and often they give you samples to try anyways. We headed up the road to Ardbeg first, running into our fellow tasters from Lagavulin once we got there! There’s a food truck and seating out in the courtyard and we were overdue lunch by this point. I liked that the truck is copper and resembles the large copper still also in the courtyard nearby! Then we popped into the shop for a browse and tried a couple of samples. Although due to Covid rules, we had to take them outside to drink. Unfortunately, neither of us were particularly keen on any of them!
Then we retraced our steps along the coast to the third distillery, Laphroaig. This brand is known for its super peaty, smoky whiskies, which can be pretty divisive. They’re aware of it, though; they’ve covered the exterior wall with quotes describing the taste, many of which are not-so-complimentary! Honestly, we both went in expecting not to love this one either. We were in for a pleasant surprised in the end though! They had a small seating area where they handed out samples, so we tried a couple. The cask-strength one was like a punch in the throat to me, but my friend enjoyed it. But I found the sherry cask one really nice! Enough that I was tempted to buy a bottle, but it was a little pricey in relation to how much I liked it.
From Laphroaig, it wasn’t far to walk back to Port Ellen, the closest town. This was the opposite direction from our pod, but the closest location to find dinner. Along the walk, we also passed by a small stone church. It doesn’t seem very significant at first, but we learned the backstory at Lagavulin. When the excise men (tax collectors) came to the island, someone would raise an alarm and the illicit whisky would be hidden inside coffins. The islanders would then come out and stage a funeral (with a dozen coffins each time…), to avoid their whisky being taxed or confiscated!
Port Ellen is a small town, with a hotel and a few shops and restaurants along the shore. It was still too early for dinner, so we went into the Islay Hotel bar for another drink – switching to beer after all the whisky! We checked out the menus of a few restaurants but still weren’t really ready for food. Plus, we were conscious of needing to walk the half hour back to our pod.
In the end, we decided to get takeaway from the SeaSalt Bistro and some drinks and snacks from the supermarket to take back. The walk back felt quite long by that time of day, but it’s a nice route following the roadside along the island’s shore. Our pod had a microwave to reheat our dinner and decking to eat outside while looking across the bay. And, to top off everything, I finally saw a seal swimming in the sea – after struggling to find a single one back on Arran!
The Isle of Jura
The second day of our Islay long weekend trip included a journey to the neighbouring island, Jura. We drove north to Port Askaig to catch the ferry. While the Islay ferry was large, with separate car and passenger decks, the boat to Jura was an entirely different story. It felt like scarcely more than a deck and an engine with a dozen or so other vehicles. After buying our tickets out the window, we had to remain inside the car for the journey. Which all would have been fine – were it not for how rough the sea was! Leaving the car would have had you soaked in seconds as we rolled and churned over the narrow sound. Thankfully it was a short journey and we survived intact!
Jura was quite the contrast to the flat landscape of Islay, as the large hills that form the Paps of Jura rose up from the sea to greet us. Jura has one road running up its eastern coast and much of the rest is wild and untouched. It’s also home to a vast red deer population, starkly outnumbering the human population. Following the road, we took in the stunning landscapes, hills on our left and sparkling sea on our right. We pulled over a few times to take photos and once to check out an abandoned stone building.
At the northern end of this road, which turns into little more than a dirt track, is the settlement of Inverlussa. There’s a gin distillery here, which was closed that day, but neither of us are big gin drinkers anyway. Instead, we parked down by a pebble beach, where a group of horse riders ambled past us. Mum had told us about a little ‘Tea on the Beach’ honesty box, which we spotted, but was all closed up. We explored the beach though, hunting for crabs and enjoying the scenery.
Eventually, we headed back down the road south along Jura. In the centre of the island (which we’d passed through on the journey up) lies the main town of Craighouse. This small collection of houses, with a handful of shops and cafes, centres around – what else – a distillery. I had a bottle of Jura whisky back home already. Which was lucky, as it too was closed, since it was Sunday. Lesson learned – most of Islay’s distilleries close on Sundays and Mondays, so our long weekend might have been better started a day earlier!
We stopped in the Antlers Bistro for lunch, pleased to note that most of the menu consisted of venison, hunted from the wild deer population, and seafood, caught fresh off the shore. All very local and sustainable! Our timing was good too, as the weather had been in our favour so far that day. But while we still had brilliant blue skies out to sea, thick grey clouds were rolling over the Paps of Jura. Somewhat concerned about the ferry crossing back to Islay, we soon departed from Jura.
While the sun was long gone, we still had a good chunk of the day left when we returned to Islay. While on the island’s northern side, we stopped at Finlaggan. This was also to satisfy my history nerd side! Finlaggan was the historic seat of the Lords of the Isles, clan chiefs who ruled the West Coast. It sits on the shores of Loch Finlaggan, a ruin at the end of a bridge leading out into the water. Sadly, the bridge is closed for repairs so we couldn’t go all the way out. But we were able to get close enough to see the loch and take in the surrounding scenery. there’s a small visitor centre where you park as well, but again, closed on Sundays!
There are three more distilleries on the north shore of Islay. As my friend had to drive that day, we weren’t going for any tastings or too many samples either. In fact, we hadn’t planned on visiting them at ll, until we realised we still had plenty of time. Caol Ile is undergoing a large renovation and Ardnahoe is closed on Sundays (imagine that!). But, Bunnahabhain was still open and we headed into the shop. Sure enough, the staff didn’t take log to offer us some samples. We took one of each, my friend having a couple of sips and leaving me to finish them off.
It turned out to be an excellent impromptu stop, as I finally bought a bottle of whisky from our trip! I think Bunnahabhain is probably my favourite of all the Islay whiskies, at least of those I’ve tried. The other wonderful thing about this distillery is the view! Like Ardbeg, we had to take our samples outside to drink. But the shop has an outdoor covered terrace – perfect for a rainy day! And it boasts a superb view looking across the sea to the Paps of Jura. Even on a rainy day, it was beautiful! After I polished off the whiskies and bought my bottle, we then returned across Islay once more to our pod for the evening.
The final day of our long weekend trip to Islay was really only a half day. We had the long journey back to Edinburgh, with the ferry and drive ahead of us. So, we were taking an early afternoon ferry, to get us back home before it got too late. It also turns out that Islay doesn’t really do Monday mornings! Besides the distilleries all being shut, many shops and cafes were too. I’m also not a fan of Monday mornings, so I did sort of appreciate their reluctance to face it.
We ended up driving back through Bowmore and continuing to the west side of the island. Islay has a distinct shape, with a sort of bay in the middle, and we went to the far side, to the town of Port Charlotte. And yes, there is a sign painted on whisky barrels. And yes, I insisted on taking a photo with my own mae! Technically, it’s the reverse of the Bruichladdich distillery sign, as Port Charlotte is one of their varieties. It’s incredibly smoky though, and from past experience, I’m not a huge fan. Since the town was still half asleep, we wandered along the shore, eventually finding somewhere to stop for coffee. The sun was out again though, and it was all very pretty and scenic to just amble through. Then, it was time to return to Port Ellen to catch the ferry home.
We had a great time on our weekend trip to Islay overall! In hindsight, we might have been better picking different days, with so much being closed on Sundays and Mondays. But when someone has to drive (public transport is very limited), you can only do so much whisky tasting anyway. The proper tasting we did was a definite highlight though. And, there were lots of other things to see and do, even just admiring the scenery – flat as it was!