Islay for Beginners

by Oliver Klimek on May 23, 2010

No, this is not really supposed to be a tourist guide. In this article I would like to share my experiences of Islay that are not related to specific whisky distilleries. I had never been on Islay before, so I think the title is appropriate.

Getting There

The most popular method of reaching Islay is the ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen, but there is also a regular air service between Glasgow and Islay operated by Logan Air. For my journey to the Island I decided to combine both, so I took the plane from Glasgow to Islay and left with the ferry one week later.

Many Islay regulars always use the ferry because it is cheaper. But in my case things were a bit different. Leaving from Munich Airport, it would have been impossible to reach Islay on a single day without flying all the way. But a stopover somwhere in between combined with the coach and ferry tickets will cost about as much as the flight from Glasgow to Islay. But as I intended to spend a few additional days in Glasgow after my stay on Islay the ferry/coach combo was just the right thing for the return journey.

I was lucky enough to arrive on a sunny day, and the flight was a very nice experience. Try to get a seat at the rear right of the plane. The altitude will be quite low, so you will have beautiful views of the lochs and islands beneath you. And on final approach to Islay you will be able to see Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries lined up on the coast which frankly is one of the most beautiful sights of Islay you can get. But if the weather is nasty, I can imagine the flight to become quite bumpy.

Accomodation

I chose Port Ellen as base for my expeditions mainly because it allowed me to reach the three southern distilleries on foot. Encouraged by some enthusiastic reviews I booked a room at the Oystercatcher Bed & Breakfast which is located in one of the small houses that line Port Ellen harbour. And I was not disappointed. Lynn, the charming landlady, even offered to pick me up at the airport. The B&B is decorated just as charmingly, my room was a bit on the small side though without too much space to accomodate the luggage. So much for the Bed; the Breakfast menu boasts all Scottish treats you can image, haggis, black pudding, kippers, smoked salmon, you name it. For more cautious guests, cereals or bacon end eggs are provoded as well, of course. And the breakfast is hard to beat in terms of quality and quantity. If you leave the table hungry, you should consider consulting your doctor.

Gastronomy

The downside of lodging in Port Ellen is the very limited selection of eating places. On the entire south coast of Islay there are only a handful of possibilites to have lunch or dinner, most of them of average quality. Actually the best food is served at the Old Kiln Café of Ardbeg Distillery, unfortunately it is only open at lunchtime (I had a decent steak pie and a fabulous “Ardbeg honey parfait” there). Without a car to reach some of the finer dining locations further north you are left with an Indian “takeway plus”, a “Cyber Bistro” and the White Hart Hotel, all in Port Ellen.

Getting Around

Staying on Islay without a car is a bit of a challenge. With just over 3000 inhabitants spread across more than 600 square kilometres you can’t epxect a luxurious public transport infrastructure. There is a small bus network with three branches (Ardbeg/Port Ellen – Portnahaven/Bruichladdich – Port Askaig) that meet in Bridgend and Bowmore. Fares are quite reasonable, one way across the whole Island costs about £4. Don’t be fooled by School bus signs that some of the buses display. These are perfectly normal bus lines that just happen to carry mostly children on their way to and from school.

If you want to travel across the island, it is absolutely mandatory that you print out the bus time table from www.islayinfo.com. Put it under you pillow at night, contemplate about it at the pub, or learn it by heart. You surely don’t want to miss the last bus from Port Askaig when you want to return to Port Ellen. There are also a few taxi services, but of course they are way more expensive than the bus.

Locals may tell you that there are not traffic lights or roundabouts on Islay. Well, they might by right about the trafic lights, but there is a cutle little roundabout at Caol Ila, immortalized by Armin Grewe of Islayblog in this video.

Reaching the Distilleries

Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Bruichladdich are situated right next to the bus lines, so you won’t have any problems there. And it’s only 3 miles (5 km) from Port Ellen to Ardbeg, so you can also walk to the first three distilleries from there.

Caol Ila is about a mile away from Port Askaig, but the bus driver will happily drop you at the junction so you can save a little time.

Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman are only reachable by walking about 5 miles one way. Actually there is one bus a day to Bunnahabhain, but its timing is useless for distillery visits.

I managed to see two distilleries a day, but I got several lifts from distillery people that resulted from my email contacts. Without help, this task could be difficult to achieve unless you also rely on a taxi.

More Than Just Whisky

I had six full days on Islay, four of which I spent with distillery visists (Tuesday to Friday). But although whisky undoubtedly is the main focus on Islay the island has much more to offer. So I tried to use the remaining two days on the weekend to see at least a little of what’s on the non-alcoholic menu.

On saturday I made a bus trip right up to Portnahaven at the very tip of the Rhinns of Islay. It is a nice calm village at a small bay, its main attractions being the view of the lighthouse and the local pub serving decent food. There a nice possibilities for walking there giving you good views of the coast and landscape.

Sunday was my ultimate walking day. I walked all the way from Port Ellen to the American Monument at the Mull of Oa that was built after World War I. Of course I also walked back…

The monument itself is no big deal, but it sits on top of a cliff that gives you a magnificent view of the coast. There is a parking lot at the dead end of the road about half a mile from the monument. To reach it you will have to walk on grass-covered spongy peat that will most certainly also display some puddles. So ladies, leave your high heels at home! The monument can be reached on a direct footpath or a circular path that provides face-to-face contact with a herd of cute and shaggy highland cows.

Where’s the Tourism?

Of course, Islay is a tourist attraction, mainly fuelled by the whisky distilleries but also by the great possibilities for walking and wildlife watching. To be honest, I had expected Islay to be far more touristy than it actually turned out to be. But luckily I could not detect the typicial symptoms of tourism like lines of souvenir shops or those little choo-choo tractor trains that carry people around for sight-seeing.

Manifest tourism on Islay seems to be concentrated at the disilleries only. The only touristic feature at the American monument is an information board. I wonder how Islay might look if it belonged to Italy, Spain or France.

And another positive surprise for me was the amazing friendliness of the local people. In other places in the world I made the experience that tourists are often ignored or sometimes even frowned upon, even by locals who make their living with tourism. But if people start chatting to you at bus stops and farmers greet you down from their tractors as well as locals on the street even though you are visibly not one of them, it is clear that visitors really are welcome on Islay.

So far, the Ileachs seem to have managed admiringly well to keep the balance between generating cash flow from visitors and retaining their cultural and personal identities. Luckily peated whisky and bird watching are not really big magnets for mass tourism, so I am positive that this special Islay feeling will not change in the future.


The ferry from Kennacraig approaching Port Ellen



Houses around Port Ellen harbour



Rocks, gorse bushes and pines at Port Askaig



The famous Caol Ila roundabout



Dramatic sky near Lagavulin



The south coast of Islay



Portnahaven



A group of seals in Portnahaven harbour



The telephone booth of Portnahaven


Sheep are omnipresent on Islay



The north shore of the Oa



The American Monument at the Mull of Oa



A look down the cliff



Goats on top of the cliff



The bay east of the Mull of Oa



What a pasture!



Mind your steps



Highland cattle can have some serious horns



Farewell Islay with a view of Eilean a Chuirn Lighthouse in front of the Paps of Jura



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