Visiting Islay: The Things You Need To Know

The isle of Islay has been a source of intrigue and wonder for many tourists, especially for those who enjoy the smoky whiskies that are produced by the various distilleries on the island. It is therefore seen as a pilgrimage of sorts for peat-freaks and whisky lovers who aim to visit these distilleries in order to find out more about the whisky making process (and also partake in the sampling of some bloody good whisky).

I have therefore decided to put together a guidebook of sorts for travellers who intend to make the journey to Islay and I hope that the information presented in this post will be of use to those who are planning to visit this wonderful island.

In order to make things more easily accessible, I have split the relevant information into the following sub-headings:

  • Essential planning decisions
  • How to get to Islay
  • Accommodation
  • Amenities
  • Getting around the island
  • Distillery information, tours and schedules
  • Things to remember

Essential planning decisions

Ardbeg Distillery (Picture Credit: IslayPictures.com)
Ardbeg Distillery (Picture Credit: IslayPictures.com)

The first thing that travellers should consider when planning a trip to Islay would be to agree upon the length of the stay and the landmarks and places that they wish to visit and experience. As there are 8 functioning distilleries on Islay (Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin & Laphroaig) and another on the neighbouring Jura (Isle of Jura), it would be best to take as much time as possible in order to give each distillery one’s fullest attention.

As a rule of thumb, it would be wise to spend at least a week on the island so that all 9 distilleries and any other places of interest can be covered. As the island is a rather interesting place with landmarks such as the Kildalton Cross, the American monument on the Mull of Oa, the Islay Brewery, the site of the upcoming Gartbreck distillery and even the famous peat bogs which dot the landscape, a week would be a good amount of time to spend on the island.

The next thing that travellers should consider would be when to make a trip to the island. The distilleries usually operate during most of the year, with some of them taking a break during the summer months in order to carry out essential maintenance as well as during the period which spans mid December to mid January so as to observe Christmas and the New Year celebrations. Therefore, it would be advisable to refer to the respective distillery schedules so that visits can be planned efficiently.

The period which covers the last 2 weeks of May is also considered to be the busiest in the entire calendar year as it is when the annual Islay Festival (or Feis Ile) is held. Accommodation is almost impossible to secure and also prohibitively expensive as rates are usually doubled or even tripled during the period. It is therefore best to avoid this period for travel (unless the intention would be to attend the festival, which in this case requires accommodation, transportation and festival masterclasses to be booked at least 6 months to a year in advance).

Another thing that travellers should keep in mind would be the amount of spending money required when planning a trip to Islay. From a personal perspective, I spent approximately £500 during my 6 day stay on the island and this amount included transportation, purchases, distillery tours, souvenirs, provisions as well as food and drink. I would highly recommend travelling in a group of at least 3 people in order to help keep costs within a reasonable range.

Finally, travellers should also conduct research on how things function on Islay as there might be some practices which differ rather significantly from what they might be used to in their home country. I would suggest refering to the following link for more information about the island as well as some pertinent information regarding where to eat and drink: http://wikitravel.org/en/Islay

How to get to Islay

Bowmore distillery.
Bowmore distillery.

As Islay is located approximately 20 miles off the western coast of mainland Scotland, it is not possible to drive there without having to cross a large body of water first. This leaves only two options to get to the island: By flight or by ferry.

If you are looking for a relatively easy way to get to Islay, Flybe (http://www.flybe.com/) operates daily flights from Glasgow to the island several times a day. The journey itself is approximately 45 minutes, but please bear in mind that flights can be rather expensive at anywhere up to £250 per person during peak period.

However, if you aren’t in a hurry and would prefer to take the scenic route, I would recommend that you take the Scottish Citylink bus from Glasgow (Service #926) to Kennacraig Ferry Terminal on the Kintyre Peninsula, which is a 3h 15m journey which takes you through some spectacular terrain and breathtaking scenery.

Tickets for the Citylink bus can be purchased at http://www.citylink.co.uk/ and the cost can be as low as £20 for a return ticket if it is booked in advance (although same day departure tickets can be purchased for £30 for a return option if need be, so it is rather reasonable).

Upon reaching Kennacraig Ferry Terminal, you would be able to purchase a passenger ticket for £12.90 return if you were travelling without a vehicle. However, if you intend to drive while on Islay, please remember to book your passage in advance as the ferries do fill up rather rapidly.

If you are looking to travel during the summer months (3rd April 2015 to 25th October 2015), the timetable for the ferries (which are operated by Caledonian Macbrayne or CalMac for short) can be found here: https://www.calmac.co.uk/calmac-summer-timetables. However, if you are looking to travel during the winter months (26th October 2015 to 24th March 2016), this timetable will be applicable: https://www.calmac.co.uk/calmac-winter-timetables.

I would personally recommend the bus and ferry combo as it provides you with a chance to take in some of the spectacular scenery between Glasgow and Kennacraig as well as savour the journey across the water on the ferry, which brings with it more spectacular scenery.

Accommodation

Bruichladdich distillery.
Bruichladdich distillery.

Islay depends on agriculture, fishing and tourism in order to survive and so it is no surprise that there are a multitude of hotels, bed & breakfasts and self-catering accommodation options available for travellers to consider when making a trip to the island.

One of the best guides which caters to the hotels and bed & breakfasts would be this: http://www.islayinfo.com/islay_hotels.html

It provides a fairly comprehensive list of hotels and bed & breakfasts that travellers would be able to reserve for the duration of their stay. A side note would be the availability of a self-catering apartment at the Port Askaig Hotel which is able to accommodate up to 6 persons. It usually retails for between £250-400 per week and is exclusive of VAT, food and drink. The link can be found here: http://www.portaskaig.co.uk/apartment.html

Another option would be AirBnB, which does have some rather good listings from time to time. My accommodation during my visit was booked via AirBnB and I managed to secure a rather stellar house in Port Ellen which offered spectacular views of the bay. The listing in question can be found here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/876902

For those who are on a budget and not fussed with communal facilities, the SYHA Hostelling Scotland youth hostel is an affordable and convenient way to enjoy the sights and sounds of Islay without breaking the bank. The Islay hostel is located in the village of Port Charlotte and is closeset to Bruichladdich distillery. More information about this hostel can be found here: https://www.syha.org.uk/where-to-stay/islands/port-charlotte.aspx

Amenities

Bunnahabhain distillery.
Bunnahabhain distillery.

In terms of amenities, these would fall into the following categories:

  • Food and drink
  • Groceries
  • General purpose

In terms of food and drink, there are a wealth of options that you could indulge in, most of which can be found in the following guide: http://wikitravel.org/en/Islay. Please also be advised that there are not many food and drink options beyond the ones listed in the link above, but there are some small shops in all the villages on Islay which will provide snacks for sale.

In terms of groceries, there are two main options: Grocery stores such as The Co-operative Store (http://www.co-operative.coop), which has two outlets in Bowmore and Port Ellen respectively, and Spar (http://www.spar.co.uk), which has quite a few stores across the island. Please do look for the branches specific to you in order to find out their opening and closing times.

In terms of general purpose, each village has its own Post Office, convenience stores, whisky shops, souvenir stores and other shops which cater to a multitude of needs. Most, if not all are family-owned and so you would be interacting with the locals themselves. The community centre at Port Ellen has its own cybercafe which is open to the public, so internet access is relatively easy to obtain in an emergency.

Getting around the island

Caol Ila distillery.
Caol Ila distillery.

Getting around Islay is relatively easy, as there are amenities such as buses which traverse across the entire island. The bus service is run by Islay Coaches and there are only two bus services (#450 & #451) which operate opposite routes from one another. More information about the bus timetables can be found here: http://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/islay_450-451_timetable.pdf

Please be advised that the buses only run till 1835hrs local time everyday (depending on where you are heading), after which there will be no other public transport options until the following day. Therefore, it would be wise to plan your trips as closely as possible in order to take advantage of the bus service.

If you are held up and miss the final bus for the day, your remaining options would be to either hitchhike or call for a taxi. Hitchhiking is rather safe on Islay as it is a small community and the locals are rather friendly and willing to help you out. The alternative would be to call for a taxi and there are a few companies on Islay which one would be able to rely on:

I would personally recommend using Islay Taxis as they are professional, engaging and will go out of their way to ensure that your needs are taken care of. During my trip to the island, I was brought around by three drivers: Stuart, who runs the company, Freddie, who used to teach at the high school, and Neil, who used to work at Caol Ila distillery for 35 years. All three of them were extremely helpful and they made my trip to Islay much more comfortable.

The taxis are relatively reasonable and would be best suited for groups of 3 or more people in order to keep expenses low. My two companions and I spent a total of £200 for our taxi usage on Islay, which included a pickup from Port Askaig Ferry Terminal and drop off at our residence in Port Ellen as well as trips to and from Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries.

If you are looking to explore the island via foot or via bicycle, please do as there are a lot of places which are usually not accessible directly by vehicles. If you are looking to rent a bicycle, it can be done so in the village of Bowmore, which is also the capital of Islay. The bicycle hire shop is located next to the Post Office and generally charges £10 a day for the rental.

In terms of walking, Islay is a relatively large place and can be traversed by foot if you are looking for an adventure off the beaten track. The main road which services the island would be a good way to get around and passers-by in vehicles would often ask if you required a lift to a certain destination.

However, if you are looking to drive around the island, there are two car hire companies that you can consider:

Both companies have varying rates according to which type of vehicle and transmission you are looking to hire, so please do give them a call to enquire about their prices.

Distillery information, tours and schedules

Isle of Jura distillery (Picture Credit: KierenMccarthy.co.uk)
Isle of Jura distillery (Picture Credit: KierenMccarthy.co.uk)

As the distillery tour and schedule information for each distillery is rather comprehensive, I have provided the links below which should be helpful in terms of planning distillery tours and finding opportune timings based on the summer or winter schedules for travellers.

Ardbeg: http://www.ardbeg.com/ardbeg/distillery/tours

Bowmore: http://www.bowmore.com/visit-us/

Bruichladdich: http://www.bruichladdich.com/distillery-tours-visits

Bunnahabhain: http://bunnahabhain.com/the-distillery/distillery-tours

Caol Ila: http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/caolila/

Isle of Jura: http://isleofjura.scot/isle-of-jura-distillery/

Kilchoman: http://kilchomandistillery.com/tour-and-events/distillery-tours

Lagavulin: http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/lagavulin/

Laphroaig: http://www.laphroaig.com/distillery/distillery-tour/Default.aspx

Please be advised that distillery tour information and timings are subject to change and it would be wise to contact the distillery via email or phone (information can be found above) directly in order to lock down your respective preferred tours.

The peak period for distillery tours would be from May to December so please plan in advance if you intend to travel during this time period. As for January to April, it is usually the off-peak period (also due to it being winter) so chances are the distilleries won’t have many visitors.

In all honesty, I would definitely travel during the January-April period as it would allow you to have a more “hands on” tour experience. This would be due to the chances of you being the only people or group visiting the distillery during that time period and this might actually provide you with more opportunities to sample some unconventional and even downright rare expressions.

Things to remember

Kilchoman distillery.
Kilchoman distillery.

When visiting Islay, please remember to make time to visit the various points of interest around the island apart from the distilleries as it is a place with a rich heritage. With a population of only 4000 people occupying a place with a landmass of 620 square kilometres, it is a lot of land for such a small population and so there are large open spaces to explore.

I would definitely suggest visiting the Kildalton Cross, the American monument on the Mull of Oa and the more remote parts of Islay such as Port Wemyss and Portnahaven as they are rather remote and yet beautiful. As always, please remember to bring a good camera with you are the island will present you with many great opportunities to take some rather phenomenal pictures.

The American monument on the Mull of Oa.
The American monument on the Mull of Oa.
The Kildalton Cross.
The Kildalton Cross.

Another important thing to remember would be that both Caol Ila and Lagavulin do not allow you to take any pictures within the inner sanctum of the distilleries (It’s a Diageo restriction and I have previously spoken about it so please do check it out). The other distilleries do not restrict pictures though so please snap away.

As always, Islay is first and foremost a whisky producing island and it is considered to be the lifeblood of the people. The visit to the distilleries would definitely have to be on the agenda so please do plan in advance. Who knows, you just might have an unforgettable experience!

Finally, please do check out the Ardbeg Kiln Cafe at the distillery as well as the restaurant within the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. Both serve some rather phenomenal food and drinks so it comes with the highest recommendation.

I hope this guide helps in some way and if it means that you have a wonderful trip, then I’d be very happy indeed.

Until the next time.

Slainte!

Brendan

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Laphroaig distillery.
Laphroaig distillery.
Lagavulin distillery.
Lagavulin distillery.

18 thoughts on “Visiting Islay: The Things You Need To Know

  1. Thank you so much for the Article, This is the first time i read an article about Islay with so much information which is useful for anyone going to visit the distilleries. I will plan my trip accordingly now with the help of your article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries mate and thank you for the kind words! Please do let me know how the planning and trip goes.

      Also, please feel free to provide any information that you reckon would be of note so that I can update the article further =D

      Slainte!

      Brendan

      Like

  2. I actually made a trip to Islay this year about a week before the festival. The place was already starting to fill up but I have to say the crowd was really fun. I was only on the island for 2 days and a bit so I stayed in a pod on Lagavulin bay and just visited all the distilleries within walking distance. YES I WALKED….totally fun but albeit pretty tiring. If you walk up to the Lagavulin distillery you’d actually run into a very friendly dog that runs out of the houses in the area and literally greets travelers. Such an amazing time!

    Would have been great to have read this review before going, would have saved me some trouble, but you’re spot on for everything man. Don’t forget the Fish and Chip van as well, that was pretty good. The Kiln and the Islay Hotel had amazing food, and the seafood was all fresh caught!

    Anyway, thanks again for this!

    slàinte!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! That sounds like an amazing experience mate and I am kinda jealous =D

      Is the pod at Lagavulin Bay that small house that was recently built some distance down the road from the distillery? I remember seeing an interesting looking residence when I was there.

      Didn’t get a chance to experience the fish & chip van, but that sounds amazing! Will defs keep a look out for it when I head back there sometime in the (hopefully) near future heh.

      Thanks for the kind words as well mate and to be honest I’ve been wanting to write this for a while but a combination of work and laziness kinda delayed it till now =D

      Nevertheless, glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it and I will definitely look to augment this article (or write an updated version) after my next visit.

      Slainte!

      Brendan

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I stayed in the second one that was built. The first one I think they named Ardbeg and the second one was Lagavulin. It’s set somewhat into the hillside so although small, it was really cosy. The fella that runs the place, Gus, owns the small port and the large house across the road, his dad used to be a distiller at Lagavulin way back when so that’s why the family has tonnes of land around the distillery. (Also so happens that his wife is one of the few vets on the island and they rear sheep as well…..these guys are pretty much doing everything!).

        Oh YEAH! Don’t forget that Friday nights at the Islay hotel is traditional music night that starts around 8ish and goes on pretty late. Lots of drinking and singing, the bar will be PACKED! You’ll eventually find out what they are singing, so in the beginning just talk about the whisky and clap along. LOL!

        Carol’s taxi service is also one of the best (though only 3 on the island anyway). She’s just a phone call away. Norma is good too with her huge blue VW van (but she’s approaching 70 so don’t expect her to help with the bags:)), but she doesn’t really work at night since she also runs a hostel I’m told.

        Also if you go during the season (I can of got there just as it started) there are a lot of young people from the mainland there. All going over for tourism work during the break from school. There was a delightful Italian guy at the Islay hotel restaurant.

        Yeah I plan on going back as well. Probably plan to stay for a couple of weeks next time and just hike from point to point. I managed from Lagavulin to Port Ellen and back but that was tiring. But you get to experience the windswept beauty of it all.

        OK…going to shut up now. =)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Brilliant stuff mate and I will definitely keep that in mind for the next trip (hopefully sometime next year heh).

        Definitely keen to explore Port Charlotte, Port Wemyss and Portnahaven when I return and I honestly would like to live on Islay sometime in the future (or at least own a holiday home there).

        Slainte!

        Brendan

        Like

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