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
- Getting around the island
- Distillery information, tours and schedules
- Things to remember
Essential planning decisions
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
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.
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
In terms of amenities, these would fall into the following categories:
- Food and drink
- 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
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:
- Islay Taxis (http://www.islaytaxis.com/)
- Carol’s Cabs (http://www.carols-cabs.co.uk)
- Taxi Service Islay (http://taxiserviceislay.com/)
- Bruichladdich Taxis (http://bruichladdichtaxis.weebly.com/
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:
- Islay Car Hire (https://www.islaycarhire.com/)
- D&N MacKenzie Car Hire (http://www.carhireonislay.co.uk/)
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
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.
Isle of Jura: http://isleofjura.scot/isle-of-jura-distillery/
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
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.
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.