Visiting Islay: The Things You Need To Know (2017 Edition)

NOTE: The first edition of this guide was published in late September 2015 as a means to provide readers with the necessary information that they would need in order to plan for their trip to Islay.

This updated version provides most of the same information as the original, although there have been some amendments made with regard to the page links and new information has been added in order to aid with the planning decisions.

I have been intending to update this guide for almost a year now and since this blog has hit its 2nd year of operations today, I thought that it would be a good idea to commemorate this milestone by releasing a new version of what has been one of the most popular articles on this blog since its inception.

I would highly recommend that readers visit all 9 (8 on Islay and 1 on Jura) distilleries during their time there as it would be an utter shame if one was to make the long pilgrimage over and only visit a handful of distilleries. My suggestion would be to plan your trip with the intention to visit all 9 distilleries. Besides, you get to taste more whiskies that way!

Last, but not least, I would like to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for your continued support and it has been an honour and privilege to have such a loyal support base. Let’s raise a glass to many more years of good whisky and insightful reviews! – Brendan

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
  • Sights, sounds & future projects

Essential planning decisions

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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. 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 sites of the upcoming Ardnahoe and Gartbreck distilleries 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: WikiTravel – Islay

It would also be worth checking out the sites of two future distilleries which will be built on Islay in the near future.

First up would be the site of the future Gartbreck distillery near the village of Bowmore, which is being built by Mr Jean Donnay, who also owns the famed Glann Ar Mor distillery in Brittany, France.

When built, Gartbreck will seek to revive the traditional methods of whisky making by floor malting their own barley and having the stills heated with a live flame as well as the use of worm tubs. The project has faced several delays over the years, but the hope is that it will eventually commence sometime in 2017.

The other distillery to be built on Islay will be the Ardnahoe distillery which is located in the area of the same name in the northeast of Islay. It will be located in a sloping clearing between both Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries and is being built by independent bottlers, Hunter Laing. The distillery should commence production sometime in 2018 and will look to produce a traditional style Islay whisky.

How to get to Islay

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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 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 the Citylink website and the cost can be as low as £21.40 for a return ticket if it is booked in advance (although same day departure tickets can be purchased for £30.40 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 £13 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 (31st March to 22nd October 2017), the timetable for the ferries (which are operated by Caledonian Macbrayne or CalMac for short) can be found here: Calmac Summer Timetable. However, if you are looking to travel during the winter months (24th October to 30th March 2017), this timetable will be applicable: Calmac Winter Timetable.

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.

Upon the completion of your Islay trip, it may be worth taking the #926 Citylink bus to Campbeltown in order to visit Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia distilleries as they provide an interesting interpretation of whisky which has its similarities and differences with those produced on Islay.

Accommodation

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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: Islay Hotels

It provides a fairly comprehensive list of hotels and bed & breakfasts that travellers would be able to reserve for the duration of their stay. Please note that An Taigh Osda is closed and has been so for some years now (thanks Armin for the heads up!), but the other places are open for business.

The Islay Hotel would be a good place to stay as it is located in the village of Port Ellen and is within walking distance of the Port Ellen ferry terminal, the old Port Ellen distillery and three of the distilleries on the Kildalton coast (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg). The food is amazing as well (more information below) and they have a good whisky list.

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: Port Askaig Hotel Apartment

Please be aware though, that the apartment is only available from 2nd November to 29th March annually and will not be available for self-catering purposes at any other time of the year.

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: AirBnB – Port Ellen House

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: SYHA

The SYHA hostel has allocated the Port Charlotte hostel to RentaHostel, so please click on the link above to make an enquiry.

Amenities

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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, some of which can be found in the following guide: WikiTravel – Islay. Please also be advised that there are not many food and drink options beyond the ones listed in the link above and some have even closed over the years (the guide is rather outdated), but there are some small shops in all the villages on Islay which will provide snacks for sale.

In terms of food and drink, two places which come highly recommended are The Islay Hotel and the Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg distillery. I personally enjoyed one of the best burgers in my life at the former and the latter is highly rated among tourists and whisky industry personnel.

In terms of groceries, there are two main options: Grocery stores such as  The Co-operative Store, which has two outlets in Bowmore and Port Ellen respectively, and Spar, 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

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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: Argyll & Bute Council – Bus Timetables (Islay)

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.

The bus timetable above only showcases the journey and times till May 2017, so it would be advised to visit the Argyll & Bute council site to get a copy of the latest timetable closer to May 2017 if you are looking to plan for a trip between June 2017 to May 2018.

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

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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.

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.

Kilchoman celebrated its 10th year of operations in 2015 with their inaugural 10 Years Old release and in that same year, Ardbeg and Laphroaig commemorated their 200th anniversary of existence with a flurry of bottlings. Lagavulin followed suit the following year when it too celebrated its 200th anniversary and the occasion was also marked by the release of a number of bottlings.

Ardbeg also recently released a special limited edition 21 Years Old expression which is still available in small quantities from the distillery, whereas Laphroaig tends to release a yearly cask strength batch of its 10 Years Old expression which is seen to be far superior than its standard abv counterpart (not that there’s anything wrong with the standard version, of course).

Two very important notes about the distillery tours concerns two distilleries in particular: Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Firstly, as both these distilleries are owned by Diageo, please be advised that you will not be able to take any pictures when you are within the production area due to the company’s rather unusual photographic restrictions.

This is an absolute shame as the stillhouse at Caol Ila is simply stunning and these restrictions are idiotic at best and draconian at worst.

Secondly, as both distilleries are owned by the same parent company, they tend to share staff, especially when it comes to the tour guides. On the basis of my less than enjoyable experiences at both Caol Ila and Lagavulin due to my friends and I having the same rather uninspiring tour guide (whose name I shall not mention), I would suggest that you find out more about who your tour guide is.

For Lagavulin, I would highly recommend that you ask for Iain as he has been known to give absolutely fantastic tours and it goes without saying that you will enjoy yourselves immensely under his care. As for Caol Ila, I am not sure who the tour guides are, but it would be worth emailing the distillery in order to find out who will be taking the tour during your visit.

Sights, sounds & future projects

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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.

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

It would also be worth visiting the sites of both the future Ardnahoe and Gartbreck distilleries which would be the 9th and 10th distilleries built on Islay over the next few years. It would also mean that once these distilleries are up and running, the annual Feis Ile festival will swell from 9 days to 11 days in order for all distilleries to take part in it.

Both these distilleries would be worth keeping an eye on in the years ahead as the whiskies that they produce would provide peat lovers with different interpretations on the typical Islay style. As these distilleries would also be owned and operated by independent concerns, their productions will be small in nature and somewhat traditional.

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The site of the future Ardnahoe distillery (Picture Credit: https://twitter.com/ardnahoe)
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The site of the future Gartbreck distillery (Picture Credit: http://www.islay.org.uk)

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!

I hope that this updated 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, have a great week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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Lagavulin distillery.
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Laphroaig distillery.

6 thoughts on “Visiting Islay: The Things You Need To Know (2017 Edition)

    1. Hi Armin, thank you for the update and I have made the necessary amendments to reflect what you have mentioned!

      I noticed that the WikiTravel entry didn’t list the Islay Hotel in its food section, which is why I added it in to this updated version as I too had an amazing experience dining there =)

      If there are any other bits of information I should omit or add, please do let me know and I will be more than happy to make the necessary changes.

      Thank you and Slainte!

      Brendan

      Like

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