This blog post is in collaboration with Visit Scotland, Explore Islay & Jura and LoganAir
When I got the question to do this collaboration I said yes straight away! After since our first visit to the island in May I have been longing to go back and see even more of what Islay had to offer. And it’s definitely not just a location for whisky-enthusiasts (even though it is an excellent one at that) but there’s also plenty to see and experience for those who are not so keen on the barley-spirit.
So I have put together a little guide of my experiences on the island – and I’ve gotten a lot of helpful tips from the locals, everything of where to swim (and not swim!), the best food and how to keep track of the weather on the island (because my weather app certainly wasn’t very reliable…).
If you have any questions or if I missed something that I should see on my next trip – let me know in the comments !
Let’s start off with some helpful information.
❅ If you are visiting in low season it can be a good idea to check what is actually open in terms of distilleries, bars, shops and restaurants and their opening hours. We were visiting at the end of January which is one of the most quiet times of the year and a lot of things weren’t open, so it’s just good to know. And heads up that distilleries might be closed on Sundays and Mondays so do check this before booking if you plan to visit them. If you prefer going when there isn’t a lot of other people around, it’s definitely a good idea to go in the low season (it’s my own personal preference actually) and it is usually a bit more quiet between August and March.
❅ The best website for weather reports is https://xcweather.co.uk/forecast/islay which we got recommended by Evie at Bowmore Distillery who is born and raised on the island. We used the app to keep track of the storm which made us stay another two extra days on Islay as the flights got cancelled and it worked really well for predicting rain, sun and wind for us.
❅ If you want to visit Islay during the Feis Ile festival which is around the end of May – be early with booking accommodation and travel as it gets fully booked quickly. The events and tastings aren’t usually announced until a few months prior to the festival so it’s also good to keep an eye out on the distilleries and the official Feis Ile website.
❅ You can fuel up your car in a few places on islay and on Jura as well, but check the opening times for the pumps.
❅ In a lot of parts of the island the road is single track so if you meet any other vehicles you need to utilise the meeting points that are frequently features along these roads.
❅ If you are looking do to some food shopping there’s a Coop in both Port Ellen and Bowmore, and also smaller food shops in Port Charlotte and Bridgend.
How to get to Islay & Jura and around the islands
For our trip we flew over from Glasgow Airport to Islay with LoganAir, which was really easy and convenient. We had a small propeller plane which was 2+1 seats in the cabin and it took 45 minutes. They used to also have direct flights from Edinburgh Airport but I am not sure if these will be reinstated or not.
You can also get the Calmac ferry from Kennacraig which takes about 2 hours to Port Askaig or Port Ellen and Kennacraig is about a 4 hour drive from Edinburgh. The benefit of taking the ferry is that you already have a car so you can get around the island. If you are flying you can rent a car from Islay Car Hire, which is conveniently located right outside the airport on Islay. We were outside in our rental car in about 15 minutes from having landed so it all went really smoothly. Also, don’t forget to wave to everyone you meet on the road!
There is also a bus on the island which accepts contactless payment if a car isn’t an option for you. Remember to check the times however as some services aren’t very frequent.
If you are looking to get across to Jura then you can take the ferry from Port Askaig across the water which only takes about 5 minutes. We paid about £26 for one vehicle and 2 adult passengers. Then there is only one road that leads to Craighouse, which is the “centrum” of Jura, so you can’t get lost. The drive there is about 15 minutes.
Where to stay
We were staying in the Bowmore Cottages during our initial stay on the island, but due to us being caught by the storm we had two additional nights in two hotels so it was almost like a wee bonus to experience more accommodation alternatives which I can share with you here.
The self-catered cottages were lovely, with a great location in the middle of Bowmore, free parking opposite (might be bit busy before 17.00), comfortable beds and if you want to try out some of the local restaurants a self-catered accommodation is great so you can choose when to eat out and when to have a relaxing brunch or dinner in the cottage. Our cottage was called The Mash Mans Cottage and is literally right next to Bowmore Distillery, as it was initially housing for the workers before 1992. It has been renovated since and now has a slightly more modern touch. The bedroom is located on the second floor and on the same floor as the living/dining room and kitchen there’s also a little patio which would make a lovely spot to enjoy a dram or two after a long day.
When we ended up staying an additional night after our first flight got cancelled due to storm Malik, the airline put us in Bowmore House. It can be good to know that if the flight gets cancelled the airline has certain things they need to provide(there’s a handy folder by the check in desk). In our case they arranged accommodation, taxis to get there and £20 to use for dinner (no alcoholic drinks) which was so convenient and the staff were really helpful and efficient about it.
The hotel is quite rustic and traditional. I’ve never seen a bathroom with the same layout at the one we had, were the sink was located in one end of a fairly narrow rectangle, the shower in the middle and you have to walk under the shower to get to the toilet, so if you’ve had a shower then the floor is all wet until its had time to properly dry up. Warm rooms and comfortable beds however with a view across Lochindaal. The dinner was excellent with quite traditional items like steak pie and burgers as well as more international influences like curries on the menu. I recommend the haggis balls for starters and the steak pie for mains! It was quite big portions however – but highly recommend a dinner here. And if you are a whisky fan don’t miss Lucci’s Whisky Bar which stocks only whiskies from Islay, no independent bottles, but an impressive selection of everything from core range to hard to find releases. We were told that a lot of locals like coming here on Saturdays, so if you want a space it might be a good idea to be there early…
On the Sunday our flight got cancelled for a second time, as it couldn’t land even after three tries so this time they arranged for us to say at The Machrie.
The Machrie, part of the Campbell Tray Hotels, is located a short drive from the airport, in the opposite direction to Bowmore, towards Port Ellen. They have a 18 hole golf course, spa and in addition to the hotel rooms also offer self-catered cottages. If you prefer a more modern and higher end stay, this might be for you. They also arrange a pick up service from the ferry or airport on request. The rooms are specious and the beds are amazing with big pillows so it’s comfortable to sit up if you want to read a book, do some knitting or watch the telly. As someone who L O V E S a good hotel breakfast I really enjoyed their offerings, where they had both a buffet with granola, yoghurt, fruits, croissants and juices as well as a menu where you could order hot food. I went for the salmon and scrambled eggs with toast. The dinner was delightful as well and we opted for a burger which was actually part of their lunch/bar menu along with a delicious Pinot Noir. For dessert I went for a selection of ice creams – chocolate, raspberry and artichoke and to my surprise the latter tasted just like a coffee ice cream. When I make it back I’d love to try their Afternoon Tea as well and perhaps dare a swim in the bay. A real shame we didn’t have time to explore the grounds before it got dark as it’s located near the water.
And let’s not forget about Jura! We didn’t have the opportunity to stay the night on Jura (but it was almost close as the storm came in and the last ferries got cancelled..) but since we enjoyed a lovely lunch at Jura Hotel they were also kind enough to show us one of the bedrooms so I could give you a wee peak as well. Highly recommend the venison burgers here with black pudding – they have a wonderful combination of flavour!
We only saw the Port Charlotte Hotel when having dinner there but it also looks like a cosy place to stay and the Lochside Hotel and also Glenegedale House also look amazing so they’re definitely on my list of places to stay at. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Emma and Graeme who run Glenegedale House and they’re lovely so I can imagine that a stay with them would be absolutely excellent as well and it’s located right across the road from the airport so you can basically get off the plane and walk there in just a few minutes.
Bonus tip: If you are on Islay and want to visit some distilleries, but no-one in the group is wanting to be the designated driver it can be a good idea to stay in Port Ellen since there’s a walking path that takes you to three distilleries: Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Most of the distilleries do Drivers Drams so that the driver can try the whiskies as well but I know that sometimes it can feel a bit extra special to actually enjoy them all together on location.
Where to eat
There’s plenty of opportunities to try some delightful food on the islands. I’ve already mentioned the burgers as Jura Hotel, the haggis balls at Bowmore House and the artichoke ice-cream at The Machrie above, but if I could only recommend one thing to try it would have to be seafood. As someone who grew up eating fresh crayfish and shrimp from the West Coast of Sweden every year, I would highly recommend this high quality delicacy. On our first night on the island we had a Seafood Platter from The Seafood Shack and it was incredible. What’s on the platter depends on what they’ve managed to catch, but on ours there was half a lobster, crab, langoustines and prawns. Picked up some white wine in the Coop in Bowmore to pair. You can also find oysters and other seafood on the menu in several restaurants and hotels around both Islay and Jura – I had oysters at Port Charlotte Hotel as they were so yummy – personally I like keeping it simple with just a squeeze of lemon but there was a vinaigrette alongside them as well. I actually tried oysters for the first time ever last time I was on Islay so perhaps it has to be a tradition for every visit now!
Every time we were at a distillery or speaking to any locals on the island they all recommended Ardbeg Distillery for lunch and when I saw that we had this on our itinerary I got really excited. And it didn’t disappoint! We had the steaks (mine ordered blue and my partner’s rare) and it was brilliant.
If you are visiting in low season and looking for another place for lunch, it seems Lochside Hotel keeps their restaurants and bar snug open even in January. The lasagna I had was really nice and it gave me an opportunity to try the Finlaggan IPA from Islay Ales which you’ll find on tab in many bars.
Sights not to miss
There’s so much to see on Islay and I’m really glad we managed to drive around and see so much of it on this visit. I’ve listed some scenic recommendations here below.
Finlaggan is the centre of The Lordship of the Isles, an island settlements in the middle of Loch Finlaggan. There’s a small museum depicting its history and a bridge which takes you to the ruins on the island. Unfortunately we couldn’t cross the bridge as it was closed for repairs, but I definitely want to come back and see it when it’s possible again.
❅ Currie Sands
This is the most westerly beach the island, just up from Portnahaven at Claddach and you can park on the grassy bit by the green gate. The western coastline is very dramatic and scenic. When the weather is rough, like it was for us, the waves are massive so it makes a great spot for wave-watching. But it’s not a good spot for a swim as the currents are very strong. If you fancy a walk, then you can park in Portnahaven and walk here – it’s just over 1.5km and takes around half an hour.
❅ Seal Bay
Claggain Bay, also known as Seal Bay, can be found by driving past the three Kildalton distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin & Ardbeg and continuing down the road until you end up at the beach. The sheltered bays on this side of the island are frequently visited by seals who bask in the sun.
Just be aware that it’s a fairly small road that leads here.
❅ Machir Bay
Machir Bay was frequently mentioned as a lot of the locals favourite part of the island. It’s a stunning sandy beach and the perfect spot for a dram (perhaps the appropriately named Machir Bay whisky from Kilchoman) and you can also spot an old RAF radio tower up on the hills above the beach. I thought it would be a good idea to drive here on the day that the storm was at its worst, since we didn’t manage to see it in the days prior – but that was not some of my best thinking. The sand ended up everywhere and I felt like I brought a lot of the beach back with me in my ears. So definitely recommend visiting – but on a calmer day.
❅ The American Monument
On the Mull of Oa peninsula you can find The American Monument which was built in 1920 funded by the USA to commemorate two ships that sank outside of the coast of Islay in 1918. To get here, drive on the RSPB car park and go for about an half hour walk to the monument which also offers some stunning views of the coastline.
❅ Carraig Fhada Lighthouse
This is probably my new favourite spot on the island. There’s just something so poetic and mysterious about lighthouses and the view from the Carriage Fhada is beautiful as you gaze over Port Ellen in the distance and can see the ferries soar across the water. If the tide allows you can step out to the lighthouse and get a better look, but do be careful as the tide can take you by surprise.
Where to go swimming
I’ll start off by saying where you probably shouldn’t go swimming. The west coast of the island can be a bit rough with undercurrents so I wouldn’t recommend to try your luck. Be careful and if you are in doubt, I’m sure the locals will be happy to recommend somewhere safe for you as they have been very accommodating every time I asked about it. We were recommended Lochindaal and the Singing Sands as safe swimming spots but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to go for a dip so it will be at the top of my list for next time!
What I suspect many of you are here for: the distilleries!
Following the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns in Scotland in 2020 and 2021 many of the distilleries have not at the time of writing this, reopened for distillery tours. Although they are hoping to be able to do so in March, but this of course depends on the development in the coming weeks. They are also hoping and planning for a Feis Ile festival in person. Keep up to date by checking the distillery websites and social media. All finger’s crossed they will be back open as usual very soon!
Last time we were on Islay Ardbeg was closed and we could only admire it from the car park so I was thrilled that I got to step inside this time around. Our tasting host Emma was excellent and we got to try some lovely expressions like the Ardbeg Grooves, Supernova and two delightful single cask expressions inside one of the warehouses. Like I’ve previously mentioned it is also a great place for lunch. If you fancy staying right at the distillery, Ardbeg has their own cottage on site which was the former home of the Distillery Manager. I was really impressed by my experience of the distillery and always feel like it enhances your connection to the whisky itself.
We briefly saw Ardnahoe on our drive to Bunnahabhain and last time we were here Ardnahoe was actually our first stop after getting off the ferry. As Ardnahoe hasn’t released any of their own spirit, which turned 3 years old (the minimum age requirement to be called whisky in Scotland) just a few months ago, they offer tastings of their independently bottled whiskies. We did a warehouse tasting where you try a couple different casks and get to choose a wee bottle of one to take home. My choice was an 11 year old single malt from orkney (it might have a bit of a viking spirit…), finished in a brandy cask which I really enjoyed. I’d love to come back and do a tour as the still room has an incredible view over the paps of Jura.
I thought we would miss out on Bowmore, even though we had lived right next to it for our initial stay, as we didn’t have time to get there in time before they closed after some readjusting in the schedule. But since the storm kept us on the island for an additional day and the distillery thankfully was open on the Saturday we gave them a call and they were kind enough to let us have a look around the visitor centre and do a wee tasting upstairs. Unfortunately we couldn’t do the warehouse tasting, but it will be something on my to-do list for next time! The whiskies from our tasting: a 15 year old ex-bourbon distillery exclusive, the 21 year old Chateau Lagrange amazon release and the 20yo David Simpson expression were all paired with a chocolate from Oban Chocolate. A really lovely experience and I especially enjoyed the 21yo!
Bowmore is another distillery that can be a good one to visit if no-one is keen on driving. If you are staying in Bowmore then the distillery is a short walk away since it is located right by the water in the centre of the town.
As I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Bruichladdich before I was excited to step inside the Visitor Centre. Like the other distilleries they aren’t offering any tours of the production areas yet, but we had an informative and fascinating tasting with Ashley where we got to learn more about The Botanist gin (which is lovely in my opinion and made with Islay botanicals) as well as a lineup of whiskies. They have a clear focus on sustainability and can be seen as quite experimental with different barley types, casks and methods. Out of the whiskies The Organic was my favourite and the martini made with the gin, elderflower syrup and lemon juice was such a delicious treat!
Bunnahabhain is brilliant if you want to try some interesting whiskies, but not buy full sized bottles. They have minis, midis and of course also full size 70cl options in their shop of core range expressions and also interesting single casks, so can highly recommend having a look here. It also sits in a lovely location right by the water and you can go out on to the dock and admire the view and get some good photos.
This time we also did a No 9 Warehouse tasting with the lovely David Brodie. Can recommend having a look on his Instagram for some inspiring Islay-content that makes you long to visit again! He has an great knowledge on sherry and really captures your attention during the tasting. I feel like I could listen to him for hours. My favourite on this tasting was an oloroso single cask, but we also had the pleasure of trying PX Noe, Manzanilla and a Moine (heated Bunnahabhain) single casks. There’s something special about warehouse tastings – I just love them!
Kilchoman was another one of the distilleries we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit this time. I would love to come back and pick up a dram of Machir Bay – and perhaps one of the lovely 100% Islay as well – and have a dram on the Machir Bay beach which I mentioned earlier as well. Last time we did manage to do a tour, but missed out on the warehouse due to the Covid restrictions. Kilchoman is one of the newer distilleries on Islay, and I’ve always liked their story. We even spotted Anthony Wills, founder of Kilchoman, having dinner with friends in Port Charlotte Hotel when we were there one evening – almost feels like a whisky-celebrity spotting!
We had a wonderful time at Laphroaig and got shown around by Barry, who is the acting distillery manager. It was fascinating to be up close to their kiln where they cold smoke their barley with peat, the still room where the workers had hung some wet clothes to dry and the warehouse where we did our tasting. The line up consisted of a delicious 1999 ex-bourbon cask, a slightly younger ex-bourbon cask and a manzanilla cask which offered a good variety of flavours, complementing the iconic flavours of Laphroaig. I even got to pour a dram myself, hopefully I didn’t spill to much of this precious liquid. Doing the tasting with Barry who has so much knowledge on the distillery and its spirit was incredible. The shop and the bar also has a lovely atmosphere so can highly recommend stopping by to check that out even if you might not have time for a tour. We even met a lonely swan who had decided to hang around the distillery to try and find some food, but I saw the other day that he’s actually move on to the Bowmore and took a walk in to the Coop, so who knows where he will end up…
On our last trip to Islay we had the pleasure of doing a tasting at the distillery, you can read more about that here. Because of the Covid-19 restrictions the distillery still wasn’t open for tours or warehouse tastings but we could at least have a look around the Visitor Centre. I really hope I can come back some day to see the distillery more properly and also have a drink or two in their bar. On this visit briefly just stopped by quickly for a look around the shop – and I must say the new Caol Ila 24 that had just been released looked really intriguing, and unfortunately out of my price range…
I highly recommend walking out on the little pier on the right hand side of the distillery (looking at it) for a nice view over the water and also go for the short walk to the Dunyvaig Castle ruins that you find if you follow the road towards Ardbeg and then head off to the right. You get a brilliant view of the Lagavulin Bay and the distillery with the name written on its side so it’s great for photo opportunities. And the ruins are quite mysterious and beautiful as well.
Caol Ila is currently closed due to constructions and renovations so it is the only distillery I haven’t been to, but will look forwards to being able to visit once it is open again. Looks like it is in a stunning location, although the photo definitely doesn’t do it justice – but I tried my best to catch it when we were heading over from Jura back to Islay.
On my Islay to-do list
Even though we’ve managed to explore quite a lot on the island on this trip and also on our previous one – there’s still things we haven’t yet managed to do so I thought I would list them here as well as a reminder for myself and also perhaps for some inspiration for you in case you make it there before me:
❅ Go for a wild swim (this might be my number 1 thing for next time, no matter which time of year it might be)
❅ Visit Caol Ila
❅ Enjoy Machir Bay in not so stormy weather
❅ Warehouse Tastings at Bowmore, Kilchoman & Lagavulin
❅ See the Gruinart part of the island
❅ Find the hidden cave at Kilyen
I wanted to give Jura it’s own category since it is its own island. We only managed to spend a few hours here this time around but definitely managed to see a few things and find out what we should see the next time we come over.
We started our day on Jura by having a look in the Camella Crafts Shop, conveniently located right next to where we could refuel the car. I didn’t know that Jura had it’s own tartan (which you can see in the photo below) so if you visit the island looking for a gift, something that incorporates the tartan – like a scarf perhaps- could be the perfect gift. We then had lunch at Jura Hotel, and once again let me recommend the burgers. I was almost hoping we would be stuck on Jura for an excuse to check in to one of the rooms in the hotel, which looked lovely. The last ferries were cancelled due to the storm, but the ferrymen told us on the way to Jura so that we could catch an earlier one. In spite of having a shorter day than planned we also managed to do two tastings – at Deer Island and at Jura Distillery. Jura is known for having a lot more deer than people on the island and is known as Deer Island – which gives its name to the newest distillery here which currently produces a spiced rum. It’s not very common with a proper Scottish rum, which has been distilled in Scotland. Many rum producers would import rum from the Caribbean as it is more affordable, so this is definitely a really interesting product and their signature serve is with a Bon Accord grapefruit soda. When the sun is shining in the summer, these islands and their gorgeous beach almost look a wee like the Caribbean… but the spices also suit colder weather. If gin is more your thing there’s also Lussa Gin further north, but we didn’t manage to explore this side this time around. But we did manage to stop by Jura Distillery before a stormy ferry ride back to Islay.
Have you been to Islay and Jura? What did you enjoy the most?
✦ Want to read more about distillery visits?