Islay is famous for its whisky. Susan Young paid a visit to the Island to get her whisky fix.
Islay is known as the Queen of the Hebrides, but it is also known throughout the world for the quality of its whisky. The sole purpose of our visit was to visit some whisky bars and get a real feel for the island. We decided to take the car, and this proved to be a wise choice, because although it limited the driver’s ability to partake of too much of the amber nectar it did, in fact, allow a freedom of movement that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
We travelled up Loch Lomond side on the A82 and at Tarbet at the north end of the Loch we took the A83 heading towards Campbeltown. We stopped for refreshments at Inveraray before heading onto Kennacraig which is just past Tarbert (- confusing having two places with nearly the same name on the same route!) The journey took just about three hours, so by the time we reached the Ferry Terminal we were eager to get on board. The Calmac office is tiny, and there is only a coffee machine, which is a pity considering there is nothing else there. I’m sure a wee shop of some sort would go down a treat!
If you are planning on going for a long weekend in the winter there are only two ferries to Port Askaig and two to Port Ellen, so it is best to check the timetable for yourself. It’s an easy two-hour crossing and by the time you get yourself a coffee and a bite to eat you are nearly there. The price for the car was £64 and it cost £12.90 per person. To fly however, you would be around £125 per person.
Apart from the Askaig Hotel at Port Askaig (funnily enough) there is nothing else there but the Ferry booking office for your return trip. But just a couple of miles along the road you’ll come to Ballygrant and the award-winning Ballygrant Inn, and it is definitely worth stopping off. It has just picked up the accolade Made Brave Whisky Bar of the Year, and that is not surprising. The hotel is situated just off the main road. If you just want to pop into the bar which is known as Robolls bar, it is just round the corner from the hotel and is a warm and inviting traditional style hostelry. Its main attraction is its selection of whiskies some 400 in total and barman Ewan is an expert. He also will let you try before you buy and is happy to recommend a tipple. The bar also has a pool table, darts boards, an extensive whisky library and log burning stove, which makes it a real haven on a typically Scottish day. The food on offer is more than just pub grub and the owner and chef cooks a mean curry and on the day we were there he brought in a couple of lobsters which were fresh out of the sea.
Our trip was booked last minute and because of that most of the hotels were fully booked but we managed to get into The Lochside in Bowmore. Bowmore is the island’s capital, it boasts three hotels and The Bowmore Distillery. At the Lochside, the staff were very pleasant and the dining room had a great outlook across Loch Indaal. It is now under new management (it is a sister venue now to the Isle of Mull’s MacGochans) and I understand that the Lochside is due for a refurbishment, which is probably wise, it’s Mull sister venue is lovely. The bar, affectionately known as Duffie’s after a former owner, has a great selection of whisky, and again the bar staff were very knowledgeable.
We headed out for a drink to The Harbour Inn, which is a small cosy bar which has barrels instead of tables. It lacked a bit of atmosphere, compared to the next bar on our itinerary The Bowmore Hotel bar which is known locally as ‘Lucci’s,’ after the owner. The bar was recommended to us by locals who were drinking at the Harbour Inn. Apparently Lucci is a real character. We were served by his son, who is also a bit of a whisky expert. We sat in the lounge part of the bar which is filled to bursting with whisky. Our fellow guests were Swedish and appeared to be working their way through the bars contents. Mind you I thought the recommendation that the barman made for a whisky novice (not me, I might add) was a tad on the strong side – The Original Cask Strength Kilchoman bottled at natural cask strength, 59.3% ABV!
We also spent some time walking through Bowmore – Bowmore’s streets are laid out on a grid pattern, based on the axis of Main Street. The main street runs uphill or downhill depending on where you are standing. At the bottom lies the Bowmore Distillery, which is the second oldest distillery in Scotland and the oldest on Islay. It is one of eight distilleries, that can be visited, on the island the others being Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Bruichladdich. At the top of the hill there is Bowmore’s Round Church which was built in 1767 by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay, then owner of the entire island. The interior of the church is just beautiful. Apparently the church was built in a circular shape to make sure there were no corners for the evil spirits (or the devil) to hide in. These two landmarks aside, and a wee jaunt onto the beach, and you do just about have Bowmore covered. There are a couple of gifts shops, one of which appears to be the locals general store too, and everyone was nice and welcoming. Another recommendation made this time by The Harbourside’s staff was a visit to Portnahaven which was about 14 miles away. They recommended we go there to see the seals. The road itself takes you through Bridgend and along the shore of Loch Indaal, which has lovely views. In the wintertime, there are thousands of geese roosting on the mudflats at the head of the loch. Before Bridgend is a hill on the right with a monument erected for John Francis Campbell, known for his ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’. This monument, in the shape of an obelisk, replaced the first one which was blown away in a gale in about 1911. Next you come to Bruichladdich, which plays host to, arguably the most bonny distillery on the island, the Bruichladdich Distillery which must be one of the best-kept distilleries I have seen. Even the bench across the road is painted the same blue as Bruichladdich logo which they say is the same as the colour of the sea beside it on a bright day. The beautifully presented distillery runs two tours a day during November and December and in October there are four a day. It’s definitely worth stopping. If you are hungry you should stop at Port Charlotte the next village which is home to Yan’s Kitchen, one of Islay’s best places to eat. It also boasts the lovely Port Charlotte Hotel.
But our destination was Portnahaven, a planned village, built during the 19th century, with fishing and crofting as the villager’s main employment. Portnahaven is built around a small, sheltered harbour and is an excellent spot for observing Grey Seals, which sometimes sit on the rocks around the bay to sunbathe! We were lucky we saw lots of them. Portnahaven also has a quaint little, and it is little, pub at the harbour which serves great food – it looks like a private house and is called An Tigh Seinnse, which means ‘the house of singing’ in Gaelic. You have to order at the bar but that is not an issue because it is not more than a couple of steps from your table. It also boasts an intriguing map – I’m told this signifies where the police may be lying in wait should you partake of more than you should!
The other side of the island houses Port Ellen, which is approximately an hour away from Portnahaven and half an hour from Bowmore. It is the second largest town on Islay and is slightly more sheltered than the rest of the island. It also boasts a small marina. There are a few shops and such like and a pub or two. Following the main road east, you reach the three southern distilleries of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. We didn’t venture to Port Ellen, as we simply ran out of time. Our last evening, due to the early departure of our ferry the next morning, was spent having dinner at the Ballygrant Inn, which was excellent. I even opted for the hosts famous curry, and we stayed at the Port Askaig Hotel. I don’t want to finish on a negative note because the people at the Port Askaig were fabulous and the bar was a hive of activity. In fact the lady in the hotel even drove us to The Ballygrant for dinner, which was lovely. She then prepared a packed breakfast to take on board the boat the next morning. But I couldn’t recommend the room we had. I understand that some of the rooms have been upgraded, ours certainly hadn’t been, despite the £110 price. So if you are staying there I would recommend you ask for a refurbished room. But that apart, and considering how little time we spent in it, our experience on Islay was most enjoyable, made more so, by the friendliness of the islanders.