Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is the southernmost Inner Hebrides island located off of the west coast of Scotland. It's known for it's peaty whisky, which is what attracted us to it in the first place. The island is home to distilleries such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and more.
To get to Islay, we flew into Glasgow on a rainy Sunday morning and drove two hours to the Kennaicraig Ferry. The drive was mostly coastal, weaving along Loch Lomond and through Argyll and Bute. Every single minute of the drive was gorgeous, and even more so because of the rain. I felt like we were seeing Scotland as it should be—wet, moody, and green.
The ferry—although we almost didn't make it on—ended up being a really nice surprise. Its interior was beautiful, more befitting for a cruise ship than a passenger ferry. Garrett and I enjoyed a lunch of steak pie and fish & chips, took in the scenery, and settled into the designated quiet room to read and nap before our two-hour ferry trip ended.
Upon arriving in Islay by way of Port Askaig, Garrett and I immediately headed to the Coal Ila Distillery for their last tour of the day. We explored the grounds, learned about the history and process of their whisky making, and sampled a few bottles before purchasing our first of the trip: the 2017 Caol Ila 12 Year Fèis Ìle. From there we drove down the island to Port Ellen, our home for the next four days.
The small town of Port Ellen curves around the water with colorfully-trimmed whitewashed houses. It boasts two hotels, two restaurants, one pub, and one co-op. It's the type of place where locals turn their heads when anyone new walks into an establishment. Kids play in the park and on the streets until 11 PM. Everyone knows each other by name. The sun never really goes down. Spending time in Islay was like being transported into the past, where everything was simple, friendly, and safe.
After being greeted by our Airbnb host Carol, Garrett and I walked over to The Ardview Inn for a drink. The pub quieted as we walked in, and all seats turned to face us. We settled into a corner table and kept to ourselves before trying to make nice with the bartender. It took the entire length of our trip for her to warm up to us.
Garrett and I enjoyed a liquid dinner before deciding to make the trek over to the other side of the island to hear live music. Traditional sessions are only played at the Port Charlotte Hotel on Sunday and Wednesday nights; because we were leaving Islay on Wednesday, this was our only chance. We called Carol, our Airbnb host who also owned the local cab company, and arranged for a 40-minute ride over to Port Charlotte.
The sun was setting as we drove through the island, blanketing everything in pink and gold hues. Cows grazed lazily and sheep wandered into the street as Carol gave us a brief history on the island.
At the turn of the 20th century, around 15,000 people lived on Islay. Famine and hard times hit, forcing people off the island; today, there are only about 3,000 inhabitants. The whiksy distilleries have long been a main source of work for the islanders, but the tourism industry surrounding them has only started to build in the last couple of years. During our stay, we only came across one other American couple. There were a few German, Swedish and British tourists, too, but that was really it. It was nice to experience Islay still relatively untouched by tourism, with its charm and character wholly intact.
Upon arriving at the Port Charlotte Hotel, we weaved our way to the bar through the crowded pub, where we stayed for the bulk of the night. The bartenders were charming, the music was good, and the whisky was flowing. We stole away briefly to watch the sunset cast over Port Charlotte and were in awe of how simply stunning Islay was. By the end of the night, Garrett made a friend out of one of the bartenders, and we walked away with a bottle of Port Charlotte whisky, something that you won't find off of the island. The music ended, the pub slowed down, and Garrett and I got back in Carol's cab and headed back home to Port Ellen.
The storm that washed through our path the day before had cleared, leaving a beautiful clear day in its wake. We were lucky to enjoy great weather for the rest of our stay on Islay, which only helped us in loving the island all the more.
On our second day in Islay, we grabbed a sausage biscuit from the Sea Salt Bistro for breakfast and set off to tour the Ardbeg Distillery at 10. (There's nothing quite like having your first dram of whisky a couple of hours before noon!)
After our tour, we enjoyed a lunch at the distillery's Old Kiln Cafe and headed north for the day. We then went to see the Kildalton Cross, one of earliest Christian crosses still standing (it dates back to the 8th century!). It sits on the land of the medieval Old Parish Church, which served the Kildalton parish dating back to the 12th century.
We explored the grounds of the church, reading gravestones and marveling at the details of the old crosses, enjoying having the old site to ourselves. Islay was the one place in our entire Europe trip that wasn't overcrowded with people and that just made everything so much more special.
From the Old Parish Church we drove to Claggan Bay, a pebbled beach that looks out toward Kintyre. Flocks of sheep grazed lazily along the grassy banks of the beach, happily oblivious to the gorgeous scenery surrounding them. We drove slowly down the road, mindful of the sheep crossing here and there, and stopped to take photos of a beautiful mama and her twin lambs.
Next, we continued northwest to Islay Woolen Mill in Brigend, hoping it would still be open. It's one of the oldest historical working mills in the world; though the woolen mill was established in 1883, the buildings date back to the 1500s.
Upon arriving, we were greeted warmly by the staff and asked if we were interested in a tour, to which we readily replied, "yes!" A woman led us through the working mill, up a flight of old rickety stairs, and into the working space of Gordon Covell, the owner.
Gordon has been a weaver since he was fifteen and has run the mill for nearly forty years. His tartans are sold by only the best tailors on Savile Row and have supplied costumes for nineteen Hollywood films - Braveheart, Forrest Gump, and the Big Friendly Giant to name a few.
Garrett and I stood amongst the looms and old machinery, listening to Gordon recount stories of restoring the mill in the 1970s, of his youth spent in Wales, and his budding equestrian career that he gave up to pursue weaving full-time. He recited poetry and the entire length of a Johnny Cash song while laying out bolts of tartan on a table. Another staff member brought him his afternoon tea, and he went on to tell us about the different weaving patterns, the history of the mill, and the list of movies that he had provided fabric for but has not yet watched.
We loved that afternoon with Gordon, spent in one of the oldest historical working mills in the world.
After buying a few tokens (ahem; scarves, vests, sweaters) in the woolen mill shop, Garrett and I headed back down to Port Ellen for dinner at the Islay Hotel and a sunset walk around town before retiring for the night. The sunsets in Islay were breathtaking and late! The sun went down around 11 PM, and it never really did get dark.
THIS was the day we came to Islay for—to tour the Laphroaig distillery! Laphroaig is known for its peaty whisky; for Garrett's taste, the peatier, the better.
I chose to stay in Port Ellen because it was at the base of the Whisy Trail—a 3-mile walking path that brings you to the Laphroaig, Laguvulin, and Ardbeg distilleries. We took advantage of the trail that day, starting our morning by walking the mile to Laphroaig, continuing on after our tour to Ardbeg for another lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe, and finally down to Lagavulin for a tasting. The views and wildflowers along the path were absolutely gorgeous. It was to take a break from the car and spend the day outdoors for once.
The Laphroaig Distillery is a sight to behold with its whitewashed walls built out of the bay. We were treated to a really wonderful morning there on the Distiller's Tour—two hours of just me, Garrett, and our guide Susan, learning about the history of the distillery and its grain-to-bottle process before going on taste and bottle our own pours straight from the cask. (You can watch the video of our bottling experience here!)
After our tour, we pulled on pairs of wellies and headed out to the Laphroaig field to "mark our plots" as Friends of Laphroaig—an initiative started by Prince Charles. Fun fact—as Charles's favorite Scotch whisky, Laphroaig is the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales.
On the way back from planting our tiny American flags on our "plots," we stopped to read the wall of tiles displaying submissions to their #opinionswelcome social campaign—a brilliant campaign, in my marketer's opinion, where they asked different people to weigh in on what they thought of Laphroaig. We had a good laugh at some of the entries—have a look at them in the photos below.
Our time at Laphroaig made for a morning well spent. We went along the path for lunch at Ardbeg, then for a few drams in the tasting room at Lagavulin. By then, we'd had our fill of walking, so called trusty old Carol for a taxi ride back to our flat.
We ended our last full day in Islay with another dinner at the Islay Hotel—this time in the pub—and another round at the Ardview Inn before taking one last sunset walk around town.
The original plan was to leave Islay on the 9:00 AM ferry out of Port Ellen, but since I didn't book the ferry in advance (whoops!) we were only able to get scheduled on the 8:00 PM. The late ferry would have put us in Edinburgh in around 2 in the morning, which wasn't ideal, so Garrett and I crossed our fingers and hoped to get on an afternoon one out of Port Askaig instead. We were the second to last car to make it, but make it we did!
Before we left Islay for good, though, Garrett decided we needed to spend time on the water. We were able to get onto an Islay Sea Adventures fishing boat, and I'm so glad we did. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning and the fishing guides were fantastic. The water was crystal clear, the fish were biting (seriously! you just had to drop your rod in the water and 10 would come out on your line!), and we could see across the bay to Ireland. We went past Dunnyvaig Castle, which was built in the 12th century and served as the seat as the Lord of the Isles. We also caught sight of a few whales before turning back—so I mean, it was a pretty awesome morning. It was the perfect way to end our four days on Islay.
Because of the sunshine that day, the ferry leaving Islay felt worlds different than the one approaching it. We enjoyed two hours of breathtaking views before hopping in the car and driving the three hours on to our next destination, Edinburgh.
Islay is wonderful. It has so much to offer. I'd go back in a heartbeat—but soon, because I don't think it's going to remain as quiet and peaceful as it is for long. Go now!