How to visit Islay
From the slower pace of life to the unique island culture and welcome, step off a ferry onto one of Scotland’s Hebridean islands and you will be hit with an undeniable sense of otherworldliness. I’ve loved all of the Scottish islands I’ve visited but I can honestly say that I’ve never fallen in love with a place quite as quickly as I did with the Isle of Islay.
Whether it’s the island’s beautifully wild landscape, incredibly friendly locals, or the cask strength whisky, there is something about Islay that grabs your heart and holds on. Prepare to fall in love with the Isle of Islay…
5 things you should know before you go to Islay
- Islay is pronounced EYE-LA, not EYE-LAY. Islay is also known as Banrìgh nan Eilean – translated as the Queen of the Hebrides. The Gaelic name for the island is ‘ile’ and a person from Islay is a Ìleach – which is also the name of the Island’s newspaper. You might meet the newspaper editor either taking people around the Bunnahabhain Distillery or counting geese.
- There are 8 whisky distilleries on the island with at least another 4 on their way. You will need plenty of time to get around them all – and enjoy the fantastic hospitality they offer. Whisky is about more than alcohol – in Scotland, it is the water of life. However, in Scotland the drink drive limit is basically zero so you will need a designated driver – thankfully the distilleries now allow the driver to take their drams away.
- Driving? On Islay everyone waves at you. The ‘Islay Wave’ is famous worldwide and you have to join in. We counted 9 waves in a row until someone was navigating a sheep and couldn’t cope with waving at the same time. Practise before you catch the ferry and perfect your Islay Wave – will it be one finger, two or a whole hand?
- Many of Islay’s roads are single track, so learn to drive on one – the Islay Blog has some good advice. Remember that the Islay locals probably have somewhere to go, so if you see someone (like a huge whisky lorry) roar up in your rearview mirror please use a passing place to let them past. Like most of Scotland after a tough winter Islay’s potholes are also out of control so watch your suspension.
- Step into an Islay pub (try the public bar at the Bowmore Hotel) and you will be welcomed with typical loud, noisy and nosy Scottish west coast charm. You probably won’t understand a word of what anyone is saying, don’t worry, I am not sure the locals do either!
Getting to Islay with Caledonian MacBrayne – the Islay Ferry
Getting to Islay is easy – catch the ferry to Islay with Caledonian MacBrayne (‘Calmac’) from Kennacraig on the Kintyre Peninsula and in summer from Oban via Colonsay. There are two ports on Islay, Port Askaig and Port Ellen. Sailing to Port Askaig the crossing will take you through the Sound of Islay with an incredible view of Jura’s three famous hills – the Paps. The crossing costs £91 for two people and a car and takes around 2 hours.
As Islay is often bashed by humongous storms in winter, for UK travellers, Calmac has a text alert service which updates you on cancellations and route changes. For the Kennacraig service text “Calmac subscribe 09’ to 60030. Calmac will also give you a call if your ferry is cancelled so make sure you leave a phone number with your booking. You can also fly to Islay from Glasgow. The flight takes around 40 minutes.
Where to stay on Islay – Islay Cottages
As Islay has a total population of just over 3000 people the island’s main settlements have a local, village feel. The main towns on Islay are Bowmore and Port Ellen, with smaller villages at Port Charlotte and Portnahaven.
To immerse yourself fully in Islay life stay in a cosy self-catering islay cottage. Dundonald Cottage (owned by Islay Cottages) is located right on Bowmore’s main square and just steps from the pretty harbour. The cottage has two bedrooms, a cosy lounge with a peat fire and the most wonderful view across Loch Indaal to the Paps of Jura, a view you could spend hours watching from the kitchen table.
Bowmore is the Island’s capital, and is a bustling little town with pubs and restaurants, a supermarket where the whole of Islay seems to meet, a pharmacy, a swimming pool, the Bowmore distillery and a Peatzeria! Bowmore’s central location is a great base for exploring the island – most villages, beaches and distilleries are no more than 30 minutes drive.
Bowmore’s main street is dominated by the Kilarrow Parish Church, otherwise known as the ‘Round Church’ built along with the rest of the planned Bowmore ‘new town’ in 1776. It’s said that the church is round so that there are no corners for the devil to hide… personally I believe that the devil would have more fun in one of the distilleries! Speaking of distilleries, Bowmore Distillery is Islay’s oldest licensed distillery is located in the centre of the town and has a lovely tasting room with views across the loch.
For those who prefer to get away from it all, Islay Cottages also have self-catering accommodation on Islay at Kilchoman Cottages close to the island’s best beach, Machir Bay, and the Kilchoman Distillery.
Where to eat on Islay – Peatzeria
The wonderfully named Peatzeria is located on Bowmore’s Shore Street and serves Italian food that could grace the top ten lists of any major city. The restaurant is located within a 1900’s church and the interior has been beautifully re-purposed as a stylish restaurant space which both reflects Islay’s character and the sheer quality of the food on offer.
Whilst the menu might tempt you with its array of luxury seafood pizzas (lobster, scallop, and crab, smoked salmon and mussels all make an appearance) it is in the classic dishes that the cooking truly shines through. Meatballs are dense, rich and truly spicy, and served with moorish garlic-soaked bread, you’ll be desperately scooping up the sauce with your fork. A special of asparagus, mushroom and pea agnolotti didn’t last long, the dish was both incredibly fresh and greedily indulgent.
Peatzeria serves both traditional and romano pizza bases – try the hearty ‘Black and Red’ – Stornoway black pudding, goats cheese and caramelised red onion chutney. The pizza bases are as good as any I’ve tried and the toppings top notch. Make sure you try the peat smoked chips! If you aren’t quite able to finish, takeaway boxes are on hand. Outside, Peatzeria has seating on the loch-side and an outdoor pizza oven, hurry up summer, I want to go back!
More places to eat in Bowmore – Head to the Bowmore Hotel for pub grub and a huge whisky selection and a warm welcome from staff and locals alike. You’ll be hearing the infectious laugh of the Hotel’s owner Peter (otherwise known as Poor Peter or No Change Peter or Count Your Change Peter) long after you have left the island. The town’s other hotel, the Lochside Hotel has a stylish bar, serves classic Scottish dishes and has a conservatory perfect for spotting otters and dolphins in the bay.
Things to do on the Isle of Islay
Islay has three distinct areas – each with their own character – and whisky style! You will need at least three days to explore the Isle of Islay, longer if you want to tour all the distilleries.
Port Ellen and The Mull of Oa
(‘Porth-eilan’ and ‘Mull of o’)
Islay’s south-west corner is the island’s most dramatic. Head to the village of Port Ellen and drive out on the remote Mull of Oa where you can walk to the American Monument along the Oa cliffs. Look for sea eagles soaring overhead and wild goats ambling across the path.
The monument, built to commemorate two shipwrecks on Islay in 1918, can be seen across the island and the story of those lost is truly humbling. If you squint you can just make out two figures – cameramen from the BBC who were filming in preparation for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the SS Tuscania.
Back at Port Ellen, the entrance to the harbour is guarded by the lighthouse at Carraig Fhada built in memory of Lady Eleanor Campbell, wife of the founder of the village. Take a walk out to the lighthouse and round the cliffs to Singing Sands, keeping an eye out for dolphins in the bay!
The south coast of the Isle of Islay is dominated by three of the Island’s whisky giants – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – all famous for that Islay peaty taste. The distilleries can be reached on foot via the Three Distilleries Pathway – a 3-mile walk connected by the local bus. Laphroaig has a great visitor centre and Ardbeg, a well-regarded cafe. It is worth driving out past the distilleries – Kildalton church has a spectacular ancient cross, and roe deer can be seen from the roadside stealing quite happily from the sheep.
The Rhinns of Islay and Portnahaven
The Rhinns of Islay sit to the islands northwest and the promontory stretches the length of Loch Indaal to the famously pretty villages of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss. My favourite walk on the island was the coastal path between the two villages, which has beautiful views of the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the island of Orsay and nosy grey seals popping out of the water in the bay. Portnahaven’s inn, the An Tigh Seinnse serves seafood platters (order in advance) and is characterful with a real fire.
Bruichladdich distillery sits on the shore of Loch Indaal and is one of the island’s most innovative distillers – making the world’s peatiest whisky – the incredibly smokey Octomore. The main village on The Rhinns is Port Charlotte, where the hotel serves excellent chowder, real ales, and on a Wednesday evening, live traditional music.
Islay’s best beach is arguably Machir Bay – a sweep of perfect sand, dramatic cliffs and crashing waves backed by huge dunes – and is close to Islay Cottages accommodation at Kilchoman. The area has also given the name to the island’s newest distillery – and the only one which doesn’t sit on the Islay coast. The Rhinns is a special protection area, and the RSPB have hides at Loch Gruinart; in winter Islay is home to far more Barnacle Geese than people…
Port Askaig and Ardnave Point
Port Askaig sits on the island’s stunning east coast and serves the ferry to the mainland and across to the Isle of Jura. Port Askaig has two distilleries – Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila which both sit on the Sound of Islay and have wonderful views across the water to the Isle of Jura. Bunnahabhain is the most remote distillery on the Island and produces a whisky quite unlike the rest – their 18-year-old sherry cask non-peated whisky is one of my favourites.
From Bunnahabhain walk out towards Rhuvval lighthouse which sits on the Island’s most northern point and watch the storms roll in across the sea from the Isle of Mull. Keep an eye open for the Bunnahabhain Otters, made famous by BBC’s WinterWatch.
After your walk pop into the Port Askaig Hotel, the oldest inn on the island, which still has its original interior. Seafood platters are served from the scallop, crab and lobster boats which dock right in Port Askaig’s Bay. Look out for the owner’s wee white dugs which greet each and every ferry arriving with much enthusiasm!
Whisky, waving, wildlife, and walking – the Isle of Islay offers up a truly unique Scottish island experience. Add in the incredibly warm welcome from the locals and you’ll quickly be working out how to miss your ferry back to the mainland. Islay – you stole our hearts.
Love from Scotland x
Thanks to Caroline, David and Morgen at Islay Cottages for having us to stay. We loved Dundonald Cottage and didn’t want to ‘move out’. To Sharon and Paul from Peatzeria – thank you for making us feel so welcome and your incredible food. Please open in Edinburgh. Paul, enjoy your Lagavulin under the next meteor shower. To the staff and regulars of the Bowmore Hotel – we will be back – we still owe you all a few drinks. Sláinte!