With eight whisky distilleries set on one wildly beautiful island Islay should be deluged under the weight of mass tourism. Yes whisky aficionados know the island well, but the tourist hordes have yet to really discover this paradise. This leaves the locals to get on with the impressively self-sufficient life that they have been leading since the days when the legendary Lords of the Isles ruled swathes of the Hebrides from their Islay stronghold.
Dramatic Natural Setting
It is easy to see why the Lords of the Isles chose Islay as their home. The island is physically stunning – a vivid collage of rolling hills, sweeping sandstrewn bays and craggy coastline, with the shadowy ‘Paps of Jura’, the lofty mountain range that dominates the neighbouring island of Jura, never far from view to the east. I reckon many visitors in a hurry never even realise the Paps are not on Islay! You can easily see Ireland from Islay too. Cast your eyes west and the next landfall is America.
Finlaggan, the mystical former haunt of those Lords of the Isles, is the number one non-whisky attraction for me. It is up there with anything else in the Hebrides. It’s humbling to walk across the wee causeway into the lochan where the island home of those once omnipotent rulers sits. You can easily make out some of their buildings and also see the dramatic stone carvings of the mighty warriors of the day. Information boards tell their evocative tale well.
Islay’s Natural Charms
The natural landscape is also alluring for visitors. There are some lovely hills to ramble up, but no Munros, which means that few Islay hills attract the crowds, indeed you will often have them all to yourself. Then there are the beaches. And what beaches they are! Like many of the Hebrides, Islay is home to some lovely pristine stretches of sand. My favourite is the truly epic Machir Bay, a short distance from the Kilchoman Distillery. The massive dunes give way to a sandy wonder you can bash around enjoying the thunderous noise of the Atlantic. It is easy to appreciate the ocean’s power as a rusting shipwreck strides above the sands at low tide.
Wildlife is a huge draw, especially for bird watchers. Islay is world-famous amongst ornithologists for the massive annual migrations of 10,000s of Canadian and White-Fronted. They arrive in autumn and stay right through to the warm breezes of spring, which tell them that it is time to head back north. You can see them in the skies all over the island, but the best place is around Loch Gruinart, where they tend to overnight. It’s a spectacular sight, and sound, experiencing them swooping back in at sunset.
A Great Foodie Destination
Islay has also been at the forefront of ‘Modern Scottish’ cooking for a number of years. Scotland boasts top class beef, bountiful seafood and world famous game, but until comparatively recently it seemed that many chefs lacked the imagination to do much with them. This is definitely not the case in Islay.
Visitors can sample Islay’s culinary delights and a breed of innovative cooking styles at cosy restaurants like the one at the Port Charlotte Hotel – which enjoys a scenic location in the whitewashed village of the same name. Candle light, stone walls and window tables with great sea views all add to the ambience of this low key restaurant. I love feasting here on great local seafood like Loch Gruinart oysters and Lagavulin scallops.
Other foodie spots I recommend are Yan’s Kitchen, also in Port Charlotte, and the Bridgend Hotel in the wee hamlet of the same name. The former is a cosy spot by the water with a wood-burning stove where you can enjoy the likes of local beef sirloin topped with Islay langoustines. The menu tends to be even more expansive at the Bridgend Hotel. I recommend their great value seafood platter when it’s on, heaving with Islay delights, or any of the game dishes culled from the surrounding estate.
Easily Accessible Islay
Despite its away-from-it-all ambience Islay is surprisingly easy to get to with the island’s airport only a short, spectacular flight away from Glasgow. Or you can just take the ferry and savour Islay gradually taking shape on the horizon as you approach on CalMac’s spick and span new MV Finlaggan. It’s a gorgeous ferry trip over from Kintyre or Oban as the Paps of Jura herald in a welcome to the more fertile soils of Islay.
If you thought that the Hebridean isle of Islay was all just about whisky then it is time to think again. There is so much on this bijou charmer, from epic beaches through to bountiful seafood rich waters, that it is easy to see why those mystical Lords of the Isles chose Islay to be the very centre of their world.
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