Love whisky? Then you’ll love the Inner Hebridean island of Islay! This bijou Atlantic charmer boasts no fewer than eight whisky distilleries, with plans mooted for three more! Islay lives and breathes whisky and offers for me the finest whisky touring experience in Scotland. I’ve just been back to stay at Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, an ideal base as it is housed in an old distillery building, with epic views of the island.
View from Port Charlotte Youth Hostel
I used this well run youth hostel as a base to discover that there is far more to Islay than just whisky. Here are my seven reasons to visit this wonderful wee island...
1. Superb Food – Islay is one of the most fertile Scottish isles, with fresh local produce found around the isle. You can cook up your own local feast in the self-catering kitchen or dine on the youth hostel’s tasty homemade meals. If you want to pop out to eat nearby newcomer Yan’s Kitchen specialises in seafood and tapas around a cosy wood-burning oven.
Robin Working The Malt At Laphroaig
2. Whisky Galore – All of Islay’s distilleries welcome visitors these days. If you’re short on time I recommend the southern trio of distilleries, kicking off with Laphroaig, then on to Lagavulin before ending with Ardbeg, which has a superb café. Bowmore offers a slick visitor experience in the eponymous island capital, while Bruichladdich, with its old whisky making equipment, is quirkier.
Robin At Ardbeg Distillery
The two most underrated are Caol Isla, and sherry heavy gently peated Bunnahabhain in the remote east coast. Caol Isla boasts a massive glass wall that allows you to enjoy the same epic views of Jura as the stills Kilchoman offer a more personal experience as the second smallest distillery in Scotland and also boasts an excellent café.
3. Beaches – Islay for me boasts some of the finest stretches of sand in Scotland. My favourite is the epic expanse of Machir Bay. Delve down here on the road from Kilchoman Distillery and this Atlantic gem unfurls below you in a sweeping cloak of pristine sand. Framed by hills and ravaged by Atlantic breakers it’s a deeply dramatic spot. I also recommend Saligo Bay nearby, a wilder, rockier stretch that feels even more remote. Then there is the wide sweep of the island’s biggest beach, the seven mile long Big Strand.
4. Lords of the Isles – The legendary Lords of the Isles belong to an evocative and fascinating period in Scottish history. These warlords were a mix of Viking and Scots blood, holding sway for centuries over vast swathes of the Hebrides from their Islay stronghold. No trip to Islay is complete without a visit to their old stronghold at Finlaggan.
You may be surprised that this wee islet is not surrounded by towering walls and sturdy ramparts. The power of the omnipotent Lords of the Isles was such that they did not need to worry about such frailties as defensive fortifications
Islay Traffic Jam
5. Walking – Islay may not boast the massive mountains of neighbouring Jura, but its does offer a superb variety of walks. They range from hikes up its remote, rounded hills, through to coastal walks around Loch Indaal and on to rough scrambles across the island’s peaty bogs. My favourite walk is a hike around the peninsula in the Ardnave area, which opens up epic coastal scenery, offshore islands and myriad birdlife. If you’re lucky you might see a dolphin or even a whale too.
6. Birds, birds and more birds – Islay is an ornithologists’ paradise. The range of birds on show here is one of the most impressive in Scotland with the tidal flats of Loch Gruinart the epicentre of the avian action. You can recline in the RSPB hide here and peer thorough the binoculars, with plenty of information on hand to let you know what you are looking at. The massive geese migrations of spring and autumn are the best times to be here for keen birders.
Sheep On Islay
7. Jura – Bar the direct seasonal passenger ferry from the mainland the only way to get to the gloriously remote Jura is from Islay. It just takes a few minutes to cross over, but you are entering another world. The population of Jura is around 6,000. Red deer that is! Less than 100 people live on Jura and there is only one real road, one pub, one hotel and, yes, one whisky distillery. What more do you need?
Jura is also famous for being where George Orwell wrote 1984 and you can visit the house at Barnhill where he penned this literary classic. The main activity on Jura is hiking, with the famous Paps of Jura a real scree ravaged challenge.
If you would like to follow in Robin's footsteps and explore the beautiful Islay then you can book your island getaway at Port Charlotte Youth Hostel here: syha.org.uk/where-to-stay/islands/port-charlotte
Port Charlotte Youth Hostel
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.