Islay, or the Queen of the Hebredes, is a magical little island for many reasons. Known worldwide as the source of such peaty malt whiskys as Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Islay history reaches far deeper and broader. It is not an island all about whisky, and even for the staunch whisky enthusiast, it offers opportunities for an amazing vacation.
I first visited Scotland in May 2012 primarily to visit the distilleries of Laphroaig and Lagavulin on Islay. After spending the 90s drinking the “Indian” favorites of Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet, and Chivas, adding Dalmore, Balmore, and Glenrothes, I’d been introduced to the intense taste of Lagavulin by my friend Kraig in early 2000s, and finally I’d found a way to get to Islay. The resulting experience driving around parts of Scotland and the few days on Islay had been so beautiful that I found myself wishing to return to the island. Kraig and I talked about it often and finalized plans to truly (and fully) explore the malts of Islay.
Kraig and I were joined by a colleague in conversation, Andrew Kirpalani, in the early part of 2013. As is typical of such group vacations, several others exhibted interest but waned during the year. Kraig and I persevered and outlined an itinerary on a Google Map. We began with a rudimentary travel schedule that would take us from Glasgow to Speyside distilleries, then the highlands, over to Skye and finally down to Islay. We consciously decided to forgo Campbelltown.
Not much happened over the summer but in early August we finalized plans to fly to Scotland for the week of September 14th. We quickly found a connection from Des Moines to Glasgow via Philadelphia and booked it. Finding lodging was going to be a different challenge; one that would make us change our driving schedule to take us from Glasgow to Speyside, then the Highlands, down to Islay and back up to Skye before returning to Glasgow.
We are lovers of Islay malts so we knew that the island would be our core destination. That meant that we’d need to plan our vacation around three key items – B&B on Islay, ferry availability from Kennecraig to Islay, and availability of the Water to Whisky tour at Laphroaig. I’d done that tour in 2012 and learnt so much about the process and Laphroaig that I wanted to repeat the trip with my compatriots. Islay is a small island with a handful of hotels and quite a variety of bed and breakfasts that cater to the large number of tourists April to September. Unlike the US, Islay and much of rural Scotland is devoid of large hotels. In my first trip, we’d easily found Richard and Hilary’s Coultorsay B&B but this time around the beds were much harder to locate. After dozens of emails and phone calls, we landed upon Kilmeny House B&B in the middle of the travel week that necessitated the jigsaw travel scheduled mentioned earlier. I’d emailed Laphroaig for reservations and had seen sufficient availability on the ferry earlier, so wasn’t worried much given that we were traveling in low season.
A typical trip to Islay will originate from Glasgow, with the three-hour, 100-mile drive snaking its way up A82 and then down A83 until you hit the town of Tarbert for a meal/drink before embarking on a 10 minute drive to Port Kennacraig for the ferry. The ferry is a two hour leisurely journey on a well-appointed vessel, complete with a snack bar and comfortable lounges. You’ll disembark at Port Askaig (near Caol Ila or Bunnhabhein) or at Port Ellen (near Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg). Finding your way to the B&B or hotels will be a 0-30 minute drive, tops, except for the naturally occuring stops you’ll cause for yourself to take in the awesome sights.
For anyone traveling to Islay, especially in late May or September, I’d recommend starting early – very early as the Islay Festival of Malt and Music (Feis Ile) in late May and the Jazz festival in mid September can exhaust lodging options very quickly. I will be writing about this entire trip in more detail, dedicating a post to each location and linking/updating this post with the individual locations/attractions. Until then, please note that Scotland is a unique place for tourism – untouched for the most part and small, and you must plan your trip around the key sites you want to guarantee.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite images from Scotland – from Islay, of course.