Islay review: The island off the west coast of Scotland is famous for its whisky
Islay is the antithesis of London: often there’s not another person, car or house to be seen for miles. It seemed to be the perfect destination for two city-dwellers with symptoms of burnout to enjoy some fresh air and a digital detox.
Searching online, there’s not much written about the island perched off the west coast of Scotland.
But ask anyone who’s into whisky and they’ll wax lyrical about the wondrous, almost magical qualities of the island’s peat. So, that was that: Islay was on the cards. I grabbed my boyfriend, two high-quality anoraks and a good pair of walking boots, and we headed off to Euston station to catch the overnight train.
Planning a trip to Islay isn’t particularly easy. The first hurdle was travelling the 553 miles from the capital city to the island.
Fed up of spending hours on end hanging around airports in 2017, we opted for the opulent luxury of an overnight train from London Euston to Glasgow Central.
Like something out of a Hollywood movie, our four day trip involved a train, plane and an…Audi.
Islay review: A double rainbow welcomed us to Scotland as we drove to the ferry from Glasgow
Islay review: The ferry took two hours
It meant no loitering in a Wetherspoons for hours on end, or tackling security with a liquid limit. We simply finished work for the day, ate dinner at home and rolled up to the Caledonian Sleeper train for 10pm.
It was due to leave the station at 11pm, but doors open for passengers to enjoy a drink in the lounge carriage up to an hour before departure.
Unfortunately, on the day we travelled the on-train lounge was shut but we had been pre-warned via text, so headed to M&S in the station and stocked up on miniature bottles of Champagne and sandwiches before checking in.
The berths aren’t spacious. In standard sleeper class you’ll find yourself in bunk beds, but opt for first class and the top bunk is folded away to give passengers access to their own window, a sink and several pegs for your clothes.
The beds are small but comfortable, and the staff are friendly and impressively perky when they bring breakfast at 6.30am before the train’s final stop in Glasgow.
Travelling in the winter meant we didn’t get to see much of the rolling countryside view out our private windows, but for those lucky enough to take on the pilgrimage in summer months that view will be nothing less than incredible.
Stepping off the train at 7am in clean clothes, having enjoyed a fresh coffee and a bacon sarnie in our berth, it was a positive start to the day – which was good as the journey had only just begun.
Islay review: The Caledonian sleeper train took us from London Euston to Glasgow
Islay review: Highland cows feature prominently on the island
Next, we jumped on a bus to Glasgow Airport where we picked up our easyCar hire, pre-booked months in advance. We were on a tight schedule with a mere 106 mile drive to catch our ferry at 1pm.
Collecting the car was – for want of a better word – easy, and the roads seemlessly twisted from four lanes of busy Glaswegian traffic to stunning forest-lined open road surrounded by the Loch Lomond national park.
The worries we had melted away into the perfect scenery; the crisp fresh air replacing the London smog that had settled deep into our lungs.
The two-hour drive flew by and before we knew it we were nursing a drink at the back of the ferry from Kennacraig port. Two more hours on the ferry, and our wheels finally touched the precious soil of Islay.
We’d been warned the weather on the island was unpredictable, and that it had rained for most of the year, but as we drove out of the ferry port and toward our first distillery the sun shone brightly.
Not a cloud in the sky, it was a beautiful day. We drove for miles without seeing another person; the only company we had was each other and the herds of Highland Cows that gathered across the landscape.
The rich autumnal colours were out in full force with luscious greens and hearty orange grass stretching for miles and miles – as far as the eye could see. Occasionally the greenery was broken up by vast, cool expanses of loch water.
There’s Loch Gruinart, where Islay oysters are farmed, Skerrols Loch and Loch Ardnahoe. But, Loch Gorm was one of the most incredible. Standing on the edge of the loch, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh Islay air.
There was no phone signal, no noise and, most importantly, no other people: it was perfect. The Paps of Jura stood proudly in the distance, watching over the visitors on its neighbouring island.
Islay review: The Port Charlotte Hotel’s best table with a view
Islay review: The seafood platter at the Port Charlotte Hotel
After tearing around the island excitedly absorbing as many blue-sky views as possible, we checked into the Port Charlotte Hotel.
Walking into the guest house, what strikes first is the heat from the fire. Both the reception room and the bar are welcoming with a homely feel – and the restaurant at the back serves traditional Islay dishes including the most spectacular seafood platter. Oysters, langoustine, lobster, crab claws and scallops: fresh seafood doesn’t get much better than this.
And from incredible seafood to impressive views; the window in our bedroom looked out over Port Charlotte. At night, the stars were so bright and the sky so clear they were reflected in the sea which quietly lapped up against the shore as we settled into Islay life in the bar talking to the local fishermen.
The next morning there was a thin mist that hung in the air turning the yolk-like sunrise into a dull glare on the horizon.
The pale light caught the tips of the grass as it shuffled in the wind; a storm was blowing in but we were met with a cosy fire in the hotel reception.
Over a traditional Scottish breakfast, I looked up some facts about the island. At the last census of 2011 Islay had 3,228 inhabitants. The same census recorded the population of the small area of London we live in at 13,743.
Undeniably, there’s benefits to both: London is a city of convenience, fast living and instant results. Islay is a place of natural beauty, calm reflection and community spirit.
Having said that, the nearest shop from the town we were staying in for things like milk and bread was a whopping 20 mile round-trip.
But what the island lacks in accessibility for shopping it certainly makes up for in whisky.
It’s the birthplace of smoky, peaty single malt. The island is home to eight distilleries: Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Coal Ila, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain. 2018 will bring its ninth: Ardnahoe.
Islay review: Sunsets over the Port Charlotte Hotel – a view from the bedroom
Islay review: Caol Ila distillery is right by one of the two ferry ports in Islay
It’s impossible to visit all the distilleries in one day, but taking on the challenge of showing us as much of the island as physically possible in one day was Lady of the Isles, Christine Logan.
Born and bred Islay, Christine offers bespoke tours of the island in the luxury of her van.
She picked us up from the hotel and it was evident in the first minute she was something of a celebrity on the island. Everyone knew Christine, and she knew everyone.
She whipped us around to Laphroiag to introduce us to the staff who would show us around the next day, and we enjoyed our first dram of whisky that day at 10am. From there we headed to Ardbeg which has the most fabulous distillery café.
After a cup of tea and a scone, sheltering from the impressively powerful and incredibly intermittent rain showers, Christine drove us to the island’s Woollen Mill. The factory – first established in 1883 – is worth a visit, for the shop alone.
Islay review: Islay is the perfect place to step out of the chaos of a big city
Piles upon piles of thick knitted scarfs, jumpers, kilts, baby shoes, blankets – you name it, the mill makes it.
After a look around, and being introduced to everyone in the shop, we left and headed to the new distillery being built on the island: Ardnahoe.
Next we stopped at Bunnahabhain, Loch Gruinart, dropped in at Kilchoman distillery and finally swooped into the town centre of Bowmore.
My boyfriend, the wannabe whisky connoisseur, enjoyed the distilleries for their primary existence: to educate and enthral fans who had come from far and wide to visit. I, however, cannot call myself a whisky connoisseur, but the people of Islay had me hooked.
It’s beautiful. Every car journey is like driving through a movie set with mile upon mile of open grassland giving way to stunning coastline and the open sea.
Yes, the weather is unpredictable. And yes, a lot of the tourist attractions are centred around whisky. But taking a moment to just absorb the calm, warm nature of the Islay folk is all a city-dweller needs to truely settle into island life.
Kicking back in a local pub with a roaring fire and local music couldn’t be more idyllic after a picture-perfect day sight-seeing on the isle.
Waving goodbye to the island from the back of the ferry on the way home was bittersweet.
There’s so much more to see and do but you really have to take your time and promise the island you’ll go back one day.
For more information on visiting Scotland, please visit www.visitscotland.com
Accommodation/ food & drink: Port Charlotte Hotel www.portcharlottehotel.co.uk
Tour: Lady of the Isles: www.ladyoftheisles.co.uk
Travel: Caledonian Sleeper www.sleeper.scot
Food & drink: Laphroaig www.laphroaig.com
Expedition Trek Jacket from Scruffs – RRP: £89.95 and the Oakham Waterproof Jacket is from Royal Robbins