Looking for a true Celtic connection?
Let the wonders of Islay wash over, and through, you.
Pronounced EYE-la, the island sits almost midway between Ireland and Scotland. She is known as the “Queen of the Hebrides” and can be reached via a 40-minute flight from Glasgow International. Packing light with a piece like the Piel Leather Complete Carry–All Bag is suggested.
Many choose to take the ferry from the Kennacraig, on the Scottish mainland, to either Port Askaig or Port Ellen. Lock up your luggage (a TSA-approved luggage lock is suggested) and place alongside others in the outside storage bins.
Two hours of cruise time gradually ease you into Islay’s island mentality, where sheep run free, the roads are often one lane and many of the world’s very best whiskeys are produced.
Within minutes you know you are in a place that Mother Nature holds precious.
The curving roads lead across verdant fields dotted with Cheviot, Scotch Mule and Texel sheep where late March through early May baby lambs scamper among the ewes. Soon the landscape gains in altitude. Volcanic rocks cling to hillsides over glistening bays, and grouse dart fearlessly from roadside brush as the shaggy heads of Highland cattle turn slowly to survey passing hikers and drivers.
Anglers and artists can capture the bounty of waters from salmon to wild brown trout by filling their Eagle Creek Packable Daypacks with flies and sketchbooks alike.
Meet the enormously friendly Ileach, the people of Islay, in shops and pubs along the island. Stop in towns and villages such as Bridgend, Portnahaven and Port Charlotte. Their brogues might be broad to a non-Ileach’s ear, but their warm smiles are just as big.
Wherever you wander, a distinctive aroma permeates the air: the slightly acidic, earthy smell with a hint of sea brine comes from burning peat. Once used to heat village homes and farms, burning peat is still used to give the distinctive smokiness to the whiskeys from Islay’s numerous distilleries.
One of Scotland’s greatest gifts to the world has been the whiskey. Called the “uisge beatha”, or the “breath of life”, the distilled alcoholic beverage is made from fermented barley and water. By law, it must age in an oak barrel, often one previously used to hold American bourbon, for at least three years and a day in Scotland. However, the longer the aging process, the smoother the blend.
Islay has eight distilleries. Each offers a distinctive taste, so take the time to hit two or three daily. Booking a tour with an Island native, such as Christine Logan, AKA Lady of the Isles, allows you to freely enjoy the drams.
If you start at the south of the island, you will find the strongest phenolic, or smoky tasting whiskeys, at the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardberg distilleries. Buy a bottle of Laphroaig and own a patch of Islay through its “Friends” program. Pick your country’s flag near the tasting room and head outside to lay your claim. The mere patch is not big enough to plant a house, a chair or a garden – but there no taxes either.
Head north and the whiskeys become a bit lighter in taste and color, although still peaty. The road leading down to Bunnahabhain’s coastal location is dramatic as is its view of the mountainous Paps of the neighboring island of Jura. Nearby is Caol Ila, tucked into a hillside.
Bowmore is the keystone of the island’s capital. A tour of the distillery features visiting the copper stills prior to sitting in their tasting room with a panoramic view of the harbor.
At Bruichladdich, the renegade experience is alive and well at the sight of boots stuck in a faux copper still at the entrance. Not far away, Kilchoman, which opened in 2005, is a complete whiskey making plant that grows its own barley nearby.
Islay is a mixture of wonderful man made creations and natural delights. Consider it an ode to the good life by visiting soon.
Next week we are off to North Iceland.