Wherever you arrive from, by boat or by plane, the first buildings to come into view are the distilleries, their names in black block letters strongly contrasting with the whitewashed walls. With its seven (soon to be eight) distilleries, the isle of Islay is indisputably a Mecca for whisky enthusiasts. No wonder though, if the still-young but already world-famous Islay Whisky Festival attracts around a thousand visitors during the last week of May.Not all of them are whisky ‘freaks’ though. You do not have to be a malt aficionado to fall under the charm of the Queen of the Hebrides, for Islay is a magical place with its stunning seascapes offering spectacular cliffs and miles of sandy beaches, its fascinating historical background and abundant wildlife, and most important, the Ileachs, a community of 4,000 warm and friendly souls who make your holiday on Islay so special. The magic has been so effective in my case that I bought a cottage there. Could a whisky writer dream of a more ideal haven?No matter how devoted you are to whisky and how busy your whisky schedule will be during the Festival, you must take time to follow the lazy path and discover the beauty of Islay. Mind you, you will still encounter uisge beatha if you take a walk on the fragrant side. First of all, open up your nostrils and nose Islay.On arrival at Port Ellen harbour, the first smell to strike a non-local nose is that pungent smoky fragrance enhanced by a wet root earthy note. It comes from the peat burning in Port Ellen maltings kilns. This is one of the key olfactory markers on Islay as well as in its malts. Though only two distilleries still practise floor-malting, you can smell peat in every village for it is commonly used locally for heating houses.Peat covers approximately 2/3 of Islay’s total area. Between Port Ellen and Bowmore, peat bogs edge the straight road, showing dark chocolate-like ditches topped with heaps of air-drying peat bricks. Do not miss the opportunity to get a closer look with Norrie Campbell on Bowmore day.No chance to breathe in the delicate honeyed aromas of blossoming heather at this time of the year (to be found in
Bunnahabhain 12-year-old) but nose bog-myrtle, an excellent midge repellent according to Norrie. In Ardbeg, you will find an exact replica of this balsamic scent, similar to eucalyptus.Do not think you have reached the last stop on arriving at Ardbeg Distillery. Follow the narrow Kildalton road through woodlands and smell fern, moss and humus, distinctive aromas in old Islay malts, especially Bowmore. The road ends at Kildalton chapel and its glorious ninth century Celtic cross, an outstanding historic and artistic monument.The other historical gem is Finlaggan, which was once the capital of the medieval Lords of the Isles. On seeing the few remaining walls on the inland loch, so peaceful and desolate now, one can hardly imagine the Macdonalds ruled the islands and western Scotland from here. Do not skip the visit.Islay beaches are one of the main attractions of the Queen of the Hebrides. Whatever the weather, walk on the beaches, any time of the day. Take seaweeds in hand and inhale their aroma. The black ones are strongly iodined and will remind you of Laphroaig or Ardbeg, the green ones retain more of a scallop and light shells fragrance, smells I found in some versions of Lagavulin and Caol Ila. For that smelling session, I would recommend the beaches along Gruinart Bay. Don’t forget to stop by the RSPB bird observatory. Before entering the shed, take a big breath. Where does that heavy coconut smell come from? Exactly the aromas you catch in Bowmore 17-year-old! Approach the broom and gorse bushes, they will tell you.The memory of all these fragrances is so powerful I could easily swear they float in my Parisian study as I type these lines. And I can hear the last verse of Robin Laing’s song on Bruichladdich: ‘Standing on the island of distillery, you can almost see the coast of heaven.’Nine magical moments for a glorious day1: Take a stroll on the Big Strand early in the morning with a flask of malt for an outdoor tasting. Bruichladdich would be my choice (perfect conformity of aromas: wet sand, shellfishy seaweeds, crisp marine air).2: Try the Croft Kitchen Lagavulin Scallops in Port Charlotte. They are not laced with the whisky, but they are fished in Lagavulin Bay. I can have them everyday without getting bored. Just superb, like the rest of the menu.3: Visit Port Charlotte Museum of Islay Life. One of the best folk museums of Scotland with a fabulous display of daily life objects, a superb illicit still and dreadful accounts of shipwrecks. The wee shop displays Loch Gruinart Honey, a must for your toddy.4: Take the ferry at Port Askaig to Jura, stop at Craighouse, visit the distillery and take a leisurely wander on Craighouse’s white sand beach. Take a personal stereo if you have one, with Norma’s Munro songs (buy her CD at Bowmore or Bruichladdich Distillery shops). Her pure crystal voice soothes any worries away.5: Have a dram – or more, if you feel like it! – at the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore and question owner Alistair Birse on his fantastic malt whisky collection. Alistair is soon to open an islaywhisky4u shop next door.6: Embark on Gus Newman’s boat at Port Ellen for a seal-watching trip which will take you beyond Ardbeg Bay. Departure time is subject to the tide but he usually leaves late afternoon. The reflection of setting sunlight on seal fur is an enchanting sight. The number of seats is limited, so book in advance at Sport Dive Islay on +44 (0) 1496 302 441.7: Go to Portnahaven, a character-filled fishing community right at the southern end of the Rhinns peninsula, to admire a colony of seals basking on the rocks. The icing on the cake would be a hearty pint of beer at An Tigh Seinse, the only village pub, almost uniquely Gaelic speaking. Great atmosphere, but the opening and closing times vary.8: Plan a walk to Arnave Point dunes at dusk for the best chance to spot a herd of deer. A dram of Bowmore Dusk may be appropriate. If it’s a midgy day, forget the walk unless you’re ready to ruin your evening. During the day at low tide, Ardnave Point is an ideal setting for painting watercolours: soft, silent and serene.9: Experience Islay Saturday Night Fever at Lochindaal Bar in Port Charlotte. The locals gather for a good blether, washed down with whisky and beer. An Ileach band plays until late. It is noisy, smoky, a bit wild but full of joie de vivre.
Where to stay on Islay. This could prove tricky during Whisky Festival week as hotels andBed and Breakfasts will more than likely be fully booked a few weeks in advance.For more information, check www.ileach.co.uk
Distillery Destinations can help you find an accommodation, so try www.whisky-tours.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also contact Bowmore Tourist Information. Tel: +44
(0) 1496 810 524.Eat and drink on Islay
• The White Hart Hotel in Port Ellen: really good, inexpensive pub grub.
• The Old Kiln Restaurant at Ardbeg Distillery: (see Whisky Magazine Issue 21) Copious portions and reasonably priced.
• The Harbour Inn: grilled lobster and Islay beef are a real treat. Whisky sometimes inspires Chef Scott Chance. That’s the proper week for it. Very good but expensive.
• Port Askaig Hotel: for bar meals, quite good and inexpensive.
• Bridgend Hotel: for dinner, good atmosphere, hearty menu, reasonably priced. Avoid the bar meals but have a dram at the bar and enjoy Katie’s laugh.
• Port Charlotte Hotel: romantic candle-lit dinners, unpredictable (high chef turnover) but always sophisticated. I like the way they cook Islay smoked beef. Expensive.
• The Croft Kitchen: for lunch and dinner. The best value meals and possibly the best restaurant on Islay. The sweets are irresistible.
• The Lochindaal Bar: a true warm local atmosphere. You will enjoy sharing a dram with the locals. Collectors will turn green with envy when they see the Old Lochindaal Distillery single malt bottle at the top of the shelves.
• An Tigh Seinse: Maureen’s kingdom in Portnahaven, already mentioned. If you are lucky enough to find the door open.
• What about a picnic? Buy oysters at Gruinart Oyster Farm, bread at Bowmore Bakery, Islay Smoked Beef at Bruichladdich mini-market, your favourite malt, and Mary-Ann Mackinnon’s Islay Whisky Marmalade at the Croft Kitchen and have possibly the most memorable outdoor meal of your whole life! My favourite spots for an Islay picnic are The Seal’s Bay near Ardbeg, Saligo Bay, Bunnahabhain pier at sunset, the Mull of Oa and its cliffs and caves famous for illicit distilling, and the Water Lily Loch in Ballygrant woods. Oh, and a hidden rocky shore in the Rhinns, the name of which has a semantic connection with whisky. I’ll be impressed if you know this one! The festival-goer’s diary
All distilleries have scheduled special tours. Here’s a brief survey of the bonuses and special venues. Check for times and updates/schedule changes on www.islaywhiskyfestival.com• Saturday May 25th
Lagavulin: Fête on the Ground; concert by local band 95 Proof in the evening.
The Whisky Game Pub Challenge, organised by the Islay Whisky Club with the game’s author Chris Brousseau at the Marine Hotel, afternoon or evening (details at www.islaywhiskyclub.com).• Sunday May 26th
Bruichladdich: a masterclass by Jim McEwan, the launch of the Whisky Game and Walter Schobert‘s new book, plus a wee ceilidh in the evening.• Monday May 27th
Caol Ila (morning): coopering demonstrations.
Port Ellen Maltings (afternoon): venison and sausages cooked on peat, a display on Port Ellen Distillery and meeting with ex-workers.• Tuesday May 28th
Laphroaig: One of the last chances to be entertained by soon-to-retire Iain Henderson (special tours all week long).
Jura: masterclass by Richard Paterson.• Wednesday May 29th
Bowmore: peat-cutting seminar starring Norrie Campbell, plus a musical evening – a chance to hear Norma Munro and Robin Laing.• Thursday May 30th
Ardbeg: cask filling and Tales from the Snug, a blether with the old folks. Also, a candle-lit whisky dinner at The Old Kiln Café.• Friday May 31st
Bunnahabhain: a whisky masterclass, entertainment in the evening (the Manager’s Ball, charity auction and drams all over the place).