Diehards may take the ferry at Port Askaig to visit this island that boasts 180 inhabitants, 5,000 deer, one hotel and one distillery (note from the Editor: see also the article on Jura and Orwell on page 32). The distillery is called Jura and they run the Jura Tastival in May. Those who love to run up and down a fell or seven fells might consider participating in the yearly Isle of Jura Fell Race, usually held in May.
If there is one island in the world that can claim the title Whisky Island, it is Islay, off the southwest coast of Scotland. Measuring 600 square kilometres with a stunning 130-mile long coastline, Islay is home to roughly 3,250 inhabitants proudly calling themselves Ileachs and no less than eight working distilleries.
First of all, how to get there? One option is flying from Glasgow in a small aircraft. It will take you approximately 45 minutes, but you have to be lucky with the weather. Flights will be cancelled when it appears too dangerous to land on the tiny airstrip, amidst a flock of grazing sheep.
When the skies are clear you might catch a glimpse of the famous three Kildalton distilleries from the air: Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. Heading there by water and mooring in Port Ellen, you can see them more elaborately from the starboard side. The names of these three heavily peated single malts are proudly painted on the white warehouses facing the sea.
The alternative is to take the ferry from Kennacraig, Argyll. In about two hours Caledonia MacBrayne will transport you, with or without car, to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig.
Coming from Kennacraig the first one to spot from the water is Ardbeg, with an official founding date of 1815, where distilling is recorded as early as 1794. It is an iconic dram with a real cult following, united in the Ardbeg Committee. Recent years have seen the release of remarkable limited bottlings with intriguing names such as Corryvreckan, Alligator and Galileo. The latest edition is Auriverdes. The distillery serves a fine lunch in the former maltings.
A few miles north of Ardbeg, along the same road, stands the eighth century Kildalton Cross, blending pagan Pictish with Christian symbols. Withstanding the ravages of time, it is a marvel to see and definitely not to be missed when on the island.
Ardbeg's neighbour is Lagavulin, one of the original Classic Malts, said to be founded in 1816. The name is Gaelic for "hollow by the mill". The distillery was once owned by Sir Peter Mackie, one of the famous whisky barons of the early 20th century. In 1908 he built a second distillery on the premises called Malt Mill. Production ceased in 1960 and the buildings now house the visitor centre. In a specially designed case the last tiny bottle of Malt Mill single malt whisky is displayed. This extremely rare malt partly inspired Ken Loach for his 2012 movie The Angels' Share.
The third and last of the Kildalton trio is Laphroaig, closest to Port Ellen. The founding date mentioned on the bottle is 1815. Part of the barley is malted on site. Laphroaig has been running a
loyalty program for nearly 25 years, called The Friends of Laphroaig. Visitors can sign up and receive the lease of a square foot of land in the nearby peat bogs. Equipped with a GPS tracker and the exact coordinates, they are invited to go to their plot and plant a tiny flag of their country of origin. Over 350,000 whisky lovers worldwide have signed up since the introduction of the program. And don't worry about ruining your shoes in the swampy bog - Laphroaig will happily lend you a pair of wellies for the duration of your walk.
In Port Ellen one can find the White Hart Hotel and various B&Bs, among which is the Oyster Catcher. Another option is to stay in Glenegedale House, opposite the tiny airstrip, northwest of Port Ellen.
The main road will take you to Bowmore, the capital of Islay, famous for its round church. It was supposedly built this way to prevent the devil from hiding in a corner. When discovered, he fled into the eponymous distillery on the other side of town and escaped in an empty barrel. True or not, this legend inspired the whisky makers at Bowmore distillery to create a limited edition called The Devil's Cask. Here the oldest warehouse in the industry stands proudly on the shores of Loch Indaal. On a clear day you can spot Bruichladdich, on the other side of this large sea loch that almost cuts the island in half.
Bowmore town has various B&Bs and hotels, among which the Harbour Inn, with a fine restaurant that serves delicious seafood. One can even find Indian and Chinese cuisine in the tiny streets.
When leaving Bowmore you will soon reach Bridgend. Turn left to the Rhinnes and you will have the opportunity to visit a recently built distillery named Kilchoman, modelled after an old traditional farm distillery. It is the smallest on Islay so far and has been producing whisky since 2005. Try and visit Machir Bay or Lossit Bay, a beautiful unspoilt beach that, on a clear and sunny day, is reminiscent of the Caribbean.
Return to the main road and head towards Port Charlotte. Before you enter the village you will pass Bruichladdich, built in 1881. The owners style themselves with the title "Progressive Hebridean Distillers" and progressive they are. Countless limited editions have been launched from a plethora of different casks, all sampled and approved by legendary whisky maker Jim McEwan, who started his career way back when as a cooper on the other side of Loch Indaal. Bruichladdich also makes a nice gin in an odd-shaped still called "Ugly Betty". It is the only distillery on the island that bottles its product on site.
The Port Charlotte Hotel is a fine place to stay and dine. Not far outside the village is a campsite for those who prefer to bring their tents or campervans. Yan's, opposite the tiny island museum, is a fine alternative to have a bite to eat. It is worthwhile continuing the road to the tip of this part of the island and stopping at Portnahaven. It is an excellent place to spot seals, basking in the sun or playing hide and seek in the tiny harbour, framed with white painted cottages.
Here the road to the south-western tip of Islay ends and there is only one way back to visit the two remaining distilleries in the northeast. Turn the car and head back to Bridgend, and turn left towards Port Askaig. Soon you will pass Islay House with a courtyard converted into a tiny shopping centre. Here the famous Islay Ales are brewed. The owners offer tours, samples and sell the various brews in the tiny visitor centre. Other venues in the courtyard include an art gallery and a jewellery shop.
Travelling on the road towards Port Askaig, you will pass the village of Ballygrant, with the eponymous Inn. If you are interested in ruins, turn at the sign "Finlaggan" and you can see where once the Lords of the Isles used to gather and make decisions. The accompanying visitor centre shows an interesting historic display from the time Somerled kicked out the Vikings until the present day.
Further up on the road there is a sign for Bunnahabhain, the lightest of the Islay malts. It is by far the remotest one
on the island, as you will realise when driving along the narrow and winding road. You will be pleasantly surprised at the end, seeing a small community built around the distillery that started producing in 1883. This is an old workhorse but appreciated internationally, witness thereof the recent purchase of the company by the South African Distell Group.
There is only one way to get to the last Islay distillery on your trip - enjoy the meandering little road from another viewpoint and head back to the main road, turn left again and in a minute you will see the sign for Caol Ila, (dating from 1846 but totally renovated in the early 1970s) with its remarkable stillhouse sporting huge windows through which you can see the famous Paps of Jura.
When you've had your share of whisky and distilleries, there is still plenty to do on Islay - bird spotting at the Oa RSPB nature reserve; visiting the impressive American Monument; walking; taking a boat trip to see whales and dolphins. Don't forget to visit Ardnave Point at Loch Gruinart, where you can see another ancient stone cross and chapel. This loch is a famous breeding place for barnacle geese. Why not fill your hip flask when walking the moors and hills? If you don't want to favour one Islay whisky in particular, try Black Bottle, a tasty blend of Islay's single malts, complemented with grain whisky.
Hotels, Restaurants, B&Bs
www.islayfestival.com (late May/early June)