Travel

Whisky paradise

In the latest in our series on visiting distilleries Caroline Dewar looks at Islay and Jura
By Caroline Dewar
To many whisky fans Islay is the ultimate pilgrimage. Home to seven main distilleries – all world renowned names – and the new farm distillery at Kilchoman attracting whisky enthusiasts, this is hardly surprising. And the Isle of Jura just across the water. Pilgrimage can sometimes also imply hard to reach. So is it?Well, you can get to Islay by plane from Glasgow International. This BA/Loganair operated flight runs twice per day Monday- Friday and once on Saturday morning. No flights on Sundays.It takes only about half an hour. The plane seats about 32 people and can book up quickly sometimes, not only with holiday visitors but with island residents and business people, frequently from the distilling companies. On a clear day the aerial view of the island and sea as you fly in is stunning.Alternatively, take the ferry from Kennacraig a few miles beyond Tarbert. This is the leisurely way to go. If starting from Glasgow you need nearly three hours to drive to the port at Kennacraig – lovely route if you have time – or there are good accommodations within half an hour’s drive if preferred. That way you can stop the night before and get a morning ferry next day.The crossing itself takes just more than two hours. Great scenery and wonderful bracing air. It is also a good opportunity to see some of the Islay coast as you sail in towards the port.There are two ports on the island and both are used for the ferry dependent on time of day. Car and ferry are cheaper than plane if more than one in your party. Transport choice depends on whether you require speed and how long you have to visit. Operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, there are fewer ferries in winter but they do run every day year round and take vehicles, cycles and foot passengers.The onboard café offers great breakfasts – the full Scottish cardiac arrest that we all treat ourselves to when on holiday – or there are simpler versions. The food at lunchtime and on the evening sailings is good value too – simple and inexpensive.Jura is a little further on and accessible only by ferry from Port Askaig on the north side of Islay. Alittle car and passenger ferry shuttles back and forth several times per day. However, it does finish its service quite early in the evening so plan visits there carefully.Please bear in mind also that you will need a car on both islands. There are bus services but they will not always go to distillery doors and not at the times you might need.Note too that you might need a night on the mainland at either end of the trip as Islay transport may not co-ordinate with your transport home.When to go? All year is possible though some things are closed in winter. I have been there several times in February for meetings and it has been gloriously sunny. Really cold, but beautiful.Then there’s the question of what to do on Islay and Jura. There is the obvious distillery answer. Down one side of Islay we have Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg in a line. Right in the middle we have Bowmore and west and north we have Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain.Isle of Jura Distillery is the whisky presence on that island. Port Ellen Maltings is not usually open for tourist visits except during the Islay Festival of Malt and Music – or Feis Ile – which runs for a little more than a week from end of May to early June each year.The whisky side to the festival has been running for about six years now and proving hugely popular. Many people book their accommodation far in advance. Regular readers of Whisky Magazine will know it features special distillery tours, masterclasses, music events, stories and whisky dinners.The sensible thing here is to book accommodation early, even though most distillery events for the Festival are not usually finalised till February. You do not have to go for the whole week if time does not permit.Distilleries offers regular tours Monday- Friday but not all of them open at weekends.They are first and foremost places of whisky production and not all are operational at weekends. Bunnahabhain and Jura are April-October only and by appointment November-March. Bruichladdich and Bowmore do Saturday tours year round; Ardbeg and Kilchoman will do weekend tours in peak summer season; outside peak by prior arrangement.Those two have the added advantage of cafes. The one at Kilchoman is on a smaller scale with more limited menu but a very welcome addition to that part of the island.Laphroaig and Jura – weekend tours only if booked in advance, but that may change in future.Distillery people are amongst the most hospitable and helpful on the planet but staff need time off to have lives too. So do have a properly planned trip with time for tours on appropriate days only.Apart from the whisky, there is a lot more to recommend these islands for relaxation or more physical endeavours. Jura is renowned for its walks and the deer population. You can go stalking and shooting (with licence) in autumn/winter or simply looking for wildlife the rest of the year.The Jura Fells Race – not to be contemplated if only of average fitness – is in May each year. It also holds one part of the Three Peaks Race in July and there is a sailing regatta in August.More about these events can be found from the Tourist Office in Bowmore (Islay) tel. +44 (0)1496 810 254. Sights include Jura House gardens which are open year round and the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.On Islay itself you will not be short of activity. If golf is your interest, then the island’s only course is owned by The Machrie Hotel and open to non-residents. There are many excellent walks – in April there is Islay Walk Week featuring daily guided walks.Otherwise just stroll along the beach to clear the cobwebs. Other sports catered for are pony trekking, swimming (there is also a gym at the leisure centre in Bowmore) and cycling with bike hire available at Bowmore Post Office and advice on cycling routes available locally. Clay pigeon shooting is available at Cultoon and fishing through the Sea Angling club or on some private estates For non-sporting enjoyment you can go deer stalking on one estate for photo purposes in summer or learn birding and bushcraft with Islay Birding. There is also the Islay Natural History Trust in Port Charlotte.The island does attract many birdwatchers in autumn and winter, who come to see the geese which settle there. The RSPB has a reserve at Gruinart open to visitors. Islay Sea Safari runs boat trips from the island in main holiday season – a good way to see marine life or distilleries from a distance. Not all of them can be reached for visits this way.Cultural and historical activities can be covered in the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte (closed in winter) and the ancient historical sites at Finlaggan off the road between Bridgend and Port Askaig and Kildalton Cross up beyond Ardbeg.Islay is rich in Celtic history as a site where the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles and ruling clan had their island council. The archaeological site can be seen at Finlaggan.There are also remains of a pre-Christian stone circle at Cultoon. For architecture fans there is a chapel ruin at Kilchiaran and the castle ruins near Lagavulin. Fortunately the Round Church in Bowmore, dating from 1767 is still in good order and used for church services. Built in the round to stop the devil hiding in corners.For other cultural activities it is always worth contacting the Gaelic College on the road out of Bowmore towards Bridgend.They run Gaelic language classes as well as the occasional piping class and evening music events. A leading Islay musical event is the Black Bottle Islay Jazz Festival held in September (15-17 for 2006).There are some fine craft shops on Islay – at Islay Square near Bridgend featuring the Batik Centre, stained glass maker and the brewery and Tormisdale up behind Port Charlotte and Portnahaven. There is a pottery at Persabus on the way to Bunnahabhain Distillery as well as a local artist out at Carraig Fhada lighthouse but beware the road to get there.It is a rough track at some points as are other access roads, like the one in the middle of the island which starts just outside Bridgend, finishing in Port Ellen. This is also a single track road with passing places and the road up to Bunnahabhain is similar.For those unfamiliar with such things, the wider spaces at certain points of the road are for pulling over to let other vehicles pass, not for a picnic stop or to park while you take a walk or photographs! Another venue worth a stop is the Islay Woollen Mill where goods made there are sold in the shop.So you know how to get to Islay and then to Jura. You know what there is to do.But where to stay? Here you are in luck – there is so much choice. Jura has the Jura Hotel right next to the distillery. There are also a couple of bed and breakfasts and some cottages for rent. The distillery, too, is about to offer accommodation.Islay has considerably more accommodation at all levels from small B&Bs to hotels and at prices to suit all pockets. The largest hotel is The Machrie, appropriately, as its golf course is well frequented and it also has small chalets which take up to four people.Port Ellen has the White Hart Hotel, purchased by a new owner and renovated a few years ago.In Bowmore there are the Harbour Inn and Lochside Hotel as well as the Bowmore House guest house.The Bridgend Hotel changed ownership last year and continues to do good business, then out at Port Charlotte is the very popular Port Charlotte Hotel.Restaurant tables here and at The Harbour Inn are always busy.Down at Port Askaig there is also a hotel bearing the village name (useful for lunches too). Two guest houses with high tourist board ratings are Glenmachrie and Kilmeny.The owner of Glenmachrie is now owner of Glenegedale across the road which is being refurbished ready for spring 2006 opening.There will also be a restaurant there again for visitors, resident or not.Apart from this small selection, there are other hotels and a whole range of B&Bs some with private bathrooms, like Caladh Sona.Some offer only shared bathrooms. All accommodations on the island are welcoming.Islay is also rich in a selection of self-catering cottages which can be rented by the week, usually from Saturday-Saturday.These vary in size from two people apartments to larger houses taking 10 or 12 people. There are plenty of places to eat and drink on Islay – all of those hotels mentioned above plus The Croft Kitchen in Port Charlotte, Christie’s bakery in Bowmore for takeaway to eat down at the harbour, The Cottage and a fair selection all over the island.Though important to the whisky industry, and to malt whisky enthusiasts, Islay is not simply a whisky island.Aholiday there can be as busy or as relaxed as you want it to be with much to see and do, as well as accommodations from simple to more luxurious and an array of good food. Caroline Dewar is a director of Distillery Destinations Ltd., Scotland’s only specialist whisky tour company, owned and run by whisky experts.To make it easier for visitors, it offers tours all across Scotland including planned itineraries; transport within Scotland whether car rental, chauffeur drive, ferry or flight; accommodation and visit appointments.It also builds in or suggests other activities of interest to clients around whisky visits.Corporate visits and events for business or conference groups are also arranged.Distillery Destinations Ltd sets up trips to Islay for clients all year round.It has extensive lists for accommodation and eating out on Islay not covered here.Web site: www.whisky-tours.com and e-mail to info@whisky-tours.com
Tel: +44 (0)141 429 0762