The Isle of Islay is the beautiful island off the West Coast of Scotland. It has garnered almost mythical fame due to its nine working distilleries, and as such heralds visitors from the four corners of the world who travel to sample the ‘liquid sunshine’ they produce.

I have been visiting Islay each year for five years now and by each passing visit I feel more connected to the place and its people. Twice I have been to The Islay Academy – a residential course for whisky fans and industry types run by the wonderful, Rachel MacNeill. Once as a customer, and then invited back again in 2019 as a guest speaker. It attracts people from around the world, with expert lessons in the morning held at the Gaelic Language Centre, overlooking Loch Indaal – surely the best classroom in the world! Then afternoons spent at distilleries having in-depth insight into production and distillation from the people on the ground. A most fascinating week and I don’t know of any other whisky courses like it

The other two occasions I have been there with friends, some whose first time it was on the island. When they experience everything you have been telling them is quite a special moment. Seeing their faces when you round the corner on the walkway out of Port Ellen en route to Laphroaig, and that view comes into play… Well, if you’ve been there, you’ll know exactly the spot I’m talking about!

 

As you can gather, Islay is a really special place to me. I simple love going there. And as I get quite a few questions and do love to extol the virtues of the place, as you’ll know if you’ve met me, I wanted to put a few tips together to help those planning a trip there.

1. Drive and take the ferry – it take a while – about 7-8 hours drive from Brum but the scenery is beautiful after you’ve left the motorway out of Glasgow. And the ferry on a good day will give you views you’ll never forget.

2. Book everything well in advance – accommodation, meals, taxis, ferry, tours. I cannot stress this enough. I’ve been there out of season and practically got laughed at when my friend and I walked into a restaurant to try and eat that night!

3. Get a bus timetable for when you’re there unless you have a driver for the week!

4. Plan your distillery tours meticulously and leave lots of time after your chosen tour for the all important shop.

5. Don’t feel you have to take a tour of each distillery to have the full experience – the warehouse tastings can still give you a sense of place and, in my opinion, are always well worth the money. With some it’s possible to do the tour followed by the warehouse tasting.

6. Research which distilleries have a cafe – some have nothing and you don’t want to be caught short with rumbling tummies and a straight-from-the-cask warehouse tasting to attend!

7. Some have sampling stock in the shop – always ask as they can be very generous!

8. Get chatting to people – everyone wants to talk about whisky and find out what your experiences are. People are very friendly and I found it a bit overwhelming to start with but after a couple of drams got used to it. I have met people from all over the world – see whisky as the binding ingredient to immediate friendship!

9. Prepare for all weathers all the time – I’m really not joking.

10. Carry cash – although less important at the moment.

11. Try and leave some time for sightseeing, other than the distilleries. They have the most beautiful beaches in the world that are often deserted when you visit. There are also many historic sites of note that are worth visiting as well. Islay is so steeped in a glorious, rich history of ancient sites and past inhabitants, it really is worth it.

12. Visit to Jura – Jura is a very short ferry away and also a stunning island. More-or-less one road to drive and much more rugged than Islay. For grand photography and wildlife, it’s worth factoring in.

13. Respect for locals – it’s a small place and being friendly and trying to get to know a few people there is a good thing. They are passionate about the land, the whisky and the heritage and welcome thousands of tourists each year. Being a considerate and appreciative traveller is an absolute must.

13. Always remember the Islay wave! I’m not going to explain this one but you’ll soon find out.

So, gather your whisky-loving friends and family and arrange post-haste to go to Islay.

Written by Amy Seton


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