Taking a whisky focused trip to Scotland had been at the top of our travel wish list for a while. Sam and I had been talking about it since we moved to Europe in 2016, but just hadn’t gotten around to making it happen. So, when my parents proposed a May trip to Scotland in 2019, before the pandemic, we were all in. After much discussion, we decided to go to Islay, a somewhat remote island off the west coast of Scotland that is home to some of our very favorite distilleries including Laphroig, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain.
Islay Itinerary Outline
Day 1 – Drive from Glasgow to Islay, Kilnaughton Beach and Carraig Fhada Lighthouse
Day 2 – Rent bikes and visit Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig
Day 3 – Machrie Golf Links, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, and Seafood Feast
Note: When we plan trips, we use an excellent software called Axus to give our clients access to their itineraries via an app on their phones and format their itinerary into a well organized PDF that can be printed before travel. We love Axus so much that we use it for our own travel as well! You can find the PDF version of our itinerary below:
Day 1: Getting to Islay
Though Islay does have a small airport, we chose to fly into Glasgow and rent a car. This ended up working really well, as we were able to stock up on groceries before getting to the island (which is much more limited in terms of food shopping) and see some beautiful scenery around Loch Long and Loch Fyne.
We flew into Glasgow in the evening, drove to an Inn in Dumbarton, a small town on the north bank of the River Clyde. The following morning, we visited The Ginger Bread Man Bakery for a quick breakfast and a loaf of bread and then headed to a nearby Waitrose to buy snacks and breakfast items for our time in Islay. Afterwards, we drove through the lush Scottish countryside, along beautiful lakes and through gorgeous forests to Kennacraig Ferry Terminal. The total drive time was about three hours, including a stop in Inveraray, an adorable little loch-side town in Argyll and Bute.
From Kennacraig, we took a very comfortable 1.5 hour ferry ride to Port Askaig on Islay. The time passed quickly due to the lovely ocean views, a rousing game of Exploding Kittens, and a surprisingly tasty plate of fish and chips. Once we arrived in Port Askaig, we drove for 45 minutes (on very tiny roads) through peatlands and fields of sheep before arriving at Swallows’ Roost, our lovely accommodations near Port Ellen.
We enjoyed a relaxed evening exploring the nearby town, walking down to Kilnaughton Beach and the Carriag Fhada Lighthouse, marveling at the sweeping views from where we were staying (we could see mainland Scotland and Northern Ireland from our windows!). When it was dinner time, we put together a big charcuterie and cheese board (Swallows’ Roost has a refrigerator, plates, cutting boards, etc. but no stovetop), made some gin and tonics with the locally made Botanist Gin (made by Bruichladdich Distillery) and enjoyed our meal looking out over Kilnaughton Bay. It was a fantastic first day, and it really set the tone for the rest of the trip!
Day 2: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig by Bike
Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are all within 3.5 miles of Port Ellen and they are connected by a lovely coastal bike/walking trail. Our first stop of the day was to visit Jim Lutomski, owner of Islay Cycles. We knocked on the back door of Jim’s house (which was easy to find because of the bikes and tools that filled his backyard). He found our reservation in his “big book,” and he hooked us up with four lovely Raleigh bikes for a total of £80. We quickly found the Three Distilleries Pathway and made our way to our first distillery of the day: Ardbeg. It is the furthest of the three from Port Ellen – an easy 20 minute ride by bike.
We opted for The Ardbeg Full Range Tour & Tasting (£30), which included a comprehensive and interesting tour of the distillery and five different drams. Our favorite was the Corryvreckan, a powerful, rich whisky which takes its name from the famous whirlpool that lies north of Islay. With notes of dark chocolate, brown sugar, and bacon, it’s pretty darn irresistible. The tour was a fabulous introduction to the world of Islay whisky, and we all gained a new appreciation for Ardbeg…it definitely moved up our Scotch power rankings. We followed our tasting with an excellent lunch at the onsite Old Kiln Café which included fresh Langoustines, smoked salmon, monkfish, and chowder. Satiated from lunch, if somewhat drowsy from the drams, we headed off toward Lagavulin.
We took a quick detour to check out the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, which afforded us an excellent view across a calm bay to our next destination. We chose not to do a tour at Lagavulin (it’s not our favorite distillery), but we enjoyed exploring the grounds, checking out their Dram Bar, and taking a brief nap in their lawn, before peddling off to Laphroaig.
There were some big Laphroaig fans in our group, so our tour of this legendary distillery was highly anticipated. We chose to do the £10 “Experience Tour” which began in the traditional floor maltings. It was very special to see this as only a handful of Scotch distilleries still do their own malting. Most get their malts from a centralized malting facility in Port Ellen, and even Laphroaig only malts about 20% of their barley themselves. Seeing the process in person gave me a new appreciation and understanding of malted barley, which is such a key factor in two of my favorite beverages: beer and whisky! We also had the opportunity to see a peat fire in the kiln furnace. The heat from the fire arrests the germination of the grains from the maltings, and the smoke from the fire is what gives scotch its “peaty” flavor.
After the tour we were given three tokens to use at the dram bar – scotches from their core line were worth one token and the special release whiskies were worth two. It was here that we were introduced to “driving drams” which are essentially tiny bottles that allow you to take your dram to go so you can enjoy it later – a genius idea in my opinion. We enjoyed a few drams overlooking the lovely bay that Laphroaig is nestled into and took a few more home with us. The “Lore” was particularly tasty – it’s aged in a combination of quarter casks, sherry casks, and reused peated casks. It was simultaneously sweet and spicy, like really good gingerbread. Yum!
After returning our bikes to Jim and hydrating a bit, we stopped by SeaSalt Bistro in Port Ellen and picked up a few orders of fish and chips, which we enjoyed on at picnic table over looking the beach. We stopped by the The Islay Hotel for some live music. We lasted about three songs before sleepiness got the best of us, and we headed back to our accomodations to rest up for another day of distilleries.
Day 3: Machrie Golf Links, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, and Seafood Feast
Dad got the day started right with round of golf on Machrie’s “Wee Course,” which is comprised of six picturesque par three holes. He wanted to play the full 18-hole Links, but sadly, there wasn’t’ time as we had a 10:00 appointment to get to at Bunnahabhain! Next time, Dad!
Bunnahabhain is located down a treacherous one track road on the north-eastern coast of the island. The drive was absolutely gorgeous, with sweeping views over the Sound of Islay – a narrow straight between Islay and Jura (apparently there is a lovely 2.5 hour walk from Port Askaig to the distillery – we’ll have to try it out next time!). Once we arrived, we were escorted through rows and rows of barrels to join a group of about 20 whisky lovers for the Warehouse 9 Tasting (£30). We were given several very generous drams which were drawn straight from the cask.
This tasting was truly a revelation – both the peated and non-peated whiskies were an absolute delight and some of the best spirits I’ve ever had – and that was before they brought out the really special stuff. A couple in our group had recently gotten married and was on Islay celebrating their honeymoon. To toast them, the manager brought out a round of drams from a bottle of 1980 36 Year Old Canasta Cask Finished Bunnahabhain. WOW! Talk about mind blowing. This stuff was incredible. Having spent so much time in oak, you get a really distinct but beautifully integrated woodiness coupled with glorious notes of dried fruit, rich dark chocolate, maple syrup, and vanilla. We looked it up afterwards and found out it costs over £1,700 pounds. Cheers to the newlyweds indeed!
After wrapping up our dreamy tasting at Bunnahabhain, we headed to the town of Bowmore for lunch. Those of us who weren’t driving (yay for drivers drams!), were in need of some carbs, so we decided on Peatzeria. Who doesn’t love a whisky based pun along with their midday meal? We ordered a few pies to share along with some salads, all of which really hit the spot. We topped off lunch with a few scoops of ice cream and then headed out to explore Bowmore, which is a very cute little town in its own right, in addition to being home to Bowmore distillery. We meandered for a while, walking off our lunch, and then drove to Islay Woollen Mill in Bridgend for a bit of shopping. We were told the owner of the shop was a character, and we were not disappointed. He was outside watering the flowers when we arrived, and after he finished, he showed us the looms upstairs while regaling us with tales of the famous people who have worn his wares. We bought a couple of gorgeous blankets that we’ll enjoy at our cottage for many, many years to come!
We hadn’t had a dram in several hours, so naturally it was time to visit another distillery! Our final tour of the trip was at Bruichladdich. We opted for the Distillery Tour (£5, redeemable against a 50cl or 70cl bottle) and ended up getting a whole lot of bang for our buck. After seeing the distilling operation and aging warehouses, we were brought into the gift shop/bar area where our guide ran down the list of Whiskies that were available to taste (about 15 in total) and then just asked “so, what would you like to try?”. We sampled several excellent selections from their range. One thing that really stood out to me about Bruichladdich was the fact that some of their whiskies are made using Islay barley, whereas most other distilleries on the island use grain grown in northern Scotland. Bruichladdich also does a lot of interesting things with aging their whiskey. The distillery is owned by a French company and as a result, they have access to some really special French barriques – we saw barrels from d’Yquem, Cheval Blanc, and other legendary Chateaux in their aging warehouse. Overall, it was a really excellent experience for an extremely affordable price.
Hungry from a long day of single-malt sampling, we drove down the coast to the small town of Port Charlotte for dinner at the Lochindaal Hotel. Though their regular menu is fairly standard pub grub, they are renowned for one thing in particular: fresh Islay seafood platters and oysters. You must reserve your platter in advance – they cost £100 and are recommended for sharing between 2-3 people (though we shared it between four of us and, with an additional order of mussels, had plenty). The makeup of the platter varies slightly from day to day based on what is in season and available. Ours consisted of langoustine, stone crab, scallops, and lobster – all of which was delicious. Our favorite were the scallops – which were served on the half shell with a brown butter sauce – followed by the lobster claws. It was quite the feast and a perfect way to wrap up our Islay trip.
The following morning, we took the ferry from Port Ellen back to Kennacraig and headed to Loch Goil, where we spent a few days relaxing in a loch-side wood cabin, hiking, eating lots of tasty salmon, putting around the Loch on a boat, and enjoying some of the Scotch we picked up in Islay.
Because of our heavy whisky focus and limited time during this trip, there are certainly a few things that we didn’t get to experience on Islay. We’d love to see the Corryvreckan whirlpool, go on some coastal hikes, do more biking, experience all 18 Machrie links, and do some fishing/foraging – we’ll have to go back sometime soon!
What to do
Friendly Jim in Port Ellen will hook you up with lovely Raleigh bicycles. Perfect for biking the “Three Distilleries Trail.”
Fantastic distillery with very high quality tours and a variety of whiskies at many different price points.
Peat lovers would be remiss to skip Laphraoig! Plus you get to see traditional malting floors.
Our favorite experience of our trip was the Warehouse 9 tour at Bunnahabain. It’s not to be missed.
Bruichladdich offers the best “bang for your buck” on the island. The £5 Distillery Tour is top notch.
Where to eat
Bistro and takeaway restaurant in Port Ellen featuring delicious fresh seafood specials and tasty fish and chips.
Tasty pizza in Bowmore – really hits the spot after a Scotch tasting!
Unassuming restaurant with top notch seafood platters. Book in advance!
Where to stay
Semi self-catering accommodation (fridge, toaster, coffee supplies, etc. but no cook top) near Port Ellen.
If you’re looking for more luxurious accomodations, Islay House is the way to go. This historic country hotel offers amazing service and facilities while maintaining a quaint Scottish character.
Are you planning a trip somewhere in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips in Europe. Feel free to reach out via email — I’m always available to talk about travel!!
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