Whisky Heaven: A Day Trip to Islay

A visit to Islay (pronounced eye-la) has been at the top of my to-do list since I first started blogging back in 2013. But it has always been scuppered through past visits with Fanfan given I am the only one that can drive legally in the UK. So any visit to Islay would have been wasted without the sampling of local Islay whiskys. But I was otherwise offered the perfect opportunity when travelling with family as my mum became the designated driver while I bonded over whisky with my dad. “Oooh, look, they have Islay wines“. “Behave mum!”. So we boarded the Islay Ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen for a day trip to the Isle of Islay.

Kennacraig Ferry to Islay

There are 2 main arrival ports on Islay; either at Port Ellen or Port Askaig. And both these routes leave from the Kennacraig port on the mainland in Kintyre. So there are of course benefits in both these routes where in the south of the island (Port Ellen), it would be more built up and busier. Whereas in the northern parts (Port Askaig) visits are quieter and more serene. But there will otherwise be distilleries within walking distance of either port. For those driving the ports are relatively near (19 miles: 40 minutes) to each other. Either way, it is easy to just drive straight on the Kennacraig ferry at one end and then drive off again at the other.

Port Ellen Ferry

Port Ellen is the furthest port on Islay when travelling from Kennacraig where the journey takes roughly 2 hours 20 minutes. Port Ellen is then located in the south of Islay within walking distance of Laphroaig and the Three Distilleries Walk. The Islay Hotel offers affordable accommodation just two minutes from the Port Ellen ferry.

Port Askaig Ferry

Port Askaig ferry port is found nearer to Kennacraig on the northeast coast of Islay (opposite the other whisky mecca of Jura) where the ferry journey takes around 2 hours. The port is then within walking distance of the Coal Isla distillery. Port Askaig hotels here.

Islay ferry timetables?

There are regular ferry services between Kennacraig through the day. Boats are operated by CalMac Ferries (Caledonian MacBrayne) and will vary between Summer Months (March-October) and Winter Months (October – March). Find their Timetables and Fares Here.

Carmac Ferry to Islay

We started this journey from nearby Tarbert with an early Islay Ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Port Ellen before returning on a later ferry from Port Ellen to Kennacraig following the same route. But we didn’t really know what to expect before arriving at the port, and we kind of expected to be squashed onto a wee boat crossing like the previous month with the Strangford Ferry. But the ferry was more like our crossing to Scotland from Northern Ireland, kind of luxury, and very professionally run. And despite being a rather remote island, the traffic to Islay is busy with a mix of locals and whisky tourists, as well as the massive whisky tankers that travel between the distilleries of Islay and bottling on the mainland.

Islay Ferry Booking

All bookings are made with CalMac Ferries (Caledonian MacBrayne) who run pretty much all ferry routes around these parts of Scotland (online booking here). The ferry crossings are also ridiculously simple, given some locals do them daily, and you do little more than drive on the boat at one side and then drive off again at the opposite. Note, it is advised to book in advance especially during busy tourist times.

Driving on Islay?

Given this was our first visit to Islay we decided to tour by car. And having started early morning, and having reserved a late return, we were able to make the most of the day. So we tried to squeeze in a tour of the island and managed to visit distilleries at Bowmore, and Laphroaig, and Ardbeg. As well as a visiting my personal plot of land as a ‘Friend of Laphroaig’ whisky distillery (more on that below).

So the roads are well signposted often using the names of distilleries (given that’s why most people are there) and the scenery between is mostly rugged coastlines and layered peat bogs which are used to feed the island’s distilleries. The lesser travelled routes will often be on single-track roads with “passing places” to allow for 2-way traffic, and they may be pot-holed after rains. But it’s rarely busy on roads so it’s really simple to get around.

You may also notice what is known as the “Islay Wave” where locals are known to give a short wave to drivers passing by.

What to do in Islay?

Depending on the amount of time you have to spare, and aside from the obvious whisky trails, Islay has a fair bit to offer visitors to the island. Your trip could take you out to the American Monument on the Oa Cliffs, the lighthouses of Islay, and then there is the most perfect beach at Machir Bay. As well as more niche interests for animal lovers, golf-enthusiasts, luxury vacationers, backpackers, nature lovers, Islay really has something for most travellers.

But my personal interest was as always in the eight fully functional breweries and their delightful single malt peat-smoked Scotch whiskys (Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig). Which are dotted mostly around the coasts of the island of Islay.

Walking on Islay: 3 Distilleries Walk

We had considered boarding as foot passengers for the Islay Ferry from Kennacraig. At the same time, we were kind of uncertain of how it would all pan out once we arrived, given our visit would be fairly limited. But, having now navigated the island by car, I would happily return by foot to follow the “Three Distilleries Pathway”. A simple walking route from the ferry at Port Ellen to connect 3 distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) along a 3-mile pathway on the southern coast of Islay. Google Maps here. Although I’d recommend giving plenty of time to complete the walk (stagger) back.

Friends of Laphroaig

Back in 2011 I became part of the ‘Friends of Laphroaig’ when I was given a free lifetime lease on a square foot of land in Islay. A gimmick, of sorts, where anyone can do the same by simply buying a bottle of Laphroaig Whisky and using the unique reference number to sign up on their website. And there are now more than 1 million landowners with Laphroaig on Islay.

So I was somewhat excited to go visit my plot of land (LAT: 55.63345001 LON: -6.148983981) found opposite the distillery where my square foot is found just a stone’s throw from my neighbour Prince Charles. In the distillery, I also signed my name in the leaseholder’s book and claimed my annual rent in a small bottle of Laphroaig. But, with limited time, we had to miss out on the daily ‘TASTE OF FRIENDSHIP’ experience. Although I was otherwise more than happy to just sample some drams at the distillery bar.

When to Travel to Islay?

Islay, the Queen of the Hebrides, is the furthest south of the Western Islands of Scotland, and as an island, the weather is generally wet throughout the year. Otherwise, the best time to travel to Islay would be springtime (April–May) or summer (June – August) when the temperatures are higher and there is less chance of rain.

You may also want to plan your visit depending on when the local cultural festivals and events take place, like The Walk Islay event (April), and music and malt festivals (May – June and September).

Where to Stay?

On our visit to Islay, we actually stayed in the nearby fishing village of Tarbert (pictured below) which would be our base for travel through the Argyll and Bute region. As it is only a 10-minute drive to the port for the Islay Ferry from Kennacraig to Islay. So it is ideal for a day trip, although we did feel the visit was somewhat rushed.

Otherwise, there is a variety of accommodation on Islay ranging from 5-and-4-star hotels to cheaper vacation rentals, guesthouses and B&Bs (Islay Hotels here). And I will recommend booking hotels in advance, online, as rooms are obviously limited and availability is not always guaranteed after arrival to Islay.

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