Published by Carson on September 4, 2018

During our month-long vacation to Scotland, my wife and I spent eight full days on a small-ish island off the west coast of mainland Scotland called Islay (pronounced eye-luh, do not pronounce the “s”).  For those who aren’t aware – i.e. those who don’t drink much Scotch Whisky – Islay is legendary within the Scotch-drinking community for smokey, peated whisky from distilleries like Bowmore, Laphroig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.  It’s usually reached by a short flight on Loganair or on a ferry to Port Askaig or Port Ellen. Despite its small population (just 3,228 inhabitants per the 2011 census) there are nine distilleries on the island, eight of which are producing whisky you can buy. This is essentially whisky-Mecca for anyone who likes a peated dram.

During our stay, we discovered that the Islay locals are friendly, laid-back people who don’t seem to mind talking to tourists. They also genuinely seemed to be enjoying life, and the feeling was contagious. Islay has some other hidden treasures, which we methodically uncovered in our full-week trip to the island. While we were there, we did every distillery tour and tasting we could, visited ruins, and toured nature. It’s an amazing place, and made for one of the most amazing legs of our journey.

Islay Travel Guide

Where to Stay on Islay

For such a small island there are a surprising number of hotels on the island. Many of these offer smaller rooms, good meals, and a cozy atmosphere. There are also self-catering hybrids, camping, and traditional B&B options everywhere.

Which City?

For convenience I would probably choose to stay somewhere in Bowmore as it’s the most centrally-located town with good food and a co-op grocery store. You could eat at the Harbour Inn or the Peatzeria, and not be too far from anywhere. The only other options I would consider personally would be Port Ellen. While getting to the north side of the island could take some time, it’s a nice village with two great dining options and a co-op. If you prefer more rural accommodations and don’t mind making your own dinner, though, there are plenty of beautiful country-side B&Bs.

Recommended if Available: Seaview Cottage

We stayed at Ardbeg’s Seaview Cottage and it was definitely one of the nicest places we stayed for our month in Scotland. That may not impress you much, but for our other 3 weeks we stayed almost exclusively in 5-star hotels. We really couldn’t recommend Seaview Cottage any more highly. Emma and the good people at Ardbeg provide incredible self-catering accommodations right between the distillery and warehouse, and it was incredible. Word is the distillery will be adding additional smaller places to stay in the near future as Seaview Cottage becomes increasingly popular. Seaview offered three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and shower, plus an additional 3/4 bathroom. There is laundry on-site with an actual washer and real-life clothes dryer. Such accommodations are unheard of for the currently-low price, and we were able to bring some friends along and split the cost. This meant the week cost us about as much as two days in Edinburgh, all for better accommodations, more space, and better views.

seaview-cottage-1024x768

View from the balcony of Ardbeg’s Seaview Cottage.

Camping

If you’re into camping and don’t mind braving the rain and/or midges, you can find several campsites around the island. The largest and most active we saw was at Port Mor Centre, which allowed for tents and camper vans. Personally, I can think of environments I’d much rather camp in, but if your income is limited or if you planned too late for the Islay Festival, camping is at least a possibility.

Other B&Bs

A surprising number of B&Bs are not listed on AirBnB. You may have to get out your phone and contact the B&Bs via an actual telephone call. IslayInfo.com probably has the most complete list of accommodations.

Book Now

Whisky Distilleries (Plus Gin)

Since most people are going for the whisky, this is the best place to start. Here’s a quick map of distilleries on the island:

islay-distilleries-959x1024

As you can see, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroig are all close to each other on the south end. There is a nice walking trail that connects all three, and I highly recommend the walk if the weather is tolerable. You can start at Laphroig and work your way down to Ardbeg and get a bus back from there. Bowmore is centrally-located in a town of the same name, and not far from the airport, Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, or Bidgend. Bunnahabhain is probably the hardest to get to given the quality of roads and distance, but we love their whisky. Ardnahoe sits between there and Caol Ila, and while you can stop by and look at the sign there may or may not be anything you can do yet. Kilchoman sits remotely around farmland as well, but it isn’t too hard a journey from Bruichladdich. We’ll go over each of these.

Remember that drinking and driving in Scotland is 0-tolerance, and while the police force isn’t large on Islay you don’t want to ruin your trip with such an infraction. And drinking and driving generally is just a horrible idea, so don’t do it. There are taxi services you can call, there’s a bus, and you can get little take-away tasting bottles from most of these tastings. Just in case, if you are driving it might be a good idea for the driver to carry some 50 cL bottles around just in case a distillery has run out of the little bottles.

Most distillery tours are roughly the same, but doing a couple will help you understand the process better. Unless you’re also a massive whisky nerd who cares about the slope of wash stills and materials in washbacks (GUILTY!!) the distillery tours might start to get a little repetitive. Our recommendation is to tour one or two of your favorite, then try to hit warehouse tastings or master classes wherever you can (including those you tour). Some distilleries do have “silent periods” where they aren’t making whisky or doing tours, so make sure to check well in advance of your trip.

Now, for the distilleries themselves in alphabetical order. Please note we have no financial relationship with any of the distilleries below, aside from the ones where we spent a considerable amount of money buying their whisky.

Ardbeg

Ardbeg-1024x768

Ardbeg Distillery Grounds

Ardbeg is known as the peatiest and most medicinal-tasting whisky in the world. On average that’s true, though one or two more heavily-peated expressions do exist. The distillery sits above a picturesque rocky seashore, and one rocky outcropping above gives Ardbeg its name (roughly the small promontory). Ardbeg is also the only distillery on the island with a full-blown restaurant. The food is quite good, prices are reasonable, and everything is casual. Their distillery tours are top-notch, but if you can manage it in the summer you should do the Bog Off Walk.

Ardbeg-bog-off-walk-1024x768

One of our stops on the walk with a dram included

For the Bog Off Walk, Douggie (sp?) took our group on about an hour-long hike up into the hills above the distillery discussing history, botany, Ardbeg’s water-source, and more. It was absolutely fascinating, beautiful, and lots of fun with four drams of whisky along the way and a lunch at the ruins of an old village high in the hills. Douggie grew up on the island, left for several years, and then returned to Islay as a retiree; he knows everything and everyone. It was fascinating to hear him recount stories of his youth on the island, and he even had an old picture showing where he grew up just outside the distillery.

If you’re booking well in advance, check out Ardbeg’s website for places to stay right in the distillery. We’ll discuss the cottage more more in our “where to stay” section.

Ardbeg Tours

Ardnahoe

While currently not selling any single malts, Ardnahoe will be done with construction “soon.” There is a shop that you can visit, but I wouldn’t prioritize this very highly.

 

Bowmore

Bowmore-1024x768

Bowmore from the sea

Bowmore is the second-oldest licensed distillery in all of Scotland, but as you’ll find visiting distilleries, that doesn’t mean much. Most distilleries have been in production for much longer as illicit unlicensed operations before the British decided to crack down on tax evasion. Bowmore today is famous as a lightly-peated well-balanced whisky. Its older expressions (18 and older, plus some special editions) are aged in sherry casks. Bowmore is also famous for being one of the worst offenders for coloring their whisky, using caramel to make their whisky appear darker. For example, the Bowmore 12 is comically dark for a 12-year-old whisky with almost no sherry aging, but I digress. If you love or even like Bowmore, it’s worth a visit for several reasons. 1) Bowmore still does a fair amount of its own malting, which most companies have outsourced to larger malting operations. Personally I’m not sure this matters much as long as its done right, but it’s very cool to see, 2) Bowmore has a very nice tasting room up above the shop with million-dollar views looking out over the bay, 3) the town of Bowmore has some nice places to eat and drink, which we’ll cover more in the dining section. Bowmore also offers some excellent warehouse tastings and master classes, which is far more interesting, especially if you’ve already seen malting (e.g. at Kilchoman or Laphroig).

Bowmore Tours

Bruichladdich Whisky & The Botanist Gin

Bruichladdich-1024x768

Bruichladdich from the grounds

Bruichladdich prides themselves on employing more people on Islay than any other distillery. Aside from malting, everything is done on site. Some malting may be done in a new extension in the near future. Bruichladdich is famous for many things, including the most heavily-peated single whisky in the world, Octomore. Octomore is highly sought-after, sometimes with waiting lists that stretch 12 months or more at US retailers. It’s a little bit of a gimmick to get extra peat into a whisky, but the head distiller still takes some care to balance the whisky out and make it drinkable. You’ll find it’s definitely peated, but somehow not as much of a punch in the face compared to something like Ardbeg. Bruichladdich also makes The Botanist gin, which now accounts for a majority of their sales worldwide. This, they say, helps to fund their single-malt whiskies. The story behind how the gin is made today by gathering herbs manually on the island is incredible (as in I don’t believe it), but it’s a good stop for artisan gin lovers. As long as they continue to make killer single malts like Black Arts we won’t complain. Bruichladdich does many things the “old way,” but they’re also known for being forward-thinking and highly experimental. To fans of whisky this makes it a must-visit while on the island, since you’re sure to run into an expression you’ve never seen before and may never see again. Book a distillery tour if you haven’t been on any, but otherwise check out their Warehouse Experience and leave yourself some time to try what’s on the menu.

Bruichladdich Tours

Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain-1024x768

Bunnahabhain from the pier

Bunnahabhain is the northernmost distillery on the island. They’re less well known, perhaps partly because it’s one of the few Islay distilleries that doesn’t focus on peated whisky. While there are some peated expressions to try, the distillery excels in whiskies that are smooth, exceptionally drinkable, and heavy on brine with limited medicinal flavor. The 12-year is an exceptional value that you’ll find in the liquor cabinets of many well-seasoned Scotch lovers. The distillery itself is a pain to travel to, but if you can make it the warehouse tastings are absolutely worth doing. The distillery tour itself was a little underwhelming, but they more than make up for it with an exciting range of whisky. Bunnahabhain may have been the only distillery to make the single cask whiskies that we tasted during the warehouse tasting available to buy as bottles in their distillery store, so even if you can’t manage a warehouse tasting with your schedule you can create your own by buying smaller bottles that were drawn straight from the tasting casks.

Bunnahabhain Tours

Caol Ila

Caol-Ila-1024x768

Caol Ila shop

It may surprise many people to learn that Caol Ila makes more whisky than any other distillery on Islay, especially because Caol Ila isn’t widely available even with its core range in the US. The reason is that the majority of their whisky makes its way into Johnny Walker Black and Double Black blended whisky. Only about 15% of the distilleries production goes towards their single malt sales. Because Caol Ila is used for blending, they’ve gone to some extra work to ensure a reliable and consistent product to make the work easier for the people over at Johnny Walker. This carries through to the single malt, which is known as one of the more consistent whiskies over the decades. The warehouse tasting here was excellent, including casks that had been aged exclusively in sherry for 26 and 33 years. We peppered Keith with dozens of highly-technical questions, each of which he answered with confidence, all while chatting about the tastes and smells in our drams.

Caol Ila Tours

Kilchoman

Kilchoman-1024x768

Kilchoman with an appropriate farm view

We hadn’t planned on visiting Kilchoman, but while in Edinburgh every sommelier and whisky lover told us that we must go. That advice was sound. Kilchoman is situated among several farms, and the vibe across the distillery is one of constant activity and newness. It is a fairly new distillery, and notable as the only active distillery on Islay not owned by a mega-corporation, and indeed one of the very few privately-owned distilleries in all of Scotland. “Islay’s Farm Distillery” has a small output right now, but it’s very exciting to try some of their more rare premium whiskies that are impossible to get anywhere else. Kilchoman is also unique in that they use Islay barley and malt their own. There’s a small cafe on the premises and a quality shop, with several buildings currently under construction. This will include a new cafe which may also offer some food. There are currently no warehouse tastings available, which makes this a good first stop. We were able to do a “premium tasting,” which I don’t see listed anywhere on their website, but it included an entirely port-aged Kilchoman, which is very interesting for a slightly-peated Scotch.

Kilchoman Tours

Lagavulin

Lagavulin-1024x768

Lagavulin from Dunyvaig castle

Many Americans may recognize Lagavulin as the brand of whisky enjoyed by Mr. Ron Swanson / Nick Offerman. Lagavulin packs a punch, though it’s a lot more restrained than its two neighbors. In my opinion the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition is one of the finest expressions ever made by any distillery, and I say this as a bigger fan of Laphroig and Ardbeg. For the sub-$150 price point it’s maybe the best I’ve ever had. Again, I digress. Lagavulin was probably the most disappointing in terms of tasting availability. Most tastings only cover the core range, all of which are available worldwide, and there were almost no small batches or unique expressions available. That said, if you have the opportunity to do the warehouse tasting, do it! This is probably the warehouse tasting I’d recommend most, and you may even end up being served by industry legend Ian McArthur. We did a short tasting with an Islay native called Paul, who entertained us with stories of growing up on the island and was passionate about the whisky.

Lagavulin Tours

Laphroig

Laphroig-1024x768

Laphroig from the pier

In contrast to Lagavulin, the tasting room at Laphroig offers a comprehensive selection of their whiskies. Seriously, plan to spend a good amount of time at Laphroig. If you’re interested in the production of whisky, the “water to whisky” tour is definitely the best. You get to cut a chunk of peat, see where the water comes from, tour the distillery, then do a warehouse tasting where you get to fill your own bottle straight from the cask to take home.

Laphroig-warehouse-768x1024

Drawing a bottle with a valinch at Laphroig

There was a lot less walking on this tour compared to Ardbeg, and it was less about the land and history and almost entirely about whisky. If you’re not up for much walking or don’t care that much about how its made, you can still do a small distillery tour followed by a warehouse experience. Laphroig’s lounge is nice, and every time we passed through there were people talking about whisky. It was probably the most active for tastings, and for good reason. I still prefer the core line from Laphroig, but it was definitely fun to try some whisky from Laphroig aged in PX or port casks.

Laphroig Tours

Other Drink-Related Places

Nerabus Islay Gin

Islay Gin Ltd is a privately owned gin distillery located in a town on Islay called Nerabus, near Port Charlotte. They hand-craft and distill a gorgeous gin called Nerabus. While in Islay, we heard a juicy bit of gossip from a local…apparently, Bruichladdich was splitting profits with the botanists that gathered and formulated the Botanist gin. Unhappy with shelling so much out after the success of the product, Bruichladdich attempted to re-negotiate with the botantists for a much lower rate. While we don’t know the outcome of the legal or contractual negotiations, or even if the story is totally true, we do know that the botanists who were originally involved in foraging for and crafting the botanicals recipe used in creating The Botanist gin have since split from Bruichladdich, started their own company, and started distilling their own gin which they have branded Nerabus. At the time we were visiting Islay, there wasn’t a visitor’s center for this distillery, but while on the island you should order some at one of the local restaurants and do a blind taste test, comparing Nerabus to The Botantist. We did this very thing and both strongly preferred Nerabus. It’s not quite as astringent, and has more of a pleasant heather taste to it. Nerabus Islay Gin is a little hard to find right now, but we expect that to change in the coming years.  https://www.islayginltd.com/

Islay Ales

For such a small island I was surprised to see a full lineup of Islay Ales. Their tasting room is in Bridgend, which you’ll definitely have to pass through at some point. Islay Ales recommends drinking their beers at cellar temps, which works just fine for the local pubs who don’t have to use refrigeration to store the drinks. If I’m honest I wasn’t overly impressed with Islay Ales, even compared to other local breweries like Skye Brewing. Nothing I had was bad, and it’s always nice to try something new and local. Do give it a try, but U.S. guests should be prepared for stouts that taste like black lagers and IPAs that taste like amber ales.

Islay Wines

Islay wines doesn’t create any grape-based wines, as this would make little sense on Islay where grapes don’t stand a chance. Instead they create wines using barley, bramble, and rhubarb. The final product tends to be a little sweet but quite nice. I’d definitely recommend trying the barley-based wine, which shouldn’t be confused with the malty beer style. If you’re interested, most bars have some available to try, or you could make the stop at their tasting room while in Port Ellen.

 

PLEASE NOTE: most distilleries and tasting rooms close quite early (often 5 PM) with last tours often beginning at 3 or 4 PM. We found this to be the case throughout Scotland — places close sooner than Americans might expect, so try to plan your trips earlier. There are a handful of inns and taverns on Islay that remain open later if you’re interested in drinking later, and most of them have a decent selection of Islay-based drinks. The Islay Hotel in Port Ellen probably had the widest selection, though the prices were marked up significantly over what you’ll find at the distilleries themselves.

Other Activities

Honestly, Islay would be a strange choice if you don’t like whisky at all, but that doesn’t mean everything you do needs to be alcohol-centered.

Ruins and History

There are a few major historical sites to visit on Islay. I don’t pretend to be a historian, and much more information is available at the local museums. I’ve done my best to summarize the importance of these locations.

First, make sure to stop by Finlaggan in the center of the island. This is an easy stop if heading towards Port Askaig, Caol Ila, or Bunnahabhain. For centuries the Lords of the Isles, led by Clan Donald, administrated and ruled from Finlaggan on Islay. The people probably had mixed Viking and Gaelic descent, and excelled at controlling the waters and coastlines of western Scotland and Northern Ireland. For a period of time they wielded tremendous power, second only to the kings of Scotland and England. Unfortunately for them, in 1462 the Lord of the Isles attempted to sign a treaty with England to conquer Scotland. This conquest never happened, partly due to civil war in England. James IV of Scotland then angrily attacked and destroyed the MacDonalds and completely destroyed their seats of power. Today there is a visitors’ center above the ruins of Finlaggen with a surprising amount of information. Our guide gave us some excellent background and then we went out to the ruins themselves.

Finlaggen-ruins-1024x768

Finlaggen ruins on Islay

Then there are the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, across from the Lagavulin distillery. The lands of the old ruined castle belong to Lagavulin now, but they’ve allowed digging to continue on the site. The castle itself dates back to the 12th century, and was also part of clan MacDonald’s holdings. After the MacDonalds were removed from power the castle changed hands many times, but was mostly ruled by the Campbells. Today there are only ruins of a castle, but archaeological excavation is underway. If you do plan to visit, be very careful not to disturb the ruins. Shockingly, shortly after our visit to Dunyvaig it was announced that the archaeologists had uncovered the personal seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, who was in charge of Islay in the early 17th century. This all but ensures excavation will continue on the site, which is planned to occur for two weeks seasonally over the next 9 years.

Dunyvaig-castle-768x1024

Dunyvaig Castle with an active archaeology trench.

Finally, if you have time it’s worth stopping by Kildalton to see the ruins of a very ancient old chapel. There you’ll see the famous Kildalton cross: an amazingly pristine ancient 8th century Celtic cross that stands over eight and a half feet tall. The stone has weathered well, as the harder stone used appears to be more weather and lichen-resistant than many of the surrounding stones. The area contains an old graveyard with some relatively recent tombstones, so do be respectful of course. The chapel (to the right) also has some very old carved grave slabs and interesting gravestones.

Kildatton-cross-1024x768

Kildatton Cross with a well-timed rainbow

Standing Stones

ballinaby-standing-stone-768x1024

The Ballinaby standing stone, the tallest on Islay.

There is some mystery and debate surrounding the purpose of standing stones on Islay and elsewhere. Many believe standing stones were erected as gathering places for ancient villages. These may have turned into ritual locations over time in some locations as it became the location of important events. Sadly all across Scotland many have been moved, re-used in building, or otherwise mismanaged by farmers trying to plow fields and not understanding the historical significance. There are still many left on Islay. Douggie (from the Ardbeg tour) may be your best bet if you’re interested in standing stones. He and his daughter are in the process of documenting the location of Islay’s standing stones, and last I heard he’s aware of more than 60. The largest of these is the Ballinaby standing stone.

Note that some of these stones are located in farmers’ fields. If you’re an American, this is strange, but there’s no such thing as trespassing on farmland in Scotland. You can go through a farmer’s field to reach a standing stone, provided you are responsible and respectful. This includes things like the following:

  • Don’t cross by houses, buildings, schools, gardens, or over active farmland.
  • If the owner/resident is visible, ask for permission. This is just good manners.
  • Do your best to leave a minimal impact. Don’t litter, don’t break anything, and take the safest and least disruptive path.
  • Respect the residents’ privacy. Don’t go looking in their windows or exploring their barn buildings.

See the Scottish Outdoor Access Code for more if you plan on hunting for standing stones, and speak with Douggie. We haven’t asked if he’s interested, but he seems willing to share his knowledge. You might be able to pay him to conduct a paid tour when he’s not working for the distillery. It would certainly be worth it for the expertise alone.

more-standing-stones-1024x768

More standing stones near the river Laphroig gets its water from

Sea Tours

Check out Islay Sea Adventures, which offers tours that depart from Port Askaig and Port Ellen. As their site will tell you, tours may need to be cancelled due to bad weather. This is especially true of the treacherous Corryvrecken whirlpool tour. While safe in calm weather, it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to brave with a storm raging. We attempted to book both the whirlpool tour and the nature tour, but both were unfortunately cancelled due to weather so it’s hard to give more info.

Machir Bay

Machir bay sits on the west coast not far from Kilchoman, who have named one of their whisky bottlings after it. It’s a fun place to explore and look around. I wouldn’t recommend going for a swim as the water could be tricky with hidden rocks and an undertow, but it offers killer views and makes for a good place to walk around.

 

There are of course more things than we could visit while on Islay for a week. If you’re into bird watching, cycling, hiking, kayaking, or fishing there will be plenty to keep you busy.

The Best Times to Visit Islay

Champion Traveler is known for our weather recommendations, which helps tourists find the best times to visit for pleasant temperatures and low amounts of rain. For Islay, our data uses highly-specific daily weather data from the last decade. This is all to say you can trust that the best time to visit Islay for weather is from about June 25th to September 9th. Rain is least likely from April to June, but temperatures are highest in July.

The best time to visit Islay for things to do is in the last week of May during the Feis Ile (Islay Festival). Each day is hosted by a different distillery with their own programmes. Each day will almost definitely include special tours, whisky-centered classes and tastings, and most distilleries will produce a festival-exclusive bottling. Other activities may include music, food, walks, boat rides, and more. Do be aware that Islay’s population explodes during the festival. This will result in higher prices for lodgings, limited availability, and more busy roads. Some of these roads are single-lane with pull-offs for passing, so getting around can take some extra time. This is the only week you might find yourself sick of crowds on the island.

If small crowds and low prices are your thing you could visit from November to February. Just expect highs in the mid-40s (7-10 Celsius) and a daily variation of “light rain” or “significant rain.” We’d never recommend this time. Instead, if you have flexibility, try to reach Islay in mid-May before any schools are out for summer. The island will be gearing up for the festival, but otherwise nice and affordable.

Where to Eat

Scotland in general is much bigger on reservations than the United States. Everywhere I’m listing allows for reservations, even though I wouldn’t feel out-of-place wearing a t-shirt to dinner. It would also be a good idea to read up on dinner etiquette in the UK and Scotland if you’re unfamiliar. These are listed in order of my perceived quality.

Islay Hotel (Port Ellen)

The Islay Hotel delivered the most consistently-good food on our trip to the island. We came back five times by the end of the week, and never had a bad meal. We can confidently recommend the lamb, seafood pie, and just about any dish involving their pesto-smashed potatoes. Unfortunately, I will say the service at the Islay Hotel was the least friendly we received on the island. No, this isn’t just an American complaining about service and cultural differences he doesn’t understand. I do know that smiling overmuch is an American thing, and I don’t consider the lack of fake smiles and bubbly personality to be rude. Let me give you one example: someone in our party asked what sea bream is. I was expecting a reply comparing its taste to haddock or cod or something. Instead the server responded, “It’s small fish. Google it,” and walked away. To be fair he was from Spain and may have not realized how rude that was, but I wouldn’t characterize any server as friendly there. Nonetheless, you should definitely stop by and get at that fish pie.

The Peatzeria (Bowmore)

The cute name is clearly a nod to Islay’s famous peated whisky, but the food is also fantastic. While I’d steer clear of any sweet sauces (like the sweet chili sauce), they made some amazing pizza. Definitely try to get a reservation: we failed to do so, and had to wait and then clear out early for the next table. We didn’t mind at all, since it was out fault for failing to call ahead and we were happy to be accommodated at all. Being all whiskied out after a week of drams, it was nice to visit a place with a decent beer and wine selection. There is a mostly-covered outdoor section that has a great view, which I would request and bring a jacket for. Both crust types were good, and its impossible to recommend one over the other. Select based on your preference for amount of dough.

Sea Salt Bistro (Port Ellen)

This is one of those places with strange operating hours. The restaurant closes at 2:30, and doesn’t re-open until 5 or 6 (I recall 6, but it says 5 online now?) Steer clear of the steak, but the lamb chops were fantastic as was their daily fish. The drink menu isn’t as exhaustive as the Islay Hotel down the street, but the food is of a similarly high standard. We did our blind taste test of Nerabus vs The Botantist Gin at this bistro. It’s quite impressive to have two excellent restaurants in a town as small as Port Ellen. https://www.seasalt-bistro.co.uk/

Harbour Inn (Bowmore)

This is where I’d head for seafood. We grabbed a seafood platter, which allowed us to sample many different types of fish. This makes a good stop before or after visiting the Bowmore distillery as it’s in walking distance. The hotel and restaurant are owned by Beam Suntory (probably through Bowmore), but they still offer whisky from all of the distilleries on the island.

Yan’s Kitchen (Port Charlotte)

We weren’t able to make it here due to scheduling, but it’s supposed to be quite good. Reservations are required and the restaurant is apparently closed on Mondays (a fact not reflected on Google Maps).

 

Generally, I’d suggest you avoid steak if you live in the US. I ordered aged steak many times in the UK from good restaurants and twice on Islay, and was usually disappointed in the amount of gristle and toughness of the meat. You can get better steaks cheaper and better in the States, so focus instead on the superior seafood, lamb, and other Scottish-style meals.

Before You Go

Some additional preparation is needed if you want to go to Islay. If you plan to fly, make sure to read Loganair’s guide to baggage. Checked bags are limited to one 20 kg (44 lbs) piece each, and carry-on pieces have to be 6 kg (13 lbs) and ridiculously small. We were only able to manage this by packing somewhat light (a good idea for any Soctland trip) and checking my Everki Titan (which I learned to love this trip) at our hotel in Glagow, then returning to pick it up for our stay in Glasgow. For this reason alone Glasgow may make an excellent before or after stop to Islay.

Second, know that Islay is very remote. There are only 3,500 or so permanent residents on the island spread across an area that takes an hour or more to drive in any direction. Your connectivity will be terrible outside of Bowmore, Port Ellen, Port Charlotte, and a few other small towns. Make sure the place you’re staying has internet/WiFi, and don’t plan on doing any gaming or calls back to the US. Due to the small population and remoteness of the island, the roads were also terrifyingly small and often single lane with pullouts for passing. Use caution, and maybe practice some driving on narrow Scotland roads if you can. There is a single rental car agency on the island (Islay Car Hire) at the airport, and its fleet is limited and a little bit dated. That said, they treated us well and we had no problems. If you plan to drive and take the ferry you have your choice of cars and agencies, but make sure to get a ferry schedule and arrive well beforehand to ensure a spot.

Finally, do us all a favor and try to be on your best behavior. Islay is a special place with friendly people. It’s a small population in waving country — this means you wave and acknowledge people as you pass them with very few exceptions. Please don’t turn it into another Skye overrun with rude and entitled tourists. Relations between Americans and those on Islay are quite good, and treating people well will ensure the next generation of whisky-lovers and tourists have as positive an experience.

Book Your Stay

I’ve written this guide for anyone interested in going to Islay, and hopefully you’ve found it useful. Please leave a comment with any questions, and if you’d like to support our efforts at providing useful travel information you can use our link below to book your next trip.

Book Now