Scotland is one of my very favorite travel destinations in the world. Even after several trips there in the last few years, I keep find myself dreaming of going back again and again. (And planning trips again and again!)
Because, even though Scotland isn't very big, there's a LOT to do there.
For example, did you know that Scotland has nearly 800 islands? Yes, EIGHT HUNDRED! Not all of them are inhabited or worth visiting – but a lot of them are.
You see, Elliot is a very big fan of Scotch whisky. And Islay is a very big producer of Scotch. In fact, many people just refer to it as “Whisky Island.”
We finally made the trip to Islay in 2019, and even this non-whisky-drinker ended up falling head over heels for the island.
Where is Islay?
The island of Islay – which is pronounced “EYE-luh” – is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands. It sits off the west coast of Scotland, and is one of the larger Scottish islands at about 240 square miles.
To get to Islay, you have to take a ferry. We took the Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry from Kennacraig, which itself is about a 3-hour drive from Edinburgh. Add in the 2-hour ferry ride, and we spent the better part of a day just getting to Islay.
But wow was it worth it!
Islay is a very special place. Not only does it produce the rich, peaty whiskies that my husband loves so much, but it's also a delightful place to be a tourist. The Highlands might be what most people think of when they think “Scotland,” but Islay has its own unique kind of Scottish charm.
Elliot and I spent 3 days on Islay, visiting a bunch of distilleries and soaking in the landscapes and local hospitality that make the island feel like a home away from home.
5 reasons to visit Islay
So why would you want to visit this island out in the Atlantic, nowhere near the famous Highlands or major cities of Scotland? Well, let me tell you!
1. Historic Islay distilleries
The main reason people visit Islay is for the distilleries, of course. Islay isn't very big (and is only home to about 3,000 people), and yet has NINE working distilleries.
The distilleries on Islay are:
- Bowmore Distillery (the oldest, having opened in 1779)
- Ardnahoe Distillery (the newest, just opened in 2018)
- Caol Ila Distillery
- Kilchoman Distillery (they do everything themselves, including growing their own barley)
Some of Scotland's longest-operating distilleries are here on Islay, and almost all of them offer tastings and tours (more on this later!).
You'll also find three on-site malting floors on Islay (at Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Kilchoman), which is unique considering fewer than 10 distilleries in ALL of Scotland still malt their own barley.
2. Beautiful scenery
Contrary to popular belief, Islay isn't ALL about whisky, though. The island is also known for its rolling, sheep-dotted landscape and beautiful beaches. We spent half a day driving along the island's single-track roads, finding long stretches of empty coastline.
If you don't like to share scenery with lots of other people, Islay is the place for you.
3. Laid-back culture and friendly people
Scottish people on the whole are lovely, but the hospitality is taken to another level on Islay. Everyone we met was so friendly, and we were taken under the wing of locals on several occasions.
Elliot thought it was hilarious that the owner of our guesthouse could call up a distillery or restaurant (online bookings haven't reached all corners of Islay yet) and simply say “Hi, it's Emma!” and everyone knew who she was.
4. It's small and easy to get around*
Islay only covers 240 square miles, remember? You can easily see all the highlights in just two or three days. And you don't have to worry too much about getting lost, as there are only a couple main roads on the island!
*I caveat this with the fact that this applies as long as you have a car with you. Public transport does exist on the island, but buses don't run everywhere and also don't run super frequently. We rented a car on the mainland (in Edinburgh), and took it over on the ferry to Islay with us.
5. It's easier to get to than you probably think
Even though I mentioned that it took us the better part of a day to get to Islay, the truth is that it's not THAT difficult to reach. You can catch a CalMac ferry from the mainland at Kennacraig (recommended so you can take a car over), or you can even fly to Islay from Glasgow or Oban.
Ferries run from Kennacraig to Port Ellen three times a day, and to Port Askaig twice a day. We paid £96.20 pounds ($125 USD) for a return ferry ticket for 2 adult passengers and 1 car. Flights arrive 2-3 times per day.
I think many people assume all of Scotland's islands are hard to reach, but Islay is actually pretty easy!
Top 6 things to do on Islay
So now you know WHY you should visit Islay. Here are all the things you can do once you get there:
1. Take a distillery tour
Or three or four… Islay is home to so many historic distilleries that you're going to have to visit at least a couple! Elliot and I did a several full distillery tours, and did tastings at a couple more so we could visit nearly all of them on the island.
I loved the distilleries on Islay because everything about visiting is relaxed and not at all pretentious. You can take photos everywhere, and all of the tours include (usually generous) tastings.
My top picks for Islay distillery tours include:
- The 1-hour Experience Tour at Laphroaig – For £10, you get a full tour of Laphroaig's whisky-making facility, including their malting floor and peat kiln. They also have a nice little whisky museum here, and your tour ends with 3 tastings and a tasting glass you can take home.
- The 1-hour Unlock Hidden Depths Tasting Tour at Bowmore – Similar to the Laphroaig tour, this £10 tour also gives you a full look at Bowmore's operation (including malting floor) and ends with a tasting. Bowmore wasn't in operation when we visited (always check the schedule!), so we opted to skip the tour here and just do a tasting.
- The 1-hour Classic Tour at Kilchoman – Islay's “Farm Distillery” is newer to the scene, but unique in that not only do they malt their own barley, but the also grow it. This £10 tour includes a tasting glass and 2 tastings.
- The Warehouse Demonstration at Lagavulin – Pull whiskey straight out of the casks for tasting in one of the Lagavulin warehouses. I'd recommend this in addition to a more traditional distillery tour, as it's tasting-only. For £30, it's a pretty good deal, as we tried 5 different drams.
Most distillery tours are really similar, though, so one or two might be all you need. Every distillery offers more in-depth tasting tours, too, for the true whisky connoisseur. (Elliot wants to go back and do the Water to Whisky Experience at Laphroaig one day.)
You can also pop in to any of the distilleries for Islay whisky tastings and meals. We did this at several, including Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, and Bowmore.
- Best lunch spot: Old Kiln Café at Ardbeg Distillery
- Best tasting room: Bowmore Distillery
And if you're driving, don't worry about missing out! Scotland has very strict drunk driving rules, but all of the distilleries on Islay will provide you with “driver's drams” (little glass or plastic bottles) for free to put all your tastings in so you can take them with you for later.
2. Drive to Portnahaven
You'll likely stay in Bowmore or Port Ellen, but it's worth making the drive out to the village of Portnahaven on the far southwestern tip of the island. This little fishing village at the end of the A847 road has a small sheltered harbor where you can often spot seals.
Portnahaven melds into the neighboring village of Port Wemyss, and the story goes that the local Portnahaven Parish Church has two separate doors because residents from each village didn't always get along. The two door are still there, along with a large spray-painted “OK” that's been there since WWII.
There's not a ton to do here except enjoy the scenery and watch for seals, but I think that's enough of a reason to put it on your to-do list.
3. Go beach hopping
Islay has some really beautiful beaches, thanks in no small part to its 130 miles of coastline. Some of the most famous beaches include Machir Bay on the west coast and Claggain Bay on the east coast. There's also the Big Strand, which stretches for 7.5 miles from Laggan Point to Kintra.
Many of Islay's beaches aren't safe for swimming, but that's not too big of a deal since the water and weather don't usually get super warm here anyway!
Elliot and I visited several beaches on Islay, with my favorite definitely being Claggain Bay. The water looked like it belonged in the Caribbean, not the United Kingdom!
4. Visit some historic spots
Other than historic distilleries, Islay has a handful of other spots that history lovers might enjoy. You can also visit:
Kildalton Cross – This intricately carved Celtic cross dates back to the 8th century. It's thought to be the oldest Celtic cross surviving in Scotland, and yet the details on it are still amazingly preserved. Carvings you can still see include the Virgin with Child, angels, and David fighting a lion. The cross sits next to the now-roofless Old Parish Church of Kildalton, which was built during medieval times.
Finlaggan – Located on (and in) Loch Finlaggan, this ancient settlement was once the seat of the Lords of the Isles. The Lords of the Isles ruled the west coast and islands of Scotland during the Middle Ages, often separate from the Kings of England and Scotland. The title of Lord of the Isles was held by Clan Donald for centuries, but was eventually rolled into royal titles just before 1500, and Finlaggan was abandoned. Now, only ruins remain.
Museum of Islay Life – If you want to get a taste of what life on Islay has been like through the centuries, stop in to this small museum in Port Charlotte. There's a wide range of items on display, dating from prehistoric to more modern times.
5. Work up a sweat
To work off some of that whisky you'll undoubtedly be drinking, I recommend getting outside on Islay. There are several options depending on how much of a sweat you want to work up.
Hike to the American Monument – Built on a cliff on the Oa Peninsula in 1920 by the American Red Cross, this monument commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918. The monument resembles a lighthouse and offers excellent views. You can reach the monument in about half an hour on a path that begins at a dedicated parking space in the RSPB Nature Reserve – simply follow the signposted track until it ends.
Three Distilleries Pathway – Want to combine a walk with your whisky tasting? The Three Distilleries Pathway is a fully-accessible path that stretches for nearly 3.5 miles from Port Ellen. The pathway connects three of Islay's most famous distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg), making it a nice option for those who want to drink but not drive. The path begins next to the Port Ellen Primary School. Be sure to stop to see the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, near the Lagavulin Distillery.
Bike on the beach – Take to Islay's Big Strand on a fat bike (a bike with big, beefy tires) for an active afternoon. These tours are offered by Kayak Wild Islay, and are lots of fun.
Go kayaking – You can book kayaking tours near Port Ellen with Kayak Wild Islay, too. I haven't tried this as the weather was not kayak-friendly when I was on Islay, but it would be a fun adventure, especially if you haven't been sea kayaking before.
6. Visit Islay House
Once a grand private residence for the Laird of Cawdor, Islay House is today one of the fancier hotels on the island. We didn't stay here, but the owner of our guesthouse recommended we stop by anyway to check out the Islay House Community Garden.
Islay House's former kitchen garden has been transformed into a beautiful community garden that is free to visit. The garden grows and sells lots of seasonal produce, but also is just a lovely place to go for a stroll.
Nearby, Islay House Square is also worth a visit. Once the area where Islay House's estate workers would have lived, today this area is home to some local shops. You can shop for crafts, artwork, and even quilts; visit the Islay Ales brewery; or pop into a cafe for coffee and a baked good.
If you want to get a feel for local life on Islay, this is a stop worth making.
BONUS: The Islay Woollen Mill is just up the road from Islay House, and is another spot you should visit!
Where to stay on Islay
If you only choose one place to stay on Islay, make it the Glenegedale House. This guesthouse is one of my favorite places I've stayed in Scotland. It's equal parts luxurious and cozy, with the absolute nicest owners you'll ever meet. Graeme and Emma treat all of their guests like family, right down to sharing their extensive whisky and gin collections with you.
Glenegedale House is located near Islay's small airport; you can see the sea from the breakfast room, and say hello to the neighbor's sheep outside. The rooms here are beautifully decorated (I was obsessed with the custom wallpaper throughout the house), and come with little antique Scottish touches that make every room special.
Our favorite parts (beyond the hospitality of our hosts) were the tea and cake we were greeted with on arrival, and the expansive breakfast spread. Elliot was like a little kid at Christmas when Emma insisted he put a shot of Laphroaig into his morning porridge.
Staying here was certainly a highlight of our time on Islay, and I can't recommend it highly enough!
If the Glenegedale House is booked (it's understandably quite popular!), other good options on Islay include:
- Islay House Hotel in Bridgend – I mentioned Islay House earlier in this post. This historic mansion just opened as a hotel in 2016, and is now one of the top places to stay on the island.
- The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links – This upscale spot is just down the road from the Glenegedale House. Rooms overlook the Big Strand and Laggan Bay beyond the Machrie Links golf course.
- Harbour Inn in Bowmore – This hotel sits right on Lochindaal just around the corner from Bowmore Distillery. It's small a cozy, too, with a popular restaurant that overlooks the loch. (We stayed here for one night because the Glenegedale House was booked!)
Where to eat on Islay
For a relatively small island, there are actually a lot of places to eat on Islay! Most of the best restaurants are connected to island hotels, so chances are you'll never be too far away from a good meal.
My biggest tip: Always make a reservation. Most of these places are small, and you'll definitely want to book ahead for dinner, especially if you're visiting during high season.
Some places we ate at and really enjoyed included:
- Old Kiln Café at Ardbeg Distillery – Whether you're touring Ardbeg or not, it's worth stopping in for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe. They serve up hearty dishes at good prices – and of course you can always add on a dram or two of Ardbeg's peaty whisky!
- Harbour Inn Restaurant in Bowmore – With tables overlooking Lochindaal, this spot is a must-visit. They serve up locally-sourced food, including really good seafood.
- Peatzeria in Bowmore – This trendy pizza spot serves up traditional pies, as well as pizzas with more inventive toppings. (I had a crab meat pizza!)
- Port Charlotte Hotel – If you're looking for fine dining on Islay, look no further than the Port Charlotte Hotel. This spot is usually listed as having some of the best food on Islay.
- Islay Hotel – We also ate at this cozy spot in Port Ellen. They also serve up really great locally-sourced seafood dishes.
Who's ready to plan a trip to Islay now?
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