Islay has fast become the island that I know best. Four visits worth of adventures and experiences, with another planned for this September, has afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself in all the things that make this island so special. Whisky is, of course, Islay’s ultimate claim to fame; it is a way of life on this windswept isle. That said, there is so much more to Islay’s charm than its golden drams: the landscape, the light, the coast, the cuisine, and the locals.
My fondness for Islay grows with every visit, and while I experience new things each time, I always leave pining for more. Islay will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and not just by drinking drams! I have a wee hunch that I will be a lifetime regular on this island.
If you are planning a trip to Islay, or are simply looking to get inspired, this post brings together all the essential practical information that you need to get started, from how to plan your journey and get around the island, to choosing accommodation and which distilleries to visit. For ideas on how to spend your time on the island, check out my other post on the best things to do on Islay.
HOW TO PRONOUNCE ISLAY
Before we proceed, let’s address the all-important issue of pronunciation. Islay does not require a ‘say it as you see it’ approach, so if you’ve been calling it “EYE-LAY”, it’s time to stand corrected and drop the “Y”. Islay is pronounced “EYE-LA” and no one says it better than a local with their lovely, lilting accent.
WHERE IS ISLAY
Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides, and forms part of a group of islands which are also referred to as the Southern Hebrides: it’s closest neighbours are Jura, Gigha and Colonsay. The island sits between the Kintyre Peninsula on the west coast of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which looks surprisingly close on a clear day.
At 25 miles long by 15 miles wide, Islay is the fifth largest island in Scotland, and it’s rich, fertile land has earned the island its nickname as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’. The abundance of peat in the rugged landscape makes Islay the perfect ‘whisky island’, and it is this natural fossil fuel which gives Islay single malt its classic, smoky flavour.
HOW TO GET TO ISLAY
Islay is accessible by flight or ferry, and it is possible to reach the island entirely on public transport. I have taken to the air and to the sea, and I loved both experiences. How you choose to travel to Islay will depend on how much time you have, your budget, and where you’re coming from.
Fly from Glasgow to Islay with Loganair
The quickest way to get to Islay is on the Loganair flight from Glasgow. There are usually two flights per day (only one on weekends) and the flight time is 45 minutes. I love the experience of flying on Loganair’s wee tartan-tailed planes, and seeing the islands from the sky.
Flying is the most expensive way to travel, with flights ranging from £54.99 to over £100 each way, but it is ideal if you are only taking a short break or you don’t fancy the added journey to the ferry port. Book your seats in advance for the best fares and sign up to the Loganair newsletter to find out about any sales/discounts.
Getting to Glasgow Airport by public transport: take the bus to Buchanan Street Station then take the Glasgow Airport Express directly to the airport, or, take the train to Queen Street Station and catch the same bus to the airport from the bus stop at George Square. The journey time to the airport can be as little as 15 minutes and you can buy tickets in advance online or on the bus on the day which currently costs £14 for an open return.
Ferry from Kennacraig to Islay
The cheapest way to travel to Islay is by ferry from Kennacraig. There are two ferry ports on Islay, Port Ellen in the south (journey time 2 hours 20 minutes) and Port Askaig in the north east (journey time 1 hour 55 minutes). Which port you arrive into will be determined by the day of the week and the time you choose to travel, or you can base it on which port is closest to where you’re staying. Both ferries leave from Kennacraig on the mainland.
Cars must be booked onto the ferry in advance and check-in is 30 minutes prior to departure. Due to social distancing measures and managing capacity, foot passengers should also pre-book their journey and arrive no later than 10 minutes before departure. A return ticket on the ferry currently costs £71.10 per car plus £14.20 per adult. You can view the timetable and book your tickets on the CalMac website.
Getting to Kennacraig from Glasgow on public transport: Kennacraig is on the Scottish Citylink service 926from Glasgow Buchanan Street to Campbeltown. The journey time from Glasgow to Kennacraig is approximately 3 hours 15 minutes and you can get advanced fares for as little as £23.60 return. Be sure to book in advance and check that the bus time links in with the ferry service; the bus pulls right into the ferry terminal for a seamless journey. You can view the timetable and book your journey on the Scottish Citylink website.
Ferry from Oban to Islay
There is an infrequent ferry service from Oban to Port Askaig if you are travelling to/from this direction or if you plan to extend your adventure and do more island hopping from Oban. This journey is more expensive than the Kennacraig route at £109.10 per car plus £14.20 per passenger return, and it takes around 4 hours.
Getting to Oban from Glasgow: take the ScotRail train from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban or take the Citylink bus from Glasgow Buchanan Street to Oban. Both journeys take around 3 hours 10 minutes and offer stunning scenery. The bus is the cheaper option at £25.30 for an advanced return ticket, while an off-peak return on the train is £40.90; although better priced fares can be picked up 12 weeks in advance (set up a ticket alert on the TheTrainLine to be notified when they go on sale).
DRIVING ON ISLAY
Lots of visitors travel to Islay in their own vehicles on the ferry; do remember to pre-book your car on the ferry if this is the case. If you’re flying to the island and would like to hire a car, Islay Car Hire operate from Islay Airport and are based there in line with the flight times. If you are arriving by ferry, but would still like to hire a car, you will need to arrange a suitable time to collect your car from the airport.
It is important to educate yourself on the driving etiquette when you’re exploring rural areas and islands in Scotland. The roads are often winding and single-track, so care should be taken at all times, and Passing Places are there for a reason: to allow overtaking and two-way traffic on single track roads.
Another important piece of island etiquette is the famous ‘Islay wave’. Whenever you pass a local on the road, you will be treated to a friendly wave, which you obviously have to reciprocate. This is such a pleasant wee exchange and one of the things I love about Islay.
There are Petrol Stations in Port Ellen, Bowmore and Port Charlotte. The opening hours vary, so I would recommend taking note in advance to ensure that you don’t get caught short.
My most recent visit to Islay was on a girls’ road-trip with the Yvette from Wayfaring Kiwi. Check out her blog post covering the perfect 5-day itinerary for first time visitors to Islay
GETTING AROUND ISLAY ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Islay is absolutely doable on public transport for visitors who, like me, don’t drive or for those who just don’t want to: drinking whisky and driving is not a good mix. It is also illegal! Travelling by public transport is a slower way of travel (not a bad thing when adopting the island pace) and you won’t be able to reach some of the places you would with a car, but for first time visitors or those who don’t plan to venture too far off the beaten track, exploring Islay on public transport is a great experience. These are the ways you can explore Islay without a car.
Local Buses on Islay
The local bus service connects all of the main towns and most of the distilleries. The bus stops near the ferry ports in Port Ellen and Port Askaig, and directly outside Islay Airport. The buses only run until the evening, so if you are relying on public transport and would like to venture out for dinner and drinks, it would be worth basing yourself in or around one of the main towns, Bowmore or Port Ellen. You could also choose an accommodation which offers food and drink or book a local taxi. You can view the bus timetable here.
Local Taxis on Islay
There are a number of locals who run taxi services on the island, which I have used in the evenings to take me back to my accommodation. There are a limited number of taxis however, so I would always book your journey in advance. Some taxi drivers also offer full and half day tours of the island. I can personally recommend Jim’s Islay Taxi for both taxis and tours. Jim is a lovely legend of a man, whom my Dad and I stayed with on our first visit to Islay.
Bike Hire on Islay
Another fantastic way to explore Islay is by eBike with Islay E Wheels. This will allow you to reach locations which are not served by bus and to treat yourself to a healthy dose of fresh, island air while you’re at it! The bikes can be picked up in Port Ellen or delivered to your location of choice for £10 (free for 3 bikes or more) and they cost £30 per day. There aren’t any massive hills to tackle on the bike, but the island isn’t completely flat either, so the extra push from the eBike is much appreciated.
The Three Distilleries Pathway
You can walk or cycle the Three Distilleries Pathway from Port Ellen, which links three distilleries in three miles: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It is a beautiful route of countryside and coastline, and you can plan distillery visits along the way, followed by a street-food style lunch at the new ‘Ardstream’ Trailer in the courtyard at Ardbeg: a perfect way to spend the day on Islay!
WHICH DISTILLERIES TO VISIT ON ISLAY
There are a whopping nine whisky distilleries on Islay, with more underway, so you’ll never find yourself far from one of these iconic white-washed buildings donned with huge lettering. Even if you’re not (yet) a lover of single malt, I would say that at least one distillery tour is a must when visiting Islay.
The distilleries, which are open year-round, each have their own unique stories, tours and traditions. They all offer a great experience, so you really can’t go wrong. At the moment, due to COVID restrictions, the distilleries are open to visitors, but some still aren’t offering their usual tours or a visit must be booked by appointment. Please check the individual websites for opening times, tours and updates on the situation.
- Easiest distilleries to reach without a car – Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich are all accessible by bus.
- Distilleries with the best views – Ardnahoe, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila at Port Askaig have incredible views across to the Paps of Jura.
- Distilleries with a café – Ardbeg for the alfresco Ardstream Trailer, Ardnahoe for the lovely café which hosts whisky & food pairing experience, and Kilchoman for delicious Cullen Skink.
VISITING ISLAY WITH KIDS
Due to its reputation as Scotland’s ‘whisky island’, I’m often asked if Islay is suitable for families with children. Aside from its distilleries, Islay is just like all the other Scottish islands in that the main attraction is the outdoors. If your family enjoys being outside and can be entertained with walks, beach days and water-based activities, then you will absolutely appreciate Islay. There are some indoor options too, which are handy for rainy days. My top suggestions for family-friendly activities on Islay are:
- Book a wildlife watching boat trip with Islay Sea Adventures
- Have a day at the beach at The Singing Sands or Machir Bay
- Burn off some energy at the children’s play park at the Port Mor Centre in Port Charlotte
- Go for a swim in the indoor pool at the MacTaggart Leisure Centre in Bowmore
For more inspiration on travelling Islay with kids, check out this blog post by Edinburgh-based travel photographer and explorer Kim Kjaerside
VISITING ISLAY WITH PETS
If you like to bring your beloved pet on adventures, Islay is the perfect host with plenty beaches for energetic walks, a range of dog friendly accommodation and a number of eateries which welcome dogs in the outside eating areas (some inside too) including Port Charlotte Hotel, Bridgend Hotel and Ardbeg Distillery.
HOW TO SPEND YOUR TIME ON ISLAY
Your time visiting Islay can be as relaxing or energetic as you want it to be. Some visitors will benefit from simply enjoying the food, drink and slower pace, while others will be excited to try the outdoor and water-based activities. Here is an overview of experiences on Islay, however I have covered these all in much more detail in my blog full of suggestions for things to do when visiting Islay.
- Visit a whisky distillery (obviously!)
- Explore the ruins and history of the Lords of the Isles at Finlaggan
- Go seal spotting in the picturesque village of Portnahaven
- Explore the beaches and coastline on a Fat Bike Tour
- Paddle the coast on a half or full day sea kayaking trip
- Visit the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte
- Discover Carraig Fhada Lighthouse and the stunning Singing Sands
ACCOMMODATION ON ISLAY
There is a wide variety of accommodation on Islay, from hostels and glamping pods to homely B&Bs and high-end guesthouses and hotels. Good quality accommodation doesn’t come cheap on Islay, however there are some budget-friendly self-catering options available. My main bit of advice would be to stay with local hosts if you can so that you can experience the wonderful island hospitality and local recommendations.
When planning my adventures, I usually start my search on Booking.com or Airbnb to see what’s available for my chosen dates. Some accommodation providers on Islay are not listed on booking engines or Airbnb so it is also worth just going a Google search on the type of accommodation you’re after and contacting hosts directly. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Camping and glamping
Port Mor Campsite in Port Charlotte has pitches for tents and motorhomes, as well as a café and a playpark. Islay Storm Pods in Lagavulin has 5 glamping pods and a holiday cottage (I’m staying in one of the pods in September).
Hostels – Hostelling Scotland run the family-friend Port Charlotte Youth Hostel. The hostel is located in an old distillery warehouse building within close walking distance of the Port Charlotte Hotel, which is great for food, drinks and live music.
Glenmachrie House offers a wonderful, homely experience with huge portions of freshly prepared breakfast plus home-baking. Glenegedale House (my favourite place to stay on Islay) is a 5*, multi-award winning guesthouse which serves sharing boards on whisky barrel tops and Laphroaig with your breakfast porridge.
The Harbour Inn in Bowmore is a lovely, modern Scottish hotel which is centrally located near Bowmore Harbour and serves excellent food. The Machrie, near Islay Airport, is Islay’s luxury resort-style hotel, complete with a golf course, spa, bar and restaurant. There are also self-catering lodges which allow guests the best of both worlds.
Kay the Chaotic Scot (@TheChaoticScot) was invited to Islay by Explore Islay and Jura along with her friend Yvette the Wayfaring Kiwi (@wayfaringkiwi).
We sent them all over Islay from Kildalton to Portnahaven and from Bunnahabhain to Ardnave Point and they travelled by car, by foot, by boat and by bike.
They went shopping, tasting, wildlife watching and sightseeing and captured some brilliant Islay moments.
The Essential Guide to Visiting Islay – The Chaotic Scot and the perfect five day itinerary from Yvette The Perfect 5 Day Islay Itinerary – Wayfaring Kiwi