Islay is a place I have long loved and been familiar with… courtesy of all those labels on the whisky shelves in the shops.
Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, a litany of big, peaty, smoky warming drams that speak to me of a misty isle where magic happens in the stills.
But I had never set foot on the place despite it being firmly on my bucket list as one of the places I really need to see.
And that is a box I have now ticked after making the pilgrimage from the north-east of Scotland over to the west coast and beyond to this gem in the Inner Hebrides.
It was a voyage of discovery that was about more than just visiting the homes of my favourite malts – there were plenty of those – but also discovering a place that is jaw-droppingly beautiful and where life runs at its own, gentle pace.
It was a bit of a trek to get to the blink and you’ll miss it CalMac ferry terminal at Kennacraig, but once on Islay it was an easy drive down to our home for the next two nights, the Machrie Hotel.
As we zoomed through the rolling peatland and farmland, we kept passing signs such as Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, like the top shelf of a particularly fine whisky bar.
Soon, the Machrie came into view in the distance, sitting in splendid isolation, with its promise of an oasis of luxury.
Opened in 2018 after renovation and expansion, this is a beautiful retreat to either settle in for a couple of days to enjoy all it has to offer or use as a base to explore.
The Machrie offers range of activities
It’s an elegant and welcoming place, with wonderful views out over its own links course – it has become something of a mecca for golf fans.
A lot of thought has gone into putting all the elements together, from Howson paintings to golfing trophies in the public areas. There’s even a chalkboard letting you know which distilleries are open – a lot weren’t when we were there due to the pandemic.
Our room was the sort of place you wouldn’t even have to leave for two days, so comfortable and welcoming, with a patio door out to a little table in the lee of the building on the edge of the links.
We had a wee explore of the hotel and oohed at the fact it has its own dinky cinema, and also offered a range of activities, such as a kayaking wildlife trip, or Land Rover excursions and even e-bike experiences.
And I did get to tick another thing off my bucket list – watching a west coast sunset from a Hebridean isle.
My wife and I sat on the verandah of the dining room, perfect pours of Machrie’s own fine gin in hand, watching the sky become an ocean of fire as the sun sank slowly into the sea.
In fact, during dinner our eyes were constantly drawn to the shifting colours of that beautiful sky.
Dinner was a thing of beauty, too.
The Machrie does food sublimely well, from the rich steak tartare I had as a starter and my wife’s simple but elegant Caesar salad to the excellent Hairy Coo – perfect slices of steak nestling on cabbage and potato sauce.
With a Port Charlotte – smoke in a glass – to round of the evening it was time to turn in.
Pure moment on stunning Islay beach
The next morning we enjoyed more fine food with a hearty breakfast then set off to explore one of The Machrie’s signature attractions – the beach on the other side of the links. What we discovered was a slice of heaven.
Golden sands stretched endlessly away as an azure blue sea lapped at the shore. Someone had created a heart from beach pebbles and written “Islay” in the sand above. I couldn’t agree more. There was nowhere else I’d rather have been right then.
The lovely folk at reception had arranged for Islay E Wheels to kit us out. A quick lesson and we were scooting down the quiet roads to Port Ellen, admittedly letting the bikes’ electric engines do much of the heavy work.
That wasn’t our destination though. We were heading for a lovely, quiet cycle and walking path that connects what must surely be the holy trinity of Islay distilleries – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
With stunning views over the coastline, we were blessed with a beautiful day that was all sunshine and sparkling water.
We were particularly stunned by how simply gorgeous Laphroaig’s distillery is. Sitting in a wee bay, hard by the sea, there was smoke wafting from its pagoda tower, with sun glittering off the gentle waves. I had seen pictures of this spot many times. Now here I was.
Lagavulin whisky tasting was a delight
Our main destination though was Lagavulin for a guided classic tasting of their malts. It’s a beautiful distillery that has a real old world feel to it.
The tasting was in what felt like an old accounting office and all the better for it. We were guided through various iterations of the malt, from an eight-year-old to a distillery special only available there and then.
Each was spectacular, all peat and smoke and heat and each was uniquely different.
There was even a specially distilled nine-year-old as part of the Game Of Thrones series of malts. It’s sitting on a shelf in my house right now.
Our knowledgeable guide made sure we came out knowing far more than when we went in. Now, that was an afternoon well spent.
We had a – very careful – bike ride back to The Machrie to enjoy some fine local beers for me and that excellent Machrie gin for my wife at our little table outside, before a taxi ride into Port Ellen for a spot of supper then off to bed.
The next day we sailed out of Port Ellen back to the mainland. As the CalMac ferry left port, I looked back at Islay sitting in the sunshine on a sea as still as a mill pond and reflected on my all too brief visit.
There is something special about the Queen of the Hebrides, that goes far beyond it being the home of some of the best whiskies in the world.
It has a calm, almost sacred, beauty and atmosphere that made for a very special two days in my life.
What you need to know…
- Winter rates at The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links start from £145 per couple on a bed and breakfast basis. You can find out more at www.themachrie.com
- Islay E-Wheels offer e-bike hire for £30 per day per bike. You can find out more at islayewheels.co.uk
- Lagavulin Distillery offers a range of tastings, including the one Scott tried for £15. To find out more visit www.malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/lagavulin