After what was really unexpected ill health, surgery resulting in a mandatory six week ‘no fly’ ban and 16 nights between two hospitals, what does the ‘Avid Traveller’ do? It was time for “A Dram Good Argyll Road and Ferry Trip”
While still recovering, I decided I wasn’t going to lounge about feeling sorry for myself but I’m going to enjoy Scottish hospitality at its best!
Off we go!
Literally, 800 metres (half a mile) along Cloch Road in Gourock is McInroys Point where Western Ferries sail regularly between Gourock and Hunters Quay (Dunoon). Once off the ferry you’re on the Argyll Peninsula and less than an hours drive to Inveraray and the start of a truly memorable Scottish road trip, with a couple of ferry crossings thrown in.
Driving over the single-lane Aray Bridge (Inveraray Bridge) which is a stone two-arch public road bridge carrying the A83, the white town of Inveraray comes into sight.
Inveraray is a traditional county town of Argyll and sits proudly on Loch Fyne. Established in 1745 by the 3rd Duke of Argyll, head of the then-powerful Clan Campbell, the town is an absolute set piece of Scottish Georgian architecture. There are several buildings worth visiting, including the neo-classical church and the small but impressive Inveraray Jail and courthouse, now an award-winning museum that graphically recounts the horrendous prison conditions from medieval times up until the 19th century.
A short walk north of the town, the neo-gothic Inveraray Castle remains the family home of the Duke of Argyll. The impressive castle sits within stunning grounds and is the starting point for a number of marked walks. The most impressive and probably most strenuous takes you up over 800 feet to the tower, Dun Na Cuaiche and provides breathtaking views over the castle, town and Loch Fyne.
The town is also the gateway to the Highlands & Islands and provides good access to further your road trip whether it’s planned or unplanned.
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Clachan, Cairndow
Situated on the A83 just outside Inveraray this facility offers up a restaurant, farm shop, garden centre and coffee shop. We had lunch in the Oyster Bar which is very modern in looks, service was excellent along with the locally caught oysters and smoked salmon, simply fantastic! The shop offers both fresh fish products, shellfish, meats and game along with various speciality condiments and locally brewed beers, distilled gin and whisky. You will not visit this shop and fail to find something you want to buy.
Scotland’s best produce from land and sea housed in one impressive setting!
Samphire – 6A Arkland, Inveraray
Simply stunning seafood restaurant behind the church in Inveraray. Whether you choose Loch Fyne mussels or locally caught lobster and langoustine cooked to perfection, the food is simply outstanding. The staff are really attentive and know the menu and source of its contents well. A fantastic restaurant for a special treat. I suggest booking ahead for lunch and this is absolutely essential for evenings. Highly recommended, we had already visited a number of years ago and will definitely return yet again.
The George Hotel
Main Street East, Inveraray
If there is a hotel or restaurant which sums up Scotland in one place this is it! The George is a multiple award winning independent
Scottish boutique hotel with indulgent and quirky suites along with winter only roaring open fires. Established in 1860, it’s over 160 years old and is not only a hotel but hosts a renowned restaurant, an award winning beer garden, which accommodates Scotland’s seasons, and a bar with a selection of over 300 whiskies! All this is set in a stunning Georgian townhouse on the banks of Loch Fyne. Highly recommended for the accommodation, restaurant and one of the best beer gardens in Scotland.
Loch Fyne Hotel & Spa, A83, Inveraray
On this short visit to Inveraray we chose to stay at the four star Loch Fyne Hotel and Spa. One of seven in the Crerar Hotel chain. Enjoys wonderful views across Loch Fyne to the Cowal hills. The hotel boasts a 15 metre swimming pool and impressive outdoor hot tub that overlooks Loch Fyne and a tranquil spa offering a variety of treatments. The Clansman is the AA Rosette-award winning restaurant which essentially has to be booked in advance. Inveraray Golf Club is just along the coastal road.
Barman, Scott at the Loch View Bar had an answer for everything. Great chat and a laugh while he served up the drinks from an impressively stocked bar with over 25 different malt whiskies, a great selection of local gins and of course the locally brewed Loch Fyne ales.
Our room was very warm (perhaps because it was August) but comfortable and acceptable for a four star hotel.
Niall, the General Manager is a larger than life character. You hear his infectious laugh and him talking to other residents and staff before you see him. He doesn’t need a phone and that’s not being nasty as he seems to be everywhere in the hotel making sure it’s as close to perfect as can be.
After two great nights in Inveraray, which to be honest is adequate, we depart for the next part of our road trip. This includes the ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Islay.
Leaving Inveraray behind, we head out on the scenic A83 for about an hour towards the ferry terminal.
While sailing on the passage through the Sound of Islay on MV Finlaggan if you’re lucky you may see minke wales, dolphins and occasionally a passing basking shark. Dive bombing gannets and other seabirds are also regularly seen on this crossing before arriving at Port Askaig, Islay.
Islay (pronounced eye-la)
Islay is found just under a two hour ferry journey from Scotland’s west coast mainland. On a clear day its scenery and sea life is incredible.
The Inner Hebridean island is best known for its smoky, peat heavy whiskies. You can’t visit Islay without touring and sampling at least one of the nine (soon to be ten) distilleries on the island. With a population of just over 3,000 that is 300 people per distillery. Not bad if you like a dram!
Whisky apart, there is lots more to do on Islay. You can take in some out-of-the-way beaches, walk scenic hikes, catch incredible wildlife, see ancient standing stones, tour crumbling churches and appreciate locally handmade crafts.
If you’re looking to explore an island with a warm Scottish welcome and less crowds than elsewhere, then Islay is a stand out place to visit.
This blog will cover 72 hours on the island which is the fifth-largest Scottish island and the eighth-largest in the British Isles and takes in a stunning land area of almost 620 square kilometres (240 sq miles).
Today the main language spoken on Islay is English, although there are many Scots Gaelic speakers too. Around 25% of today’s population use Gaelic as their native language. Not long ago this was 75%. Even with that drop Gaelic influences culture, dialect and accents on the island. For the novice this can be challenging to read and spell.
A hint for some of the most common Scots Gaelic words you might come across on Islay.
• Islay (“eye-la”) – Islay
• Ileach (“eee-luch”) – a person from Islay and the local newspaper
• Alba (“al-ba”) – Scotland
• loch (“lokh”) – a Scottish lake
• Gaelic (“gal-ick”) – Celtic language native to Scotland
• fáilte (“fahl-che”) – welcome
• slainte mhath (“slanj-a-va”) – cheers, good health
• uisge-beatha (“ishke-baha”) – water of life, whisky
Islay Airport (locally known as Glenegedale Airport) is north of Port Ellen. Used for daily scheduled services to Glasgow and some local towns and islands along with its air ambulance capability. Car hire is available from the terminal building at Islay Airport
The island had two bus routes which run Monday to Saturday between 7am and 6pm, there is no service on a Sunday. Both routes operate on the main roads. The 450 service runs between Bowmore and Portnahaven in the south west. The 451 service runs between Port Askaig, Port Ellen and Ardbeg in the south. Check timetables before making any journey.
Several taxi services advertise as being available for private hire, tours and transfers. My suggestion is use a service local to where you are on the island and book well in advance to avoid disappointment. If there is a festival or a local event on they will be booked up or off the road to party!
Bridgend Hotel Bridgend, Islay
After some research we pre-booked this hotel and our evening meal on the first night. It’s a traditional coaching inn situated at the tip of Loch Indaal and what could also be described as the heart of Islay. Deceptive from the outside as it’s fairly large once you walk in through one of the three doors. The staff provide a welcoming and comfortable place to stay where they offer the very best of Islay products. Manager Megan and staff Pete and Gabriel (our Portuguese star) go above and beyond to make sure you enjoy your stay. The rooms are a good size and well dressed, the food served in the restaurant is of high class for a small hotel. Breakfasts can be a hearty affair although lighter options are on offer. Beautiful gardens with private seating areas are available to guests, weather permitting. It has quite rightly been named as a 2023 finalist in the Scottish Hotel Awards – Best Country Hotel category. It’s absolutely the staff that make it!
The hotel’s location provides easy access to many of Islay’s distilleries, beaches, hills, lochs, Machrie golf course, and cultural landmarks, such as Finlaggan, the seat of the Lords of the Isles. It’s also next to Bridgend Woods where several walks follow the River Sorn winding its way through the lush surrounding land. Islay Estates has limited salmon and sea trout fishing available on some beats. On our first evening we even had a rousing rendition of Loch Lomond by patrons as the bar closed! Highly recommended for a central location to easily explore the island.
Food & Restaurants
The mild Atlantic air, fertile soil with its peat, rich clean seas and of course plenty of Scottish rain is not only why Islay produces top of the range whiskies. These near perfect farming conditions ensure farmers and the Islay estates can produce best quality beef, lamb and game, while the waters around the island produce some of the finest shellfish in Scotland. From sea or farm to plate the cuisine is outstanding and highly recommended.
An Tigh Seinnse, Portnahaven
Meaning ‘the public house’ or ‘a good pub’. This is the only pub in the village of Portnahaven which sits at the very edge of Islay looking towards Northern Ireland.
Offering a wide range of drinks, a home cooked menu and hot drinks to enjoy in front of the roaring fire or to take-away. If you get the chance go and experience the breathtaking scenery and sea life this magical wee village has to offer.
Who’d have thought a truly authentic pizza restaurant on Islay and a great name too! Perfectly matching Islay’s rich whisky heritage past. People say it’s a secret but how can you keep a great restaurant a secret, especially in Bowmore. They offer are a wide variety of traditional pizzas alongside unique Islay specials. I was planning on choosing the locally sourced lobster and scallops as a topping. Unfortunately Peatzeria remains a secret as we were unable to secure a taxi booking even 3 hours in advance of our table reservation and had to cancel. A big disappointment not getting to Peatzeria.
Whisky Things To Do!
Pronounced ‘Brook-Laddie’ and meaning ‘shore bank’ in Gaelic.
Most probably our favourite was Bruichladdich Distillery which is a Victorian Distillery (1881) re-imagined for the future and now very much a progressive Hebridean distillery. It’s perhaps better described as a working museum due to the original equipment still being in use today. We visited and luckily met up with Allan Logan, hands on Director and original staff member from 2001, Allan educated us with the story of where the idea for the distillery came from, how Bruichladdich moved from a village name to an international brand, its resurrection in 2001, the angels share legend, as well as the process for crafting their four world renowned spirits: the Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, Octomore single malts and Botanist gin.
I must be honest as I’m a little biased here. Bruichladdich is now owned by Remy Cointreau, whose liquers & spirits division gathers together eight brands from very distinct countries across the globe. So to have one of my favourite rums, Mount Gay from Barbados, linked with the single malts of Bruichladdich, including Port Charlotte and Octomore which purports to be the world’s most heavily peated malt whisky, plus the excellent Botanist gin is a family just heaven made for me. Really worth a visit as is the visitors centre which has an impressive range of merchandise and whisky products. I can’t recommend highly enough!
Three Distilleries Walk Port Ellen
A recommended walking route from the ferry at Port Ellen connects 3 distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg locally known as the Kildalton Distilleries) along a 3 mile pathway (one way) on the southern coast of Islay. Laphroaig’s extremely strong tasting whiskies are definitely not for a novice. As an added attraction and kids favourite at this distillery is a stunning bay overlooking the North Channel water, weather permitting an ideal picnic spot. Ardbeg has a food truck and barbecue which is perfect for lunch but watch the closing times. If you’ve indulged in the tastings a little too much or the weather turns for the worse, a bus or taxi can be used a an alternative on the return walk.
In addition to the four distilleries mentioned above there are plenty of other options for distillery visits. Ardnahoe, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, and Caol Ila. Finally there is Kilchoman, the most westerly distillery in Scotland, and claimed to be the only true farm distillery in the country, utilising grain grown and malted on site, and where the liquid runs off the smallest stills in all of Scotland.
Kilchoman also has a link to Barbados and is expanding its operations overseas after receiving permission to develop a rum distillery there. The Kilchoman team lead by co-founder Anthony Wills will work with Frank Ward, former managing director of Barbados Mount Gay rum, in this exciting development. The derelict Bentley Mansion and its nine acres of land will house the new rum distillery.
Organised Whisky Tours
Due to the abundance of top-quality whisky distilleries on the island, there are several organised whisky tours on offer. Some of these are bespoke and to get the most out of your tour I suggest a 4-day tour which can start from around £600 per person.
Islay Rum Distillery, Antrim View, Port Ellen
Not to be out done by the stunning whisky and impressive gin available on the island, there is now a rum distillery on Islay. Housed in the renovated art deco old lemonade factory in Port Ellen, Islay Rum has only been in production since 2022.
The first bottle of Islay Rum Geal (Gaelic for clear) was produced from molasses and inspired by Caribbean rums from Haiti, Jamaica, and the French Antilles. Unaged white Rum bottled at 45% vol is very drinkable! The distillery is also experimenting with a spiced rum and although I’m not a great spiced rum lover, it’s good to see the distillery expanding their produce.
Islay with 130 miles of coastline and 23 beaches truly displays what is achieved when Mother Nature performs to her best.
If you’re looking for a paddle, the safest beaches are Laggan Bay, Loch Gruinart and Loch Indaal.
Although the scenery is stunning and worth a visit, there is a stern warning that should be taken on board for the beaches along the Atlantic coast (West), they are certainly not suitable for swimming, and if paddling or surfing take great care.
Kilnaughton Beach & Singing Sands
Singing Sands is a petit and picturesque part of Islay’s coastline. Local folklore states that when you rub the soles of your shoes over the sand in Kilnaughton Bay, it sings for you. My own perception was that maybe it’s only heard by a lucky few, or those who have had a whisky or two, but this beach is certainly worth a visit.
The American Monument, Mull of Oa
This lighthouse shaped monument was constructed as a memorial for the lives lost in two 1918 tragedies that occurred 8 months apart just off the coast of Islay. Firstly, an attack on the Tuscania passenger ship (carrying over 2,000 American troops) and then a shipping collision during a torrential storm between HMS Otranto (also carrying American soldiers) and the HMS Kashmir which resulted in the loss of over 600 lives. The monument faces out towards where the Tuscania sank.
A 30 minute walk from the car park to the monument can be slippy and muddy at points dependent on the weather. Nearby the monument are two memorial plaques on the ground. One of the plaques has an engraved message from Woodrow Wilson, then President of the United States and in honour of those who perished.
This is an impressive Celtic cross standing 2.65 metres tall in the Kildalton churchyard. You will find it amongst medieval graves, it dates back to the 8th century AD and is considered one of the finest intact early Christian “high cross” to be found anywhere in Scotland.
The weather will come and go as it pleases, my recommendation to keep warm and dry is to prepare for all eventualities as Islay is on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re lucky enough to experience sunshine, lap it up and take in the glorious scenery. The best Islay description of the weather I heard over our long weekend was ‘Seasonal Confusion’!
The Dram is Finished!
So after a wonderful long weekend exploring the Queen of the Hebrides we reluctantly head back to Port Askaig for the car ferry to the mainland. Quite simply Islay is a stunning experience with the most welcoming of people, every local vehicle driver acknowledges you with a wave on passing, fabulous food, stunning scenery and is the go to place for seriously peaty or smokey but wonderful whisky.
An unexpected trip which is highly recommended for a truly spectacular Scottish Island.
As a thanks and a toast with Bruichladdich best, Port Charlotte heavily peated Islay single malt, I say slainte mhath (“slanj-a-va”) – cheers, good health, to all the medical staff who treated me so well while a patient in hospital. Their unwelcome but enforced ‘no fly’ ban provided me with the fantastic opportunity to experience Islay in all its mid-August glory while convalescing.
Oh and one last point:
A DRAM is a shot of Whisky- It is used as a play on the word Dam in the Title “A Dram Good Argyll Road and Ferry Trip”
Sincere thanks once again!
Argyll Road Trip Video Synopsis