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Sunday, 8 October 2017

My Pilgrimage to Scotland, Part 1: Getting to Islay (via London)!

For whisky lovers, the island of Islay is basically Mecca. In my humble opinion, it's also very close to being heaven on earth. With eight brilliant whisky distilleries (so far), an abundance of natural beauty and wildlife, and extremely friendly and helpful (and lucky!) locals to boot, it was worth every second of the long air, train, bus & ferry travel that it took to finally get there on my recent trip (pilgrimage). I knew as soon as I left the island, which was a very difficult thing to do, that I really should have left Islay until last, because I didn't see how it could get much better. And as amazing as Edinburgh, Inverness and Speyside were, I was right.

I had to include just one photo of England...

The idea behind these posts is to give my personal take on the island, it's distilleries and other features, and to provide a bit of a whisky lover's travel guide, in the hope that I'll be able to pass something on that you haven't heard elsewhere or haven't experienced yourselves. Failing that, it's also a great chance for me to reminisce! I'm going to keep the distillery pieces short-ish, since I've already covered most of the particulars in past reviews and write-ups, so this time I'll focus more on the experience of actually visiting the distilleries, and any pieces of wisdom that I can provide that may help you plan your own pilgrimage to Islay.

Firstly, here are a few tips on getting to Islay in the first place, mixed in with a little narrative on the early stages of my trip. While this is a massive journey for those of us in South-East Asia, you're all on your own for that part, and it's fairly self-explanatory anyway, so I'm going to focus on what happened and what I've learnt after landing in England. Obviously if you're not interested in England you can either fly straight into Glasgow or get on a connecting flight from Heathrow, which is probably what I'll be doing next time. I'm also going to add my main tips in bullet points at the end (no skipping though) so they don't get lost in the text. This post will also cover a little of what to get sorted before you get to Islay, such as car hire, taxi or tour hire, and where to stay on the island.

Almost like an orange beacon for whisky lovers!

My first stop was London, spending a few days with the family and seeing the sights. London is of course huge, a giant, crowded, busy city that is also steeped in history and is also quite friendly and restrained, much more so than some other giant cities that I've visited. It's also reasonably easy to get around thanks to both uber and the underground railway, "the tube", as long as there aren't any track closures or other obstructions. But this is a whisky blog, and I'm sure we've all seen photos of Big Ben anyway, so I'll skip over that part of the trip, with three notable exceptions.

Firstly, The Whisky Exchange. The name will already be familiar to most whisky nerds, it was at the top of my list of things to do in London, and it far exceeded my expectations. The range and scope of this store is absolutely insane, like nothing I've ever seen in the southern hemisphere, and you're going to need to allow a fair whack of time here, even if you're just looking. Personally I could have spent hours here (and I probably did over the three visits I made!) just admiring the mind-blowing range of whisky available, everything from 1940's Macallan and single cask Ardbegs, through to the latest shop exclusive bottlings, and their own blended malts, hand-filled straight from the casks. The store itself is only a 10 minute walk from either Charing Cross or Leicester Square stations, but is tucked away in a little side street, so make sure you look out for the sign above or you may miss it. And remember if you're travelling outside of the European Union, and probably also if you're not if Brexit as it's way in the future, you can get a refund on the 15% VAT (value-added tax) at the airport. It's a long and painful process once you're there, and I'll cover that a bit more closely later on, but the part that happens at the retailer is nice and easy.

Seen in the background is around 2% of the open bottles available!

The other exceptions are the two brilliant whisky bars that I found my way to in London, and while I'm sure there are more, these two were outstanding, and were more than enough for me. Firstly, Milroy's of Soho. While it's a fairly small bar at first glance, there's also a much bigger hidden basement section, which is explored by going downstairs through a bookcase at the rear of the bar. The whisky range here (upstairs) is very extensive and varied, the staff & service are brilliant, and they also have a huge range of bottles available for retail sale at very reasonable prices. The second bar I visited is actually a private member's club that I was lucky enough to get an invite to, so it may not be available to most, but if you can join or find a member to sponsor you, do it. The establishment in question is Soho Whisky Club, located above a hidden gem of a retail bottle shop in Soho, and while joining is a little pricey, what you get in return will blow you away. The range of whiskies available by the dram is almost unbelievable, and while I didn't count the bottles I'd guess there to be somewhere near a thousand. We're talking the entire Glenfarclas family cask range, some very rare Ardbegs, and an absolute plethora of other unusual and old whiskies from all over Scotland, and the prices are extremely reasonable. Actually they're downright cheap! I was very much like a kid in a candy store, and if I was ever going to call London home, I'd be joining up here on day one.

Now, getting to Islay! I chose to go by train and then bus to get to the ferry, mainly because I was not hiring a car, and so did not need to worry about the need to drive interfering with my whisky drinking. The train from London to Glasgow is over five hours, with not a great deal to look at, and it wasn't much cheaper than flying, although it was much easier to get to Euston train station than it is to Heathrow or Gatwick. There's also no worrying about baggage size or weight restrictions this way, since these smaller domestic flights will usually have a lower limit than your international flight home will. Both methods can be quite cheap if you book ahead early on, and Glasgow is the obvious destination if you're going on to Islay, since it saves you around 90 minutes over leaving from Edinburgh. Speaking of Glasgow, make sure you check out The Pot Still whisky bar, which is absolutely incredible!

Also a couple of quick sides note here about travelling to Scotland in general: firstly, the midges. I had read some real horror stories about these little biting insects, about people being covered in painful bites and walking through clouds of the things. Now apparently they tend to be worse in the summer months, and in the north-west of Scotland. I was there at the beginning of autumn (September), and didn't go to the north-west (think Oban, Skye, etc.), but I didn't find them to be much of an issue at all. Yes they're there, and yes you'll have to walk through clouds of them if you're unlucky (just keep moving!), but if you're used to mosquitoes and biting flies and that sort of thing, particularly if you're coming from a temperate or tropical region, e.g. Australia with our massive man-eating "mozzies", you basically have no need to worry. You'll likely be wearing long sleeves & trousers anyway given the weather, but even if they do manage to bite you it's a very minor itchy spot that doesn't seem to last for more than a day anyway (even with a freshly shaved head), and I'm normally a mosquito magnet, and I didn't feel them biting at any point, in fact they only bothered me on two occasions over the two weeks of the trip. So if you're especially worried you could use a mild repellent, particularly if you're near fresh water and it's overcast or has been raining, but they're really not a cause for concern if you ask me.

Secondly, the weather. It almost goes without saying, but you're going to need a raincoat, long trousers and weatherproof shoes. Even then, two pairs of weatherproof shoes is a good idea. The weather can change 20 times a day, and is very unpredictable, so having a light jacket or jumper plus the raincoat that you can take with you for the day would be the best way to go. It wasn't hideously cold while I was there, since it was essentially the end of summer, so just a regular jumper & rain jacket was all I needed, but the wind chill factor, particularly on Islay of course, can get nasty and bitey. It will be grey and overcast, so it may not be the best photo-worthy weather at times, but you're just going to have to put up with that. It's not like you can just wait until next week after all, unless you're one of those lucky sods that can!

The view from the rest stop at Inverary.

The bus from Glasgow to Kennacraig ferry terminal (the main departure & arrival point for the Islay ferries) is around 3 hours, and is the Glasgow to Campbeltown service, so it's the same bus as you'd get if you're lucky enough to squeeze Springbank into your trip. I didn't this time unfortunately, but it's at the top of the list for the next trip. Now while the bus timetables are coordinated with the ferry timetables, it seems the journey can be a little unpredictable! On my very early outbound trip to Kennacraig we were slowed by just about everything imaginable, except for a road closure, including picking up 40 school kids who were stranded on the side of the road with a broken down bus, and then dropping them at school. Luckily the driver was able to tell the ferry terminal we were coming and were going to be a little late, or we would have missed the ferry. Then on the trip back from Kennacraig to Glasgow we were slowed by that previously missing road closure due to an accident, which is apparently a fairly common thing, so the bus had to take the long way around which added around an hour to the trip. There's really nothing like the fear of missing a ferry or connecting bus to keep the heart rate up! So if you're even more unlucky than I was, it may be worth having a backup plan in case you miss the ferry you were hoping to catch. The bus to Kennacraig (or Campbeltown) also stops at the very pretty town / village of Inverary for around 10 minutes, which gives you just enough time to run up the road to Loch Fyne Whiskies and back!

Once you (hopefully) arrive at Kennacraig terminal, and there's absolutely nothing there other than the ferry terminal, it's time to get on the ferry to Islay! You can do two things from this point, either get a ferry across to Port Askaig which is at the north-eastern side of the island, or you can get a ferry to the village of Port Ellen, on the south-western side. While the ferries to Port Askaig are more frequent and it's a shorter trip, you then need to get from Port Askaig to wherever you're staying or visiting, and it's around 40 minutes drive to Bowmore from there. Whereas if you're staying or visiting in Port Ellen, the ferry terminal is basically in the village itself.

All that remains of the long-lost distillery. 

Where you want to stay on Islay will depend on a few things, mainly if you will have access to a car or are on an organised guided tour. The three southern distilleries are of course more easily accessed from Port Ellen, with Ardbeg being the furthest away, and that's roughly 75 minutes of easy walking if you stop for the odd photo opportunity (which you will!). Personally, having easy access to these three distilleries was my main criteria, so Port Ellen was my haven of choice. Port Ellen has all of the basics you might need, with two pubs (both with an incredible selection of whisky), a co-op grocery store (miniature supermarket with a surprising range & reasonable prices), a restaurant & takeaway named Sea Salt, and some beautiful views. As you can guess from the name, it's also home to Port Ellen maltings, and what remains of Port Ellen distillery, which is a few warehouses (no longer housing any Port Ellen whisky), and the old kilns which have been converted to a mechanic's sheds, but thankfully still look the part from a distance.

Bowmore's famous round church, at the end of the main street.

Bowmore is obviously bigger, with more facilities (including the only public laundry on the island, which is literally a single machine and dryer located inside the swimming centre), more pubs and restaurants, a larger co-op grocery store, and some lightly tourist-y gift shops. It's also roughly the halfway point between the southern distilleries and the northern ones, plus Bruichladdich on the other side of Loch Indaal, so if you're hiring a car and have a designated driver, Bowmore would be the easier place to stay. There's also more accommodation available here. Speaking of which, most accommodation is bed & breakfast style, which is typically just that - a bedroom, hopefully with an en suite bathroom, and a hearty Scottish breakfast in the morning. There are a couple of choices that are more hotel-style and some self-catering apartments, but all are on the small side, and all offer a snapshot of actual life on the island. There's no Hilton or Comfort Inn to be found, which is great! I recommend Islay Info for the accommodation listings, and a bit of other useful information too. Pricing is a little on the expensive side, mostly due to supply & demand, but it's just part of the pilgrimage. There are also the villages of Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte, Bridgend or Portnahaven to hang your hat in, but again you'd want to have a car in those cases since they're a little more remote. Also don't worry too much about where your chosen accommodation is within the village or town of choice, they're almost all a few minutes walk, at most, from the main street, so there's no real disadvantage there. If you're staying outside of the villages though, you're definitely going to need a car and/or designated driver. Speaking of costs, it's pretty much the same as what we Australians are used to (except the whisky is massively cheaper), so it may be an adjustment for those travelling from America or some parts of Asia. You'd want to budget around 10 pounds per takeaway dinner or dine-in breakfast, while lunch can be had for around 5 pounds, or less if you buy from the Co-op grocery store. For point of reference, a can of soft drink will cost around a pound here, and around 2-3 pounds from a convenience or takeaway store. Dinner at a restaurant or pub on the island will set you back around 20 pounds on average.

Without a car, the island's buses are very useful, but there are only two for the whole island, and they cover different routes, so even Bowmore or Port Ellen will only have around four or five pick-ups a day, not all going to the same destinations. Not having a car meant I could only spend a few minutes at Caol Ila, which is around 10 minutes walk from the bus stop, and more importantly is at the bottom of a huge hill which you'll then need to walk back up to get back to the bus. Luckily I had mentioned to the driver that I'd be getting back on the bus on his return journey, or I would have missed it (and subsequently missed my Ardbeg tour), because he actually came about 500 metres up the road and picked me up! This is a great example of how friendly and helpful the Ileachs (Islay residents) are, and I can't explain how much I appreciated it! The sight of that bus coming up the road was a massive relief! This is also an example of why you'll have absolutely no trouble if you're travelling alone, regardless of gender or age, the locals will be very friendly and helpful. Hitch-hiking is a common thing, and you can expect to be offered lifts quite frequently as well. Having said all that, I will be hiring a car for just a day or two on the next trip...

The start of the distillery walk from Port Ellen. Laphroaig is around 30 mins walk from here.

Unfortunately not having a car meant that I missed out on Bunnahabhain completely, which is a 6 mile walk from the bus stop, and the Kildalton cross, which is around 90 minutes walk further on from Ardbeg. So quite a few of the sights are quite hard to get to without a tour, taxi or rental care, even if you use the island's buses, and next time I'll be hiring a car for at least a day or two of the time on Islay. Having a car will also give you more freedom to explore the outer reaches of the island, such as Machir Bay, Kilchoman beach and the villages of Port Charlotte and Portnahaven, all of which look beautiful! Speaking of taxis, which was also the only option for both Bruichladdich (thanks to the early start) and Kilchoman, which is also not reachable without a vehicle, they can be quite expensive, similar to what we're used to in Australia. Having said that, not needing to worry about drinking & driving was definitely a huge advantage once I did get to the distilleries! While most will either give or sell you sample bottles to take away if you're on a tasting or tour, it's just not the same as savouring it in it's place of origin! There are a few different taxi businesses on the island, but most have only a couple of cars at the most, so you'll need to book in advance or you may be disappointed. If you're travelling in a group then splitting the cost of a taxi for the day, or a guided tour, will be more economical and well worth it.

Whichever destination you choose, remember to book ahead (like months ahead) if you're taking a car with you on the ferry, or you may be turned away. If you're walking on there's nothing to worry about, you just buy your ticket at the terminal. Both offer stunning views if the unpredictable Scottish weather is in a good mood, but the Port Ellen ferry also has one big advantage: it sails past Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig on the south coast of Islay. To be honest, I'd recommend sailing to Port Ellen regardless of where you're staying. Seeing the three southern distilleries from the water on my way to Islay was a very emotional and almost spiritual (and I basically never use that word) experience, particularly as Laphroaig is sheltered from view until you get a little closer, and the distillery reveals itself one letter at a time: L... A... P... H... R... O... A... I... G! This is where the already emotional experience becomes even more so, and then if you're lucky like I was, you'll also see the peat smoke rising from the pagodas, and you may just have to wipe away a few tears!

That's actually Jura, but you get the idea!

So in summary, here are my tips for Part 1:
  • If travelling via London, make sure you visit The Whisky Exchange and Milroy's of Soho, and get VAT refund forms for any purchases at the point of sale.
  • Also if travelling via London, make sure you book the connecting flight, train and bus ahead, and shop around online for a cheaper fare. And take a book with you, there are no entertainment screens. 
  • If travelling by bus to Kennacraig, check out Loch Fyne whiskies in Inverary during the short rest stop, and have a contingency plan in case you're delayed and miss the ferry.
  • Don't worry about the midges, just wear long sleeves & trousers / pants, and don't stand still if you're near swarms of them, just charge on through - with your mouth shut!
  • If you're planning on visiting Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain or Kilchoman, and a lot of the other sights, you'll definitely need a rental car (and preferably a designated driver), a taxi or an organised guided tour. 
  • Access to the three southern distilleries is easiest from Port Ellen, Ardbeg is the furthest away at around 75 minutes walk from the village. It also has most facilities you'd need, but in small doses.
  • Bowmore is a larger town with more facilities, and is roughly the halfway point between the southern distilleries and the rest, so if hiring a car or taxi, or using a guided tour service, this would be the easier place to stay. 
  • It can mostly be done without a car if you have the time, and/or if you're willing to miss out on a few things (Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and the Kildalton cross, for example). Bicycle hire is available too.
  • But I'd recommend hiring a car, or getting a taxi or guided tour for at least a day or two so you don't miss out on the above!
  • Generally things can be quite expensive, especially if you're eating out for every meal, but it's not too different to other parts of the western world. Although the whisky is very cheap by Australian standards. 
One more point before we get onto the juicier, meatier stuff in part two: how long to stay on Islay. I had five nights, and it wasn't enough, although it probably would have been (just) with a rental car for one or two of those days. Most travellers seem to only allow three days, which I don't think is enough personally, although I guess it depends on how much you love Islay whisky (so I'll need a month next time!). I wanted to take my time, do more of the bigger tours, relax and get a proper feel for the place, to smell the peat smoke and the sea air (didn't see any roses), and not rush around. You could do two distilleries in a day quite comfortably, but one of those may need to be just the standard tour, or just a stop-in etc. depending on the distillery in question and their tour schedule. I chose to do one or two distilleries a day, plus a few extra stops at some. I ended up visiting Bowmore and Ardbeg twice, Lagavulin and Laphroaig three times, and if I'd had that damn car I would've gone back to Bruichladdich and Kilchoman a second time. The island may look small on the map, but nothing happens in a hurry and it's hard to move on, so you'll want to double the time you think you'll need to get everywhere, and the time you think you'd need once you get there. I'd allow at least four days if you can, even with a car, so you can take your time and let the island work it's magic!


Which brings us up to Part two, Islay itself, and its incredible distilleries, coming soon!