A visit to Islay with Caledonian MacBrayne
There are lots of great reasons to visit the Hebrides with CalMac. We had a leisurely drive up to Tarbert Argyll to begin our CalMac Adventure and checked into our hotel for the night. A short drive to Kennacraig Ferry Terminal the next morning and we were soon off on the early ferry to visit the Queen of the Isles - Islay!
Driving the car up the ramp, we were guided safely on board by the cheery crew of the "Hebridean Isles". We headed straight for the "Mariner's" restaurant where we could smell the lovely aromas of breakfast being served. CalMac have achieved "Taste our Best" accreditation, demonstrating their commitment to locally sourced produce so I couldn't resist the full Scottish including an Argyll free-range egg - it was a tasty start to the day. Despite the early hour, staff are warm and welcoming and made time for a chat.
From the moment you board the ferry, your cares and worries are left behind. We wandered on to the deck and were treated to a stunning Hebridean sunrise as shafts of light started to emerge through the clouds. As the morning got brighter, Port Ellen was soon in our sights, we could see a couple of Islay's famous distilleries already along with some seals doing a spot of sunbathing. Returning to our car, we waved goodbye to the ferrymen and our Islay adventure began.
Our first stop was a visit to the 8th Century High Cross of Kildalton. It's one of the finest early Christian crosses and we stood in awe at this remarkable piece of history.
Whisky making has a rich peaty history on Islay and you can explore three distilleries on the 5km Three Distilleries walk from Port Ellen, the walk takes you to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. We loved wandering around each distillery and they all offer tours, whisky tasting, shopping and most importantly, nice toilets! There is an excellent cafe at Ardbeg distillery where you can enjoy a coffee and a bite to eat.
We headed for the recently refurbished Machrie Hotel and Golf Links for a delicious three-course lunch. It's well worth a visit and was busy with locals and guests enjoying first class food and stunning views across the 18th green and Laggan Bay.
We finished up our first day by heading West to Kilchoman Distillery, from here it's an easy drive to the stunning sand dunes and pristine beach of Machir Bay. It's a beautiful place to enjoy the waves crashing in and watch the wind form ever shifting patterns of sand.
We checked in to the Lochside Hotel in the pretty harbour village of Bowmore. It's home of the famous whisky and has an iconic round church that is well worth a visit. There is also a restaurant here called Peatzeria that we just couldn't resist. What a great name and you can enjoy great pizza topped with fabulous Islay lobster, prawn, crab and scallops.
After a good night's sleep, we headed for Bruichladdich where we sacrilegiously bought a bottle of their Botanist gin. Whether you enjoy a dram or not, visiting Islay's distilleries takes you on a magical journey to some stunning coastal locations, the sea views over to the isle of Jura from Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are breathtaking.
If you are looking to explore Islay's wild side then head for Portnahaven and walk along its rugged coastline to watch out for seals and plenty of seabirds. Islay is a haven for migrating birds, we visited the RSPB's Loch Gruinart site to enjoy the spectacle of thousands of Barnacle Geese.
We decided to dine at our hotel that night and enjoyed some locally sourced food with a view over Loch Indaal. There was a lively mixture of visitors and locals who enjoyed the musicians playing later on. They have a well-stocked whisky bar and it's the perfect spot to enjoy the craic and a dram (or two!).
Our last day on Islay dawned with more blue skies and we went for a wonderful circular walk at the RSPB site at Mull of Oa. The path takes you past the imposing American Monument built by the American Red Cross, it pays tribute to the American and British soldiers killed in two tragic shipwrecks during 1918. It's a moving place to visit and the path along the clifftop provides an uplifting walk with views across to Ireland, we also caught sight of some wild Islay goats perched precariously down the side of the cliff.
Sadly it was time to head for our ferry out of Port Ascaig, we had just enough time to visit the spiritual home of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, Finlaggan. There is a short raised walkway across to Eilean Mor or the Large Island, it's a fascinating ancient site with ongoing excavation work uncovering evidence of settlements as far back as the Bronze Age. Most of the visible ruins date from the medieval occupation of the Lords of the Isles including a chapel, farm buildings and gathering hall.
The CalMac ferry "Finlaggan" looked majestic as it arrived in the afternoon sun with the magnificent golden Paps of Jura behind it. We were soon boarding and on deck waving goodbye to lovely Islay with the setting sun reflecting in the water.
Islay rewards visitors who take time to explore, revealing its rich history, culture, wildlife and landscapes. There's a real warmth to the island and its hospitable people make you feel so welcome, we loved the wee waves from locals as they pass by in their cars.
The MV Finlaggan provides a comfortable voyage back to Tarbert. We enjoyed some real CalMac comfort food of steak pie and macaroni cheese with chips - yum. Next stop was the recliner lounge to read our books and enjoy a snooze before our journey back home to Edinburgh.
This year we have visited Mull, Iona, Skye, Harris, Uist, Harris and Lewis with CalMac and we're already planning our next Hebridean adventure. Go and explore our wonderful country and have your own Calmac Adventure!