When Mrs. Satellite Engineer came up with Scotland as a Spring Break destination for us and the teenage daughters, my first thoughts went quickly to Islay. That idyllic island on the west coast is forever in my mind after three days there with the Single Cask Nation (SCN) boys and a few SCN members four years ago. But, alas, this was not to be a whisky trip. This was a family trip to Scotland with, maybe, a little whisky mixed in. Like a cocktail with a wee bit more spirit.
First passes through a proposed itinerary included Islay, but with limited time, it really made no sense with the big loop of driving that our route would take us on the mainland. A new, “better” itinerary sans Islay was constructed by my far better half. And upon presenting it to the daughters, it was met… with glum faces. “What about Islay?!”, they exclaimed. Or maybe whispered. I just know someone said it and was glum saying it. Could well have been me but there were no recording devices to prove it. Apparently I am listened to on rare occasion and my waxing poetic over that last few years about the little island sunk in – and paid off! Islay was back on the trip!
After an overnight stay in a Glasgow airport hotel, we walked back to the airport the next morning and boarded a cozy Loganair flight to Islay. I was mentally prepared with low expectations for the flight to be cancelled for the inevitable bad weather that was surely to come, and not atypical of travel in this part of the world. Yet the Gods of the Hebrides looked down upon us with beautiful blue skies and frosty white clouds as we boarded that little 40-seat airplane. The eyes of Daughter #1 widened when she saw Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin a few thousand feet below nestled on the coast. It probably wasn’t the same feeling I had four years ago as my mates and I crossed the channel to Islay via ferry but Daughter #1 was clearly bright-eyed and excited. Seeing her glued to the window in anticipation got me pretty excited too.
A few minutes later we were disembarking the stairwell from the Saab 340B. It was a bit dizzying walking those twenty yards to the tiny terminal. Maybe I was just airsick. Who knows? We were on Islay! And it was a beautiful day!
Islay was a good starter track for my “wrong” side of the road driving practice that I needed. And as we pulled out of the airport “car hire” parking, I was quickly reminded to “STAY TO THE LEFT” by the friendly chorus sitting beside and behind me. Heading south on the A846 towards Port Ellen with fields of peat all around us, I almost pinched myself to wake up from this crazy dream. But that would have required deciding which hand to take off of the wheel safely for the pinching which would have ended in “TWO HANDS ON THE WHEEL! STAY TO THE LEFT!” I didn’t need that. No pinching. But I really was on Islay again.
The Kildalton Cross
I tried not to play too much tour guide as we got into Port Ellen and passed the malting house. There was plenty to see without me pointing and gabbing. With little time on the island, we had some must-do’s. First was to head up the eastern coast to the Kildalton High Cross. The quaintness of the island can’t be overstated. Hugging that coastline and driving through its hilly, uneven terrain with only a house here and there, and sheep everywhere else, the family got a crash course in Islay’s unique and varied beauty. Daughter #1 was amazed how the air didn’t have that salty, seaside smell that we’re accustomed to at home near the Pacific. Villages sit against the sea on one side and woodlands on the other. Islay has its mysteries, indeed. The various signs with their bilingual street names only played on our heartstrings more. Gaelic can do that to you, especially if you can’t pronounce it. Passing Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin northwards towards Kildalton warmed my heart. We would stop on the way back but it was good to see those friendly buildings again.
Scotland’s historic spots are fascinating if only for their lack of… visitors. The Kildalton Cross and church grounds are at end of a paved road on a tiny hill. There’s a parking lot though we were the only ones parked on this Saturday morning. And there’s a chain-link fence around the property but it’s only purpose seemingly is to keep the sheep from wandering in. The scattered sheep droppings on the church property proved that either the sheep were really good at opening the gate or visitors were really bad at closing it. It would seem that the sheep love seeing an ancient Christian cross more than human tourists do. Our first bit of sightseeing took us back 700 years in time, and that was without my LA freeway driving skills helping much.
The drive back down the hill looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings. You pick which one; I get them confused. Go with the one that has the Shire. Coming back through the tree-shaded “neighborhoods”, we were greeted with hens and roosters alongside the road, and even a group of peafowl showing off their mating ritual with plumes a-pluming. I really only wanted to stop into Ardbeg and hit the Old Kiln Cafe for lunch. But much to our surprise, the distillery was closed, though operational. Apparently, the weeks leading up to Easter are “low season” at many distilleries. Nonetheless, we parked. Teen Daughter #2 and I ventured through the property between the buildings with those luscious whisky-making smells in the air. Never seeing a soul the entire time, we made our way to the little green space behind the distillery overlooking the sea. This was a view of Ardbeg that I missed on my last visit, and with the place closed, it was a quiet, peaceful moment viewing that iconic warehouse. Wind briskly blew off the sea wreaking havoc with the daughter’s mane of hair and also rippled the rainwater atop the nearby standing barrels. Who knows if there is actually the whisky in them or not? They could well be “dummy” barrels for the dummy tourists who make the trek to this distant land. But it didn’t matter; it was pretty cool to us with no one else around.
Islay Woolen Mill Company
Laphroaig was closed also and we just passed on by Lagavulin. With a 2:00 pm tour of Bruichladdich a few hours away, we were going to check off “distillery visit” soon enough. Chris Hallstrom formerly of Scotch Whisky Auctions had told me that a neat little stop was the Islay Woolen Mill Company. A bit past Bridgend proper which is a few miles past Bowmore tucked away in a picturesque notch along the River Scorn lies a tiny ancient factory producing some of the best woolen goods found in Scotland. It’s more of a house with a shop inside and a mill in the back. Owner Gordon Covell welcomed us and had his factory manager give us a tour of the facility that probably hasn’t changed much since it first opened in 1883. It was a short but fascinating look at an art and craft from 200 years ago with its Victorian Era looms rattling away. Their beautiful work has been proudly used in movies like Braveheart, and the shop was easy pickings for this group looking for scarves. The “Laphroaig” pattern scarf is now happily in my possession. The short walk to the car need a look over the bridge above the Scorn. This really felt Shire-y.
The troops needed lunch before heading to Port Charlotte so we ventured back to the booming metropolis of Bowmore. Peatzeria (get it?) is a fun little restaurant with a great logo and tagline (“A Slice Of Islay”) and a better menu. A friendly colorful two-story space with a patio overlooking the sea, Peatzeria’s decor is brightly modern and the menu has many twists on local favorites. We sat upstairs next to two young moms as their toddlers happily chowed down cheese pizza, colored on menus, and walked about in socks. It was our kind of place. And they had Irn-Bru on the menu. It was also our first taste of what must be Scotland’s National Soup: Potato Leak which popped up at almost every place we ate all week.
When we made our way downstair we visited with Chef Paul while takeaway ice cream was being served up. He told us about the restaurant’s origins and that business was booming. Paul’s sister-in-law, Caroline, is a Bowmore girl and it was her idea of starting a modern pizzeria on Islay. Her sister, Sharon, and Paul run the place bringing their backgrounds in hospitality and cooking. Now they have THE pizza place on the island that seems a great spot for sunset dinners, family outings and even kids birthday parties. And, yes, there’s various Islay whiskies on the menu (for the adults).
Happily stuffed we headed back towards Bridgend but now took the A847 westward along Loch Indaal. The endless low tide of Islay was off to the left exposing the bay’s many crags and rocks. The waters barely moved. Somewhat desolate, the road to the other lobe of Islay feels like it is taking you very far from the towns of Bowmore and Port Ellen. Homes dot the landscape but are again vastly outnumbered by sheep and even sailboats. Other cars on the road were a rare sight on this day. Pulling into the village of Bruichladdich, distant Port Ellen across the loch felt hundreds of miles away but in reality it’s no more than 20 minutes, especially with my LA lead foot.
A few minutes late, we joined the tour as it left the Bruichladdich visitor shop. A few Germans and a few Brits made up the group as we followed tour guide, Frazier, across the parking lot to the first stop, the grist mill. Frazier gave a detailed history of Bruichladdich leading to describing what the role the Porteus grist mill played in all of this. Next was the the open top mash tun which is a unique feature of Bruichladdich’s. It was interesting seeing it completely empty on a day when the distillery was not mashing. The cogs and mechanism looked positively archaic while the vessel seemed so much bigger without any water and grain in it. Was it a big empty metal swimming pool with a sleeping robot inside ready to crush its next prey, or maybe a birthplace for a Marvel superhero or a Transformer waiting to transform. Too much? I’m a bit nauseous myself.
The Oregon pine wash backs were next, fermenting away their carb-heavy soup. Frazier let us put our noses in each as they were all in different states in the process. And, of course, there was a tasting of the warm, oatmeal-y “beer” that was the result of the fermentation, siphoned out of one of the wash backs. Off to the Still Room where we all felt a tad bit smaller in the that forest of copper works that stretched high to the ceiling. The stills felt bigger to me on this visit and I think that sense was heightened with the daughters looking dwarfed against them. The girls are grown up but seemed less so in this room. The noiselessness gave the stills a peaceful elegant beauty as they waited for their next run in a few days. A walk in the chilly air for a quick visit to one of the warehouses was next. Casks of Octomore plus sherry and ex-bourbon barrels surrounded us while our noses filled with that dank oaky aging spirit smell. I couldn’t breath it in enough. I could see the eyes of the girls and the Mrs. Satellite Engineer widen as we walked by the endless rows of barrels. I could only imagine what they were thinking.
Our guide led us back to the visitors center where many dollars were spent on valinches and other “necessities”. It was a group effort as I poured one of the “bottle your own”, a 12 year old Port Charlotte finished in a Hermitage Blanc cask, and the girls did the rest of the work of labeling. Future distillery guides in the making. Their first distillery tour was in the books and, I dare say, they are better human beings for it. Good parenting is what we’re all about.
Heading farther down the road, a few minutes later we found ourselves in Port Charlotte. Having spent three days there before, it felt like a long lost friend’s kind inviting embrace. Not much had changed in four years which made me very happy. There are still no traffic lights. Progress is overrated.
We pulled up to the Lochindaal Hotel on the main drag in downtown Port Charlotte. On my prior visit, my mates and I befriended Sarah MacLellan who was tending bar in the pub there. Her parents own the hotel so it was an easy choice for our one night on Islay. Sarah’s mom, Katie, and I e-mailed and she was excited about our visit. We stayed behind the pub in two beautiful joined rooms aptly named the Peat House. Sarah’s father, Iain, and her sister, Helena, welcomed us as if we were coming into their home which we kind of were, at least their second home since they live in the village of Bruichladdich. After a quick unpacking and a few hours of sunlight left, I had one place for us to see.
Farther south down the road from Port Charlotte is the village of Portnahaven. It literally feels like the end of world as it points off to Northern Ireland. But before getting there we (thankfully) found a herd of Highland cows alongside the road. This was very high on the list of things to see because they are big, shaggy, and cute by all of my family’s accounts. After a brief visit and chat with the coos, we made our way to Portnahaven parking along the bay. This small craggy bay is lined with white cottages overlooking the seals who call it their home too. Several were laying on the rocks in the sun and could care less of our visit. Not exactly the welcoming committee but at least they were quiet. We parked a short walk from the An Tigh Seinnse pub, the local watering hole not much bigger than a postage stamp. Before entering we met a couple from Glasgow on holiday. They were driving around Islay in a rented RV with their dog Mac. Mac was the friendliest of canines and the first of many who we would meet on our trip. Dog-loving folks that we are, we became fast friends with Mac, and his owners too. After a last few ear rubs (for Mac), we found our way into the pub where we were warmly greeted by the owner and a few locals. The Ileach are the friendliest of folk who will engage you at the drop of a hat or a tip of a dram. With no hats to drop, we went for the latter and had a wonderful time visiting with the local pub-goers. It would have been very easy to spend the rest of the day in this warm little pub.
With the sun close to being behind the hill and shadows growing toward the loch, we headed back towards Port Charlotte. We made a stop in the village of Nerabus to see its ruins of a chapel and carved grave slabs all dating to the 14th and 15th centuries most likely. The ruins are in the middle of a field requiring a small walk through a cemetery looking towards the water. Again, this ancient spot didn’t seem like a well-visited one except by four-legged wooly locals. But it was a good look back into the Hebrides history.
After a bit of rest back at the hotel, it was dinner time. The lovely Port Charlotte Hotel was a stone’s throw from our hotel and seemed a place for a nice dinner. But it was booked up(!) on this Saturday night due to live music starting later in the evening. I remembered another place a short walk up the loch side of the road and luckily it was open. Yan’s Kitchen is a modern bistro looking out to the bay serving up locally sourced seafood, meats, and vegetables. Locally sourced which sounds like a buzzword term to every millennial in Snapchat distance of Portland is the real deal in Scotland as we grew to learn. Listings of where all the menu ingredients came from were commonplace from the fish to the whisky. Yan’s only had Islay whisky to accompany their dishes. Fresh and local weren’t buzzwords here. Our delish dinner included scallops, beef, a large board of local meats, smoked salmon and cheeses, plus pasta. Go big or go home!
The girls were ready to turn in upon our return to the Lochindaal. It was a long couple of days after the long flight from Los Angeles two days earlier. The streets were eerily quiet which made the moonlit sky and its stars top billing for the slightly chilly walk back. The parents said goodnight to the girls then headed back three or four steps into the pub where a lively crowd enjoyed the evening. It was nightcap time.
The pub at the Lochindaal Hotel is actually two pubs, not so-Siamese twins connected at the bar, each with its own entrance. One side is more traditional with a pool table while the other is more of a restaurant where meals for hotel guests and locals are served. The restaurant has a seaside theme that reminded us of home. The bartenders weave between the two sides of the bar easily. Pub side. Restaurant side. Both are small, friendly and cozy. Our kind of pub. We sat on the busier restaurant side at the bar chatting with locals while a group celebrated a birthday at a table. The whisky list was printed out and taped to the wall. It was a long list that was heavy on the Islays with distillery and independent bottlings. It did not disappoint. My kind of place.
Four years before when Lee Zaro and I popped in after dinner with the boys, we met Sarah working behind bar on a quiet weeknight, and decided we never wanted to leave. We met probably same group of locals enjoying the pub on this visit. One was the art director of Bruichladdich at the time. A regular at the pub, he was happy to talk whisky, bottle and tin design, and play pool. I don’t recall if he was a born and bred Ileach but he definitely had the sensibilities of the island. Of course, on an island this small, stories of meeting Islay’s distilleries “elite” folk just about anywhere are commonplace. But I’d venture to guess that they are like most anyone else lucky enough to live here. Happy and nice.
Islay Day 1 was over.
The day didn’t start off so sunny though it was sunny out. I woke early and ventured out to walk the Port Charlotte streets this Sunday morning. Quiet with only the occasional car passing through, the walk down to the pier reminded me of the my prior visit when my compatriot, Mr. Zaro, and I donned swim trunks and jumped off the slippery concrete pier into the loch because… well, just because. There would be none of that today.
Walking through those serene streets and the whitewash uniformed buildings was a peaceful way to get a little exercise before breakfast. But that all ended when I got back to the hotel and found a flat tire on the rental. An Islay pothole (easily the best in the world) surely got us the day before. Back in the pub, Owner Iain was drinking coffee, watching the news. He offered up tea for me as well as to call the car hire about the tire. Everyone knows everyone on an island this small.
Iain and I with his crewmate George kibbitzed about this and that: whisky, Brexit, Islay life, America, sports, kids, whatever. Just shootin’ the poop in a pub on a Sunday morn on Islay. The rest of the gang made it to the pub for breakfast of eggs, cereal, meats and toast. All prepared beautifully by George.
With the tire fixed, it was time to see what else we could see before heading to the airport with our remaining few hours on the island. We decided to head “behind us” to see if Kilchoman was open. By all accounts it was but after traversing the worst road we’d driven there so far, alas, it was closed. We drove up onto the property and it was good it see again and the ongoing expansion. It was a very different view of Islay from the hill that Kilchoman sat on looking northwest.
We now decided to leisurely just drive the island on the backside of it and head towards Port Askaig on the Jura side of Islay to the east. The girls quickly fell asleep missing the even more desolate and sparse surroundings out here. Nearing Port Askaig we saw the sign for Caol Ila(!), a distillery I hadn’t been to but makers of whisky that I adore. A bit of an odd jaunt up a hill and then snaking down towards the Sound of Islay, we were both taken by the beautiful location of the distillery along the water. A small waterfall was flowing at the back end of the parking lot coming from the hill that we drove down from. My, was this picturesque. And OPEN!
We parked, left the girls sleeping, and ventured around the property. A few folks came out of visitors center so that’s where we headed, with no time for a tour. So we shopped. We’re good at that. A distillery cat welcomed us from its perch atop a picnic bench on the patio, and the young woman behind the counter inside was nice and helpful, probably a bit surprised to see visitors on a Sunday morning. A few tastes and a few purchases later, we headed off to the airport. Caol Ila was in the books!
Iain told me to leave plenty of time to get through Security. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. The security measures at Islay’s airport were inversely proportionate to its size. The tiny room past luggage drop-off required a thorough prepping of carry-ons before their trip through the x-ray machine. Then there was a proper pat-down after you walked through the metal detector followed by a more than cursory search of those carry-ons post x-ray. It was rather amazing but made sense since who knows where travelers were actually coming from on their way off the island. Travelers beware.
A relaxing wait in the airport’s waiting area allowed for some contemplation of the quick but memorable visit to the island. We boarded onto Loganair’s Spirit of Edinburgh walking across the tarmac as we did the day before. Our quick trip to Islay was over. Heavy sigh. We came, we explored, we lived. The whole family (less the son in college who already had his spring break) connected with the island in that short time, I think. Connecting with it seemed so easy since it wants to connect with you. The people, the villages, the island life, the solitude, the sea, the peat, the coos, and the whisky. They are all tied together and easily let you become part of them. I only hope it will be less than four years before we can connect again.