Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: if you’re looking to top up your tan with a little winter sun, this probably isn’t the place for you. But if, on the other hand, you want to escape the modern world to an island positively teeming with wildlife, whisky and good hospitality, Islay should hit the spot as perfectly as one of its pungently peated single malts.
Islay’s eight distilleries make whisky a big reason for coming to the island – for many aficionados, the only reason – but it would be wrong to characterise the Queen of the Hebrides as some kind of single malt theme park.
Nature, history and culture mix and merge to provide a huge variety of diversions for visitors from the mainland – 50,000 geese winter here, while the clarity of the light makes it a paradise for photographers. Then there are historic artefacts like the Kidalton Cross, a stone monument said to have been sculpted by the monks of Iona at the time of St Columba.
Nonetheless, this 20×25 mile isle remains the home of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bunnabhain; of Caol Isla, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich – and Ardbeg.
A roll-call to quicken the pulse of any whisky nut, and placing these evocative names in their natural context lends them an extra depth of meaning and provenance.
If the winter waters are kind, pick up a bottle of Ardbeg’s superlative Corryvreckan single malt from the distillery shop, check the tides are favourable and take a boat trip from Port Askaig around the neighbouring Isle of Jura to the Corryvreckan whirlpool – transformed by wind and tide into a whirling maelstrom of foaming water.
Sea too rough? Then a hike from Ardbeg up to Loch Uigeadail (which provides the distillery with its water, as well as lending its name to another excellent Ardbeg bottling) will do just as well.
And if the elements won’t play ball at all, simply visit the distillery, perched on Islay’s picturesque south-eastern shore. Few places are more welcoming than a whisky distillery in the depths of winter – hot still-rooms, warming peaty drams – and Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Café provides more substantial sustenance in the form of its legendary clootie dumpling – a rounded cake combining dried fruit, sugar, spice and other cockle-warming ingredients.
There are several good hotels on the island, but arguably the finest is the Port Charlotte Hotel over on the eastern side. A whitewashed stone hostelry with stunning coastal views, it offers comfortable rooms, excellent local food – lobster, crab, oyster, lamb, beef and game – and the last word in cosy bars.
Here open fires, local musicians and a vast collection of single malts provide Islay in microcosm, and the snuggest of refuges from the winter winds sweeping in from the north Atlantic.
Getting there: Flybe flies from Glasgow (about 25 minutes) twice a day, once a day at weekends; www.flybe.com. It’s a two-hour ferry crossing from the mainland; see www.calmac.co.uk for timetables and full details.
Port Charlotte Hotel: Main Street, Port Charlotte, Isle of Islay, PA48 7TU; 01496 850360; www.portcharlottehotel.co.uk.
Ardbeg Distillery Old Kiln Café: Open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm; 01496 302244.
For more info on all things Islay, visit www.islayjura.com.
Written by Richard Woodard