Islay – The Distilleries

Islay is stunningly beautiful, and we both would have fallen in love with it regardless, but the main reason we visited was for the whisky.

There are currently 8 distilleries on the island, although there have been many more ‘lost’ over the years.  Islay whisky is so very strong and very distinctive, all down to the peat fields that you drive through on your way around.  I’m saying all of this as if I tasted any, but don’t actually drink so was purely there as a driver for Husband.  Expect dirty looks if you tell the locals and tourists that you’re a teetotaller.

Our whirlwind tour started with Husband’s favourite – Laphroaig.  He was treated to a two hour experience – a tour of the distillery, followed by an hour in one of their warehouses tasting three special casks.  This was a really fun 2 hours (and introduced us to people we would see again and again from our tour group – Islay truly is a ‘small world’ kind of place).  After tasting the casks, we used a wooden suction tube called a valinch to extract a small bottle’s worth of our favourites (well, Husband chose his two favourites).

During this first tour, I learnt about something which would save Husband’s liver – the driver’s dram.  As I wasn’t drinking, I assumed we’d only have two options for the samples we’d receive – we decline mine, or Husband drinks them all.  Fortunately, the distilleries have tiny bottles that you can pour your samples into and take away with you.  Goodness knows what would have happened if he had to drink double the whisky.

Laphoraig was my favourite tour, and I especially loved the shop and bar area – warm and snug, with free coffee and big comfy sofas to aid recovery.   I could quite happily have spent all afternoon here, but we had more distilleries to visit.

Next up, we went to Ardbeg – we didn’t actually tour this one as we couldn’t quite fit it into our schedule, but stopped here for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe where we ate hearty sandwiches followed by clootie dumplings.

With full tummies, we drove back to Lagavulin for another hour tour followed by three samples (and some driver’s drams).  I found Lagavulin slightly more corporate, although their waiting area was very cute.  There were no photos allowed on the tour which made me roll my eyes a little – Laphroaig positively encouraged it – but it was still enjoyable.

Two tours was probably enough for the day, so we started afresh the following morning with Bruichladdich.

We chose their Warehouse Experience, which was less of a tour and more of a ‘sit in a warehouse and get hammered’.  Again, very enjoyable for a whisky fan as you got to sample some limited edition casks whilst sat amongst the barrels, listening to our guide telling us all about life on the island.  Bruichladdich is noticeably different to the others – they call themselves progressive, and they definitely feel less stuffy, more youthful.  They also make a gin called The Botanist so we’ll need to go back and try that at some point as well.

Our final distillery on this visit was Kilchoman which was different again.  Whilst the first three we visited were right by the sea, Kilchoman is on a farm, more inland and down a long single-track road.  They’re a much smaller scale operation, really family-orientated.  They really felt like a hard-working team – not that the others didn’t seem hard-working, but Kilchoman is the newest distillery so there was a lot more of a buzz in the grounds.  Another added bonus – their small cafe at the back of the shop served amazing cakes which I highly recommend.

Four distilleries in two days didn’t seem like a lot, but we were definitely tired.  Our next trip needs to be longer – we have four other distilleries to cover off, and we possibly even need to pop over to the neighbouring isle of Jura to samples their whisky too.

For a someone who doesn’t drink, I sure have been to a lot of distilleries.

Islay – The Logistics

Once I’d figured out where we were going to stay on Islay for Husband’s surprise birthday trip, I then had to figure out how to get there.

The first leg of the journey was to Glasgow which was the easy part.  From there, there are a few options but realistically for our schedule, we could either fly with Logan Air or drive to Kennacraig to get the Calmac ferry.  There are pros and cons for both modes of transport but considering my goal was to get to Islay as quickly as possible, flying ended up being the best choice.

Unfortunately, flying made the beginning and end of our trip quite stressful.  We almost missed our first flight from Heathrow as there was an accident on the M3 which was so frustrating as we only live 30 minutes away from Terminal 5.  Not only that, whilst I thought I had given us enough time to switch planes on the way back from Islay at Glasgow airport, our Logan Air flight ended up leaving Islay half an hour late so we had to run to our gate.  And I hate being that person who runs through airports.

Not only that, but Husband was sad that our luggage wasn’t big enough to pack all the whisky he wanted.  Next time, we’ll have to drive the 13 hours from our house so he can fill the whole car with bottles of whisky.

Ignoring the stress, flying into Islay is very special.  It takes 40 minutes from Glasgow on a tiny 34 seat turboprop plane (which was only moderately terrifying).  For most of our journey, the cloud level stopped us from seeing anything below but all of a sudden, the iconic Laphroaig appeared out of the right side of the plane.  I confess – I squealed when I saw it.

The airport itself is as small as you’d expect – two check-in counters, a bijou but comfortable lounge, a cafe serving locals as well as visitors.  I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a dog at the front door, but I don’t think he’s there all the time.

There’s a few transport options on the island – a regular bus service, a few taxi companies, but I decided on hiring a car from Islay Car Hire at the airport which was incredibly easy.  I booked a medium sized car as I knew the route to our Airbnb was a little off-road and I didn’t want to risk a small car.  Within about five minutes of getting off the plane, I was adjusting the mirrors in a Vauxhall Astra who I named Sassy.  The car hire worked for us mainly because I don’t drink, so was happy to ferry a tipsy Husband from distillery to distillery.

So other than drive from distillery to distillery (which I’ll be covering in a future post), what else did we do?  Not much to be honest.  With only two full days on the island, Husband wanted to maximise his whisky tasting time but we did manage to see a few non-whisky related places.

On our first night, we went up to Bowmore for a little wander around and some pizza at Peatzeria (good pun).  It was surprisingly busy for a Monday night and we ended up getting one of the last tables which I was relieved about as it would have been a shame to miss out on tasty pizza.  Bowmore has a lot of lovely little shops which were all closed as we were there late, but it’s definitely somewhere to get cute souvenirs as well as more every-day items.

The second night, we were too tired to go out so we ended up in the Port Ellen Co-op and cobbling something together to cook back at home.  I won’t tell you what we ended up with as it’s so pathetic (in our defence, the Co-op isn’t that big).  We did want to try the Sea Salt Bistro but instead tried their sister restaurant Yan’s Kitchen for lunch on our last day where I had an amazing burger.

My two favourite things about Islay:

  • The empty landscape.  There are a few “main” roads across the island but you can drive for miles and see nothing but fields.  Following the coast down to Port Charlotte, you’re right next to the sea.  When you’re not on a main road, you’re on a single track lane going through farmland.  There’s just nothing and I adore it.
  • The people.  I don’t want to being a patronising mainlander who just thinks everyone is sooo cute and quaint but every single person we came across was incredible friendly.  People wave at you as you’re driving along – other drivers and pedestrians – and I very quickly got used to waving back.  It felt really jarring to be back at home where people aren’t so nice.

What a phenomenal island.

Islay – Where We Stayed

For the past year, I have been planning a surprise trip for Husband’s big birthday (I won’t reveal the number – let’s pretend it was 30).  He was not involved in any of the planning and I managed to keep the secret all the way up until our final leg of the trip, so honestly, I am feeling pretty smug about what I managed to pull off.

On our very first trip to Edinburgh 4 years ago, Husband discovered Islay whisky, and became quickly fascinated by all the different elements that go into making the iconic whisky.  Since then, he’s been working his way through all the different brands that make this small island their home. so there really was only one place to take him.

And it certainly helps that Islay is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited.

More about the island in the next few posts, but this first one is about the place we stayed.  I have a reputation amongst friends and family for obsessively seeking out unusual places to stay (exhibit Aexhibit B, exhibit C to name a few) so of course I spent weeks – months – finding the most perfect property.  And I found a gem (here comes that smug feeling again).

This small but ever so beautiful turf roofed lodge is called Tigh Na Uiseag (which I think means house of the lark) and I found it on Airbnb.  I haven’t ever used Airbnb before so was a little nervous of booking, but I had no reason to be – Richard the host was a delight, so generous and helpful.  We couldn’t have wished for a better first Airbnb experience.

There are many places to chose from on Islay from B&Bs, to self-catering, to hotels, but there were a couple of things that helped me choose Tigh Na Uiseag – the overwhelmingly positive reviews, the Scandinavian-inspired decor (an Arne Jacobson chair!) and the view.  My god, what a view.And if you zoom in at the centre…

Husband’s favourite distillery, Laphroaig.  This post could just be a million photos of the view as we spent most of the time in the house just looking out the window, but then you’d miss out on the beautiful interior.

I didn’t photograph it, but the bathroom was amazing as well – Molton Brown toiletries, White Company bathrobes, and the most phenomenal shower I have ever used in my life.

There were so many thoughtful touches which made our stay even more wonderful – a book of short stories on the bedside tables, home-baked bread, eggs and bacon in the fridge,  and a cute pot of delicious marmalade which we ate whilst watching the ferry arrive in the morning.

Sadly, our stay was too short – a drawback of working in Higher Education with an August birthday is that annual leave is a little difficult – but we will definitely be returning for a longer stay.  As you’ll see from my next few posts, we still have so many distilleries left to visit…

Scotland trip – The Trossachs; walks and whisky

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We’d visited two cities on our Scotland trip so far, so we designated Thursday as the walking day.  Husband had apparently found a lovely walk for us to do, but he decided not to tell us anything about it – I suspect he thought I’d complain about the distance.

The problem with this being that Tim and I obviously wanted to know where we were going.  It led to a very frustrating morning (to say the least!) where Husband had programmed some random destination into the Sat Nav but wasn’t telling us what was there.

He was right that I’d complain about it.  He wanted to walk 12 miles up a mountain!  To this day, I don’t know what bloody mountain we walked up – I think it was Ben Shian? – all I know is that I was quite whiny, and the top of the mountain was closed for loggers.

Tim sure is glad he went on holiday with a whiny woman and her weird husband.  He’ll know better next time.

The walk back down the mountain was better, and through a very picturesque frosty forest.  I was a bit sad that the snow was far away – it was beautifully crisp, but we didn’t get to see any snow up close.

Considering we were in the Loch Lomand and Trossachs National Park, we thought it would be a good idea to see some water as well, so on the drive back, we stopped at Loch Lubnaig for a bit, although it had got colder by this point.

Scotland16_4On the drive to the walk, we’d driven through the town of Callander, which I fell in love with on sight.  It looked like everything I’d want in a future retirement location, and when I got back to England, I did get a little obsessed with looking up houses in the area.  I’d pretty much found jobs and accommodation for Husband and I less than a week after we’d got back.  It’s definitely bookmarked for future reference.

One final destination on the way back to the Pineapple was the Glengoyne Distillery.  Can you call a trip to Scotland a ‘holiday’ without a visit to a Distillery?  Glengoyne has been called Scotland’s “most beautiful distillery” and it certainly was in a very pretty area.  It’s an incredibly professional looking outlet, and able to cater for huge coach parties which is very different to the other distilleries we’ve been to.  Scotland16_11As much as we wanted a tour, we’d got there just after one had started, and didn’t really want to wait around for 50 minutes for the next one to start, so we just visited the shop instead.  Even though Husband is more of an Islay whisky man, he was still happy to try the Highlands malt, and has been happily making his way through a selection box since our visit.Scotland16_10
We had one last night in our amazing Landmark Trust property, before the ridiculously long (almost 9 hour) drive home on the Friday.  I wish I lived closer to Scotland so I could visit more often.  Who knows, maybe one day.

Scotland trip – Glasgow; hot dogs and Victorian tunnels

Scotland16_6I have been to Glasgow twice before, but I don’t think I can claim those as ‘visits’.  Once was in 2008 on a day trip to a head office of a furniture company I worked for, and once in 2006 where I forced a Tim to walk around an empty Glasgow Central Station with no shoes on.  Long story.  I don’t feel I really got a sense of the city on either of those occasions, so I decided to claim this visit as my first proper trip to Glasgow.

No tram trip for us today, although we could have used the Glasgow Subway to add to our unusual transport quota.   Instead we parked just outside the city centre and walked in, seeing some amazing street art on the way.  We’d left Dunmore fairly late that morning as we’d spent some time photographing our Pineapple, so we got to Glasgow pretty much for lunchtime at Taste Buchanan.

Scotland16_7Now, the idea of mall food isn’t traditionally inspiring, but Glasgow’s Buchanan Galleries have taken the concept of pop-up, independent street food markets and  applied it to their food court.  At the time we visited, we could have chosen from pizza, hot dogs, tacos, plus other things that I’ve forgotten about – they change vendors every three months so it’d be impossible to get bored.

We all went for Surf Dogs, and I watched as there seemed to be some kind of blogger/social media flat lay photo shoot going on behind us.  This was a very Instagram worthy eatery.  Kudos to Glasgow – what an inspired idea for mall food.

Onto the reason for our visit.  I’ve already mentioned a previous trip to Glasgow Central Station 10 years ago, but fortunately this time, I didn’t make Tim take his shoes off.  Instead we donned hard hats and flash jackets, and followed a bearded Glaswegian man into the Victorian vaults below the surface of the station.

The Glasgow Central Tour was simultaneously the most sarcastically funny and heart-wrenchingly poignant social history tour I’ve been on – the aforementioned bearded Glaswegian was called Paul, and he is honestly the most adept storyteller I’ve ever met.  He told us tales that had the whole group giggling away one minute, then sobbing the next (actual sobbing btw), all in the dark tunnels beneath Glasgow Central Station.

Scotland16_9Not the most inspiring photo, but that’s what made me love the tour even more.  There were no airs and graces, this wasn’t some spruced-up sanitised version of history.  This was a leaky, dirty, “oh god, I’m going to fall down these rickety old stairs” tour which made it all the more amazing.  I highly recommend it, and I’m planning to go back every time I’m in the area.

In addition to all of this, I found out that hard hats actually suit me, which has opened all kinds of career opportunities.  The flash jacket was less flattering, but it did make us look super important.

Scotland16_8After the tour, my Google location history tells me we stopped at a Tesco on the way home where I remember complaining that I couldn’t find any Tunnocks Teacakes before finding a separate display for them.  Back at the Pineapple, I then overcooked some pasta for dinner which unsurprisingly, no one wanted to share with me.

What an incredible evening.  I should really get into travel blogging.

Scotland trip – Edinburgh; museums and lights

Scotland16_1Having attempted to write up my Scotland trip for weeks now, it’s about time I just get on with it.  I’ve had such bloggers block lately!

I’ve already covered where Husband, Tim, and I stayed – the epic Pineapple in Dunmore – which was situated directly between Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Perfect for visiting both the cities.  First up was Edinburgh, and we decided to park-and-ride on one of the trams from the airport.  I know there was a bit of controversy about the trams, but I loved the easy journey in to the city centre, especially with the free wifi.

We jumped out at Princes Street, had a coffee, and then wandered over to our first stop of the day – The Goldfinch at the Scottish National Gallery.  It was so fortuitous that it was being shown at the same time we were there.  All three of us had read the Donna Tartt novel and it felt really strange to me that we were seeing the actual painting.  It was tiny, and so beautifully detailed.  We wandered around the rest of the museum but the absolute highlight for me was The Goldfinch.

Not really having a plan, we then found ourselves up at the castle entrance looking over the rest of the city.  Having done this a couple of year ago, I didn’t have  particular desire to go in again and fortunately neither did Tim, so we decided not to pay the fee.  We trotted down the many steps to Grassmarket and I directed us to Hannah Zakari, my favourite Edinburgh store.  They had posted on their IG page that they were selling their old I Am Acrylic made window display and I wanted in.

Scotland16_5I can’t even begin to tell you the indecision I displayed when trying to figure out which to buy, and I regret not listening to Tim when he said I should buy more than one.  He was totally right.  I should always listen to him.

I left with only one of the sets.  Such regret.

After Hannah Zakari, we somehow found ourselves outside the National Museum of Scotland and thought we’d pop our heads in.  Again, quite fortuitously, there were two things on we wanted to see – Nordic Modernist design, and Wildlife Photographer of the year.  In addition to those brilliant exhibitions, we also spent ages in the Explore gallery which technically is their “family-friendly” gallery but we loved it.

More wandering the city followed, and we walked all the way down the Royal Mile, looked at Arthur’s Seat, and back up again to Princes Street.  We dined at The Huxley which was very festive with twinkling lights in the window.

It was now dark outside, so I dragged the two men up to George Street to see the Street of Light.  If I had blogged about this weeks ago, this would have been a bit more relevant and I would have urged everyone to go and see it.  But it’s way too late now.

Scotland16_2I loved it.  It was the level perfect of Christmas lights for people who weren’t into Christmas.

And then it was time to jump back on the very civilised tram and back to our Pineapple.   I love Edinburgh and am sure this won’t be my last visit.

The Pineapple, Dunmore

I am so behind with blogging since getting back from Scotland.  I really want to write about what we got up to, and the amazing house we stayed in, but I have come down with a massive case of the come-downs.  Living in the real world in England is just not as fun as living in a pineapple in Scotland.

Yes, that’s right, a pineapple.

Pineapple_2We’re now up to our fourth Landmark Trust property, and I think this one is their most iconic building.  The Pineapple in Dunmore was built by (essentially) a crazy rich man, who wanted to boast about how rich he was by sticking a massive pineapple on his summer house.  Lord Dunmore was a mad genius.

It goes without saying that the Landmark trust have restored the property to an excellent standard, with a cosy living room, lovely kitchen, two bedrooms and a nice bathroom.  You did have to go outside to get to the bed/bathroom ‘wing’ of the house, but that didn’t bother us too much.

In all honesty though, you don’t stay here for the interior.  You stay here because you want to sleep underneath a bloody massive pineapple.  We spent ages out the front, out the back; photographing during the day, at night – it was utterly freezing, but how could you not want to photograph this beauty from every angle?

Pineapple_1The front gardens were open to the public – I knew this, but wasn’t quite prepared for a dog walker to catch me opening the curtains in my PJs.  We could have had it worse though – the log book tells of ramblers making all kinds of demands on the residents! 

Pineapple_6As the back of the house was a farmers field, and beautiful snow-capped mountains.  It was so picturesque, it was enough to make you weep.

As we pulled into the little parking area on the first night, we heard this incredible noise, and looked up to see hundreds of geese practicing their migration. This continued the next morning as well.  We often have geese flying overhead at home, but this was just something else.  I had to film it

It was such a wonderful base for our Scottish trip, and I would go back (if only I didn’t already have a long list of other LMT properties to stay at!)

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