Islay (pronounced 'eye-la' if you're Scottish or just there) is an island in the Hebrides
, off the west coast of Scotland
. It has been inhabited for a good long time, and has several industries including tourism, distilling (whisky), and craft goods.
Geography and Terrain
The island is approximately 20 miles long, north to south. There are two ports with ferry service, Port Ellen
in the south and Port Askaig
in the north. The airport is some eight or ten miles outside Port Ellen, not really in the 'center' but close.
As befits Scotland, Islay is hilly, craggy, and rich in peat. Fields of bright green with ruminating sheepies, hills to walk on, rocky coastal beaches with Atlantic surf. In this writer's opinion, it's really quite beautiful. There is a loch that cuts up into the island from the southwest, Loch Uigeadail, from which many of the distilleries get their water.
Islay is most convenient to reach from Glasgow, which has two international airports (Glasgow International GLA and Glasgow Prestwick PIK). There are short-haul flights from GLA (at least) to Islay, but they're pricey. The Kennacraig ferry terminal is an easy 120-150 minute drive, around 110 miles from Glasgow city center. Take the M8 west to the Erskine Bridge, then the A82 west. Take that to the A83 towards Campbeltown. There is bus service between Glasgow and the ferry terminals as well, leaving from Queen Street Station in Glasgow.
It's not a one-day-jaunt, mostly because of the ferry schedules. They run early in the morning and in the evening, with some boats only available during summer. Operated by Caledonian Macbrayne (http://www.calmac.co.uk) they run on sailing schedules which are almost completely impenetrable, so be sure you know what you're doing before making plans based on them.
A better alternative is to drive out of Glasgow in the midday or afternoon, and spend the night in one of the small fishing villages just short of Kennacraig. Tarbert Loch Fyne is around ten minutes short of the ferry, and has several options.
Islay is notable for having a population of around 3,500 and seven working malt whisky distilleries on a 20-mile-long (ish) island. This is down from the mid-nineteenth century, when it apparently had a population of around 18,000 and 25
or so distilleries. The current crop are:
The first three are in the south, and the others spread over the northern half of the island. All have good stories to tell that shouldn't be repeated here. A visitor can easily walk from the Port Ellen ferry terminal to Ardbeg, the furthest out, in 90 minutes or so. All three of the southern distilleries are on the same coast road, and are all visible from the ferry as it approaches Port Ellen.
Islay whiskies are known for their peaty, smoky character. This is due to the high phenolic content of their potions and the particular water taste from the island - as well as distilling techniques and recipes designed to enhance that taste. All are drunk quite freely on the island, with breakfast often found incomplete wi'oot a wee dram to hand. Entering a public house and asking for a 'whisky' here is akin to asking for 'a glass of red' in Bordeaux, and even more rewarding.
Each of the distilleries sells their own whisky as well as in some cases selling some of their product to blenders. They are owned by various companies, and the stories of ownership transfers (and moonshining, essentially) in their history are loads of fun.
Islay is an extremely relaxed place. Getting around is easy enough via foot or hitchhiking, and there are buses (they claim). Rental cars (car hire) is available there if you need, and the ferries will take cars over if places are reserved. There are loads of seabirds on Islay for those interested in eyeballing them. Ruins from various ages await walkers. Being Scotland, there is naturally an 18-hole golf course on the island. For more information, here are some sources if you're thinking of visiting:
...and of course Google
is your friend.