SCOTLAND’S whisky isle is small enough for a weekend visit – or so you think until you get there. Islay is only 25 miles from north to south, but it is packed with things you’ll want to do.
A great base is key and I struck lucky staying at the Port Charlotte Hotel. It proved a wonderfully friendly place, with the added bonus of really good food and comfortable rooms. There’s a subtle class about a hotel that you can walk into and feel at home.
Isabelle and Grahame Allison have got the mix just right over the years. Edging the rocky shoreline, the Port Charlotte has built up a reputation for live music and great hospitality.
BUDGET OR BOUTIQUE?
Boutique but in a comfortable, accessible way. The hotel’s walls are an art gallery – with contemporary and Scottish themes – and well worth enjoying. The bar’s collection is primarily malt and elsewhere there are reference books and lots of mementoes, but always the furnishings are stylish and luxurious.
WINING AND DINING
Whether whisky “trailing”, cycling or bird watching, hearty meals are what you want on Islay. Across the island, the place that keeps being recommended is the Port Charlotte Hotel. Chefs Ranga and Tolsie, consistently serve up great food, much of it sourced locally. My venison was perfectly judged so it was gently pink and tender. Typical of the menu, the dish had a strong supporting cast – golden beetroot, butternut squash and the prettiest potato duchess complete with golden crispy ridges.
The preceding chowder was packed with chunks of fish in a well-judged creamy sauce. The sticky toffee pudding was as good as it gets and perfect on a cool evening.
Come summer, there is a finer dining menu on which the dishes are classic with a subtle twist. And all the places that serve food have a side order of view – dining room, bar and summer conservatory all overlook the water.
Whether you are preparing for a day on Loch Gruinart or at the distilleries, breakfast will definitely hit the mark – especially if you go traditional as your plate will be brimful of goodies like creamy black pudding, juicy mushrooms, plump sausages and eggs.
My room mixed quality linens, a comfortable bed and a luxury bathroom with feature furnishings for a stylish impact.
WORTH GETTING OUT OF BED FOR
Everything – whisky obviously, the geology, the beaches, the birds, the pace of life and the people. Visiting Islay’s eight distilleries to anyone other than a “peat head” may seem excessive, but each has its own character – the location, building or process – and it is a good way to explore the island.
My personal non-whisky highlights were Finlaggan, the serene hidden loch where the Lord of the Isles ruled, and Islay House Community Garden, where many of the island chefs (both professionals and home cooks) source their fresh vegetables. My golden beetroot was just one garden-grown example on my stay.
Islay’s skies were inky black, the stars silver bright when we landed, leaving us in the dark about our surroundings. The morning bonus was waking to be hypnotised by the sound of the waves on the shore through the open bedroom window. Although totally refreshed, it was hard to get out of bed and break the spell but as dawn crept in to unveil the ragged bay and its white houses, the bold and intense contrast to city life was intoxicating.
GUEST BOOK COMMENTS
Add an extra day to do justice to this lovely island.
• B&B from £102.50 per person. Seasonal deals available, for example dinner, B&B from £105 per person until the end of March. Live traditional music every Sunday and Wednesday between March and September. The Port Charlotte Hotel will be a key music venue for the Islay Festival (22-30 May, www.islayfestival.com). The Port Charlotte Hotel, Main Street, Port Charlotte, Isle of Islay PA48 7TU, 01496 850360, www.portcharlottehotel.co.uk