We were delighted to have been invited to visit Islay, the Queen of the Hebrides and Jura, the Deer Island on a family holiday.
Our first visit to Islay was around 10 years ago with a friend who has a personal connection, so ever since then we had been dreaming of returning to these wonderful Isles.
We were invited by the local Explore Islay and Jura community to enjoy and make the most of their peaceful and welcoming islands over a long weekend.
We travelled with CalMac Ferries from Kennacraig on the west coast of Scotland, from there its a 2 hour sailing, enjoying the most spectacular scenery across to Kintyre, Campbeltown, Jura and Islay.
We stayed at the recently refurbished Machrie Hotel and Golf Links, which is along the road from the airport and a few miles outside Bowmore, the largest village on Islay. Yet, it felt like we were a million miles from our hectic daily lives and no more did that feel apparent, than when we opened our bedroom doors and all we could hear were the waves crashing onto the beach at Laggan Bay, also known as the Big Strand. Till this day I have rarely stayed somewhere I felt as relaxed and calm as we did at the Machrie Hotel. The team were so friendly and welcoming from the moment we arrived. Despite any current covid19 restrictions (July 2021), everyone including ourselves, could still enjoy the hotel to its full extent.
Now, onto the adventures we had across our visit to Islay and Jura. Below you will find suggestions from our visit, most which is relevant to families, although many could be enjoyed as an individual or a couple travelling around.
It was an early start in Edinburgh, but this did not dampen the mood, as we knew we would be on Islay only a few hours later.
We headed west and after a brief toilet and coffee stop in Inveraray, we then made it to Kennacraig just as the CalMac Ferry was docking and the kids were very excited to be going onto another ferry, third time in a month!
After a bite to eat we went to chill out in the coffee lounge. After a comfortable and smooth crossing, before we knew it (really), it was already time to get back to the car.
As we arrived into Port Askaig, our first stop was the quaint and beautiful little Persabus Pottery only a few minutes drive from the ferry.
Here you will find Rosemary’s workshop where she recently started ‘ceramics in a box’ which you take away and paint anywhere on the Isles to help the creativity flow. Such a wonderful idea to enable people to see what’s actually around them and be inspired by their surroundings.
There has been a ceramics workshop in the family here for around 40 years and it’s wonderful to see it still going strong and probably better now than ever before.
Once painted, make sure you arrange to drop your piece of art off with Rosemary to fire it.
Next we made our way towards the hotel, with a quick stop on route in Bowmore, seemed rude not to as it is such a photogenic little village.
We arrived at Machrie Hotel and found ourselves checked-in to the most amazing and luxurious lodge, overlooking the golf course and a stones throw from the Big Strand. On check-in I was handed the most wonderful chocolates by Islay Cocoa in a great little gift box. It was a lovely gesture by Emma and they were absolutely amazing. It’s a fairly new business and do make sure you check it out online or social media.
Our first dinner on Islay was at the Harbour Inn, Bowmore. This was definitely fine dining and somewhere we might come back to just the two of us one day. We enjoyed the most wonderful setting overlooking the harbour with reflections of the local fishing boats. In the distance across the water you could see the Bruichladdich Distillery. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, then there was the food. These photos do not do it justice…
We didn’t make it to pudding that evening as our youngest was just about sleeping at the table, so homeward bound to get them off to bed.
Once the kids were in bed I made the most of our setting and went for a solo stroll along the beach, something I have dreamed of doing for a long time. It felt magical being back and turned out I was the only one there, well me and around 50 oystercatchers!
Second day on Islay and it already felt like home, although the commute from the Machrie Hotel to Edinburgh might be a bit of a trek on a daily basis!
The first morning we started our day with breakfast in the Machrie Hotel Restaurant and what a fantastic setting to enjoy breakfast. They served up a well prepared and beautifully cooked breakfast, from local produce and you could just sit and soak up the views with your coffee, no better way to start our day!
Full Scottish for my wife and Smoked salmon on sourdough bread with scrambled egg for me, with porridge and honey for the kids, sorted.
After breakfast we got ready and headed for Port Charlotte, which is about 30 minutes drive west of the hotel.
We had to stop on route and if someone tells you unicorns don’t exist, don’t believe them, they just haven’t been to Islay…
Our first stop was the Islay Natural History Trust in Port Charlotte. It is open between 10am – 4pm weekdays and was just opening as we arrived and parked outside.
Ideal for anyone, young or old interested in Islay’s wildlife and natural history. Our eldest loved their little frog pools and all the different shells, but her favourite was the wildlife design room, definitely a must for the little ones. Remember to pick up one of their children’s quizzes for their walk around.
What is new in 2021 is their nature walks, zoom talks, mini wildlife adventures, live rockpool exhibits and a wildlife library plus gift shop. You will also find fully accessible toilet facilities.
Next up was a visit to the Museum of Islay Life also in Port Charlotte and handily only 2 minutes walk from the Natural History Trust.
Here you will learn more about island life over the years and the development of the towns and villages across Islay in this small but wonderfully set out collection of nearly 3,000 objects and thousands of photographs. It is housed in a former church building as you arrive into Port Charlotte. Another quiz should be collected here to test the little (and big) ones knowledge of their exhibition and museum, with a prize at the end!
Here you will find ample seating inside and outside with stunning views over Loch Indaal and a large area for play or picnics directly outside the cafe. The cafe is very accessible and inclusive, making it ideal for the whole family and people of all abilities.
After lunch and a good amount of play at Port Mor Community Cafe, we headed towards Portnahaven.
On route I had to stop for 10 minutes, as we witnessed two White Tailed eagles sitting in a nearby field, amongst all the highland cows, couldn’t really get more Scottish if it tried!
We then made it to Portnahaven not long after. Here we parked up and had a wee wander around this very picturesque village. At one end you’ll find a small coastal path and the other end the village bay. We were on the lookout for seals, but wasn’t to be on this occasion. Instead we enjoyed ice-cream and the kids had a play on the beach.
Afterwards we slowly made our way back, stopping off in Port Charlotte to check out their local beach and we were completely taken aback by this place!
It’s only a stone’s throw from the high street and definitely a must visit while here. After about an hour or so, we finally dragged ourselves away from this idyllic beach and headed back to the Machrie Hotel.
We finished our day with fine dining in what can only be described as one of the most picturesque settings in Scotland, with floor to ceiling windows with panoramic views over the Machrie Links and down to Laggan Bay, 18 Restaurant Machrie Hotel. I’ve had dinner in a lot of special places over the years both personally and professionally, however at this place with the most wonderful staff and beautifully cooked local produce, I was ready to move in! I know we were invited to visit, but I could not recommend it highly enough.
After dinner it was back to the lodge with a couple of excited small people and we enjoyed yet another beauty of a sunset over the links.
Day three on Islay was all about the outdoors and we sure made the most of it!
We were planning on leaving our lodge a little earlier, so had asked the team at the Machrie Hotel if we could order and pick up breakfast in the morning. I did tell them I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for over 20 years and was happy to carry a tray across the driveway to our lodge.
Well didn’t they go the extra mile that morning, when two guys arrived at our lodge with a beautifully cooked breakfast for us all. We were literally eating like Kings and Queens. A huge thanks to the team for going above and beyond.
After breakfast we made our way to the Oa RSPB Reserve, a 25 minute drive away south of Machrie Hotel. Here we met David Dinsley the RSPB warden for a guided tour of the spectacular cliffs and the American Monument. David, who is originally from Northumberland, joined the team at Oa in September 2020 and it sounds like he is truly living the dream out here. He told us about the two major shipwrecks and how they had affected the community, one which was torpedoed by a German submarine. Do look out for the submarine shaped rock formation and see if you can spot it!
He was incredibly knowledgeable about the landscape and the whole reserve despite having only joined a year earlier. We spotted the wild goats and the choughs, which are a very rare bird in Scotland. We had hoped to see the resident Golden Eagles, but wasn’t to be on this occasion. Carson, our youngest, had asked if he would see dolphins and dragons, but they didn’t show up during this visit either!
We spent 1 ½ hour on the circular walk at the reserve, but if you had time I’d recommend you really take your time and use at least 2 to 3 hours to take in the surrounding area and all the spectacular wildlife. It’s a fairly easy walk, with a board walk a lot of the way to the American Monument, and then a path along the edge of the cliffs. I had our youngest Carson in the carrier and our eldest Freya walked the 5km / 3 mile round trip.
After our brilliant Oa RSPB tour, we made our way to the Lagavulin Distillery, which lies a short drive outside Port Ellen.
Here we, or rather I, were treated to a private outdoor whisky tasting. This was something special! It was led by Samantha, who is from Islay and grew up in Bowmore. Now studying in Glasgow, but was back on the island for the summer.
Without going into too much detail, there were five very tasty and different whisky’s, but all with a smoky edge, some more than others. Sitting outside in the sunshine with the sea at the foot of the garden and the beautiful white crisp looking distillery buildings behind me, I could not really ask for a better setting. I have over the years come to love the Islay whisky’s and their distinctive peaty flavours bring out something special in them.
Having visited a fair few distilleries over the years, this was only my third Islay distillery. The island until recently had eight, but you can now enjoy nine distilleries across the Queen of the Hebrides.
Did you have a favourite I hear you say… Well probably the 12 year old Limited release bottle, but Samantha had brought a very good selection.
After about 1 ½ hour of tasting and chatting, it was time for us all to say goodbye. With my wife Pauline driving, we even managed to get a few takeaway tasting bottles and what I didn’t finish of mine, I also took away!
After leaving Lagavulin, we headed back to Port Ellen to find The Wee Box. This is a converted horse box, and the girls serve up the most amazing lunch snacks, with really good Argyll Roasted Coffees and wonderful little treats.
It’s location beside the local play park and across the road from the most surreal beach, it makes for the perfect combination and a must visit when passing, little ones or not! We enjoyed a chicken ‘hen’ wrap, tuna melt wrap and toasties for the kids.
After our lunch and a little play, it was time to head back to our lodge and get ready for the beach at Laggan Bay by Machrie Hotel.
After arriving on the beach we made the most of the setting and decorated the ceramic cups from Persabus Pottery. Plenty of inspiration and with practice from nursery, the kids concentration was obvious.
Freya, our eldest, had been so keen to get her swimming costume on and just play in the waters around Islay, well today she got the chance, and she LOVED it! Having grown up being around and in the water a lot when younger, it was a joy to just watch them both clearly enjoying themselves splashing in the shallow waters.
This is an ideal beach with a beautiful sandy base, shallow waters and we almost got it all to ourselves!
Finally, that evening we had dinner at a fairly new pizza restaurant in Bowmore, Peatzeria which is in the High Street of Bowmore and only a stones throw from the harbour.
We had initially booked an earlier table, but Sharon the owner kindly managed to find us a later slot, which in fact meant we got an outside covered table. The restaurant is in an ideal setting overlooking the bay and on a calm evening like ours, made for a lovely dining experience.
To start we had bruschetta, olives and squid. I had forgotten how much I love bruschetta and it just reminded me why we used to make it at home a lot! We were all sharing and the kids loved the olives especially, as well as the rest.
For the kids we ordered lasagne, I enjoyed a beautiful seafood pizza with mussels and hot smoked salmon, which was delicious. The pizzas are big and such good quality, make sure you come in with a big appetite and thirst for a local brew.
A big thanks to Sharon and the team for looking after us. Make sure you too check them out when next in the area.
It was then time for bed and to prepare for our visit to Jura on the last full day here on the isles.
Day four off exploring was a big adventure as we visited the Isle of Jura. Old Norse for Deer Island, our first ever visit to the island so we were very excited
We indulged in another delicious breakfast at the Machrie Hotel to start off our day.
After breakfast we made our way to Port Askaig to catch the ferry to Feolin on the Isle of Jura.
We arrived about 15 minutes before the sailing. If you turn up earlier, there is a lawn outside the Port Askaig Hotel to enjoy a coffee or refreshment with the most spectacular scenery looking over the sound of Islay, towards Jura.
The crossing itself is a quick five minutes, but just enough time to come out of the car to enjoy both the fresh air and beautiful scenery seen from the deck.
On route to our first stop, along the one road on Jura, we were fortunate enough to spot a couple of the 6000+ deer which live on the island. There is always something special about seeing these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.
Our first stop was at the new Deer Island Rum in Craighouse, which is also the largest village on Jura, although the whole island only has about 280 inhabitants living there at present.
The Deer Island Rum was started by Charlotte and Michael in 2020, born out of a dream, mainly by Michael who is from Jura and who works at a local distillery. They had only finished their second batch the previous week, so this was a very new venture and we felt privileged to meet Charlotte and indeed taste their beautiful spiced rum at this early stage of their journey. An exciting time lies ahead and I look forward to following along with their developments and you should too – Instagram
They work closely with other local producers, so even their Rum raisins don’t go to waste, but instead are used by Kirsty at the island bake house to make rum raisin buns. As we were fortunate to take a couple away and ended up enjoying them later, I can verify that they were indeed delicious. Charlotte and Michael also works with the likes of Spirited Soaps for their soaps and candles and Emma at Islay Cocoa for some of her chocolates. Finally the Orsay Sea salt also works with both Deer Island Rum and Islay Cocoa. It really is amazing seeing all these new virtues spring up and the collaboration happening.
We managed to pick up a bottle of the Deer Island Rum and their Rum Soaps, which is made in collaboration with Spirited Soaps Islay, another independent business which deserves a shout out. A big thanks to Charlotte for coming in on her day off especially to meet us.
After Deer Rum we went to have lunch at the Jura Hotel, also in Craighouse. Here we met Andy who with his wife had run the hotel for the last 11 years with their young family and what a place to bring up their family.
Lunch was a lovely Venison Pie and chips for me and Fish burger for Pauline. The hotel and restaurant sits at the waterfront of Craighouse with a brilliant view to just watch the world go by on Jura.
After lunch I paid a quick visit to the Antlers Bistro Restaurant, which is also in Craighouse. A fantastic place to buy lots of wee gems by local artists from across the island, oh and they sell ice-creams, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to enjoy this time round.
Next up we made the very scenic drive to Inverlussa to meet with Alicia, who together with Claire and Georgina have been running Lussa Gin since 2015. It sits in the wilderness of the Ardlussa Estate and well worth a visit when on Jura.
It was lovely to have a chat with Alicia about how their passion has helped them create this beautiful smooth gin, literally inspired and created by the island of Jura! It was interesting to hear that they actually freeze their botanicals which helps bring out a smooth and zesty aromatic gin. Also a big thanks to Alicia for taking time out to meet with me and inviting us to see their local business.
After our visit to Lussa Gin, we made our way to Inverlussa Beach, where you will find the ‘Tea on the Beach‘ converted horsebox, which is a honesty box style cafe with fresh cakes and hot drinks.
Here we had a coffee to enjoy with our rum raisins from Deer Rum Island. This also turned out to be a very popular spot to watch the deer roam and again a pleasure seeing them in the natural habitat.
We then made our way the 25 miles south to catch the ferry back to Islay for dinner and as we did the sun really came out and made the drive even more spectacular, especially as the mist had lifted off the hills of Jura and they really made their presence felt.
After crossing back to Islay we headed to the Port Askaig Hotel for our dinner and what a dinner it turned out to be for our last evening on Islay, lobster, langoustine, scallops, crabs and prawns all on one large platter! A big thanks to Marion, John and team for looking after us. What a wonderful setting from the dining room to enjoy the best of local seafood, which in this case comes off the boat at the end of the garden!
The hotel has been in their family since 1958 and it is fantastic seeing places like these still serving up the best of Scottish produce.
After dining like a king and queen once again, it was time to head back to the Machrie Hotel for our last night on Islay.
Our final day on Islay and Jura this time round.
After breakfast at the Machrie Hotel on our last morning, myself and Freya decided to try our hand at golf, well putting I have not played golf much in the past, but could see myself taking it up, especially if the kids enjoy playing it! Since the development of the Machrie Hotel it’s reputation as a golf destination has increased significantly and with its location near the airport and indeed setting by Laggan Bay (The Big Strand) makes for a highly attractive one too.
What Freya didn’t know until then was that I in fact have a full set of golf clubs in the loft, but have not had time to use them in recent years. By her request, we’ll now need to go out and practice more as it turned out to be one of her favourite activities on Islay!
When we finished up and said our goodbyes to the team at Machrie Hotel, we headed for Glenegedale House B&B, which is run by Emma and Graham along the road from the Machrie Hotel. Here we met Emma and her son Cameron and we got to feed the chickens, and were fortunate to take a few freshly laid eggs away too. We also met and fed their horses, well the kids looked on and clapped the horses while mummy and daddy fed them by hand!
After more goodbyes (well see you again) it was time to head for the ferry in Port Ellen. On route we stopped for a little while to enjoy the golden sands of their local beach and what a setting it is too! If you visit here with the little ones, make sure you pay a visit to the Wee Box cafe beside the play area.
As we arrived at the harbour, it wasn’t long before the Calmac ferry arrived and we then got on board from the homebound journey. Thankfully it’s always exciting getting onto a ferry, which makes the fact of leaving a Scottish holiday a little less painful!
We settled down and got ourselves some lunch, a tasty lasagne for the adults and kids had mac’n cheese and chicken bites.
Afterwards we headed for the lounge to chill out for the journey home. I took the kids to enjoy the views as we sailed past Islay and Jura. In true Islay and Jura style, I met a friend of some years and it just concludes the fact that Islay and Jura brings people together and leaves you with so many stories to tell…
To book your holiday to Islay and Jura, check out CalMac Ferries for travel information and for more tips and ideas. Make sure to follow Explore Islay and Jura on social media such as twitter and facebook, but also see their website for up to date information about activities and events happening across Islay and Jura.
All opinions and photos are my own, unless otherwise stated. When you next visit share your stories and photos using #exploreislayjura #lingerlonger – You can also follow me along on our adventures around Scotland and beyond on @kimkjaerside on Twitter and Instagram