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Island Hopping and Whisky Tasting in South West Scotland

Island Hopping and Whisky Tasting in South West Scotland

Old Jun 11th, 2014, 01:13 PM
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Island Hopping and Whisky Tasting in South West Scotland

Mrs R and I recently returned from an amazing week’s island hopping around the southwest coast of Scotland. It might provide some ideas/inspiration for those who’re interested in getting off the beaten track a bit - away from the usual Fort William / Loch Ness / Edinburgh tourist triangle. Perhaps not suitable for a first-time visit to Scotland, but for those on return visits. Our road trip started and finished in Glasgow and we visited the Isle of Bute, Mull of Kintyre, Isle of Gigha, Islay, Jura and looped back to Glasgow through Inveraray.

Day 1: BA to GLA & A Very Victorian Lavvie
We flew up to Glasgow on a BA flight from LHR T5 on a Sunday lunchtime. LHR was the usual frenetic circus and I wished we had taken our more usual route from the more civilised Southampton airport to GLA – but we had discounted FF flights on BA to use. Once in Glasgow we picked up our hire car from Hertz, booked through AutoEurope (with an additional £15 discount thrown in by them in recognition of a small problem I’d had on a previous AE booking). We were upgraded to a brand new Nissan Qashqai (yes, really - try saying that after a few whiskies!) – a popular “crossover” vehicle with loads of technology and bags of storage space.

We headed along the drizzly, grey shoreline of the Clyde west of Glasgow, through Greenock and down to Wemyss Bay where we caught the next CalMac ferry across to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute (35 mins crossing time). More about the fantastic CalMac ferries in later stages of this TR.

Rothesay is little-known outside Scotland but was a hugely popular seaside holiday destination for generations of Glaswegians, from Victorian times right through to the early 1960’s, before cheap flights to Spanish resorts came in. It’s a small fishing town with a good deal of slightly faded charm, Italian fish & chip shops, a wonderful ruined castle right in the centre of town and is well-placed as a stopping off point en route to the southern Hebrides. Our accommodation for the night was the snazzy Boathouse B&B, where we had a bay window overlooking the Calmac ferries sailing back and forth with the mountains in the background.

We walked around the town prior to dinner in the now much improved weather (as folk often say in the west of Scotland, “if you don’t like the weather now, just wait ten minutes”). We found ourselves at one of Scotland’s most unusual tourist attractions – the splendidly preserved Victorian public toilets on the esplanade. These date from Rothesay’s heyday, when local civic pride dictated that visitors should be impressed by a lavvie with Italian marble and ornate tiling.

Dinner was extremely good fish and chips and Isle of Arran beer at Harry Haw’s – a popular new bistro next to the Castle.

Coming up next: More Victorian ostentation at Mount Stuart and on to Macca’s spiritual home
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Old Jun 11th, 2014, 06:20 PM
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Really looking forward to this -- I've spent a fair bit of time in the west (around Kames/Tighnabruaich) and a couple of trips to Islay.

But only once (YEARS ago) been to Bute, down to Campbelltown, and some of the other places you mention. Was thinking of hitting some of the southern Hebrides maybe next summer.
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Old Jun 12th, 2014, 04:55 AM
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Day 2: More Victorian ostentation at Mount Stuart and on to Macca’s spiritual home

Up bright and early the next day (a Monday) we had an excellent Scottish cooked breakfast at the B&B - I know it's a bit of an acquired taste for some, but I always look forward to such local delicacies as black pudding, lorne sausage, tattie scones and haggis along with my bacon and eggs.

We returned to the centre of Rothesay where we bought a new pair of sunglasses (I find it always pays to look on the optimistic side with regard to the Scottish weather), and toured the 13th century Rothesay castle, which was a stronghold of the Stuarts. It's in pretty good condition as ruined castles go, and we climbed up one of the towers for great views over the surrounding area (taking care not to disturb the seagulls nesting in the battlements).

We then drove up and back down the Serpentine Road - a crazy switchback reminiscent of San Fransisco's Lombard Street, before heading out to the centrepiece of our day - Mount Stuart.

I'd been aware of Mount Stuart House for some years but never before got round to visiting before. It's an enormous Victorian neo-gothic country house set in a large estate with wonderful gardens, and is the seat of the Marquess of Bute. We had lunch in the restaurant (a "taste of Bute" sharing plate full of delicious local produce) followed by our timed tour of the house. I am sometimes ambivalent about stately homes, but this place was truly extraordinary. The colonnaded central Marble Hall and the Marble Chapel are marvels of Victorian extravagance and have many unique features. Poignantly, some of the inticate carvings were left unfinished by craftsmen who went off to fight in the trenches of WW1, never to return. By the end of the tour, the sun was shining and we had time to see some of the beautiful gardens before hitting the road again.

Our next overnight stop was Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. We had a leisurely 2h drive and a couple of short CalMac ferry crossings (Rhubodach-Colintraive and Portavadie-Tarbert) to get there. A spell of torrential rain soon cleared as we approached Campbeltown and we stopped at a deserted white sandy beach to gaze out at the various islands and the Northern Irish coast easily visible in the distance. Accommodation for the next two nights was Grammar Lodge - an old school building in Campbeltown now converted into a very modern guesthouse.

As people may know, Sir Paul McCartney and his family own a farm in the area and his famous song, "Mull of Kintyre" was a huge hit in the UK back in the '70s. I'm not really a fan, but this song always brings back happy childhood memories for some reason. There is a small memorial garden to his wife Linda in the town, and we were told he has privately contributed to many good causes in the local area, including the old-fashioned Picture House cinema.

Next up: Day trip to Paradise (aka the Isle of Gigha)
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Old Jun 12th, 2014, 07:54 AM
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Where's the booze tasting?
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Old Jun 12th, 2014, 08:02 AM
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>>Where's the booze tasting?
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Old Jun 12th, 2014, 09:46 AM
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Looking forward to your report on Islay, as I'm planning a trip there to visit some of the whisky distilleries next year.
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Old Jun 13th, 2014, 04:58 AM
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Day 3: Day trip to Paradise (aka the Isle of Gigha)

Dining options in small Scottish towns/villages are often quite limited - not necessarily in quality (there are some very good ones) - but usually in number. Hotels are often a good solution if you fancy something a bit more upmarket than pub meals, and are invariably open to non-residents. On our first night in Campbeltown we ate at the Ardshiel Hotel - the food was OK, but what really impressed us was the bar area which boasted a range of over 200 malt whiskies! We sampled an excellent double measure of Springbank 11 yr old after dinner (from the local distillery) and floated gently back to the B&B.

Next morning arrived with the promise of wall-to-wall sunshine on the BBC weather website. That meant our day trip to the Isle of Gigha was definitely on. Gigha (pronounced "GEE-ha") is a small island paradise a few miles off the west coast of the Mull of Kintyre, and these days is owned by a community trust composed of local residents (population about 200). We left our car in the free car park at Tayinloan and took a small CalMac ferry, the MV Loch Ranza, across to Gigha. These small ferries are great, as you can sit up on the upper viewing deck in good weather and enjoy 360-degree views of the amazing scenery and some of the cleanest air you've ever breathed in.

We'd heard rumours of a good seafood restaurant near the harbour on Gigha and decided to check it out. We were not disappointed - our lunch at the Boathouse was exceptional in every way. The menu is predominantly fresh fish and seafood and we were truly spoiled for choice: salmon, halibut, lobster, langoustines, mussels... We chose scallops and langoustine tails for starters followed by a lobster thermidor (caught in the bay by the chef's pal, Keith).

After lunch we visited the Achamore Gardens, a rambling woodland garden with many brightly coloured rhododendrons, which thrive in Gigha's warm microclimate. A really peaceful and beautiful spot, especially from the hill at the top of the garden which has wonderful views over the sea to Islay and the Paps of Jura. Those who've visited gardens in the west of Scotland will know what a high standard they are, and Achamore was no exception.

We arrived back on the mainland and the sun was still shining brightly, so a drive down to the southernmost tip of the Mull of Kintyre was in order. The scenery was made even more spectacular by the wonderful late afternoon light, and we drove for and hour and a half along narrow single track roads surrounded by intense yellow gorse bushes, looking out over an ultramarine blue sea to Arran, Northern Ireland and Ailsa Craig. We stopped off at several deserted white sandy beaches and wondered why this remarkable region of Scotland gets relatively few visitors.

Next time: Islay - Whisky Galore!
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Old Jun 15th, 2014, 04:36 AM
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Days 4 & 5: Islay - Whisky Galore!

One of the main reasons for the trip was to visit the Hebridean island of Islay (pronounced EYE-luh), famed worldwide for its whisky production. Islay is one of the five whisky regions of Scotland and boasts eight active distilleries, known mainly - though by no means exclusively - for their peaty single malts.

We sailed from the northern end of the Mull of Kintyre to Port Askaig on Islay aboard the CalMac car ferry, MV Finlaggan. I think the Finlaggan is now my favourite CalMac vessel - introduced only a few years ago, she's one of their larger ferries and is kitted out to a very high standard, almost like a little cruise liner. We had a nice lunch on board admiring the scenery through the picture windows, before moving to the very comfortable quiet lounge with a dram of Caol Ila cask strength - oil and smoke but lighter than some Islay whiskies.

Our accommodation on Islay for the two nights was the rather excellent Inns by the Loch at Bowmore (just round the corner from the Bowmore distillery in fact). It's a luxurious little guesthouse run by an enthusiastic couple, Neil and Carol, who did a fabulous breakfast each morning.

Our first distillery visit was the wonderfully-named Bruichladdich, where we had an entertaining tour led by a young English girl. A very traditional distillery set-up producing unpeated "Bruichladdich" and heavily peated "Port Charlotte" brands sold in some very snazzy modern bottles.

We spent most of the evening at the Port Charlotte Hotel, where there is traditional music played on two evenings a week. The small bar was packed with locals and a smattering of visitors from all over the world - the fiddle/accordion playing and the Gaelic singing were very atmospheric.

The following day we took the tiny Feolin car ferry across the narrow sound to the neighbouring island, Jura. Jura is a relatively large island with dramatic, mountainous scenery and a tiny population of less than 200, who are greatly out-numbered by the thousands of red deer. We'd tried to phone ahead to book a morning tour at the Jura distillery, but couldn't get an answer. The tour was fully booked (just 10 people due to some confined spaces) when we arrived, but after some pleading, the girl doing the tour relented and allowed us to tag along. Great tour and fabulous whiskies - we bought a couple of half bottles of Superstition and Elixir to take home.

There's only one road on Jura, running most of the 30-mile length of the island, up to the farmhouse where George Orwell wrote 1984. The weather was great and we were able to get some good photos of the Paps. As we waited for the ferry back to Islay, we were suddenly confronted by a small herd of inquisitive red deer, only a few yards away from us.

On the way back to Bowmore we stopped for a late afternoon tour of Caol Ila on Islay. This is a more modern, "industrial" distillery with great views across to the Paps of Jura mountains. Most of the enormous annual production goes into blends, but they do sell their own highly rated single malts as well.

We dined that evening at the Bridgend Hotel where we experienced wonderful Islay hospitality and superb food, including smoked salmon and Gigha halibut.

We visited our last distillery on our final morning - probably the most famous of all the Islay distilleries - Laphroaig. They did a very slick, informative (though large) tour, including the malting floors and kilns. Laphroaig whisky is deeply smokey with medicinal notes, and I was amused to learn they were allowed to sell it in the US during Prohibition years as their sales director persuaded the US authorities it WAS a medicine!

Next: Back to the Mainland
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 04:42 AM
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Back to the Mainland

So to the final installment, which I will make brief as there seems to be little interest in this TR - obviously a bit too far off the beaten track for many here (sigh).

We took a Friday evening CalMac ferry back to the mainland from Port Askaig - not the Finlaggan this time but a much older vessel and not nearly as nice. Still, the weather was good and we got some excellent coastal views during the 2-hour sailing. Dinner that night was at the original Loch Fyne Oyster bar at Cairndow, which is always popular.

Our original plan was to spend the Friday and Saturday evenings in Inveraray and see Arduaine and Crarae Gardens. Alas the weather deteriorated severely overnight and we decided to cut our losses and go to Glasgow instead, where there are plenty of museums and bad-weather attractions. Fortunately for us, we will surely be back in Argyll in years to come so will have another attempt to see these gardens then.

So instead, we had very interesting visits to Pollok House and the Riverside Museum (which houses the re-located Museum of Transport I recall well from years ago).

The end.
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 05:19 AM
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We visit Arran every year. I'm talking Canon Chasuble into visiting Bute
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 06:57 AM
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great report!
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 08:40 AM
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Hi Gordon_R
thanks for this report

as you suggest this part of Argyll is less visited than the old favourites further north

question about the ferries - is it necessary to pre-book or would it be OK to turn up and go?
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 08:55 AM
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I'm loving all the details of your report -- thanks for writing it!
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 09:08 AM
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I use Isle of Jura whisky in my marmalade
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 09:15 AM
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sofarsogood: for the small ferries (where the crossings are frequent and less than approx 40 minutes duration), you can't book in advance - you have no choice but just turn up.

We generally do book ahead for longer ferries (e.g. to Islay, Skye, Harris/Lewis etc) just in case they are busy, as the implications of not getting on board can be a significant delay (could mean missing a planned overnight's accommodation / other pre-booked arrangements).

Booking is very simple and I've always found CalMac's central reservations team very accommodating when I've phoned up to change a booking while on the road.
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 09:29 AM
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I'm reading happily. Bringing back memories of our trip to Islay, where my husband learned to love the peaty single malts. We had a tour at Ardbeg where the young guide talked about cutting peat to burn because his father was a frugal man. Hard work, he said, and the worst part was the midges.

I'd love to visit the other islands in that area. We also ate at the Loch Fyne Oyster bar.
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 01:43 PM
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While I have not been to any of the islands (yet), I enjoyed your report immensely.
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Old Jun 16th, 2014, 06:10 PM
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I've been traveling myself, 16 days, and a friend spotted this and alerted me. I was in Scotland for two weeks May of 2013 and fell in love with it, and definitely planning to return, possibly next May.
Your trip report is very informative and interesting, and I'd certainly refer to it in my own trip planning. Sadly, my travel companion and I are not brave enough to drive on the left side of the road, so following in your footsteps could be difficult. We hired a driver for parts of our trip last year, and likely would do the same again.
I can't even explain to myself why I fell so in love with Scotland, it had never even been near the top of my bucket list, but I am definitely going back. Your report makes me even more certain.
Thanks for all the details, they are really helpful
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Old Jun 17th, 2014, 08:00 AM
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Gordon, thank you. Loving that you put this out here for us. Scotland is one of the places we'd most like to visit, and its whisky is my favorite.
I'll have to scrutinize this with a notebook and a good map (and maybe a bit of Auchentoshan) alongside me. Would like to dovetail your itinerary with the obligatory first-timers' in a 10-12 day trip within the next two years.
Do you have a few suggestions for that?
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Old Jun 17th, 2014, 09:17 AM
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Thanks for your report. Your trip sounds lovely and I shall use your experiences as I plan our trip for next summer!
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