Islay - a spiritual journey


This is the story of a group of Nordic travellers visiting the Scottish isle of Islay to sample the local whiskies. The cast of characters includes our fearless leader H from Norway, his Finnish friends T, A, and A, and his Norwegian friend JR.

The route across Scotland

May 13: Helsinki - Drammen

A, A and T flew from HEL to OSL and took the airport train to Drammen to meet up with H, who picked them up in his all-electric Nissan Leaf. We had a nice dinner prepared by the lady of the house, Y, followed by some whiskies to prepare us for those to come. T came up with a name for our little group of travellers: we would call ourselves "Team Spirit".

May 14: Drammen - Edinburgh - Islay

Wake-up call at 6am and breakfast prepared by Y. We left at 7:30 in the Leaf. H was confident that the charge would last to the airport, but nonetheless A and T suffered from some range anxiety. After we had driven a few kilometres, T noticed that the air conditioning was turned on and drawing lots of power; H quickly turned it off.

During the first major uphill stretch, the car announced "You may not be able to reach your destination", and for the remainder of the journey, the "remaining range" display and the satellite navigator's "distance to destination" remained more or less in sync. By the time we reached the airport perimeter, the car showed a low battery warning and only a few kilometers of range remaining. Nonetheless, we did reach the airport car park, where H had reserved a charging spot. We took the shuttle bus to the terminal and checked in.

T had looked forward to visiting the aquavit bar at the airport, so we went there and asked for some old aquavit. To our dismay, we were told that no aquavit could be served before 11 AM. We cursed the Norwegian nanny state and consoled ourselves with some beers instead. At the gate, we met up with the fifth traveller, H's Norwegiean friend whom we came to call JR.

Fittingly enough for Ascension Day, we ascended to the heavens, and after an uneventful flight we descended to Edinburgh. At Edinburgh airport, T bought a prepaid SIM card (or "pay as you go" as it's called in Britain) while H and JR did the rental car paperwork and upgraded the C-class Mercedes we had booked at Budget to an E-class, hampered by a notable lack of customer service mindedness on part of Budget's customer service representative.

We set off towards Kennacraig, making a short stop on the way to view Loch Lomond Distillery, from the outside only. The weather was excellent, sunny and warm, not at all what we had expected from Scotland.

We saw a sign warning of a road closure that would affect our route, but did not quite manage to read the indicated dates as we sped past. We decided to take a detour just in case, and got treated to a nice scenic route.


We arrived at the Kennacraig ferry terminal with an hour to spare. As we checked in, the customer service agent asked "Mr. Hammer, is it? As in Sledge Hammer?". "Yes, that's me. You can trust me, I know what I'm doing".

MV Finlaggan arriving at Kennacraig

On board the MV Finlaggan, we had our first meal since breakfast, not bad at all, and to our delight the ship's restaurant even served local ales brewed on Islay. We tried a couple of varieties with the meal and a few more at the bar; the Ardnave (or "the blue one", as we called it, having some trouble remembering the name) emerged as the favorite of everyone except A, who preferred the Single Malt Ale.

Crossing to Islay in perfect weather
Ardnave Ale, aka "the blue one"

Once we arrived in Port Ellen, we checked in at the Caladh Sona B&B. We had some beers and whiskies at the Ardview Inn, a small pub favored by the locals. We also checked out the bar at the Islay Hotel opposite the B&B. It had live music and was so crowded we could hardly move, so we gave up; A&A went back to the B&B to have some sleep while the remaining group went on to look for another pub.

May 15: Islay

Breakfast at the B&B. The full Scottish breakfast was excellent, though not everyone dared try the black pudding.

We walked the 3 km from the B&B to the Laphroaig distillery. There was a nice pedestrian path along the road the whole way; it looked like it had been quite newly constructed and was surfaced with macadam, a Scottish invention by an engineer named John MacAdam. Along the way, we saw rugged coastal scenery and numerous sheep.

Rugged coastal scenery, with sheep
More rugged coastal scenery, with angry bird

We spent some time in the Laphroaig gift shop while waiting for our Distiller Wares tour to begin. Various items were bought, such as tartan scarves bearing the Laphroaig logo and whisky-infused cheese.

Laphroaig distillery

We then took the tour and got to see the traditional floor malting, the kilns (with pagoda chimneys and newfangled steam heat exchangers), the mashing and the distillery proper. The tour ended with a tasting of three whiskys straight from the cask, and each of us got a small bottle of our favorite to take home.

The stills

It was now raining, so we called the local cab lady Carol and had her drive us to Ardbeg. We had a light lunch of haddock chowder (except for JR who had a steak pie), and got a free tasting of five Ardbeg whiskies. When we were finished at Ardbeg, the rain was only a light drizzle, so we walked back to the Lagavulin distillery where we had time for a quick tasting of whisky-chocolate pairings before closing time.

Tasting at Lagavulin

It was still raining, so we tried calling Carol to have her drive us the remainder of the way back to Port Ellen, but she was busy elsewhere. We decided to walk. More sheep. It was rather a long walk in the rain, so to keep up the Team Spirit, H started chanting military cadences familiar from such movies as Full Metal Jacket: "I don't need no teenage queen, I just want my M14!". JR even wrote some new lines of for the occasion: "I don't know 'bout Uncle Sam, I just want my Islay dram!".

More sheep

By the time we were back in Port Ellen, the rain had stopped, and the headwind has mostly dried our clothes. We stocked up on beer and crisps at the co-operative store.

Dinner at the Islay Hotel restaurant. Islay venison, lobster, Triple Wood risotto. For dessert, A had a "Dark Chocolate with 15-year-old Bowmore Tart", which was quite delicious despite the name sounding like a local teenage prostitute.

Dark Chocolate with 15-year-old Bowmore Tart

May 16: Islay

Breakfast at the B&B as usual. Drove to Kilchoman distillery, tasted their whiskies and shopped in their gift shop. Repeated the procedure at Bruichladdich.

Bruiachladdich distillery

Had lunch at the Port Charlotte Hotel, visited Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila. We drove back via Bowmore, but as we arrived, the car radio ominously played "Keep on knocking but you can't come in", and indeed the distillery had already closed for the day. Instead, we bought some whiskies at the local SPAR store, also known as

The SPAR in Bowmore

Dinner at the Islay Hotel bar. A and A both had the haggis. Despite the bad reputation of the dish in case it was quite tasty and reminded A of the Finnish "maksalaatikko". Several more of the Dark Chocolate and 15 year old Bowmore Tarts were consumed, followed by whisky.


May 17: Islay - Edinburgh

We took the first morning ferry back to the mainland, MV Finlaggan again, and then retraced our route, more or less, back to Edinburgh airport. H and JR returned the rental car and flew home to Norway, but A, A, and T stayed behind and took the tram to Princes Street in central Edinburgh. We walked to our hotel, the Apex International at Haymarket, where our room had a nice view of Edinburgh Castle.

Castle view from hotel

Since this was the last chance to do some shopping before the trip home, A rushed back to Princes Street and stayed there until the the shops closed. When she returned, we went out to get dinner. We had looked up a couple of fish & chips shops known to serve that famous Scottish speciality, the deep fried Mars bar. Our first choice was Bene's, but it didn't win A's approval due to the lack of a sit-down option. We then tried to get food at a couple of pubs, but it was already late and the kitchens had closed. We ended up at the Clam Shell on the Royal Mile and ordered haddock and chips to start with. The food was a disappointment, easily the worst fish and chips any of us had tasted, not even freshly made but taken from the counter where it must have been sitting for quite a long time. With that, we lost our appetite for the deep fried Mars bar, too, so we consoled ourselves with some real ales and headed back to the hotel to sleep.

May 18: Edinburgh - Helsinki

We walked to Princes Street and took the tram to the airport. We arrived early enough that the check-in had not yet opened. We did some shopping at the newsagent, and by the time we were finished, the check-in desks had been assigned. When we arrived at the SAS check-in, we found that there was no self check-in option or baggage drop, there was already a huge line to the check-in counter, at least a hundred people, and it was not moving. We queued to the check-in counter for about an hour, just to drop off our baggage, having already checked in online. We queued some more to the security check, and by the time we had cleared it our flight was already boarding. T took the chance of doing some tax-free shopping anyway, while A & A rushed straight to the gate.

T did make it to the flight despite the shopping (and was not even the last passenger on board). Another uneventful flight, a connection in Stockholm (where the tax free shop won't sell spirits to intra-EU passengers at any price - boo), and finally a short hop back to HEL.

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