Are you planning a visit to the whisky island and looking for the perfect Islay itinerary? I spent several days on this beautiful island and I’ve come up with what I believe to be the ideal 5-day itinerary for first-time visitors to Islay. This post was written as part of a paid campaign with Explore Islay & Jura. All opinions are my own.
Whisky, water, wildlife, and wellness: these were the themes of my very first trip to the Isle of Islay. These are also the reasons many people flock to the island every year; in search of the perfect dram and a holiday that engages all the senses.
Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) is known as the Queen of the Hebrides, and it’s the most southern of the Inner Hebrides islands. It is located off the west coast of Scotland in the region of Argyll; Northern Ireland lies directly south of Islay, with neighboring island Jura to the east and Gigha a little further south-east.
If you are a fan of whisky, make sure you visit Islay when you plan a trip to Scotland. Known as the ‘whisky island’, Islay has nine working distilleries and is home to the second oldest working distillery in Scotland, Bowmore.
During summer, I spent a whirlwind four days eating, drinking, cycling and sailing my way around Islay with my friend Kay.
My Islay itinerary is perfect for someone visiting Islay for the first time. It includes a visit to several whisky distilleries, wildlife watching, and wild swimming; indulging in freshly caught seafood, shopping at local artisan shops, and so much more.
If you’re not into whisky, there are plenty of activities I’ve included you will enjoy. I’ve also included my tips on how to get to Islay, getting around the island, and where to stay. I even added an extra day, because I believe you need at least five days when you visit Islay for the first time.
I hope my Islay itinerary provides inspiration for your visit to the island of magic, water, and whisky!
How to get to Islay
Getting to Islay is an adventure of its own. There are several ways to reach the island- all of them incredibly scenic.
Car + ferry
This is the option that I took, seeing as I live only a few hours away from the ferry port at Kennacraig.
The drive to Kennacraig is lovely; if you’re leaving from Edinburgh it takes 3.5 hours to reach the ferry port. It’s only a 2.5-hour drive from Glasgow. As soon as you arrive in the region of Argyll and Bute, the scenery begins to open up.
Be sure to stop at the Rest and Be Thankful Viewpoint and soak up the views. A good place to stop for a coffee, a quick bite to eat or some shopping is Inveraray, a small yet bustling town on the western shore of Loch Fyne. If you have time explore Inveraray Castle, a stunning Gothic country house and the seat of the Dukes of Argyll.
CalMac operates two ferries from Kennacraig to Islay. One takes you to Port Askaig on the east coast- this is the ferry you take if you want to carry on to Jura. The other takes you to Port Ellen which is on the south of Islay.
Public transport + ferry
You can also travel on public transport from Edinburgh and Glasgow to reach the Kennacraig Ferry Terminal. From Glasgow, you can take the bus, and from Edinburgh, you can take the bus the whole way, or take the train to the Arrochar & Tarbet station, and bus the rest of the way.
Catch a flight
You can also fly from Glasgow to Islay with Logan Air. The airport is located in Glenegedale, with plenty of hotels and guest houses located a short distance away.
Tip: Try to sit on the right-hand side of the plane so you can spot the whisky distilleries from the air with their huge black and white lettering!
Getting around Islay
One of the best ways to explore Islay is by taking your car across on the ferry. The crossing is just over two hours long and onboard there are many places to eat and drink. There is plenty to see on the journey, and once there you’ll be glad you have the car to explore the less accessible places on Islay.
I thoroughly enjoyed rolling down the windows and letting the air salted by the ocean blow around me while taking in the vast views of land and sea.
Driving can be problematic if you want to sample a few of the island’s drams, however. If you’d like to explore the whisky distilleries on Islay and not have to worry about driving, I recommend hiring a taxi. There are a number of taxi drivers that even provide half-day or full-day private tours if you would like to spend the day visiting several distilleries.
There are two bus routes you can take to explore Islay. The first bus runs between Bowmore and Portnahaven, while the second bus runs between Port Askaig and Port Ellen. The buses run from Monday to Saturday, 7 am to 6 pm and do not operate on Sundays. Click here for the timetable.
Another fun way to explore is to hire an e-bike from Islay E-Wheels and cycle around the island.
You can also book a whisky tour with a tour operator to take you around. Rabbie’s have a 4-day Islay whisky tour departing from Edinburgh. That way you won’t have to worry about getting to Islay, or being transported around the island.
For more tips, my friend Kay from The Chaotic Scot has put together an essential guide to visiting Islay!
Accommodation in Islay
I stayed at the traditional 19th-century farmhouse and bed and breakfast, Glenmachrie House, which is conveniently located next to the airport. Glenmachrie House is owned by the lovely Rachel and Alastair; they both grew up on Islay, and have a wealth of knowledge about the islands’ hidden gems.
From the moment you arrive at Glenmachrie, you are made to feel welcome. You are greeted with a traditional Scottish afternoon tea, with freshly baked treats made by Rachel. I could have stayed and chatted to Rachel about Islay’s history all day if I didn’t have so many places to explore!
The guesthouse comprises of four comfortable bedrooms and a drawing room with a cosy fireplace. The breakfast room is filled with an array of food, with fresh eggs from the chickens who roam the garden. Let’s put it this way- you won’t go hungry!
The back garden and pond (which was created in the shape of the island) is a tranquil space to ponder life. The Glenegedale River passes through the rear of the property, where it flows to meet the Machrie River. Laggan Bay is to the west beyond a vast expanse of green fields and moorland unfolds into the horizon.
The property is the perfect oasis away from it all, despite it only being four miles north of Port Ellen, and six miles from Bowmore. It’s a great wee place to retreat to after a day of exploring.
A highlight of my stay was watching the sun sink and dip into the sea, bathing the wild orchids that grew in the back garden in a golden glow. It’s moments of stillness such as this that remind me just how special Scotland is.
Price: £130 per night for two sharing; £90 per night for a single
Cooked Breakfast included
Islay Whisky Distilleries
Islay is known as the whisky island for good reason; it is the island that gives its whisky its distinct smokey smell and flavour. Islay is known for its peaty single malt whisky, and there are currently nine working distilleries on Islay, with more to come.
The nine distilleries are:
- Caol Ila
To visit and tour all of the whisky distilleries on Islay, you would need at least 3-4 days.
5 day islay itinerary
When you arrive on Islay, what is the first thing you should do once you’ve unpacked your bags? Sample the whisky, of course!
By the time we disembarked the ferry at Port Askaig, I could hear the whisky calling my name.
You will start off this Islay itinerary by visiting the distilleries north of Port Askaig. First, you will visit Bunnahabhain Distillery for a whisky tasting. Bunnahabhain means ‘mouth of the river’ in Gaelic; the distillery stands at the mouth of Margadale Spring, which spills into the Sound of Islay.
This distillery is also positioned perfectly for viewing the Paps of Jura.
Bunnahabhain is known for its unpeated whisky, a rarity on Islay seeing as it’s the peat that gives Islay whisky its distinct smokey flavour. They did have one peated whisky for us to sample, however. It was delicious, but overall I enjoyed their 2007 bourbon barrel whisky.
ISLAY TRAVEL TIP
If you’re driving, the whisky distilleries will give you your whisky in a wee bottle to take away. Have a dram once you arrive back at your accommodation as you watch the sun go down over the island!
Your next stop will be Ardnahoe Distillery for a tour and tasting. Ardnahoe is the newest distillery on Islay- so new that it hasn’t released its first batch of whisky yet!
For it to be true Scotch whisky, it must be made from mostly malted barley and aged in oak barrels for three years or more. Their first batch is due to be released soon- in which case I may have to plan a trip back!
Currently, they use other whiskies from the area for their tasting session.
After two distillery visits, you’ll be famished, so I recommend you go back to Port Askaig for dinner at the Port Askaig Hotel.
The hotel pub and restaurant have a fascinating history; at 400 years old, it is the oldest registered pub on the island. You know a building is old when you have to stoop low to avoid knocking your head on the door frame!
The Port Askaig Hotel will delight anyone who loves traditional Scottish decor; it is furnished with tartan carpet, a sandstone fireplace, and a large collection of Islay whiskies. The hotel also employs Gaelic-speaking staff if you want to hear the local language.
They also have incredible seafood. I ordered the lobster, and not only was it sizeable, but it was delectable too! They also have amazing seafood platters if you want to try a little bit of everything. All seafood is freshly caught on or near the island by local fishermen.
Make the most of your time in Islay and get up early for a morning of adventure! After a hearty full Scottish breakfast at Glenmachrie House, you will head to Port Ellen Marina for a wildlife boat tour with Islay Sea Adventures.
Islay locals Gus and his daughter, Bronagh, took us out on this wonderful tour.
Islay is a great island for birdwatching in Scotland; you have the opportunity to spot many varieties of wildlife, including:
- An abundance of birdlife (including sea eagles if you’re lucky!)
- Red deer
- Sea Otters
- Wild goats
You also have the opportunity to view some of the distilleries from the sea, and have a wee dram! As we passed Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig we raised a toast and listened intently as Gus explained the history of the distilleries. We were then taken to Islay’s Special Area of Conservation, home to one of Britain’s largest common seal colonies, which is only viewable from the sea.
Our wildlife tour was 2 hours, and I loved every moment. Islay Sea Adventures also offers fishing and foraging tours.
The distilleries release by-products from the distilling process into the ocean to feed the fish! If you lean in close to the water near a distillery, you can actually smell it.
When you make it back to the shore I recommend having lunch in Port Ellen before heading off to another whisky distillery: Bruichladdich Distillery.
Bruichladdich is famous for its whisky, but did you know the distillery also produces an excellent gin? Learn the fascinating story of how they came to produce The Botanist gin, one of the top four gins in the world.
Bruichladdich has their very own forager, James, who hand-forages the island for the 22 botanicals that go into the gin. The recipe is top secret, however, James does carry it around in his shirt pocket!
The gin is made using the exact same recipe, but don’t be surprised if one batch of gin tastes slightly different from the other. The weather has an impact on the botanicals on the island. No matter the very slight difference in taste, The Botanist is quite literally Islay in a bottle!
For dinner, I recommend heading to The Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. The Islay Hotel is an eco-hotel, and they have a beautiful and formal restaurant that looks out across the Port Ellen Marina. If you want to get dressed up to go out for dinner- this is the restaurant you should go to!
You can eat in the restaurant or in their whisky bar, where they serve over 100 malt whiskies.
Their menu features ingredients sourced as close to home as possible: fresh, local seafood, beef, Argyll lamb, and pork. They also have popular staples such as burgers and fish and chips. For a Islay-infused dessert, try the Lagavulin 16 Crème Brulee!
Take day three as a ”choose your own adventure” day. Something I recommend when visiting Islay is to have a slow day; just being on Islay, breathing in the peaty, salty air is a meditative experience that will leave you feeling rejuvenated.
Begin your morning by going for a walk down the Big Strand. At 12 kilometers [7 miles] long, it’s the longest stretch of uninterrupted beach on Islay. It’s conveniently located beside Glenmachrie House too!
If the weather is warm, go wild swimming at the Singing Sands. The beach gets its name from – you guessed it- singing sand! It’s said that if you rub the sole of your shoe over the sand, it makes a singing sound.
The beach is located on the Oa peninsula behind the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse. There is a small parking spot just before the lighthouse.
Carraig Fhada Lighthouse was built in 1832 by the Laird of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, in memory of his wife, Lady Ellinor Campbell, who tragically died at 36 years old. It’s the only square-shaped lighthouse in Scotland. It also takes a pretty picture! Port Ellen also inherits its name from Lady Ellinor.
Carraig Fhada Lighthouse and Singing Sands Beach
You can also go for a drive to Portnahaven, a charming seaside village on the south-western top of Islay. This is a lovely, relaxing drive. We spotted a field of Highland cows and found an honesty box shop that sold tablet on the side of the road. Take some spare change!
When you reach Portnahaven, walk down to the bay; it is common to see grey seals sunbathing on the rocks and playing in the water. From here, you will also see across to Orsay Island and Eilean Mhic Coinnich (also known as Mackenzie Island). Keep an eye out for the Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse on Orsay.
>> Check out my pal Kay’s post about things to do on Islay for more inspiration!
On day four of my Islay itinerary, you will have another adventurous start to the day- sea kayaking with Kayak Wild Islay.
Kayak Wild Islay offers half-day and full-day custom tours for all levels and abilities. Dave can take you to some of the best viewpoints of the island; he even brings a camera so you can get some photos of your trip so you can relax and be present in the moment, paddling around in Islay’s glassy, crystal clear waters.
After your kayaking adventure, it’s time to exercise your legs by going on a Fat Bike tour of the Three Distilleries Pathway. Kayak Wild Islay also provides Fat Bike tours, so you can jump straight into this activity after your kayak.
You might be thinking what is a Fat Bike? A Fat Bike is an off-road bicycle that has oversized, balloon-like tyres. Despite their size, they are incredibly light, and perfect for riding along the beach or on uneven terrain. They’re actually much easier to ride than normal bikes, and a lot more fun too!
Islay is a cyclist’s dream as it’s very flat. There are also plenty of scenic farm and coastal roads for you to enjoy.
The Three Distilleries Pathway is three miles long and connects the whisky distilleries Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. On this tour with Dave, you may even spot some otters as he knows where they hang out.
After a day of activities, you’ll no doubt be feeling tired. Treat yourself to a hearty meal at Peatzeria, an Italian restaurant in Bowmore. I highly recommend the Chicken and Haggis pizza!
>> Planning a trip with your family? Read this guide on visiting Islay with kids
On your final day in Islay, you’ll start your morning off in Bowmore with some shopping. There are some fantastically creative locals on the island, and during my visit, I was more than happy to spend my paycheque supporting these small businesses and treating myself at the same time.
Start off at The Celtic House, which is filled with books and all the Scotland-themed artisan gifts you could ask for. Then wander up the road to Spirited Soaps, an adorable shop that sells handmade soaps made with whisky, gin, and rum from Islay and Jura.
I purchased a stack of their bath bombs- they leave my skin feeling super soft and nourished, so make sure you buy some of these too!
Established in the 1790s, Islay House Square once housed servants and was a location used for workshops. Today it is a shopping square filled with local businesses selling art, photography, food, and drink.
If you’re anything like me and love filling your home with unique and artisan Scottish gifts, you will love shopping on Islay. Just be sure to leave some space in your suitcase to bring some pieces of Islay home with you!
In the afternoon you will go on your final whisky tour: a beach tasting at Kilchoman distillery. But first, enjoy lunch at the restaurant located on-site at Kilchoman. You can also browse their gift shop, which has lots of awesome merchandise and locally made gifts.
Kilchoman is the only inland whisky distillery on Islay. They complete the entire whisky-making process on the farm, from the barley that is grown in their fields right up to the bottling process. Everything is done on Kilchoman.
The beach tasting is held on Machir Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches on Islay. The beach tasting is the perfect ending to a perfect island adventure. Raise a toast to Islay and make a promise you’ll be back someday.