The great beauty of Islay is that there is so much to do at all times of the year; the Island is a safe haven for families, it is popular with cyclists, walkers, fishermen, shooters, bird watchers, stalkers, farmers and whisky enthusiasts to name but a few. But once on Islay, what is there to see?
Magnificent Coastal Scenery
There is an extensive and dramatic coastline around Islay, but the best places to see this are either at the very north or the very south of the Island. Either park at the Outback Gallery at Sanaig and walk west to see the tall cliffs overlooking the constant swell of the Atlantic Ocean; or visit the American Monument at the south of the Island on the Oa peninsular and walk along the top of the steep cliffs that overlook the North Channel.
Along the west coast of Islay there are some stunning beaches at Saligo, Kilchoman and the Strand between Bowmore and Port Ellen. Beware of strong tides and currents – swimming is not advised on the exposed coast. There are more sheltered beaches at the top of Loch Indaal, near Bruichladdich at Port Ban or at Port Ellen on the beautiful Singing Sands.
Islay has a huge variety of birds throughout the year. During the winter – from October to April, the Island is home to Barnacle and White Front Geese that over-winter from Greenland. During the spring a number of migratory birds stop off on their transit routes both on land and on the water; these include Godwits and the iconic Corncrake whose call can be heard distinctively in the summer evenings. There are also a number of resident birds such as the Sea Eagle, Golden Eagle, numerous Hen Harriers and Chough, which is struggling to survive in the tough environment. The RSPB has a huge presence on Islay – it is well worth visiting their centre at Gruinart and going to the recently refurbished hide to learn about the great variety of birds on Islay.
Islay’s wildlife is not just about birds. There are no foxes on the Island, but there are plenty of otters around; if you are lucky (and quiet) you might see them in the bay at Sanaigmhor or playing around at in the sea at Caol Ila. There are red deer on the hills, roe deer in the woods and a very healthy population of brown hares. The flora and fauna is equally varied with sparse coastal heath in places or well-established woodlands in the centre of the Island at Bridgend.
Islay holds an important place in early Scottish civilisation. There are Iron Age and Bronze Age forts scattered around the countryside – including a particularly interesting fortification at Dun Nosebridge. There is an ancient Celtic cross at Kildalton – testament to the early arrival of Christianity in this part of the world. One of the most important sites is at Finlaggan where the Lords of the Isles held court and ruled the whole of western Scotland from the Isle of Man to the Orkneys. The story of Somerled is an interesting and exciting tale of adventure and bravery throughout the western isles.
The course at Machrie is one of the 100 best in the world; a genuine links course, this beautiful facility can test the best golfers and is well worth visiting if you play at all.
These are all worth visiting, but if you just want to escape the weather for a while a number of them have interesting coffee shops and cafes – there is no need to have a tour if you don’t want to.
Islay is the stepping-off point for Jura; the ferry runs frequently from port Askaig to Feolin. Jura is well worth visiting during your time on Islay – a beautiful, rugged and remote island with plenty of isolated places to go to and very welcoming people. Another possibility is to go to Colonsay for the day – ferries leave Port Askaig on Wednesday morning and will bring you back in the evening. If you want to go further afield, it is possible to hire a boat for a trip up to Iona or the Corryvreckan. These are not cheap, but a wonderful way to explore the west coast; have a look at www.venture-west.co.uk for more details.