A Last Minute Pilgrimage to Islay, the Home of Scotland’s Peatiest Whisky (A Cranky Travelogue)

Trip Reports

It’s usually a surprise to people when they hear that I haven’t done a true long-haul trip in a few years. Heck, it’s a surprise to me as well. Most of my travel is domestic, or at least within North America, and I just don’t have the time to go away often between family and Cranky Concierge duties. To make things worse, I’ve had a couple of planned trips thwarted due to work and health issues, including a bad head cold-prevented Virgin Atlantic A350 reveal just a couple weeks back. Prospects weren’t high for that streak to be broken this year until an opportunity presented itself at the last minute. With almost no advance notice, I flew to Islay in Scotland last week, and it was glorious.

There is plenty to write about with the flights themselves, so be patient, and you’ll get to read that. But I’m also doing this one in a longer, more in-depth format sprinkled in to regular coverage over the next few weeks. I’m going to write up my experiences on the ground as well. You can think of it more as a travelogue. Let me know whether you find it interesting or not as I go along. Here’s the plan:

The genesis of this trip came about when I started getting the proverbial itch. I had recovered from my exploding-head-syndrome a couple weeks back, and it dawned on me that my wife was getting ready to take the kids to see her family in the Midwest for spring break in only a week. Last year, she did the same thing and I was supposed to join friends in Japan, but thanks to work problems, I didn’t go. This time I was just planning on working as well, but things were relatively calm and I started dreaming of other ideas.

My initial thought was to do a trip that my wife wouldn’t like. I had some ideas, but I decided to get some help from the crowd via Twitter since the world was my oyster. I was peppered with good ideas, but there was one that I had already had on my mind which stood out.

I’m a big fan of Scotch whisky, and the peatier the better. As much as I love it, my wife doesn’t. So this idea — at least the “fly to Scotland, drink Scotch” part — had promise. Laphroaig has been one of my favorite whiskies for years. The company put together a great marketing campaign where once you’ve bought a bottle, you can become a “Friend of Laphroaig” and have a lifelong square foot of land at the distillery in Islay (EYE-luh), one of the Hebrides islands and spiritual home to peated whisky. Laphroaig pays you rent of one dram of whisky per year, but there’s a catch. You have to claim it in person. I liked the idea of going to collect my rent, but there was one problem. Getting to Islay is not easy. I went to work on seeing if I could put this together.

I still had a ton of miles banked with ANA from last year’s canceled trip, and I really wanted to use them. I focused on just getting to London since that was my best chance of finding availability in the narrow time window I had. My family wasn’t leaving for the Midwest until a flight at 11:40am, so I had to find something after that. That’s when an Air Canada option caught my eye. It was coach to Vancouver but then business over to London.

And on the return? There was a unicorn. A business class seat on the Air New Zealand nonstop from London to LA was there for the taking. For a mere 88,000 ANA miles (yes, it’s a great deal), I was set. Even better, I’m pretty sure ANA did not calculate taxes and fees right since it was only $185.32. The UK’s absurdly high air passenger duty alone should be higher than that, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain.

With less than a week until my trip would begin, I realized I had a lot more to figure out. First and most obvious, how the heck would I get to Islay from London? The two primary choices to get to Islay are either a 5 hour bus/ferry combo from Glasgow or a flight on Loganair from either Glasgow or (as of this month) a new option from Edinburgh. I’d have to spend the night somewhere no matter what, so I settled on Edinburgh.

Since I’d arrive in Terminal 2 at Heathrow on Air Canada, why not take a flight on Flybe up to Edinburgh out of the very same terminal? It was timed quite well and it would be a lot more fun to fly a Q400 out of the one airport that should probably have no small planes flying from it than flying a boring Airbus on British Airways. Sadly you can no longer redeem BA Avios on Flybe, so I just paid the £90.44 and even spent the extra £7 for a seat assignment.

As a formerly-happy SPG member, I find decreasingly little value from Marriott’s Bonvoy program. But I still have the credit card for now and it comes with a free night every year. I used that to stay at the very well-located Courtyard in Edinburgh, and then purchased a flight on a Loganair Saab 340 the next day over to Islay. I couldn’t get the Loganair site to take my payment for the ticket, so I paid a couple bucks more to book it in Sabre for $131.10 and then had to go over to them to pay £6 for a seat assignment. (Payment worked for the seat, just not the ticket, go figure.)

That would get me there, but then how would I get home? I could have done a morning Loganair flight to Glasgow, connect to a British Airways flight to Heathrow, and then fly home on Air New Zealand all on the same day, but that made me very anxious. I didn’t have much time on those connections, and they’d be on separate tickets. Plus, Islay weather is known to prevent flights from running on time. It wasn’t worth the risk, so I’d start my journey the afternoon before.

I briefly flirted with the odd idea of flying a Britten Norman Islander on Hebridean Air Services up to Oban and then take a train to Glasgow from there, but I was told by many that the ferry was something not to be missed. So I bought a ticket on the CalMac ferry from Port Askaig on Islay back to Kennacraig on the mainland for £6.90. Then I bought a Citylink bus ticket for £19.20 to get from there back to Glasgow. From Glasgow? Forget the airplane. How could I pass up the chance to take the Caledonian Sleeper train down to London? I couldn’t, so I bought a Club room for £180, and I’d arrive with a full day in London before my afternoon flight home. Perfect.

I started to fill in the blanks, finding places to stay, looking up distilleries, and lining up transport on Islay. It came together quickly, and I was excited. The pilgrimage was happening… if everything went on time. I had some tight schedules here with little room to spare.

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39 comments on “A Last Minute Pilgrimage to Islay, the Home of Scotland’s Peatiest Whisky (A Cranky Travelogue)

  1. This all sounds wonderful. Thank you for taking the more “romantic” options – looking forward to the report on the ferry and sleeper – I’m grateful so much travel is quick and convenient but occasionally it’s good to be reminded that there’s more to life than speed and convenience.

  2. As a huge Laphroaig/Aardbeg fan this is the kind of trip I need to do before I die. Unfortunately Australia is a little bit further away than LA. Love the travelogue format as well. Looking forward to reading!

  3. Brett, Euston is a 7 minute walk from my work – you should’ve said and I would have taken you for a pint in a pub that’s twice as old as your country :)

  4. We spent a few days in Oban last July and visited the Oban Distillery. Luv’d Oban Distillery whiskey tour and shopping.
    Took train from Dover to London to Oban. Train full of music fans heading for weekend camping musical event in the Hebrides. Fans having family picnics on train and were from all over Europe.
    Went on 3-Islands tour from Oban to Mull, Iona and Staffa.
    British airways business lie flat Montreal to London and return.

  5. Were you on a 787 with Air Canada? I got upgraded to their business class a week ago flying YYZ-SFO and was very satisfied. Actually I got spoiled rotten because that was my first 787 flight (I specifically flew YUL-YYZ-SFO just to get that plane instead of flying home direct YUL-SFO on a crampt A321 in lieu of a currently grounded 737 MAX) so it’s all downhill for me going forward.

  6. My Dad and I both are both fans of Laphroig and Ardbeg. I filled out the application for Dad for his 1 square foot of land. He was lucky enough to collect a dram rent a few years ago. It’s still on my bucket list. Please continue these reports. I like to live vicariously through these types of reports (and the Layovers podcast!).

  7. Several posts about a trip to Scotland? I’m good with this. I spent three days in Edinburgh last December and had a great time.

  8. Love the read, and the story and i await more info. I love Laphroaig and have been toying with the idea of visiting Islay but boy is it hard to get to!! Islay Whisky and Music Festival coming up later this month for those who can get there!!

  9. For those who can’t afford Laphroaig every day, the Famous Grouse is also from Islay (Eye-luh) and pretty peaty.  And if you ever worry about the pronunciation of some of that Scots Gaelic, YouTube has a wonderful guide by Brian Cox, with a tipple after each name.

      1. I stand corrected.  I have a tiny Encyclopedia of Whisk(e)y that I can’t find now, and I thought I read that, but obviously I didn’t.  It tastes peaty to me, but I don’t like the taste and maybe I find it everywhere.

  10. I love that you visited this gorgeous part of the world and got to use CalMac. Assume you sailed from Kennacraig!

  11. As others have said, I’m interested in hearing all of these stories, especially the parts involving airplanes. Glad you got to do this adventure.

  12. Apropos of CF’s post “Never on the rocks. Always either neat or with a splash of water depending upon the whisky,” is the one souvenir from Islay that I treasure. It is a tiny little white pitcher with logo from the Bowmore distillery.

    Although my favorite Islay is Lagavulin, I always bring out and splash from the little pitcher when I pour since it brings back memories of a wonderful weekend that we spent there eight or ten years ago.

  13. Can’t wait to read this. I’ve wanted to go to Islay for years. But I could never go alone. As much as I love good Scotch whisky, my wife is an expert on the subject..

  14. I’m a Lagavulin fan myself, but Laphroaig is a very good choice. And I’m jealous of your trip, especially as I’m from the UK (though not Scotland).

    I’m definitely looking forward to the reports, especially the Island report, how you found Heathrow T2 (including which of the lounges you visited) and, most importantly, how you traveled from central London out to LHR (please don’t say Heathrow Express).

    1. USBusiness – I’ll cover all that in detail, but in short, T2 is nice but built to make you walk forever which is annoying. Only went into the Singapore lounge there. Also, did not take Heathrow Express. I just took the Piccadilly line.

  15. I can recommend the 15yr old cairdeas from Laphroaig, but do visit all the distilleries. I did this last year and it’s been one of the best weeks I’ve spent. Lagavulin 16, bruichladdich octomore, kilchoman Loch gorm… I could go on for some time and that’s without mentioning any of the bottles you can only buy direct and in person when visiting! (Bowmore 18 is my new favourite).

    One of the best places I have ever visited and super friendly. All the locals wave as you are driving past them.

    If you are staying in Port Charlotte, the pub/Hotel there is superb.

    1. I’ve just seen, after reading the other comments, that this trip already took place. Hope it was a great one.

      1. Laphroaig was definitely the best tour I did on islay, though I think I lucked out and had a host who was passionate about the whisky. I’m glad you found the cairdeas, it’s a bit of heaven in a glass. Also glad I found your website (recommended by Google) read through quite a few of your blogs and enjoyed them.

        Slàinte

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