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:
- A Last Minute Pilgrimage to Islay, the Home of Scotland’s Peatiest Whisky
- Air Canada Business Class Via Vancouver to London
- Heathrow’s Terminal 2 and Flybe to Edinburgh
- An Evening in Edinburgh
- Edinburgh Airport and Loganair to Islay
- 50 Hours on Islay
- Transport Potpourri: A Ferry, Bus, and Train from Islay to London
- Air New Zealand Business Class from London to Los Angeles
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.