What does the word port conjure up in your imagination? Probably lots of people, lots of boats and lots of noise. Port Askaig is none of these things.
There are only three buildings- the Port Askaig hotel, the ferry terminal and our self-catering cottage. I was the only person standing there enjoying the view across to the island of Jura. I can see a small lip from the sandy shore to flat grassland. This rises gently until it reaches the base of the hills where it shoots up to pink peaks. As for boats- about half a dozen small fishing vessels. They were not even bobbing up and down because the water was so serene. I strained my ears, but could hear absolutely nothing.
Fishing boats at Port Askaig
It was only when the door to the Port Bar in the hotel opened that the sound of laughter, singing and accordion music was let loose into the stillness. Inside, four bearded men played their hearts out for the Islay Festival. Paul and I bought two Islay Ales, served by Catherine who told us she did not like beer and only drinks single malt.
“What is your favourite whisky?” I had to raise my voice as the band was reaching a crescendo in an emotional tale of a love lost.
“Black Art. It’s a Bruichladdich whisky, a limited edition. It’s amazing.” Catherine told us that her brother is the Head Distiller at Bruichladdich and when he let her try his creation she immediately loved it. Later in the evening she brought the bottle for us to look at. It was like no whisky bottle I had ever seen with a matt black finish and pointed star symbol. She popped the top off so we could sniff. Vanilla and fruits is what I got, but try as we might Catherine could not be persuaded to let us taste, “Nobody but me is drinking this!”
Whisky is clearly a fundamental part of island life. In Glasgow or Edinburgh if you go into a bar it is unlikely that whisky will be the drink of choice, but in the Port Bar almost everybody was having a whisky. A German visitor asked for some water for his Ardbeg 10 year old. An old man propped up against the bar scowled “Why do you want to put water in it? Whisky is made from water!”
The taste of Scotland
Water, barley and yeast are the only ingredients in whisky. And yet each of the 108 distilleries in Scotland rolls out a product that has a unique taste, smell and colour. Islay whiskies have a distinctive smoky flavour that comes from peat. Islay is basically composed of peat and the malted barley used for whisky is dried over a peat fire. Some people hate the taste and find it too strong, but I adore it. When I first tried a Laphroaig I said, “It tastes like Scotland!”
Long straight road with no traffic from north to south Islay
On the next morning we rode past fields where peat had been cut. I got off my bike to smell the stuff, to try to get a whiff of that heavenly aroma, but I was disappointed. It smelt of...nothing! It turns out that peat only smells when it is burnt.
Getting out of Port Askaig to start the cycle had been a struggle. A ridiculously steep road is the only way to leave and with a whisky hangover and belly full of the hotel’s finest smoked haddock and poached eggs it proved a challenge.Once the road levelled out I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the horizon was dominated by the Paps of Jura. The triangular peaks are almost like a child’s drawing of a mountain created with diagonal up and diagonal down strokes of a pencil.
Before turning south we passed the Ballygrant Inn where the welcome sign promises a bar with 250 malt whiskies to choose from. We were headed for the trio of distilleries - Laphroaig, Lagavullin and Ardbeg- that are strung along the coast, one after the other. The roads we took are “nothing roads”, the white ones on the map with no designation. Not for us the direct route using the “A” and “B” roads. This proved to be a cyclists dream- single track, well-surfaced and through green and pleasant farming country. The number of cars (6) on the road was less than the number of distilleries on Islay (8). The horizon had an outline of distant hills topped by blue skies and blobs of cloud. The wind was strong behind us and pushed us along at 35mph.
Calves of Highland cattle
Our only stop was to say hello to a group of Highland cattle. To our delight there were three calves, which look totally different to the adult version. Although somewhat docile in their manner the adults are huge and have dangerous looking horns. The babies are tiny and look more like shaggy dogs. They are curious and walked forwards to watch me taking notes in my journal, although I don’t know how they managed to see through their overgrown fringes. The only sound was the simultaneous munching and heavy breathing when they feasted on the grass.
Entering Port Ellen it was not the sight of the long, white beach that made us gasp, but the scent of the place. It was that slightly sweet, malty concoction that tells you a distillery is close by. We had a brief walk on the beach, but the smell got us excited about seeing our first Islay distillery and we were soon back in the saddle.
“I think this is a great place. I like the fact that you follow the traditional methods. Do not let anyone change it.” HRH Prince Charles
Two miles later we arrived at Laphroaig, the only whisky distillery to carry a Royal Warrant. I was surprised by the beauty of the white washed buildings on the shoreline, considering this is an industry that contributes over £4 billion to UK exports. I would have expect something on an epic, industrial scale with lots of ugliness, but here I was seeing buildings as white as a wedding on a peaceful bay with very little noise or activity.
Inside the shop Paul discovered an Islay Ale that was run through whisky casks to give an aftertaste of Laphroaig. He sat with this at a picnic table in the sunshine whilst I chatted to one of the staff about the “Water to Whisky Experience”, a unique take on a distillery tour. This involves a trip to the water source for the whisky where you have a picnic lunch then the opportunity to cut some peat. This is followed by turning the malt on the floor of the distillery and then stoking the fire.
Paul and I walked right down to the water to see the warehouse that has ‘Laphroaig’ in huge black letters. This massive writing of the name of the whisky is characteristic of Islay coastal distilleries. It seems to be shouting out the pride for the heritage, tradition and deliciousness of the product. The original reason for this was so that boats receiving deliveries would be able to identify the correct distillery.
The warehouse at Laphroaig
It was only 1.2 miles to cycle to the next distillery. I loved this whisky immersion, travelling small distances from one malt to the next. The appearance of Lagavulin distillery hits you like the first time you put your nose to a smoky whisky. It took us by surprise the way that it suddenly comes into view and how perfect it looks. The buildings are white and there is not a single blemish on them. There is a pagoda roof and a wall with “Lagavulin” in large lettering.
This is when I realised that even if you do not like whisky you should still come for the buildings and the location. Each distillery has its own distinctive architecture and setting that is all part of the tradition and connection with the land. This is what makes whisky special.
Inside Lagavulin we found an elegant, wood panelled room that felt like a survivor from the Victorian era. The place was empty apart from the member of staff behind the chunky wood counter who informed us, “Everybody's at Ardbeg open day. There’s stalls, food, music, tastings. We had ours yesterday. It was mobbed.”
Money for nothing
We headed straight for Ardbeg, a mere 1.1miles up the road. There were parked cars squeezed onto every last bit of road verge, people everywhere with smiles and a never ending queue in the shop.
A band was playing soft rock classics from a trailer parked in the distillery yard. They were blasting out Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing” whilst a sizeable crowd danced along, including a guy with a cowboy hat and hair down to his elbows. Ardbeg Islay-lympics were in full swing and included events like sheep tossing (not real ones, cuddly toys!), terrier racing (real ones) and bog snorkeling. There was a seafood trailer where we bought dressed crab and smoked mussels and bathed in the sun with a Kildalton Ale.
The Kildalton Cross was our next stop, but it was not easy to get back on the bike after a festival. The transition from live music, alcohol and partying to tweeting birds, forest and empty single-track road took only a few peddle strokes. This road was about 4 miles, but contained a great variety of scenery. We were deep inside a forest then emerged at the coast and passed a small beach, and then we were presented with extensive farm lands and a view of distant hills.
It is the hugeness of the cross that first struck me, at 2.65m high. It stands next to the ruined and roofless Kildalton Old Parish Church. I opened the iron gate and entered the churchyard to get a closer look at the detail of the carving on the cross. There are Christian scenes, like the Virgin with Child, David killing the lion and Cain murdering Abel. All of the artistry can be seen clearly despite this dating from the 8th century and being hit with every kind of weather since then.
I imagined the stonemasons chipping away for months to create the cross from a single piece. They would have the same hills as a backdrop, the same rough grass to walk on and perhaps like me they enjoyed looking at the bluebells growing among the ferns.
It did not bother us that we had to cycle all the way back to Port Askaig. We would have the roads to ourselves and they would be golden under the early evening sun. Besides, it was not like we were heading back to face a hectic, crowded and noisy port, was it?
Getting there Islay can be reached by ferry from Kennacraig. To find out how to reach Islay by bicycle, train and ferry read about my journey in Biking and boating to Islay.
Cycling distances and terrain This is a 53 mile round trip from Port Askaig to the Kildalton Cross and back to Port Askaig. The roads are mainly very quiet and little traffic will be enountered. The only exception is the stretch of the B8016 and A846 towards Port Ellen where there is a bit more motorised activity. There are no serious hills on this route, but a few up and down sections.
Things to see and do The trio of whisky distilleries all offer guided tours, but even if you do not take a tour it is still a joy to look at the buildings and admire the architecture. They each have shops where you can buy whisky. Laphroaig has a free exhibition. Ardbeg is the only one to have a cafe, so a good place to plan a refreshment stop. Lagavulin is probably the most stunning to look at because it sits right on the road and the white buildings are very pretty.
The Kildalton cross sits out in the open in a churchyard and is free to visit. It is 4.3 miles from Ardbeg distillery.
Where to stay and eat We based oursevles at Port Askaig and hired the self-catering cottage that is run by the Port Askaig Hotel. We were offered this at a rate of £45 per person per night. This included breakfast in the hotel. The decor was a little old-fashioned, but perfectly comfortable and breakfast was excellent.
The restaurant in the Port Askaig hotel is particularly strong on local seafood. I enjoyed very tasty grilled Islay langoustines in garlic, lemon and butter.
The advantage to staying at Port Askaig is that this is where the ferry to the mainland arrives and departs. The ferry to and from Jura also departs from here. The disadvantage is that it means you must cycle back the way you came, but as Islay is relatively small this is not a problem for reasonably fit cyclists.
There is a cafe in Ardbeg distillery.
A word of caution Even a single glass of whisky can impede your ability to drive a motor vehicle and is equally risky when riding a bicycle. Although there are lots of mentions of ales and whisky in my article we were very careful with what we drank when cycling. If you go on a guided tour of a distillery they may be able to give you a minature bottle to takeaway as an alternative to drinking the free sample that is offered at the end.