Our adventure to the Inner Hebrides had to begin by road and involve taking to the water. Like real travellers.
In my mind, it was the only way to prepare ourselves for our time on Islay. Yes, you can board a tiny flight from Glasgow and be preparing yourself to land just almost as soon as you’ve taken off (flight time is 45 minutes), you might even witness the dramatic coastline of the West of Scotland from the air (if you get a window seat). But you’ll miss breathing in the North Atlantic air, being enveloped by the mountains and getting up close to those majestic lochs on the drive to the port.
You’ll also miss the gradual easing of that familiar tightness in your shoulders -your head lifting and your heart lightening.
We set sail for The Machrie Hotel on Islay – the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean islands – after a night’s stop-over in Glasgow followed by a long, winding, scenic drive to Kennacraig.
We went off into the late summer sunset as the white clouds formed in swirls, the ocean twinkled and time slowed down, rocking us gently into our new pace for the next three days. (*Disclaimer: this ferry experience may prove slightly different in winter months*)
As we approach Islay and Jura – Islay’s close neighbour – we spot the ‘Paps of Jura’, three distinctive mountains, and then, in time, the chimneys of Islay’s many whisky distilleries come into view. These spotless black and white buildings have a character all of their own but are only distinguishable from each other by the huge painted brand names pointing out to sea.
We leave the ferry and explore the famous distilleries which have made Islay’s whisky so distinctive and iconic. The peat in the ground makes for smoky and strong single malt whiskies and is the reason there are an impressive nine distilleries on Islay. Not bad for an island that’s 25 miles wide and whose population is half that of the Yorkshire village we live in.
The entrance to the Ardbeg distillery has a bench with the carvings that encourages us simply: ‘Rest and be thankful, for you have arrived’… and considering the fact we’ve quickly realised that motorists on Islay wave at us as we pass, affording this warm gesture to even us outsiders, we decide to listen to this kind suggestion.
Before we even arrive at The Machrie, Islay, we have already had the ‘wonder what it’s like to live here’ conversation after we marvelled at the bikes left unchained outside local shops. One fellow non-islander we chat to tells us, “yesterday I saw someone get off their bike outside a shop, then put their backpack on it before they went in to get their shopping.” A happy waitress at the fantastic PeatZeria restaurant tells us there are many jokes played when friends spot cars left alone, unlocked with keys in the ignition. Don’t you just love these tiny but significant culture shocks?
Islay – the Queen of the Hebribes – captures our hearts immediately. And this is even before the sun comes out. It’s made up of a number of settlements, the largest being Port Ellen, capital Bowmore, Port Askaig and Portnahaven. Place names such as Bunnahabhain, Ballygrant and Ballinaby remind us of Islay’s Gaelic traditions and that it’s just a 17-minute helicopter ride from Northern Ireland, or an hour’s boat trip.
There’s much to do on Islay and there are many visitors who come from far and wide, but let’s get down to it, we’re here for the golf and a five-star treat, where we’d just like to rest and be thankful…
The approach to The Machrie Hotel could not be more dramatic. As you turn from the main country road into the hotel’s 1km driveway set in the lowlands of Laggan Bay, there is a real sense of wonder. The many species of birds which nest in the flat-for-miles moorland, frame your arrival, dancing up from the ground all around you and providing the perfect soundtrack. A few rogue sheep defiantly watch as you pass. And right there up in front is The Machrie, the huge Islay sky its only backdrop, and a helicopter on its lawn.
This splendid destination-hotel has been planned out to the last detail, opening its doors again in 2018 as a contemporary, luxury and relaxed retreat that means golfers, non-golfers, families and friends can enjoy the adventure to Islay and a five-star break together with a bit of golf thrown in. OK, OK. More than a bit of golf. Even I can see that this links course is special, and that its added extras (wee course, driving range, putting greens and short-game area), along with its breathtaking view of the course and sea from the beautiful 18 restaurant and bar, means the course wraps its arms around you and includes you, even if you’re not planning to take to it yourself. You can’t help but be drawn in by it all.
The welcome is warm, the vibe chilled and chic, the building airy and comfortable. The artwork, collections of books and soft furnishings are carefully thought out and the huge windows make the most of the vast landscape. The Machrie Hotel has 47 rooms, meaning the hotel feels sociable yet intimate, peaceful yet stimulating. We stay in room No 14 which not only boasts views on three sides, but we are also told happens to be favoured by Gordon Campbell Gray when he comes to stay. The Machrie Hotel was most certainly a place where we could enjoy ourselves but fully rest and recharge too.
Things to do at The Machrie Hotel
-Catch the sunset
The special Scottish summer sunset does not disappoint. The purple-orange hues last until long after 11pm in summer. Watch from the ocean-facing restaurant with a sundowner or take yourself down to the beach if it’s not past your bedtime.
-Walk to the beach
The Machrie links overlooks the Big Strand, a 7-mile uninterrupted stretch of beautiful sand and a 10-minute walk through the course pathways. On sunny days you catch the turquoise aqua shades in the ocean and while this is might be the longest stretch of beach on Islay, a busy beach this is not. Breathe in the tranquillity.
-Eat in the restaurant
You’ll find Scottish cuisine in style here at 18 Restaurant and Bar. With its impressive vaulted glass ceiling, the décor is light and stylish and the food is unpretentious but quality… comfort food with bells on. There is a great menu selection and delicious local produce that won’t break the bank, including dishes such as scallops and smoked-mackerel pate, Highland beef and haggis. The terrace and big windows allow you to enjoy the south-westerly view as you dine.
-Bagsy the big window view
Have coffee in the lounge in front of the gigantic view towards the 18th green and the sea where the North Channel meets the North Atlantic Ocean. Take it all in.
-Golf. So much golf.
Best reading this piece to indulge in the golf.
-Puregray Spa & Gym and the cinema room
Both closed due to Covid during our visit to The Machrie Hotel but we hope to be back to try them out.
If you’re here with kids, tuck yourselves away for some quiet time and a board game in The Snug to keep them entertained between golfing and dinner time.
As we say goodbye to The Machrie and Islay, we agree we can’t wait to come back again with the kids, already planning what we’ll do when we get here. It’s a break that is fully accommodating for all, providing enough to do while not being too overstimulating or busy. It’s exactly the Islay way. An adventure to get there, it then keeps things simple, slows things down, but gives you enough warmth and fun to just want to be there. We head off the island and into the world where nobody waves just because you’ve driven past them, which is a little bit sad. Thank you The Machrie. We rested, we were thankful, and we will arrive again.