Wednesday, July 28, 2010

36 Hours in Islay- Not Enough Time!

CalMac ferry "Isle of Arran"

In planning our Scotland trip, I decided it would be fun to spend time in one of the country's western islands. Taking a ferry boat and experiencing a bit of the maritime atmosphere was appealing. And what better island to visit than Islay (pronounced Eye-la), with its bevy of scotch distilleries , and quirky historic golf links, "The Machrie?"

We and our Kia, boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry at 6 PM for our two and 1/2 hour evening sail, bound for the Islay port of Port Ellen. After a quick but serviceable dinner down below, we spent most of our voyage topside as there was a lot to see. The wild and mostly vacant islands of Gigha and Jura encompassed our view on this clear summer night. As we approached Islay, we could make out the waterfront facilities of the Laphroaig and Ardbeg distilleries. Upon docking, we motored off the gangplank three miles up the coast to our cozy B & B, "The Excise House" -so named because in bygone days, it served as such for the nearby Laphroaig scotch whisky distillery.

Port Ellen harbor

We were greeted by innkeepers Ron and Emma Goudie. Ron by trade is a golf professional who came close to qualifying for The Open Championship on several occasions. He and Emma previously lived in Epsom, England where Ron worked as the professional at the local golf club. But the Goudies audaciously dreamed of striking out on their own as pioneers to more remote regions. After considering other western islands of Scotland, they knew they had found their destiny the first time they laid eyes on The Old Excise House. In short order, they purchased the property, and fixed it up beautifully. The place is now bright as a penny with comfortable
fresh bedrooms. Meanwhile, Ron discovered that The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links did not employ a resident golf professional. He worked out a deal where he serves as the professional on an independent contractor basis. He keeps busy giving lessons and hosting visiting golf groups.

Emma served these tired travelers her very special rockcakes.Pleasantly sated, we turned in early. Having scheduled just one full day in Islay, we wanted to be well rested for our whirlwind of activities on Sunday. After polishing off Emma's sumptuous scottish breakfast, we motored 15 minutes to The Machrie for our 9:12 AM tee time. If you want to golf at a natural links that is reminiscent of the game's ancient past, you really should tackle this 1891 antiquity. Basically the topography of the ground played is unaltered by man. In the 19th century, golf architects did not have the equipment to move tons of dirt to provide the golfer a full view of where he or she is going. Thus, blind shots at Machrie abound. There are forced carries over dunes from the tee, Several of the fairways abruptly plunge into punchbowl greens in dells that cannot be seen until the player is within a few yards of the putting surfaces. Others hide behind formidable sand hills. Only directional posts provide a clue as to pin locations. Did all this make the course less fun to play? Our verdict was that it was rollicking good fun. Each hole became an adventure in exploration and discovery. Although all golfers are immersed in their games often to the exclusion of the surrounding scenery, we did take time to savor the view from the 10th tee of Laggan Bay out to the island of Jura and then the open Atlantic. Lisa and I came off 18 exhilerated by a links that still challenges and bewitches golfers after 119 years.

Scenes from the unforgettable "Machrie" links

After golf, we hurried to make our scheduled 2 PM visit to the Laphroaig distillery, one of many on the island. Lovers of single malt know that Laphroaig is a peaty, very powerful (some would say bordering on medicinal) scotch. I used to hate it; now I love it. Lisa understands the manufacturing process better than I. She can rattle off the various steps in making single malt with ease. I do know that the distillers take barley and soak it until it germinates. Then the barley is heated by a peat fire; next it is turned into grist. Then I forget exactly what happens - I get lost in the minutiae- but smarty Lisa can tell you with annoying specificity. Anyway the tour was informative, and we both downed a wee dram thereafter.

Bill contemplates all he can drink at Laphroaig Distillery

Scenes from Laphroaig (below)

Continuing our whirlwind, we meandered northeast of Port Ellen to see the Kildalton Cross, which is located in an abandoned churchyard. This eighth century relic is the only known Celtic "High Cross" in Scotland. It is in astonishingly excellent condition.

Kildalton Cross

Ron and Emma recommended "An Taigh Osda" for dinner. This hotel-restuarant is in Bruichladdich (home of another distillery) a 45 minute drive from our lodging on the north side of Islay. This afforded us an opportunity to further explore the island. On route, we repeatedly encountered sheep lingering in our path often forcing us to stop. We drove through Bowmore (home of still another distillery). Because we were late for our reservation, we failed to check out Bowmore's famous circular church, so designed so that the devil cannot "hide in the corners." We did not expect to encounter such a fabulous sophisticated dining spot in this most remote area. But the dinner and its presentation by Paul and Joan were top notch. Check

On the way back from a fairly late dinner, we stopped at the Machrie Hotel to watch some U.S. Open coverage on the telly. Innkeeper Ron was still there at 11 PM, entertaining a group of golf visitors. We watched Dustin Johnson's collapse, but did not stay to conclusion of the tournament as we had to board the ferry back to Kennacraig in the morning. Ever cordial Ron saw us off at the dock.

Lisa with innkeeper and golf professional
Ron Goudie at Port Ellen dock

In retrospect, 36 hours in Islay was too short a stay. Lisa, sad to leave, envisioned herself starting a croft in Islay , raising a few sheep and inviting her knitting group from German Village to visit her en masse to help knit the wool.

We hope to be back soon.

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