“Don’t you know Islay offers more than whisky, Michael?”
She was a red-eyed coffee drinker, a kombucha brewer, an organic juice squeezer, a rare Scottish hippie—possibly an ex-drug addict—working the reception desk of my Port Charlotte hostel. She was pale, Meryl Streep-ish, about 35, wearing a purply tie-dyed T-shirt, brown leather sandals, a long blonde ponytail, no bra, no makeup, jangly earrings, tight black jeans, and large oval eyeglasses that telescoped the center of her face. I was a whisky pilgrim ferry-fresh from mainland Scotland via Kennacraig, onto the Hebridean isle of Islay to taste its single-malts and tour some distilleries—Laphroaig, especially—after my surfy outing in Orkney and a jaunt across the mystic panoramas of Shetland.
“Bloody strange that people will travel all the way here just to drink whisky,” she said. “It’s like going to England just to drink tea.” I told Heather that, for me, Islay’s whisky was cerebral, not mere drink, and Laphroaig’s aroma and palatal complexity—iodine, peat, salt, ocean, seaweed, smoke—flung my psyche afar.
I also theorized that whisky was not little Islay’s sole lure, but, anyway, I did need a bed. She pointed to my room: a narrow cell with a metal bunk and sink and wall heater, comfortable enough, but overpriced at 30 quid per night. No matter—out the hostel’s front door and 45 seconds on foot led me to the small bar of the lochside Port Charlotte Hotel, its smiling, rosy-cheeked drinkers downing pints of Angus Og Ale and sipping drams of the 227 available single-malts from Islay’s eight distilleries: Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman, and Laphroaig, whose name meant “beautiful hollow by the broad bay.”
Outside, the air was crisp, the wind briny, the rain imminent—winter loomed. The hotel’s bar, crowned Whisky Pub of the Year in 2009’s Good Pub Guide, was certainly a snug nook to imbibe for the evening. That morning I had lucked into a rocky right-hand reefbreak on the left flank of a scenic bay, a special place where sheep and Highland cattle grazed green grass and flocks of geese honked high overhead. The wan sun shone and there were no humans anywhere. The waves were glassy and blue, head-high and playful, the water clear and about 45°F. Ireland, a black smear, lay low in the distance.
After the session I had a pleasant guided tour of Laphroaig’s seaside distillery; on the malting floor I chatted with a friendly employee named David, who’d been with Laphroaig for three years; his prior eight were spent with Bowmore. “There’re no hard feelings,” he said. “Aye, we’re all friends in this industry.”
I wondered if he knew of any Islay surfers.
“Nay, not much surfin’ here. But me mate is into windsurfin’, aye. He does it at Machir Bay. He says there are often some big breakers. Have you been to Machir?”
After the tour I drove straight there and saw my first local surfer after four weeks of exploring Scottish islands. He was arguing—something about making coffee—with a girl inside his yellow kombi before he waxed a red egg-shaped thruster and attempted to paddle out, but was annihilated by the large, junky windswell. Then a squall appeared, so I left and drove north for a bit of coastal hiking and birding (Islay supported more than 200 species).
En route, bumping along the empty one-lane dirt tracks and enjoying somber hymns on Radio nan Gàidheal, BBC Scotland’s Gaelic language station, I passed groves of brown-leafed maple and skinny birch, thorny bramble hedges, mirrorlike lochs, babbling brooks, bogs, heathlands, moorlands, gold grasslands, sweeping farm vistas, mildewed street signs, deer, geese, horses, cows, sheep, grouse, ducks, elusive cats, and old stone walls. By the time I reached the thin beach trail the sun was low, the light pastel, and the rustic traits of autumn harkened to a quiet time in my travel memory. Certainly, Islay was of the purest, prettiest places on Earth.