The Whiskey Coast
Story and photos by Michael Hiller
Scotland’s isle of Islay offers windswept moors, a historic links golf course, a boutique hotel with stunning views and nine distilleries.
Machrie sits at the far end of a long rope of gravel road that bisects grassy ranchland thick with sheep. You enter the hotel via a granite-tiled vestibule filled with umbrellas and mukluks, along with a statue of a sheep in yellow rain boots — all of which serve to remind guests that rain, wind and wooly critters are constants on Islay.
“If you swam across the Atlantic Ocean from the beach behind the hotel, you wouldn’t reach land until you got to Canada,” says the bellman assisting me to my second-floor room. He draws back thick woolen drapes to reveal the splendid links golf course, an 18-hole layout that unspools from my room’s balcony to the sea. Though the course and the hotel debuted more than a century ago, both have been fully reconstructed and now rate together as one of Scotland’s finest vacation destinations.
Time moves slowly on Islay, and small changes make news. The 2018 opening of The Machrie, a stylish 47-room boutique hotel and iconic golf course with 19th-century footprints, made the front page.
Travelers say they’re increasingly seeking out authenticity, unheralded destinations and a window into how locals live. They’re discovering all of that — plus a notable whisky heritage, an acclaimed new gin and an old-fashioned woolen mill popular with Hollywood filmmakers — on Islay, a remote island off the westernmost tip of Scotland.
“The island is exploding as a tourism destination right now, with whisky, golf and Brexit pushing the way,” says Gavyn Davies. The former BBC chairman owns and renovated The Machrie with his wife, baroness Sue Nye, a top aide to former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and luxury hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray. “When we set out to restore the hotel and golf course, it was imperative to us that they not be perceived as places for rich tourists; we wanted to be part of the community and for our guests to also feel that they were part of the community.”
Few luxury hotels are more welcoming than The Machrie, which is wisely aligned with the boutique Campbell Gray brand. During a multiyear renovation, the owners converted a broken-down inn into a modern luxury hotel that trades traditional Scottish design tropes like heavy tartans and dark, broody rooms for a clean farmhouse look with bold British colors and clean Scandinavian lines.
Hotel general manager Iain Hamilton says the property’s designers drew inspiration from the tumble of the golf course and the seven miles of buttery sand beach that link the course to the sea. Expect rooms and common areas punctuated with wiry sculptures and vibrant paintings. The color scheme combines grassy greens, misty grays and linen whites. Big windows let dappled sunlight spill in. Tweed-covered couches and crackling fireplaces encourage lounging during late-afternoon tea service.
Guests sip salty, peat-forward whiskys and gin-based Manhattans deep into the night. The favored whiskys are all distilled on Islay, and so is the gin — The Botanist brand — handcrafted in a 60-year-old copper pot at the Bruichladdich (pronounced “brook-laddie”) whisky distillery and flavored solely with wild island botanicals like chamomile, lady’s bedstraw and sweetgale. (See The Botanist gin recipe from Grace in Fort Worth on Page 81).
The hotel’s restaurant, called 18, overlooks the golf course and Laggan Bay from a second-story perch. Chefs source local and regional products from Scotland’s bounty, drawing oysters, scallops and lobsters from the bay, fin fish from the ocean, and meats and produce from nearby farms and Aberdeen Angus ranches. High cuisine and pristine ingredients are hallmarks of all Campbell Gray properties.
But Islay may not be a destination that instantly springs to mind unless, perhaps, you’re holding a glass with two fingers’ worth of Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg, or you’re used to the coil of a woolen neck scarf when winter sets in. The island’s perennial tourist draws, after all, are Islay’s nine peat-influenced whisky distilleries, The Machrie golf links and the Islay Woollen Mill, whose woven tartans appear in a number of Hollywood movies, including Braveheart and Forrest Gump.
Christine Logan, an Islay native and tour guide with Lady of the Isles, echoes Machrie owner Davies, saying that visitors who are looking to discover the next red-hot destination before everyone else crows about it are heading to the Whisky Isle. “So many people are coming here now, because Islay offers such an authentic Scottish experience, whether that’s golf or hospitality or whisky or fantastic food,” says Logan.
The island native advises visitors to spend a full day touring Islay’s distilleries, stopping at the Woollen Mill along the way. Two-lane roads unspool through dunes, gorse-filled moors, ranchland and cottages, all while playing peekaboo with the sea. The rugged stretch of coastline that surrounds Islay is easy to navigate in a rental car, but if you’d rather leave the driving to a local expert, the staff at The Machrie can arrange a private tour and tastings at six distilleries, then wrap up the day with hotel spa treatments for everyone.
Whisky and gin aren’t your thing? The Machrie’s summer escapes include fly-fishing for native brown trout and salmon, clay target shooting, relaxing with treatments at the hotel’s PureGray spa, taking scenic hikes, beachcombing, kayaking, birding and, of course, playing sunrise-to-sunset golf.
It’s not often you find “new” and “130-year-old” coupled together to describe a golf course, but that’s the essence of The Machrie. The original 1891 layout had been revised several times, but the current reboot is a full makeover. Blind shots, roller-coaster dunes and greens were restructured to better fit the modern player, who prefers long drives off the tee and broad vistas from the fairways. Despite the changes, The Machrie feels timelessly rooted to the land. Avid golfers who need more than a single course to entice them to traipse across the Atlantic will thrill to learn that six other famous golf courses, each more than 100 years old, are easy day trips from Islay. The best part? The Machrie’s room rates are priced as low as $157 right now, including breakfast (and $273 during peak times), so at least until the rest of the world discovers The Machrie, spending a few nights here is a steal.
The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, Argyll, campbellgrayhotels.com
How to get there Islay has a commercial airport with service from London’s Gatwick Airport, though arriving via Caledonian MacBrayne ferry offers a more scenic, two-hour trip from the tiny mainland port of Kennacraig to Port Ellen (on the southern end of Islay) or Port Askaig (on the northeast coast).
Pro tip If you’re flying directly from Dallas-Fort Worth into Heathrow Airport and want to be pampered like royalty, a secret airport VIP service can save you the 90-minute hassles of immigration and security lines. Heathrow’s “ultimate airport experience” is a private service that meets you and up to two guests at your airplane door, escorts your group down a hidden stairway, then whisks all of you across the tarmac in a 7-series BMW to a private arrivals lounge designed for celebrities, CEOs and dignitaries. While you kick back in your own secluded room (with a bathroom), your butler will mix your drinks, a team of chefs will prepare complimentary meals and attendants will handle all your customs and immigration business. Transportation to your final London destination — including transfers to Gatwick — is included. The service is pricey ($3,500 plus VAT for up to three people for an arriving or departing flight), but it will save at least 90 minutes of frustrating queuing, shuffling and herding at the airport. It’s a royal way to arrive or depart — and you might bump into real royals, who also use the service. Learn more at heathrowvip.com.