The delicious bounty on Islay
Where better to escape the mainland COVID-19 restrictions than Islay? While the distilleries are undoubtedly one of the major attractions, we were simply looking to enjoy a week at a more relaxed pace of life. What really surprised us was the sheer quality of food on offer across the island.
Staying at the Machrie Hotel, we enjoyed a different cooked breakfast each day, allowing us to sample the chef’s delicious range of local produce. The Skipness smoked haddock particularly shined; eggs poached to perfection and the fish, caught practically a stone’s throw away, was flavourful and heartily enjoyed.
And, if there is a better place to enjoy an afternoon tea of scones with clotted cream than the Machrie’s hotel balcony, overlooking the golf course while the players came off the 18th green, I’d like to know about it.
Bicycle hire is a must on the island. Our push irons took us along the infamous three distilleries path past Port Ellen, taking in Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Ardbeg had just fired up their ARDstream Trailer (a converted Airstream trailer) in the Courtyard. While we only had time to stop for a drink, their wood burning pizza oven looked set to provide the perfect slice of sustenance between distilleries.
Back to Port Ellen and to lunch at the Sea Salt Bistro. What a place! A wonderful menu and welcoming service made it the ideal choice after our strenuous morning on wheels. Refreshed by an Islay IPA, we refuelled with delicious scallops and black pudding to start, followed by haddock risotto (splendidly cooked and plentiful) and seafood linguini (luscious and crammed with variety from fresh mussels to squid).
Car hire for a couple of days allowed us to explore even further. Booking in for dinner at the Port Charlotte Hotel proved to be another excellent choice. In less restricted times, this would clearly be a vigorous venue with lots of live music to accompany their fantastic range (as you would expect) of whisky. Despite such obvious charms, it was the food and service that were the real attraction here.
We – again – opted for the scallops (so fresh and tasty, we simply couldn’t get enough). Meanwhile, for the main, a fillet of beef from Argyll was so tender and full of flavour that it soon disappeared from my plate. Ditto the local venison. To finish, the sticky toffee pudding washed down extremely well with a dram of the Finlaggan Feis Ile 2018. Charlie, their whisky guru, had such great knowledge, I was happy to take his recommendation.
Ardnahoe, the most recent distillery to open on Islay is well worth a trip. Situated overlooking the Paps and Sound of Islay, the picture-perfect view begs to be enjoyed over a lunch stop or, at least, to sample one of the of the many tasty cakes on offer.
Loch Indaal Seafood Kitchen had been recommended to us as having the some of the finest fresh seafood on Islay. Suffice to say it did not disappoint. We resisted ordering their famous seafood platter (£100) and settled on the battered haddock, fried and served with peas. Not too original but the fish, fresh from the sea, was simply delicious.
Back to our wish for a more relaxed pace, it would be remiss to not mention the terrific beaches. Two in particular; Machir Bay on the west, past Kilchoman distillery (stunning and completely deserted when we visited in the morning) and Machrie beach, closer to the hotel (windswept and wonderful to walk and enjoy the surroundings on your own).