By Douglas Boatman

Islay, the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’. Not straightforward to get to – but well worth the effort.

Where is Islay? Looking at a map of Scotland on the left hand side you’ll see an island that resembles a stubby-winged dragon being held up by an invisible hand. That’s Islay.

A crow, with decent stamina and good navigational skills could fly due west from the Kingston Bridge and cover the 75 miles at a leisurely pace. For us humans considerably more distance requires travelling, but the journey is good. Up the bonnie banks then turn along the A83 all the way down Loch Fyne to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert. Two hours (or so) bobbing along on the Calmac boat and you’ll arrive at either Port Ellen or Port Askaig.

The crow, even allowing for one or two ‘comfort breaks’ will have got there ahead of you but you will have had the full Scottish breakfast washed down with excellent coffee on the MV Finlaggan ferry and be in fine fettle, ready to explore this beautiful place.

First stop has to be the tourist information office in Bowmore (just left of the distillery). Somebody has gone to great lengths to compile a small, compact brochure on Islay and Jura Distillery tour times. A very handy document to have in the car. Whilst at the information office also ask for a contact list for fly fishing – you never know when an opportunity will arise.

Scotland is famed for the quality of its food and drink and Islay keeps the standard high. Ardbeg distillery leads the way in combining the two. An excellent lunch restaurant (you may need to book) and a very busy whisky tour schedule. (Try the 10 year old – it's nectar!)

At the opposite end of the island there are exciting new developments on the go. Islay's newest distillery has recently opened at Ardnahoe. (Ardnahoe Loch is where I caught a 2lb wild brown trout – The SF editor is still upset about this).

The place is brand spanking new and smells of paint, coffee and scones, and promising malt. A wonderful venue tucked into the hillside overlooking the Sound of Jura.

Further up the road (right at the end) Bunnahabhain is undergoing a massive upgrade. I think the new visitor centre (due to open in 2020) is going to be magnificent. Floor to ceiling glass-fronted restaurant with views across the bay to the grand Paps of Jura. The distillery has always been a popular destination, with 14,000 plus visitors last year. I have a bit of concern about the road quality coping with the potential increase in tourist traffic volume. Camper vans, whisky tankers and rental cars on a single track road with blind summits and hairpin bends are likely to create one or two issues. Beware!

After returning home from a short holiday on the island a relation of mine remarked “Islay? Thank heavens for Wimbledon on the telly – there was nothing else to do!” Not true.

Pick a day when the tide is out. Travel up to Sanaigmore where you will find a top quality art gallery serving coffee and cake. A very pleasant experience. There is a nice beach just down the field. There is an even nicer secluded beach further north towards the majestic headlands where you can see wild goats and a vast range of seabirds – you could spend all day there with a picnic!

Alternatively head back and go right at the phone box to Saligo Bay. Lovely tidal pools (at low tide obviously) with amazing wave-carved architecture. Don’t be tempted to swim in the sea here – the currents are very powerful.

Keep travelling south to Machair Bay. Clear blue water and golden sand. Tenerife without the crowds. The Kilchoman distillery sits back about a mile from the bay and does a very good lunch. Good gift shop too with lots of interesting young whiskies to sample.

Afternoon tea could be at Debbies Café at the minimart in Bruichladdich. Get a seat al fresco and watch the German tour buses attempting to get into the distillery courtyard next door. It's very entertaining!

Fancy seafood for dinner? Port Charlotte Hotel, just two miles further on has both bar and restaurant menu to suit all pockets. If you have a bit more time on your hands make for An Tigh Seinnse right down at the end of the road at Portnahaven. Friendly welcome, lovely food and a real sense of island life in this attractive village.

Don’t be thinking that Islay is a small island. It has 120 miles of (mostly rugged) coastline. Where beaches occur, they are mostly deserted. Access by vehicle can be a bit awkward. The longest beach is The Strand at Laggan Bay. You’ll need a 4 x 4 to get near it because the tracks – either just north of the airport or further up the road near the bridge over the river – are as rough as a badger’s bahookie. Worth the bumpy ride though. Five miles of solitude, sand dunes for the children and rabbits galore to keep the dog busy.

All of the distilleries on the island have a well-stocked shop selling branded goods from shot glasses to sweatshirts but your retail therapy need not start and end there. The Islay Woollen Mill, between Ballygrant and Bridgend has a wonderful range of tartan knitwear and tweed – country clothing at its best.

Just along the road at Bridgend you’ll find Islay Square. Worth a visit to the brewery and the arts and crafts studios that are next door. Round the back of the brewery you will find a massive walled garden run by the community. Well worthy of your support. The impressive Islay House has recently undergone considerable refurbishment – interesting to trace the history of ownership of this iconic building. The Bridgend Hotel has a good lunch menu. Sit outside and watch the world go by (the hotel sits conveniently on the main road junction on the island). Work up an appetite by walking the dog through the community woodlands along the River Sorn.

What to do on a wet day (apart from sit in the house and watch Loose Women). Head for Bowmore – distillery tour very good and staff charming. Nip across the road to C&E Roy and browse through the amazing stock of books and gifts. Price check all the whiskies at the Spar shop two doors down and then have a late lunch at Peatzeria further along Shore Street. They have a lovely covered sitootery looking over Loch Indaal.

Islay has much to offer the outdoor enthusiast. Golf at Machrie – the whole place has had a major overhaul. Safe open-water swimming at Loch Gruinart (seals included) and at the Singing Sands near the lighthouse at Port Ellen. The island is a birdwatcher's paradise. Such is the diversity that the RSPB have bought vast tracts of land at The Oa and Gruinart. As a result your progress may be restricted if you have canine company. The island is one of the few places in Britain where you will find choughs. These rare birds are members of the crow family but look quite pretty with their red beak and legs. If you want to get up close and personal with them head over the Oa to the dramatic cliffs at Stremnishmore – you’ll hear the birds before you see them – keep it a secret though. Don’t get them confused with the golden eagles nesting nearby at Port an Eas. Keep that a secret too!

One wee word of warning. May be advisable to wear ‘stout’ shoes and some form of gaiters whilst strolling over the moorland. Islay has a great population of ticks (with associated Lyme Disease risk) and also a fair number of adders, particularly up toward the north end. (Don’t panic – the hospital at Bowmore will sort you out if need be. I’ve checked).

It is also worth remembering that while this lovely place can be your holiday playground (and I haven’t got around to mentioning the fishing) it is also somebodies workplace. Treat it with respect and you’ll be drawn back to Islay year after year.