Competition (NOW ENDED)
Arran, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin & Ardbeg.
If just reading these words has your mouth watering, then this article is for you.
This trip would make a pretty spectacular “surprise present” for any whisky-lover (or even anyone who just loves enjoying amazing natural beauty).
And rather than tell you how delicious these whiskies are (they are), or tell you how absolutely beautiful the islands of Arran & Islay are (they are too), I want to show you that it’s really not that difficult to get to both Arran & Islay in one trip and to visit the distilleries where these Kings of Whiskies are born.
These instructions go into some depth though. So much so, that it might seem like a rather busy itinerary. But it’s really not. I’m not a big fan of busy itineraries anyway. Travel should be fun. And, as far as I’m concerned, that means relaxing.
But public transport is very limited in some of these places (and non-existent on Islay on Sundays). Miss one ferry/bus and you might have to wait a few hours, or even until the following day, for the next. And you will never catch up with this itinerary. So you will have to be rather “fanatical” about making these transport connections.
These instructions are for foot passengers though. Believe it or not, this is the easiest way to make this pilgrimage (assuming that you miss out being on Islay on a Sunday – when there is NO bus service). So travel light. And you might want to leave a bit of empty space in your bag – because you will be coming back with a bottle (or more).
[If starting from Glasgow International Airport (GLA), take the airport bus to Paisley Gilmour Street train station, from where you can take the train to Ardrossan Harbour train station. Rail timetable: www.scotrail.co.uk].
[If starting from Glasgow Prestwick Airport (PIK), take the first Glasgow-bound train from the airport train station, but change at Kilwinning (3 or 4 stops, depending on the train), from where you can take a train to Ardrossan Harbour train station. Rail timetable: www.scotrail.co.uk. And remember to show your Ryanair boarding pass for half-price rail travel in Scotland from Glasgow-Prestwick Airport].
It is also possible to make this journey by car though, but as you will need to make advance reservations for your car on SIX different ferry crossings, then a good deal of advance planning is required. In this case, I would miss out Arran altogether, and drive directly to Kennacraig – as this would then only involve two ferry crossings.
And if you’re one of those people who loves hanging around airports, Islay has one.
Also, it is not always necessary to book a distillery tour in advance. But they can be – and I definitely recommend that you do so, as places on these tours are limited. If you don’t, you risk travelling to the distillery, just to find that the tour that you need to be on is full. It’s a long way to go just to be disappointed.
So, the detailed itinerary:
The Whisky Pilgrimage.
Glasgow <-> Ardrossan <-> Arran <-> Kintyre <-> Islay
Glasgow – photo courtesy of Glasgow Life
From Glasgow Central train station, take the direct train to Ardrossan Harbour train station. Rail timetable: www.scotrail.co.uk
I would recommend taking an early morning train from Glasgow Central train station. The earlier the better (8am early), but no later than 11am. This will mean that you will have time to visit the Arran Distillery at Lochranza (Arran), in the afternoon too.
There is no risk of missing the train station at Ardrossan Harbour as it is the last stop on the line. The wifi-enabled train takes you directly to the harbour, and to the #1 attraction (the only attraction?) of Ardrossan: the ferry to Arran.
Ardrossan-Brodick (Arran) Ferry:
The company which runs this ferry, and most ferries on the West of Scotland, is Caledonian MacBrayne (or Calmac as it is known locally). Timetable & Tickets: www.calmac.co.uk
Photo courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne
If you still need to buy a ferry ticket when you arrive at Ardrossan harbour, then you can do so in the ferry terminal building in Ardrossan harbour. But you can also book your tickets in advance, online, and simply show your printed ticket as you board the ferry.
Boats leave every 2-3 hours throughout the day, and the crossing takes 55 minutes. Boats are often delayed or cancelled (especially in the Winter months), so always aim for the earliest sailing possible. This is true for all ferries in this Whisky Pilgrimage itinerary.
If you wish to visit the Arran Distillery in the afternoon, then you should be aiming to catch a ferry that leaves no later than 1pm (the 12:30pm sailing on the current timetable), but I would aim for the earlier 09:30am crossing.
Arran. Brodick to Lochranza by bus:
Photo courtesy of Visit Arran
There is no need to wander into Brodick town centre yet (you’ll be seeing it later anyway). The round-island bus (bus number 324) which will take you to Lochranza stops immediately outside the Arran Visitor Centre building inside Brodick harbour complex.
Make sure that you board the bus which is travelling around the island in an anti-clockwise direction though (you will still get to Lochranza the other way too, but it takes forever to reach Lochranza, you will have to change buses at Blackwaterfoot – and you might arrive too late to visit the Arran Distillery that afternoon).
Night 1. Lochranza.
Lochranza Castle – photo courtesy of Visit Arran
There are a few places to stay in Lochranza. The very lucky ones will be staying with Vicki Hudson at Castlekirk though.
A B&B/art gallery housed in an old converted church. With a simply stunning view over the ruins of Lochranza Castle from your breakfast table. And where wild deer wander through the garden in the evening (as they take their evening stroll through the village).
There are two more important reasons for staying at Castlekirk though:
1. The bus from Brodick stops just metres from the front door, and, even more importantly;
2. Access to the Arran Distillery is simple. You just step outside, turn right and walk along the same pavement for a few hundred metres. Until you see the pagodas of the distillery.
A great place to spend the evening, after visiting the distillery first of course, is the Lochranza Hotel. Where you can enjoy a spectacular sunset (if the weather is playing nice), while you enjoy some excellent Scottish hospitality.
The Arran Distillery:
Photo courtesy of Arran Distillery
There are distillery tours then there are distillery tours.
And at Lochranza you’re in for a treat.
The distillery tour at the Arran Distillery has won awards. Voted “Distillery Visitor Experience of the Year” by Scottish Field Magazine in both 2014 & 2015. And awarded “Best Contribution to Wine & Spirits Tourism” by the prestigious Drinks Business Magazine in 2017.
Lochranza-Claonaig (Kintyre) by ferry:
MV Loch Tarbert – photo courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne
Another Calmac ferry. Timetable & Tickets: www.calmac.co.uk
The first ferry of the day leaves Lochranza at 09:30. And you should aim to be on it. After a very hearty Scottish breakfast of course.
The ferry crossing to Claonaig takes just 30 minutes. And, again, tickets can either be bought at the ferry terminal or online. Buying your ticket in advance means one less thing to do on the day – just turn up and show your printed ticket as you board.
The ferry arrives at Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula (Mull of Kintyre), and the bus stop (for your onward journey to Kennacraig) is located right by the ferry terminal.
Claonaig to Kennacraig by bus:
Photo courtesy of West Coast Motors
At Kennacraig you should have time for lunch before boarding the 13:00 (current timetable, both Winter and Summer) ferry to Port Askaig (Islay).
Kennacraig-Port Askaig (Islay) by ferry:
MV Finlaggan – photo courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne
Another Calmac ferry. Timetable & Tickets: www.calmac.co.uk
This ferry takes just under 2 hours. [There is a restaurant/cafe/bar on the boat, so there is plenty of time for a very leisurely lunch/drink on board if you missed lunch in Kennacraig before boarding].
On this ferry crossing, and again on the return trip (from Port Ellen), keep your eyes peeled for dolphins (they sometimes play in the bow-wake of the ferry) – and even whales!
Islay. Port Askaig:
The Islay ferry arrives at Port Askaig in the north of the island.
Port Askaig to Bowmore by bus:
From Port Askaig (the bus stop is located right by the ferry terminal), take the first 451 bus to Bowmore. Bus timetable [pdf]: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/islay_450-451_timetable_1.pdf
The bus stops at the Co-Op in Bowmore, from where you can easily walk to your Bowmore accommodation. There are a few lodging options in Bowmore, but my advice is to book somewhere as soon as possible. And, as the last distillery tour at the Bowmore Distillery is at 15:00 (which you will arrive too late in the afternoon to take), check into your hotel/B&B – after which the late afternoon/evening is yours to enjoy some more wonderful Scottish hospitality (and if the weather is good, to enjoy yet another pretty spectacular sunset).
Night 2. Bowmore. (or Nights 2 & 3 at Bridgend if adding the Bruichladdich option – see below)
Sunset at Bowmore – photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery
The following morning (or on your last morning in Bridgend if you stayed there and visited the Bruichladdich Distillery), and after another hearty Scottish breakfast, wander along to the Bowmore Distillery, and take the first distillery tour of the day.
Photo courtesy of Bowmore Distillery
The first tour of the Bowmore Distillery is at 10:30am (09:30am on a Saturday).
What Bowmore say about the Bowmore Distillery tour:
“On this one hour tour you will be guided through one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries and will witness how our Craftsmen produce a whisky steeped in tradition. End the tour with a Dram of Bowmore whilst you enjoy the view over Loch Indaal. The tour includes a Bowmore glass to take home.”
Bowmore to Port Ellen by bus:
After the one-hour tour of the Bowmore Distillery, wander along to the same bus stop (that you arrived at from Port Askaig the day before), and take the first 451 bus to Port Ellen. Bus timetable [pdf]: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/islay_450-451_timetable_1.pdf
It takes the bus just 24 minutes to reach Port Ellen.
And this is where the duration of your trip is governed by your decision of how many of the nearby world-famous distilleries you plan to visit. Either just one of the three (Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Ardbeg Distilleries), which will mean a one-night stay in Port Ellen; or all three (which requires a two-night stay).
If planning to visit all three distilleries, then take one tour on that first afternoon, and on the following day, tour the remaining two (one in the morning, and one in the afternoon).
Because of the times of the tours, and the duration of each, it is not possible to see more than one in a morning or afternoon (and as you will no doubt be sampling a few drams at the end of each tour, that might not be such a bad thing 😉 ).
Photo courtesy of VisitScotland
Three or four one-hour tours every day. Laphroaig also offer a Layers of Laphroaig Tasting session in their tasting room each afternoon. This costs a little more, but would be perfect on your first afternoon if you were only planning to visit one of the three distilleries.
Laphroaig Distillery Website: www.laphroaig.com
Photo courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne
Located 2.7 miles from Port Ellen in the picturesque Lagavulin Bay, and in sight of the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, the unusual pear-shaped stills of Lagavulin Distillery produce a smoky/peaty gem of a whisky that is enjoyed the world over.
Photo courtesy of Ardbeg Distillery
Voted “World Whisky of the Year” no fewer than 4 times in the last few years, Ardbeg has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference,” by whisky connoisseurs.
How to get to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg Distilleries?
The 451 bus continues all the way to Ardbeg after it stops in Port Ellen. So my suggestion is to start with the Ardbeg Distillery, then visit the Lagavulin and Laphroaig distilleries as you walk back to Port Ellen. If you don’t fancy walking (or if the weather is a bit, erm, Scottish), then I am sure that the bus driver will only be too happy to drop you off at any of the three distilleries.
Night 3 (or 4 or 5?). Port Ellen.
In the morning, and after yet another hearty Scottish breakfast that will set you up for the day, and again as early as possible, take the ferry from Port Ellen back to Kennacraig (Kintyre).
Port Ellen-Kennacraig (Kintyre) by ferry:
MV Hebridean Isles – photo courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne
And yet another Calmac ferry. Timetable & Tickets: www.calmac.co.uk
The first ferry of the day leaves Port Ellen at 7am, but you still will have enough time if you take the later sailing at 09:45am. Arriving at Kennacraig around noon.
Again, keep a lookout for dolphins and whales.
Kennacraig-Claonaig by bus.
Claonaig-Lochranza (Arran) by ferry:
Another Calmac ferry (you will have already been on this boat going in the opposite direction). Timetable & Tickets: www.calmac.co.uk
30 minutes later you will be back in Lochranza.
Photo courtesy of VisitArran
If you are in a hurry to get to Brodick for a look around the town before catching the last ferry back to Ardrossan, then take the clockwise bus directly to Brodick. But, as well as missing out on seeing more of Arran, you will also miss out on a visit to the Arran Brewery.
However, if you prefer to continue at a more leisurely pace, want to see more of the island and enjoy even more Scottish island hospitality, take the anti-clockwise bus. All the way to Brodick (although you may have to change buses at Blackwaterfoot). And on your way around Arran, maybe stop at some point along the way, and catch a later bus from there? Then continue anti-clockwise to Brodick on a later bus.
Night 4 (or 5/6/7?). Brodick.
Brodick is the largest village on the island, so there are more accommodation options here.
And visiting all of those distilleries will have been thirsty work. So today, to make a wee change, it’s beer. And that means the Arran Brewery.
Photo courtesy of Arran Brewery
In the morning, and after yet another hearty Scottish breakfast that will set you up for the day, leave your bags at your Brodick hotel/B&B for safekeeping, and then stroll around the bay (or along the Fisherman’s Walk) to The Arran Brewery. Or if you don’t fancy the stroll, you can also get there by bus: 322 or 324.
The Arran Brewery is a smallscale craft brewery where you can watch the brewing process (and sample some pretty spectacular beers at the end of the tour). And where you can buy even more bottles to add to your now-bursting bags. Website: www.arranbrewery.co.uk
Then, after a final stop for lunch in Brodick, make your way along to the harbour, and catch a ferry back to Ardrossan (another 55-minute journey). And from Ardrossan Harbour train station, catch a train directly to Glasgow Central train station (or Paisley Gilmour Street station if heading back to Glasgow Airport).
A 5-day/4-night trip, that can easily be extended to a longer trip if you have time. If you do, I would definitely recommend that you spend two nights in Bridgend (instead of the one night in Bowmore, visiting the Bruichladdich Distillery there on your extra day), spending an extra night at Port Ellen (and visiting all three of the distilleries there), and spending an extra night somewhere on Arran on your return trip around the island. Making an 8-day/7-night trip.
And why no Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich or Kilchoman in the basic trip?
Pure and simply because of time.
Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila?
Caol Ila Distillery can easily be reached from Port Askaig (on the 451 bus). But you will arrive too late, if following this itinerary, to visit in the first day. So you will have to stay in Port Askaig overnight.
However, if you do, and if you fancy a good walk after visiting Caol Ila, you could walk along to Bunnahabhain Distillery, and combine a visit to both distilleries on your extra day.
A side-trip to the Bunnahabhain distillery on its own can be made from Port Askaig. But there is no public transport. Your options are either to take a taxi, or to walk (it’s a glorious walk all the way to Bunnahabhain though – a bit hilly, and it will take 2 hours or so, and the weather might not be that great – remember, this is Scotland).
It also means that you will have to spend an additional night in Port Askaig. And then put the rest of the itinerary back by a day.
Difficult. But not impossible.
The hardest to include on this tour. If this is a must for you, then the Kilchoman Distillery can be reached from Port Askaig. But not by public transport.
Again, it just takes extra time. And you will need to spend two nights in Bridgend, instead of your one night in Bowmore (to visit the Bowmore Distillery simply take the early morning 450 bus from Bridgend to Bowmore). Bus timetable [pdf]: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/sites/default/files/islay_450-451_timetable_1.pdf
So, one additional night is needed.
There is a bus to Bruichladdich though (from Bridgend). So that makes it a possibility.
So of the four, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman or Bruichladdich, Bruichladdich is the easier distillery to visit as part of this trip.
This whole trip could be made by flying directly to Islay Airport, from Glasgow Airport (GLA, not PIK) on one of the twice-daily Flybe services. And then taking a taxi to the distillery of your choice.
But a flight and a cab-ride does not a pilgrimage make.
These wonderful whiskies take years to become the gems that they are. They are definitely worthy of a few days of your time.
The whisky clock turns very slowly indeed.
To celebrate and to promote this new Whisky Pilgrimage guide, I have a pair of tickets for a tour of the Laphroaig distillery on Islay to give away.
I will select one reply, at random, at 23:59 on June 30 2018.
These “virtual” journeys are just my way of continuing to see the world, now that the progression of my ataxia means that lengthy travel is no longer a possibility for me. Hence the detail. By planning the journey in such detail, I end up knowing the route so well that I feel like I have been on it myself.
So if this article has inspired you, saved you some valuable time (or even just saved you a few pounds/euros/dollars), please show your appreciation by making a donation to Ataxia UK (registered charity), by following this link:
100% of your donation goes directly, and immediately, to Ataxia UK (plus an additional 25% if you are a UK-taxpayer and have ticked the “Gift Aid” box).
And a personal request?
Share a photograph, that you take at some point on your journey, with me on Twitter. Not necessarily your “best” photograph, but the one photograph that will forever remind you of your journey.
That way I can live a little piece of the journey through your eyes.