Immerse yourself in Islay’s charm at this forward-thinking, friendly hotel, which already has some prestigious awards under its belt
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As the CalMac car ferry floats into Kennacraig, the excitement among the awaiting vehicles and foot passengers swells. Even the onboard staff are cheery, buoyed by our warm welcome back onto the mainland… but not for long! Soon we our out at sea and up on deck, the wind in our hair and our eyes trained on the shores, looking for seals, otters or dolphins. We convince ourselves a couple of times that we have spotted the former, but our lack of binoculars means we can’t be sure.
We are en route to Islay, The Machrie to be exact, a hotel that would be the definition of a hidden gem if they weren’t currently reigning champions of the Scottish Hotel Awards. The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links lies at the southern end of Islay, the Inner Hebridean island known as the Queen of Hebrides for a reason.
We arrive just in time to experience the most stunning sunset I have seen all year. It casts a ruby glow over the fluffy expanse of heathland that surrounds the hotel, whose sleek silhouette is even more striking than usual at this dramatic time of day. Islay is an evocative place to be, and there is no better place to experience its natural wonder, and its passionate people, than from here, at the Machrie.
Aside from its spectacular, remote location and the unspoilt charm of Islay itself, there are two things that stand out: its style, and its staff. Over the course of our stay we become friends with the Ileachs (the name given to people who live on Islay) who work here. Some of them were born and raised on Islay and have never left. Others were born here, left to work on the mainland, but have yearned for their roots and since returned. And I don’t blame them. Especially as the Machrie, which was reopened in summer 2018 after a complete renovation, has been so lovingly and expertly designed and decorated.
Operated by Campbell Gray Hotels on behalf of owners Sue Nye and Gavyn Davies, it is the exquisite and exciting taste of the husband and wife couple that make this hotel special. It’s more like a residential home-from-home space really, with more than enough comfy living and drawing rooms to go round. From collections of framed silk scarves and antique golf clubs to the beautiful forest of terracotta-potted house plants filling the airy, well-lit restaurant, every room is a quirky, stylish surprise.
But if we had to pick a favourite interior, it would be 18, the restaurant so called because it overlooks the 18th hole on the course (and the ocean beyond that). There we are met by the lovely and extremely knowledgeable Lorna, who rattles through the merits of every dish on the menu that night. I settle on two of the specials: the octopus to start (getting in there just before it’s sold out!) and Gigha halibut to follow, because it comes with squid ink orzo and a Romesco sauce, which sounds deliciously experimental. Lorna explains that the chefs use local, seasonal produce as much as possible and indeed the Gigha halibut is sourced from the tiny community-owned island located in between Islay and the mainland. On the same theme, the following night I enjoy the double-baked isle of Mull Cheddar cheese souffle, which I understand is a regular on the menu. We notice that there are lots of other really strong vegan and vegetarian options – nothing run of the mill here, think aromatic dal with roasted and tempura cauliflower.
Serving food on the homely side of fine dining, 18 is a modern, refreshing and genuinely inspiring place to eat, and what a surprise to find it out here in the wild.
Our room has a tranquil view across the fairway to the ocean. We are tempted straight out of the double glass doors (we have our own private outdoor patio area complete with table and chairs) and over to the hotel’s private seven-mile stretch of white sandy beach.
Thoroughly windswept and with the sound of the sea echoing in our ears, we are finally content to return into the warmth to explore the slick room, which is pristine in every way. From the antler light fittings to a dedicated desk space, there’s obviously been a lot of thought put into making this space both luxurious and fully-functional. The beds, as we are assured by staff and can now attest, are some of the best in Scotland. Enormous and sink-right-in soft.
The Machrie is undeniably a golfer’s paradise. Its course was first designed in 1891 by Willie Campbell, who said it was the finest ground for a golf course that he had ever had the pleasure of viewing. It had a makeover more recently in 2014 and today the 18-hole championship links aims to engage the brain as much as the body, requiring more strategizing and less brute force than the norm. There’s also the Wee Course, a six-hole, par-three addition that has families squealing with joy and buzzing with inter-generational competition.
That said, I’m no golfer, but while overlooking the 18th hole at dinner, I feel inspired to give it a go. Thankfully, the Machrie’s resident PGA Golf Professional Dave Fogle is on hand for private tuition to make this a reality. Teaching is obviously his passion, and he’s very good at it too. We spend a busy hour in the five-bay driving range, sheltered from the rain. Considering me and my partner have very different skills and experience levels (me – none; him – a fair amount), it’s a miracle only possible thanks to Dave’s patience and experience that we both improve in leaps and bounds. I understand (in theory!) all the basics – from grip to posture and the importance of rotation – while simultaneously my partner is treated to a demonstration of Dave’s pride and joy: the Trackman Golf Simulator. It’s a hugely expensive piece of kit that analyses every swing and provides feedback to the tiniest degree of detail, making the Machrie ideal for both beginners and the most experienced players.
Most people come to Islay for its whisky. And for those who don’t – who perhaps want to roam free in this immense outdoor playground or enjoy a round of golf – still get on board with a whisky tasting or two, because it’s an experience not to be missed while on Scotland’s ‘Whisky Island’. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of the distilleries aren’t currently able to offer tours, but those with ample space to move in between the stills are still welcoming small groups. We manage to secure a visit to Lagavulin, one of four distilleries in the south of the island, the other three being Port Ellen (where the ferry back to the mainland departs), Laphroaig and Ardbeg. They’re all within ten minutes of the hotel.
At Lagavulin, our guide takes us through the whole distillation process, showing us the machinery and allowing us to peer in at the barley and whisky at various stages in the process. Our ‘nosing’ (rather than ‘tasting’ – we have samples to takeaway and drink later) allows us to smell three very different Lagavulin whiskies: their eight-year-old single malt and Game of Thrones limited edition nine-year-old single malt among them. By the end, I can’t wait to enjoy a whisky sour back at the Machrie.
The rest of the day is spent discovering local businesses at Islay House Square in Bridgend . These 18th-century buildings once provided accommodation for the servants who served the Campbells of Islay House. Now various craftspeople have set up shops and workshops here. You can grab a coffee from Islay Studios and browse photography taken and curated by Mark Unsworth. As well as prints and many greetings cards you will also find everything from hand-crafted walking sticks to folk music. All of the products displayed are either by a Scottish artist or about a Scottish subject/landscape. John Lowrie Morrison, better known as Jolomo, is one such artist whose bright paintings particularly stand out. MacKinnon’s Marmalade, Islay Ales, linoprinter Jane Taylor and Nerabus, Islay’s first and only company solely dedicated to producing gin on Islay, are all worth a visit for souvenirs and a chat. It’s lovely to meet the makers and hear their stories: they’re in love with this island, and I feel myself falling for it too.
Of course walking is one of the best ways to get to know Islay. Walk Highlands is a great website for finding routes that suit the location, duration and level of technicality you have in mind. We enjoy a circular route around the Mull of Oa to see the American Monument, a memorial to the men who lost their lives in two shipwrecks off Islay in 1918. We also spot a couple of distinctive reg-legged choughs, a rare sight in the UK nowadays but known to nest in this part of the island.
On another day we hike from Bunnahabhain Distillery (in the north of Islay near Port Askaig) to Ruvaal Lighthouse. It’s a clear enough path, though quite hard-going due to bog in some places. Happily we are rewarded with incredible views of the Paps of Jura along the way. Deer scurry across our path and up the hillside with the same frequency as rabbits back home in the Shire, and we don’t meet another human being. Perfect.
That said, just driving around the island is special. The two roads tracking south from Bridgend (A836 and B8016) are pin straight. With ample time to spot oncoming traffic and pull over in one of the regular passing places, you are free to enjoy your surroundings. As locals warn, however, watch out for crossing deer, which could really scupper your chances of ever seeing that hire car deposit again!
The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links is currently closed until early in the New Year 2021. However, they are taking reservations for those wishing to book in a stay after this time. Winter rates at start from £145 per room, per night and summer rates from £235 per room, per night, including breakfast.
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