Best laid plans: Whisky & cycling tour of Islay and Jura
The idea for our weekend break in Scotland had been to spend a day or two cycling Scotland’s whisky islands of Islay and Jura.
We had imagined miles of leisurely and flat cycling amid beautiful scenery, beneath a warm sun and with only the faintest of breezes.
We had factored in a couple of distillery tours and hopefully the purchase of a few of the finest bottles of island malts. (We’d even planned ahead and taken rucksacks for the carriage of these bottles!).
We knew the ferry and boat routes and we had access to timetables (except when we didn’t have wi-fi).
We also had a great base, at my friend Nick’s family holiday cottage in Kilmory, south of Tayvallich.
As I said, that was the “idea”.
The thought before the plan
For two years I’ve headed away for early season sunshine cycling with friends Nick, Paul, Andy and Felix. This year, we were also joined by Paul’s friend Octavio.
When Paul’s wife was planning a series of gifts for his 50th birthday year she asked me for ideas. I suggested the combination of cycling and whisky in Scotland. She loved the idea and we set a date for late summer.
Between Nick and I, we created a seemingly straightforward plan of where to stay (his cottage); food (his menu; my plum crumble); ferries to Islay and between Islay and Jura; a boat from Jura back to the mainland; cycling mileage to suit all.
Octavio would not make it because he lives in America and Felix had other plans that could not be changed (something to do with his own birthday!).
Sandra would join us after travelling with Paul from their home in Cambridge. Other partners/wives were invited but in the end it was just us five.
What actually happened
On the Friday, we drove in two cars (with bikes on racks) from Glasgow to Kilmory. We found a gap in the rain to enjoy a short bike ride to check our bikes were in good working order (this was Nick’s idea because, as he pointed out, a bike that doesn’t work when you get off the ferry on Islay could be a bike that ends the entire day’s plans).
We enjoyed a lovely walk to the nearby beach taking in a lovely sunset over near and distant islands. We talked of sunny skies for the next day and we then sat down for a meal, accompanied by beer and wine.
As the drink flowed the thought of getting up for the earliest ferry to Islay the next day seemed less likely.
It became so lacking in likelihood that we changed the plan.
Let’s think again (1)
We reckoned, vaguely and with no proper recourse to maps and ferry timetables, that the 9.45am ferry would be just perfect. Ideal, in fact.
The ferry to Islay
We drove the cars to Kennacraig and just managed to catch the 9.45am ferry after being ushered speedily down the ramp by the ferry officers.
We laughed about that.
We enjoyed a relaxed ferry journey of around two hours. We did a quiz in the newspaper (apparently a Saturday morning tradition of Paul and Sandra). We ate a CalMac breakfast. We drank coffee. We enjoyed the free wi-fi. We worried about the weather. We drank more coffee.
We got off at Port Askaig on Islay and we started cycling.
The signpost said 11 miles from Port Askaig to Bowmore and although there was a bit of a headwind we made good progress. The rain stayed off and the sun often made an appearance.
We passed signs to Bunnahabhain Distillery and also to Caol Ila distillery.
We were happy to be so close to so many distilleries.
We enjoyed the views, especially as we reached the west coast of Islay and cycled along the huge bay towards the village of Bowmore.
But for some reason we started out run out of time.
Let’s think again (2)
A quick calculation of cycling miles and ferry/boat times made us suddenly rethink the trip to Bowmore Distillery. Instead of popping in, we stood outside, breathed in the distinctive whisky making smells, took a couple of photos and got back on our bikes.
A tailwind afforded us a speedy return and in time-trial style we raced back to Port Askaig in the hope of catching the next ferry to Jura.
We passed the signs (again) to Bunnahabhain and to Caol Ila.
We missed the ferry by a few minutes.
Let’s think again (3)
With an hour until the next ferry we decided to have lunch at the Port Askaig Hotel. I am glad we did because the food was very good.
For some reason, we chose to share just one dram of Islay’s Bruichladdich Classic between us.
Why did we share a dram?
We had more cycling to do.
We planned a trip to the Jura distillery.
We would be buying whisky to take back to the cottage.
We would be drinking lots of it later.
Let’s think again (4)
We did board the short ferry from Islay to Jura. The service is every hour if you are interested and it takes about five minutes.
We alighted at Feolin. We saw a signpost that said eight miles to Craighouse where the Jura distillery is located – and where we would need to catch a boat back to the mainland at 3.15pm.
We looked at our watches and realised that the hilly ride, with the strong potential for a headwind, would need to be done at speed.
We rode our bikes as fast as we could. We helped each other up the hills and we sped down the hills. We enjoyed some sunshine and we admired the scenery.
But we didn’t stop.
As we arrived into Craighouse we saw the boat was preparing to leave.
Let’s think again (5)
We looked longingly at the outside of another distillery and took a few photos.
We heard the boat driver shout for us to hurry up. We abandoned any hope of even a sniff in the direction of the Jura distillery shop.
A stunning boat trip to Tayvallich
The private boat took us between Craighouse and Tayvallich on an amazingly calm sea.
As we looked back we saw clouds enveloping the island and we felt pleased that we had be fortunate to cycle in sunshine.
We spotted a porpoise out to sea.
We saw several plump seals basking on rocks.
We passed an impressive lighthouse.
We saw a puffin surfing in the waves.
We planned to make up for the lack of whisky with a beer stop at Tayvallich.
Let’s think again (6)
At Tayvallich we looked at our watches. We still had 15 miles to ride back to our base at Kilmory and we wondered if a beer stop would be such a good idea.
We decided not. (By now we were familiar with the sudden change of plans and we all accepted it without even raising an eyebrow).
We enjoyed a gloriously sunny ride south along the coast to Kilmory.
We rode in pairs and as a group and then in pairs again and we chatted about how some plans do not always come to fruition but how changing the plans can still create a superb day out.
We reached the final few hills on the shoreline road before Kilmory and we longed for a long, cold drink and a meal.
We enjoyed a lovely Saturday evening of drink, food and great chat.
We wished for a plan change (7)
Our cars were still parked at the ferry terminal and we had only bikes to get us there.
The distance between Kilmory and Kennacraig is 36 miles (that’s if you do a bit of off-road style cycling and take the coast road, rather than the busy main road).
Although we set out in only light rain the rest of the ride was spent in a downpour.
We could hardly see the sea, let alone enjoy the wider views.
We were cold and soaked through.
We managed to smile wryly.
We reminded ourselves that yesterday would have been no fun at all it if had rained and that one day of sunshine and one day of rain is better than two days of rain.
We smiled wryly again.
I expect that Paul and Sandra are more than a little happy to return to the warmth of Cambridge and I was very happy to feel the warmth of Andy’s car heater on my feet for the entire three-hour drive back to Glasgow.
We learned that not all plans can be changed at the last minute and that cycling in the rain is tough but it’s often to be expected in Scotland.
Nick said he can’t recall cycling that route in sunshine (and he has been there many times before!).
I found a silver lining in the bike ride: If I’d been at home when it rained I would have done no exercise at all. At least I rode 36 miles even if it was very wet.
Friends, bikes and trips away
If I could I would have wiped out the heavy rain of the last day but apart from that it was a brilliant weekend away with good friends.
I recommend Islay and Jura for cycling although they are not as flat as you might imagine.
I recommend getting the first ferry of the day or staying a night on Islay if you want to fully appreciate the whisky distilleries.
I recommend going on a sunny day for the best views.
I recommend the Port Askaig Hotel for lunch or an evening meal.
I recommend a good waterproof jacket.
Next year we are planning another cycling weekend. If you have any ideas for tours we can do while missing out on the main objective please do suggest them! For example, churches and cathedrals of Cambridgeshire and the beaches of the Uists.