Ever dreamed of cycling along remote roads and beautiful landscapes with diverse wildlife? Islay is a wonderful island to discover by bike. The roads are reasonably flat and single-track, the places aren’t far apart and there are many beautiful locations to stop. And there’s whisky.
Earlier this month we did a quick trip to the Isle of Islay in Scotland, and as our time on the island was limited, we decided to hop on a bicycle to be able to explore more. I had previously come across the route for the three distilleries walk, which covers Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, and after a bit more research, I realised the route is also a cycle path, so it all made great sense to hire two bikes and see where the road took us from Port Ellen.
We stayed at the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen and found a bike rental very close to where the official cycle path begins. Of course, it is always much nicer if you can bring your own bikes, but if not, these bikes were only £20 a day. As soon as we got on the cycle path, we came across a deer right next to the road. The wildlife is everywhere on the island.
The three distillery -route is pretty quick on a bike, but you can keep cycling all the way to Ardtalla, where you will come across a closed gate and a small parking area. Make sure to bring your swimsuit as the beaches along the way are amazing. It was only 13 degrees (felt maybe more like 16), but the water didn’t actually feel too bad once you were in it. You also have a lovely beach in Port Ellen.
If you fancy sampling some whiskies, it may be worth doing so on your way back from Claggain Bay, as all three distilleries are very close by and close to one another. The first one is Laphroaig. At the moment they aren’t open for tastings or tours, but you can still visit the store and the grounds. Not far from there, along the cycle path, you will come to Lagavulin. They are offering tastings and the shop is open, but tours aren’t yet possible. At Lagavulin Bay you can also find the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle.
It’s a lovely cycle along the path all the way to Ardbeg, after which the road becomes a single-track road. We only came across a handful of cars so you can still enjoy the journey. I had a complimentary warehouse tour booked at Ardbeg at noon so we had lunch there as well. Normally the distillery has a lovely restaurant called The Old Kiln Café, but due to the pandemic, they were serving food and drinks from a food cart in the distillery courtyard. It was still a very pleasant experience as they had many tables around and some music playing. On a sunny day, this would be a great hangout.
The warehouse tasting was very informative, and Emma, our host, made it very relaxed and fun. As a born-and-bred lleach (a person from Islay), she has many stories to tell, and you will also learn about the island life as well as the whisky. We sampled six unique bottlings.
After the whisky and lunch break, we followed the road as far as we could. If you get lucky, you might see seals resting on the rocks of Seal Bay. Some have seen as many as 27 at one time! Unfortunately, we only managed to see an oystercatcher and some crabs. The tide was low so you could walk into the sea for a quite a distance if you don’t mind getting your feet wet.
The road continues for a while before you come across a sign on your right for the Kildalton Cross and Chapel. This is approximately 10km from Port Ellen, just to give you some idea of the distance. Kildalton Cross is one of the few remaining early Christian crosses in Scotland. It is nearly three metres high.
Claggain Bay is a sheltered part of Islay’s east coast, and it offers great views towards Kintyre, a peninsula in western Scotland. It is a great spot for birdwatching (you can find over 200 species on Islay), and the unspoilt sandy beach is worth the visit.
The overall trip was around 32km with a few moderate hills. There is no need to worry about the cars as there are many places to give way and people are really friendly. Some drivers even stop for a chat. We took our time with the ride and stopped for pictures and just to admire the scenery. Once back at the hotel, you will definitely feel like you’ve earned that dram! The Islay Hotel has a wide selection of whiskies, and the dinner menu has many tasty dishes.
I must admit, I didn’t think Islay had that much to offer compared to some of the other islands (excluding whisky…), but after our cycling trip, I think otherwise. It was a really great way to see more of the island and its beauty. Next time I hope we have more time to cycle around different parts of the island and discover some of the wildlife. Cycling is a great way to have a more balanced trip if you love your whisky and cheese as much as I do. Keeps you active, you’ll cover more ground and you can still enjoy a few drams.
A few tips before you go:
- Bike hire in Port Ellen – www.islaycycles.co.uk – £20 a day or £70 a week. Jim is very laid-back, just drop him an email or pop by.
- There’s also an e-bike hire in Port Ellen – www.islayewheels.co.uk – £30 a day with delivery to your location if you hire a minimum of three bikes.
- The Spar near the Islay Hotel sells black cheese that goes beautifully with many Islay whiskies.
- If you have an electric car, there is a free charging point at Port Ellen ferry terminal.
- During COVID times, it is safer to contact the distilleries ahead to book any tastings.
- No booking required for lunch at Ardbeg.
- If you like craft beers, don’t forget to sample some of the Islay Ales.
We took our bikes to Islay a few years ago. Our first ride from Port Ellen to Bowmore was done in heavy rain, but the wind was so strong it had dried us out by the time we got there!