Whiskey, wilderness and wildlife on Scotland's Hebrides

Associate Editor Paul Felt toured Scotland's Inner Hebrides islands. His report follows:

PORT CHARLOTTE, Scotland -- One needn't spend too long driving along the lush hills of Islay to realize that sheep outnumber people here.

Islay is a principal island of the Inner Hebrides, a group of islands off Scotland's west coast.

Sheep grazing at Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, a working farm and bird sanctuary on Islay. A 35-minute flight west of Glasgow, Islay is a quiet, tourist-friendly farming island with several charming seaport villages, fine restaurants and accommodations. It also is one of Scotland's four major whiskey-producing regions.

Our stay on Islay began with a visit to the Laphroaig, pronounced La-froyg, distillery on the island's southeastern shore.

Laphroaig, Gaelic for "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay," is one of six active single-malt whiskey distilleries on the island.

Iain Henderson, manager at Laphroaig, walked our group through the distillery and explained the scientific process behind producing whiskey.

He credited the distillery's location as an important part of the formula.

Local distillers claim there's something special about Islay -- particularly the peat, which, when burned in a kiln to malt the barley, makes an unmistakable imprint on the whiskey's flavor.

Laphroaig is known as the most "peaty" of whiskies -- not a drink for the faint-hearted -- and is actually a favorite of Prince Charles, whose picture from a 1994 visit hangs at the distillery's entrance.

Whiskey is not the island's only allure.

Those seeking a quiet seaside holiday from elsewhere in Scotland and the U.K. will find themselves sharing the island with wintering geese.

In the fall, thousands of barnacle and white-fronted geese return from breeding grounds in Greenland to spend the winter on Islay, which enjoys a warm gulf-stream climate year-round.

The Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, created by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in part to shelter the geese, operates as a working farm and wildlife sanctuary and is located in the narrowest part of the island between Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart.

From late October through May, visitors might see up to 18,000 geese on the reserve.

A public road runs through the reserve, leading to a visitor center midway through, and a hidden shelter provides shutterbugs the opportunity to get close-ups of the birds.

Drivers must keep alert, particularly at night, to avoid sheep crossing -- or just plain sitting -- in the road.

Islay's single-lane roads serve traffic in both directions, with waiting spots interspersed to allow cars to yield. The courtesy that drivers show, as well as the slow pace at which they must travel, fits the island perfectly.

Continuing to the west shore of Loch Indaal to Port Charlotte, our group stayed at the Port Charlotte Hotel, whose 10 rooms provide terrific sea views.

The hotel bar was a comfortable setting to drink with locals by the fire.

The hotel's owner resides on the premises and makes his presence known to guests by sometimes acting as a concierge as well as livening up conversations at the bar.

The Port Charlotte Hotel's restaurant, Croft Kitchen, takes advantage of fresh seafood as well as lamb and beef from local farms.

Our group also enjoyed a good meal at the nearby Harbour Inn in Bowmore, a quaint village on the eastern shore of Loch Indaal made famous by its namesake distillery.

The Harbour Inn's Rob Roy coffee is made with Bowmore whiskey, as is one of its desserts.

Visitors to the Scottish Isles who are looking for an even more tranquil location can take the ferry from Port Ascaig to the neighboring isle of Jura.

The name Jura is believed to have been derived from the Norse expression for "deer island." Deer on the island now number about 6,000.

The ferry crossing between the neighboring isles takes about five minutes, with service about every hour starting at 7:45 a.m. and running until 6:30 p.m.

Jura has only one single-track road, as well as one hotel and one distillery in the village of Craighouse.

The west coast of the island is accessible only by foot or boat. Our group spotted seals lounging on the rocks as we rode a motorboat out to the Corryvreckan Pools, a treacherous whirlpool zone near the ocean.

Another point of interest on Jura is Barnhill, which was home to author George Orwell in the late 1940s when he wrote the novel1984. Visitors can peer inside the home's windows and appreciate the sense of remoteness at Barnhill, which is not open to the public, on a guided Land Rover tour.

The house is now used as a hunting lodge during deer season, late summer through fall.

On the island's southern end, the leading attraction is the Walled Garden of Jura House.

Built in the mid-19th century, Jura House is a privately owned manor house that can be rented out to groups as a self-catering accommodation.

Behind the walled Victorian garden, perched on a hill overlooking the water, visitors can buy various plants and discuss horticulture with gardener Peter Cool, a native of Holland who has lived on Jura for more than 20 years.

The Jura House grounds are open to the public for a nominal fee and offer two scenic walking trails.

The region's long days and high rainfall in summer, combined with mild winter weather and acidic soil all add up to an excellent spot even for delicate plants.

The people I met who live on Jura said they love it with a passion, cherishing the quiet, simple lifestyle and untarnished landscape.

Orwell is said to have described it as "an extremely un-get-at-able place." It still is. Twenty-nine miles long and seven miles wide, many Scots consider Jura the last true Scottish wilderness.

With the exception of its fertile southeastern tip, Jura is a ruggedly beautiful island wilderness of quartzite rock, moorland and peat bog, belonging more to nature than to people.

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