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
Islay is a principal island of the Inner Hebrides, a group of
islands off Scotland's west coast.
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
Laphroaig, Gaelic for "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay,"
is one of six active single-malt whiskey distilleries on the
Iain Henderson, manager at Laphroaig, walked our group through
the distillery and explained the scientific process behind
He credited the distillery's location as an important part of
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.