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The Road to Whisky Island: A Scottish Adventure

Luxury Travel: According to Confucius the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This one begins with a single malt.

There is a square foot of peat bog in the windswept western isles of Scotland that has my name on it, figuratively speaking. I have seen it, stood on it and collected my rent - a dram of the doings.

That square foot overlooks the road running along the east coast of Islay (pron. Eye-La), the "whisky island" that sits in the sullen sea beyond Scotland. To the north is the rugged outline of Jura, south is Ireland, east is the long neck of Kintyre and west is the icy coast of Canada.

Follow the road and you'll reach the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Elsewhere dotted around Islay you'll find whisky being made at Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhainn. This is a highly alcoholic little island and maybe that's why they have funny names.

My own pilgrimage to the altar of fine whisky began when somebody gave me a bottle of Laphroaig. There should be more people like that around. Thirsting for more knowledge I visited the company's web site and found that for the sake of an email I could become a Friend and thus be granted free title to a square foot of land so long as I might live.

Land for nothing appealed, as did the deal - I was to receive a free dram of the stuff each year by way of rent. Only problem - a minor one - was that I had to stand on the plot to drink it.

The thousand-mile journey - give or take a few miles - began with a hire car in London and started to get interesting once I had left Glasgow behind. Here the road to the isles runs through some of the finest scenery in Scotland - the bonny banks and braes of Loch Lomond.

The switch from the sprawling outskirts of Glasgow to the highland wilderness is sudden and startling. One minute you're in the grey suburbs of Clydebank; the next you're alongside a broad and beautiful lake, studded with 38 islands and sheltered from the northerlies by the symmetrical bulk of Ben Lomond.

The Scots like to say Loch Lomond is the largest expanse of fresh water in Britain, but although it's certainly quite big, it is dwarfed in surface area by the admittedly shallower Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.

Still, the shoreline is 154 kilometres and to drive around it takes more than two hours. It also takes you a long way off course if you're heading for Islay.

The road to Laphroaig follows the west bank of Loch Lomond as far as Tarbet, not to be confused with Tarbert, another important point on the route. You touch the top of Loch Long, skirt under Ben Ime, climb Rest and Be Thankful hill and drop down to the top of Loch Fyne - a sea loch famous for kippers and oysters.

Lochgilphead is where much of the delectable sea food emanates; a long white single street curling around the head of its own loch. You're in the heart of Argyll here, a land of crags and coast with more red deer than people. Unless they're looking for Paul McCartney on his Mull O' Kintyre there's a fair chance most visitors are heading for the isle of spirits.

Loch Fyne glistened on my left as I drove the next stage to Tarbert, my resting place for the night. It is not the centre of the world, but the closest thing to it in these parts. Mrs Hamilton's B&B was alongside the little fishing wharf; an aromatic little spot hinting at kippers and oysters.

The ferry to Islay casts off at 7.15 most mornings from Kennacraig, a bleak harbour 15 minutes from Tarbert. This means there's no time for the classic British breakfast of fried fat with extra cholesterol, but Mrs. H. does a mean takeaway of scrambled eggs and fruit. The ferry to Port Ellen is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne and takes more than two hours to chug across the choppy waters beyond the little island of Gigha. From Port Ellen it's a taxi, bus or 40-minute walk to the first distillery. I walked, looking across the broad sound to Kintyre and catching the occasional whiff of peat fires.

I had told them I was coming to stand on my land and collect my rent. Others had told them the same thing and there were malt-lovers from Japan, Sweden, Austria, Wales and Texas.

Laphroaig stands on its own harbour; a small community of white cottages and the old, slab-sided distillery. Across the road is the peat bog that fuels the business end of the distilling process.

We multi-national Friends gathered in the baronial tasting room, reverently waiting to be told the secrets of the whisky trade. Reverence was not necessary - our host Jack Dunford was evidently a graduate of the Billy Connolly school of tour guides and played the whole sequence for laughs.

"Ye'll no tek offence if I have a wee laugh up on the next floor?" he asked. "It's a harmless wee thing but I love to see it."

The harmless wee thing involved dipping your snout into a vat of fermenting barley. One good sniff gives you a brain-numbing shock and your sinuses are cleared for the next 30 days. This is what makes Jack laugh. That and the mice scurrying across the piles of barley - he swears they help give Laphroaig its special flavour of liquid smoke.

He's also a philosopher. As we climb the winding stairs through the rich, smoke-saturated atmosphere, he tells us that if you drink the right amount of single malt you'll live for ever.

"If you die, it means you drank too much or too little."

Then it's back down to the tasting room to get on the outside of some special old drams, before crossing the road and floundering across the moor to find your square foot. It was here that Inger Soderlund became emotionally involved with her piece of Islay.

"I started to drink whisky when I was 15," she confessed, sobbing her Swedish heart out. "Always I have dreamed that I would come here and now it's just too much."

Well, maybe it was the three good belts of 12-year-old malt that were just too much. Anyway, she came over all funny and had to be assisted back across the moor.

Then onwards to Ardbeg, most picturesque of the distilleries on this side of the island. In 1981 the entire plant was mothballed and not a drop was made until 1997, when the Glenmorangie company came to the rescue.

The other distilleries on the whisky isle are on the western coast, or on the Sound of Islay, facing across a narrow channel to the rugged mountains known as the Paps of Jura.

Here, at Port Askaig, is where the ferry docks for the return trip to Islay - a two hour chug with magnificent views of the Hebridean and Argyll mountains. Time enough to work out strategies for Jack Dunford's challenge - how to drink exactly the right amount of single malt and thus live for ever.

By Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards has been a newspaper and magazine journalist for more than 40 years. Based in Melbourne, Australia, he has travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Australasia and the Pacific region and says life is too short to settle for anything less than the best. He has visited many of the world's finest hotels and resorts and recently completed a lengthy cruise on a luxurious freighter/l...(Read More)

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