Travel: Seaview Cottage – stay in a former master whisky distillers home on Islay
Hire a self-catering cottage with some of the best views - and smells - for whisky lovers
It’s not often you pray for pouring rain on holiday, but when it helps to ease the guilt about keeping indoors while you’re staying somewhere unusually picturesque, a torrential downpour starts seeming perversely welcome during a spell here. Particularly when the owners have left an unopened bottle of single malt out, looking lonely and coy on the sideboard …
This converted cottage used to be home to the master distiller at Ardbeg, a busy working distillery village that has downsized the residential quarters in recent years, leaving holidaymakers free to roam virtually undisturbed in a quiet south-east corner of the island of Islay. Last year Ardbeg politely asked the distiller to do a flit (he lives next door now), while they completed a luxury refurb of his two-storey house, and reopened it to the public as Seaview Cottage.
Whisky lovers can hire out the place now and find themselves in the grounds of a working distillery, surrounded by not much more than the sound of the sea, the peaty smell of the ‘Angel’s Share’ and the occasional car pulling in to the visitor car park next door.
There are also the views – panoramic, prone to quarter-hourly changes of mood, strangely hypnotic. Binoculars are supplied in the cottage, which is handy for zooming in on CalMac ferries growing slowly into view on the horizon, or establishing whether that bobbing head under the waves at the bottom of the garden belongs to a seal or a seagull. Rumour has it that on a clear day, you can even make out cars over on Northern Ireland.
Working through its pleasing palate of white, grey and blue shades, on the days when the sky hits a deep azure shade, there is an upstairs decking area for absorbing some vitamin D. It’s big enough to have dinner on, or at least a few drams, looking wistfully out to the lighthouses in the distance.
Sybarite pleasures lurk in most corners and cupboards of each room inside – underfloor heating, fluffy white bathrobes, deep pillows, a wood (or peat) burning stove, toiletries made from the local 'whin' (gorse) and scented with whisky, and a fridge stocked with slippery smoked salmon and jams from the local Coop. Considering the luxury facilities in place, the rates work out very reasonably – especially as the cottage sleeps six.
Entertainment-wise, it depends whether you prefer to go low or hi-tech. For those who’d rather stay plugged in, the place is kitted out with wi-fi, an iPod docking station, TV with Freeview and a DVD player. Or for screen-avoiders, there are dominoes, cards, board games, and a few shelves of paperback thrillers and coffee table Scottish photography books.
The distillery tour itself is worth booking in for. Unlike other more corporate operations on the island, Ardbeg remains (for the time being at least) a refreshingly lo-tech set-up. Workers jot down temperatures and timings in old fashioned ledgers or on chalkboards; computers are nowhere to be seen. Much of the distillery’s action is controlled by a large ‘control desk’ – covered in flashing buttons and oversized dials, which makes it look more like a 1970s proto-synthesiser than a piece of serious factory equipment. Tours are led by Jackie Thomson who, given the smallest amount of encouragement (or even without), will ramp up the geekiness of her whisky science chat and go deep with her knowledge of the chemistry and alchemy required behind the scenes. Her guided tasting sessions are a good place to explore just how peaty, raisiny, barbecue-y or salty you like a malt to be, and if at any point all that water of life starts going to your head, at least you know you don’t have far to fall on the way home.
Where to eat:
The Islay Hotel, Port Ellen
Good for pairing local fish and shellfish with matching malts.
Old Kiln Cafe
Ideal for scone and homemade soup appreciation.
Where to shop:
The Coop at Bowmore should stock most of the essentials. Get there early in the morning for bread though, as they can often sell out.
Nearby attractions and activities:
The eighth century Kildalton Cross, the only remaining Celtic Cross in Scotland, is just up the road.
Visitors can take a ‘seafari’ to the tumultuous Corryvreckan whirlpool (weather permitting) or go searching for whales, basking sharks and other big and untamed sea creatures that inhabit the deep coastal waters.