The Inner Hebrides are what island dreams are made of. Endless sandy beaches, mountains towering above dramatic coastlines, small but welcoming communities, local wildlife roaming freely and somehow the time just seems to pass a little slower. Read on for the most unique experiences on the southern Inner Hebrides islands, from indulging in delicious local produce to one-of-a-kind activities and breathtaking trips into nature.
This post is part of the West Coast Waters campaign and focuses on Wild About Argyll. Regions all along the west coast of Scotland have joined forces to promote the country’s beautiful west coast from Argyll to Wester Ross. 2020 is the Year of Coast and Waters – the perfect excuse to plan a trip and immerse yourself in the sounds, views, aromas and textures of Scotland’s west coast!
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The island chain of the Inner Hebrides is made up of 35 inhabited islands and even more uninhabited ones. You probably have heard of the most famous isles in this archipelago, such as Skye, Mull and Islay, but of course, there are many more islands worth a visit.
In this post, I will focus on the southern islands in the Inner Hebrides. I have very detailed posts about things to do on the Isle of Skye and must see’s on the Isle of Mull as well as dedicated articles about the Isle of Staffa, the Isle of Rum and the Isle of Coll, so head there for information about these islands.
Read on for unique experiences to have on the southern Inner Hebrides – the Isles of Islay, Jura and Colonsay.
Unique Experiences on Islay
Islay is also called the Queen of the Hebrides, which is the translation of the island’s Gaelic name Banrìgh nan Eilean. You might have also heard it referred to as the Whisky Isle – and I don’t think I have to tell you where that name comes from!
But Islay has more to offer than “just” its whisky distilleries – here are the experiences you must not miss on the island.
Outdoor Activities with Kayak Wild Islay
The islands off the coast of Scotland are prime sea kayaking territory. The sea is pristine, there are many sheltered bays to explore and tons of small islands to circumnavigate. Kayak Wild Islay is based on Islay’s whisky coast near Port Ellen and offers a range of guided kayaking trips for all levels of experience.
In addition to kayaking, they offer fat biking trips to the stunning beaches of Islay’s southwest coast. Fat bikes are like regular bikes, only that they have – well – fat tires which give them more grip and stability off-trail. They were initially designed for snow but work just as well on the sand – ideal for exploring the island’s beaches.
You can book a full day activity with Kayak Wild Islay and combine both activities to experience the landscapes of Islay to the fullest. This is particularly great when the weather isn’t perfect, the wind makes kayaking all day too exhausting or if you are a newbie to kayaking -a full day can be a lot when it’s your first time paddling!
Mull of Oa & the American Monument
There are many beautiful walks on the Isle of Islay, but I doubt any of them will be as breathtaking as the loop trail around the Mull of Oa. Located in the southwest of Islay, Oa offers grand views that stretch across the sea all the way to Northern Ireland.
The trail starts at a small car park surrounded by sheep herds and runs slightly uphill through the RSPB wildlife reserve- mull means rounded hill after all. The trail runs past stunning red sea cliffs and emerges at the American Monument, from where the views are best. Keep your eyes open for Highland cows and wild goats along the way! The monument was built by the American Red Cross in 1920 to commemorate American soldiers and sailors who died in two shipping tragedies off the Islay coast in 1918.
The walk to the monument and back takes about an hour, but plan in some extra time for photos and to enjoy the views.
Everyone has heard of Islay whisky, but did you know that there is also locally produced wine? Islay Wines produces a range of five different wines made from locally sourced ingredients such as barley, bramble and rhubarb.
Islay Wines are produced by Kenneth and Helen Carter out of their Port Ellen home. Head there to taste the wines and buy a bottle to bring home. I really liked the Islay Rose made with bramble and rhubarb but went home with a bottle of Barley Or to make light spritzers in the summer.
Indulge at The Machrie Hotel
The Machrie Hotel is a high-end gold resort in the south-west of Islay, just a few minutes drive away from Port Ellen and Islay airport. Their bar and restaurant overlook the hotel’s golf course and the dunes and sea beyond it. The views are stunning, to say the least.
But the food is even better.
Head chef Darren Velvick, who once used to work with Gordon Ramsay and ran restaurants in Dubai, is cooking up a storm at the Machrie. Foodies must not leave the island without treating themselves to a meal from his kitchen.
Darren creates the most beautiful dishes from Scottish classics to thoughtful vegan creations. He heads out whenever he can to forage local mushrooms and herbs and includes these special ingredients in his cooking.
This was hands-down the best meal I had on Islay. You simply must try it!
Islay Whisky Distilleries
Of course, no trip to Islay is complete without a tour at an Islay whisky distillery. There are nine distilleries on Islay and all of them are open to visitors. Distillery tours consist of a walk around the production facilities to learn how whisky is made and a tasting of 2-5 whiskies, depending on the distillery. Special tours, like chocolate and whisky pairings, are usually also an option.
After having taken a tour with the distillery manager at Glen Scotia distillery in Kintyre though, I’d suggest that kind of distillery tour for whisky lovers!
My personal favourite distillery on Islay is Ardbeg – I love my whisky really peaty. However, I also really enjoyed the tours at Bowmore and Kilchoman and the chocolate pairing at Caol Ila. The newest distillery on Islay – Ardnahoe Distillery – might not have their own whisky ready just yet, but the view from their still room alone is worth the tour!
Unique Experiences on Jura
The Isle of Jura is located just north of Islay and while it is the fourth-largest islands in the Inner Hebrides, it has a population of fewer than 200 people. Jura is also known as Deer Island which derives from its Old Norse name Dyrøy and apparently there are 6,000 deer on the island!
Jura is incredibly sparsely populated and there is only one road leading from the ferry port at Feolin to Craighouse, the island’s main village, and on to Ardlussa about 3/4 up the island. The rest is wilderness waiting to be explored!
Whisky & Gin Distilleries
There are two distilleries on the Isle of Jura. Jura Distillery in Craighouse was established in 1810 and produces a wide range of whiskies. They are generally stronger and less peaty than whiskies from neighbouring Islay, but there are so many different expressions – I guarantee you will find a Jura whisky you love. Our standard tour included 5 drams and we could choose from lots of different Jura whiskies.
Further up the coast in Ardlussa, Lussa Gin produces small-batch gin with local botanicals. Tours are available twice a day from Monday to Friday but must be booked in advance.
Walking Trails on Jura
The Isle of Jura is very big and offers a variety of different walks for all tastes and experiences.
The Paps of Jura are arguably the most challenging walk on the island. The trail takes in all three peaks of the paps. These cone-shaped mountains tower over the rest of the island and look as stunning from afar as from the ground. The terrain is quite challenging, so make sure you bring the right equipment and plan plenty of time.
For an easier walk, climb up behind Craighouse to Market Loch – the water source of Jura Distillery.
If you like ticking off your bucket list, how about a coast to coast walk on Jura? Luckily, the island is only 4 km wide at its narrowest point near Loch Tarbert and there is an easy-to-follow path from one side to the other – and gorgeous views!
Jura Boat Tours
Since there is only one road on Jura, it makes sense to also explore the island from the water. Jura Boat Tours offers a variety of water excursions, from wildlife tours and trips to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool to a circumnavigation of the entire island.
All tours are done with RIB boats which offer extra stability and a thrilling experience on the water. The circumnavigation is the best way to visit the west coast of Jura and see the isolated bays and beaches that cannot be reached by road.
Jura Music Festival
Going strong for over 25 years, the Jura Music Festival is an absolute highlight in the annual events calendar on Jura. People flock to the island from near and far to indulge in music and dance for the weekend.
The music acts consist of a mix of local musicians, Scottish bands and international acts. In 2019 the programme included a local’s concert, a series of workshops, late-night bar sessions at Jura Hotel, a ceilidh and concerts by traditional and rock bands.
Jura Music Festival takes place on the last weekend of September. 2020 dates will be announced soon.
Unique Experiences on Colonsay
The Isle of Colonsay is a small island north of Islay and west of Jura. It is the perfect island getaway if you’d like to experience what it feels like to spend a few days in a secluded paradise. The island is also called Columba’s Island, named after the Irish missionary Columba who landed on Colonsay in the 6th century on his way from Ireland to Iona.
The island is a paradise for nature lovers and offers a number of breathtaking beaches, great outdoor adventures and foodie experiences.
Beaches at Kiloran Bay and Balnahard Bay
The beaches on Colonsay are pristine and breathtaking. Kiloran Bay is kind of the poster boy and it’s genuinely beautiful but if the weather is right, it’s absolutely worth following the farm track behind the dunes of Kiloran Bay and towards Balnahard Bay.
The beach and Balnahard will make you question whether you are still in Scotland! The water is so clear and the sand so soft, you can bring a blanket, book and picnic and spend all afternoon watching the tides come and go. The walk to Balnahard takes about 1.5 hours one way.
Day Trip to Oronsay
Oronsay (also called Oransay) is a small island south of Colonsay that can be reached via a tidal causeway across the Strand. Every day at low tide, it is possible to walk or cycle across to Oronsay and spend a few hours exploring the island.
First, visit the ruins of Oronsay Priory and learn about Columba’s journey from Ireland to Iona which also brought him to this little island. From there, make your way to the beach south of the Priory. When you’ve had enough of watching the waves, cross the island towards Seal Cottage on the east coast where you can often see seals perched on the rocks – I was not lucky this time. A grassy path leads back to the main track to return to Colonsay across the Strand.
Check tidal times at the local shops on Colonsay as it is important you know when it is safe to cross.
Indulge at The Pantry
The Pantry is truly a shining star on the food horizon of the Inner Hebrides islands – and winner of the 2019 Food & Drinks Award for “Hidden Gem of Scotland”. The family-run bistro is located just 200 yards from the ferry terminal in Scalasaig – perfect for a pre-ferry meal – and offers lovely views of the bay and the Jura mountains in the distance.
The menu features local classics, delicious home baking and even a range of vegan options – something for everyone. You can also shop for local products here, such as black bee honey and Colonsay merchandise.
Gavin, who took over the bistro from his mother and her mother before that, runs the eatery with a passion and even walks down to the pier when a ferry arrives to hand out welcome packages to the new arrivals. You could not capture the island hospitality on Colonsay in a better way!
Gin Lover’s Retreat
For such a small island, Colonsay boasts a wealth of local drinks producers. There is the Colonsay beer brewery, Wild Island Gin Distillery and Wild Thyme Spirits which produces Colonsay Gin. All of them are open for informal tours and sell their produce on the island.
If you are really into gin, book a stay at the Gin Lover’s Retreat – the home of Eileen and Finlay Geekie, who own Wild Thyme Spirits. This 2-day immersive experience includes accommodation and meals at the Geekie’s beautiful Colonsay home, a gin tasting and plenty of time to explore the beautiful island. Eileen and Finlay have a collection of over 200 gins to choose from, so you are bound to find a new favourite gin over the course of the weekend.
Inner Hebrides Islands: Travel Guide
Where are the Inner Hebrides | The islands off the Scottish coast are roughly divided into four archipelagos – the northern isles (Shetland + Orkney), the islands of the Firth of Clyde between Kintyre and the mainland (Arran, Bute etc.), the Outer Hebrides out west and the Inner Hebrides between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides. The Inner Hebrides is an island group near the mainland coast and includes isles such as Skye, Mull, Islay, Coll and the Small Isles.
How to get to the Inner Hebrides | Apart from Skye, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge, the Inner Hebrides can only be reached by ferry or plane. The three biggest ferry hubs are Oban, Mallaig and Kennacraig. Colonsay is best reached directly from Oban, while the ferry to Islay leaves from Kennacraig. For Jura, you have to go to Islay first and then catch the ferry across to Jura. There is also a small passenger ferry from Tayvallich to Jura but it operates during summer only.
Suggested Itinerary for Inner Hebrides Island Hopping | Of course, you can combine several islands in the Inner Hebrides in one itinerary – that’s what I did! You can hop from Kennacraig to Islay, over to Jura for a day or two, on to Colonsay (that ferry goes twice a week) and finally back to Oban on the mainland. I recommend spending at least 2 nights on each island you visit which is enough time to do all the unique experiences I listed above.
Getting around the Inner Hebrides | While there is public transport on Islay and Jura, there are no buses on Colonsay. Overall, the Inner Hebrides are easiest to navigate with your own (hire) car. On Islay, it can pay off to hire a private driver, especially if you want to visit several whisky distilleries in a day. Alternatively, hire bikes which are a particularly popular way to get around Colonsay.
Island hopping is an essential part on many Scotland itineraries. When you plan your next trip, consider foregoing the usual suspects and make your way off the beaten track to the Inner Hebrides islands in the south. Islay, Jura and Colonsay are waiting for you!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.