It is 8.45am. I wake as candy-floss clouds gather across the ocean, dawn painting away the darkness with blush-coloured strokes. I am on a ferry in the Sound of Islay, the strait separating the Hebridean islands of Jura and Islay. My friends and I drove through the night to get here via the twisting A83. The enveloping darkness rendered familiar sights unfamiliar: Loch Lomond became characterised only by rolling mist and indeterminate hills ahead. We drove west under this veil of darkness before arriving at Kennacraig. Upon boarding the CalMac ferry our tiredness promptly caught up with us and we fell asleep on a cluster of sofas.

Now the night is drawing to a close and first light has never felt more welcome. We scramble to the boat’s top deck and from this enviable position witness the full spectrum of a majestic sunrise. The sky turns every shade: from rose-gold to titian to blue. The rising sun highlights the undulating hills of the mainland we have left behind, before accentuating the rugged coastline of the island awaiting us.

It is a fitting introduction to the Islay, the southernmost Hebridean island, known as the Queen of the Hebrides and characterised by spotless sandy beaches, jagged cliffs protruding into crashing waves and more cows than people.

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We are on our way to meet one Ileach in particular, Hester Ross. She is the owner of Coillabus, a pair of luxury eco-lodges on the Oa, the rocky peninsula on the south coast of Islay. Ross is putting my party up in A'Mhoine Bheag, which promises green tourism with luxurious trappings.

The Oa is the epitome of rural Scotland: singletrack roads, Highland cows and stunning scenery. Coillabus is artfully submerged into this landscape: its stone exterior disguised by a moss-covered roof. Inside, high windows showcase striking views and a large living space features rich throws and cushions in local tweed. Striking sea-themed artwork and modern design accents complement the chic aesthetic. The bedrooms are kitted out with large beds, goose-down pillows and en-suite bathrooms. The cottage is perfect for honeymoons, Ross explains, but it also works well for my friends and me.

Coillabus is a self-catering spa cottage and we have been promised the use of a sauna and a hot tub, but when we arrive Ross explains we are the first to try a new Coillabus addition: the Star Tub. We are disappointed that the hot tub is no more, but Ross assures us the Star Tub will offer even better views of Islay’s ever-changing skies. Bookmarking this experience for later, we set off exploring.

The first item on our agenda is walking along the clifftops of the Oa to the American Monument. Built on a 131m-high cliff on the Oa, this landmark was erected in 1920 by the American Red Cross to commemorate the loss of two American ships in 1918. The monument itself has an imposing grandeur, but it is almost upstaged by the landscape. We have been advised to look out for golden eagles; instead we spot a chough soaring above the imposing cenotaph. It is a remarkable sight.

Traversing the cliffs of the Oa, I am struck by Islay’s vast sense of openness: every element of nature is on display, showcased at its best. People are nowhere to be seen. Inhaling the fresh air, feeling the sun on my face and the sea breeze in my hair is a welcome contrast to my normal city life.

We have a pit stop for lunch in Port Ellen, a picturesque seaside village populated by pubs showcasing the island drams. Our sleepless night has caught up with us and we fuel up with a meal of predominantly starch before setting off to Laphroaig Distillery to find out what all the fuss is about.

At Laphroaig we learn how whisky goes from peat to pub. Our guide Jerelyn talks us through the process, inviting us to taste the output at each step of the way, from the wash (a great hangover cure, apparently) to the finished product.

Like me, Jerelyn is in her early 20s. I am fascinated to hear what it was like to grow up on Islay. I grew up in a small town, but a childhood on an isolated island is another experience altogether.

“I couldn’t ever wish to have grown up in a different place, this is such a wonderful place to be,” she tells me. “Here on Islay there are only a few industries you can fall into: hospitality, distilling, construction or farming and fishing."

Her colleague Tom grew up in South London, far away from Islay’s seclusion, upping sticks with his young family several years ago.

“I have three kids and it’s great to bring them up somewhere like this, with the beach on our doorstep,” he says. “I always say to them: you’re so lucky to have this. We’re glad we made the choice to come and live up here. We came up here for a holiday and never went back.”

According to Jerelyn and Tom this is a common phenomenon: visitors experience a slice of island life and never want leave.

Back at Coillabus we make full use of the facilities and cook ourselves a hearty meal before sinking into the sheets for a long night's sleep.

Sunday morning is spent reading, drinking Earl Grey, unwinding in the sauna and watching the mist rise over Glenastle Loch. At midday, we drive north to Machir Bay, an enormous expanse of unsullied sand. We run towards the sea, gleefully laughing, dancing and cartwheeling. The bay is enchanting, and only the promise of freshly baked scones drags us away from the water’s edge.

We are scheduled to have afternoon tea at Islay House, former dwelling of the Laird of Islay and now a hotel with several well-appointed rooms. An extensive renovation in 2016 brought Islay House firmly into the 21st century and we enjoy a delicious afternoon tea while looking out across the water. Despite the quality of the local delicacies and service we cannot linger for long, because we have a final item on our agenda: a visit to Loch Finlaggan, ancient meeting place of the Lords of the Isles, one-time rulers of the Hebrides. Situated in the north of Islay, Loch Finlaggan is home to three small islands scattered with medieval ruins and reachable only by an elevated timber walkway.

The sun has almost completely set when we arrive, but we see the silhouettes of the atmospheric ruins against the twilight sky. The combination of the wide loch, the medieval ruins, the isolated island and the purple dusk is breathtaking. Among these awe-inspiring surroundings, we sit in wonder, watching the last dregs of sunlight flicker away.

Back at Coillabus, the Milky Way is out in all its glory. We decide it is high time to test the Star Tub.

The tub is unremarkable to the eye: it looks like a bath that has been placed outside. But as I get in I quickly change my mind. Submerged in the hot water, you can lean back to view an unspoilt panorama of the stars overhead. We take it in turns to enjoy the celestial delights from this unique position before one of our party spots the Northern Lights.

We glance up: a faint glow of golden, blue and green is dancing overhead. It is not the technicolour lightshow you see in photographs, but it is stunning. It marks a fitting end to an amazing weekend. Islay has taken her hold: we are already planning our next voyage to this delightful island.


Francesca Street was a guest of Coillabus, Oa peninsula, Islay. Visit or call 07824 567435. Weekly rental from £995 based on two sharing on a self-catering basis.

What to do

Tours at Laphroaig Distillery cost from £6 per person. Visit or call 01496 302418.

Afternoon tea was provided by Islay House Hotel, Bridgend. Visit or call 01496 810287.

Further information