[Trips] Islay trip planning - Easter weekend 2016

Last November, we decided with a few friends to organise a whisky trip to Islay during the Easter weekend. Even if I will have the two weeks following that weekend off, some of the people I am going with will be back at work on the Tuesday, so we decided to head North on the Thursday afternoon, hop on the ferry Friday morning and head back to Manchester on the Monday. This means our trip will be rather short, and it left me the tricky task of organising our time as best as possible. Looking on several websites and forums, I have found some information about people who have already been, but often, it tended to be answers to specific questions, that is why I thought I would share my experience. Today is therefore going to be about the organisation of the trip and I will update you on the actual visit probably when I am back after Easter.
So as I mentioned before, our starting point was as follow:
-5 people going to Islay 
-leaving Manchester on the Thursday afternoon 
-returning on the Monday 
-we want to visit as many distilleries as possible (there are currently 8 on the Island)
-my friend Stuart has offered to drive but cannot be driving all the time whilst we are there

The journey up: Hotel and Ferry:
The first thing we booked was a place to stay for the Thusday night on our way up. Stuart booked the Lochgair Hotel on the recommendation of a friend of his (in Lochgair, near Lochgilphead, Argyll PA31 8SA) about 5h drive from Manchester and around 40 minutes away from the ferry terminal in Kennacraig. He also booked the ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Port Ellen on Friday 25/03/16 at 10:00 am which means we should be on the island at 12:10.

Accomodation for the weekend:
I then looked into accommodation on Islay and started looking at somewhere central, Bowmore. However, even if it reduced the daily mileage, it meant having to rely on some kind of transport for most of the weekend. The most important distilleries for me in the trip are the 3 southern "peat-powerhouses" (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) particularly as Lagavulin are celeberating their 200th anniversary this year. That, added to the fact that the ferry will arrive on Islay in Port Ellen decided me to focus on what Port Ellen had to offer. I must say I did look at places all over the island, from hotels (the Port Charlotte Hotel seems appealing if you are on a higher budget) to self-catering accomodation and even the Port Charlotte youth hostel before looking at B&Bs. I tend to pay extra attention to people's reviews and advice on the different websites I use (TripadvisorAirbnbOwners direct...) and that is why I decided to book Askernish b&b as it currently has 66 reviews, all excellent or very good. The amenities seem great (looking forward to trying the Scottish breakfast too!) and the location is very handy as just up the road from the ferry. It is also on the bus route, has a couple of hotels with their restaurants (and whisky bars of course) nearby as well as a Co-op in the town. Rooms are priced around £45 with breakfast included so perfectly reasonable. I booked the rooms in November, over the phone with owner Joy, who has been the most friendly and helpful, even offering to book distilleries for us if I needed. She also advised me to book the distillery visits around January/February time as distilleries are not necessarily ready to take bookings for the following year. 

Distillery booking:

So a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was time to look into the different tours and opening times. I started with the map of the distilleries to try to minimise travelling time and maximise visit time. The first day I organised was the Sunday. For our last full day on Islay, I booked Ardbeg first, Lagavulin next and Laphroiag last. If the weather is with us, we'll be walking to Ardbeg for 10:00 (or taxi if it is too wet) and walking back stopping at Lagavulin at 12:30 and at Laphroaig at 15:15. So no driving on that day (particularly with a 5 dram-tasting at Arbdeg!). 
Joy told me Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain were the 2 distilleries not accessible by public transport so thought we could be driving there on the Friday afternoon. But when I started checking timing for the tours as well as travelling distances (about 40 minutes between Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain) I thought it would be wiser to visit Kilchoman and Bruichladdich together, so I booked both for the Friday afternoon. 
Now I was left with one day and 3 distilleries. Bowmore told me they had a visit at 9:30, but the distillery was likely to be under maintenance so tours might be swapped for a tasting event. Caol Ila had a visit at 15;30 and by that point, I had realised Bunnahabhain might be one too many, so I didn't bother checking. Booking Bowmore in the morning and Caol Ila in the afternoon would give us some time in-between, but before booking, I had to check the bus timetable. And I unfortunately realised the last bus leaving Port Askaig (next to Caol Ila) was at 15:20 so that would be a problem. I phoned a taxi company on the island to get a quote for the day: Port Ellen-Bowmore around £20, Bowmore-Caol Ila around £20 and Caol-Ila-Port Ellen around £40, which bumps up the price of the weekend. My decision was to book Bowmore and leave Caol Ila too... On the positive side, that will hopefully give us time to discover a bit more Islay (and give me a pretext for another visit in the future!). Whilst I am on the topic of buses on Islay, know that they do not operate on Sundays, they are not very frequent, and they run between Ardbeg, Bruichladdish and Port Askaig going through Bowmore.

So our weekend will look like that:
14:00 Bruichladdich distillery (£5)
15:30 Kilchoman distillery (£6)

9:30 Bowmore distillery (£7 ?)
Rest of the day exploring/walking…

10:00 Ardbeg distillery (£15 for the extended sampling tour!)
12:30 Lagavulin distillery (£6 normally but free for friends of classic malts)
15:15 Laphroaig distillery (£6)

Journey back:
We are catching the 9:45 ferry on Monday morning, arriving in Kennacraig at around 12:05 and driving back home after that.

I am looking forward to it and will update you all too. I hope this post was useful and do not hesitate to leave comments or questions underneath!

Extra information:
-To get a free tour and dram of Lagavulin and Caol Ila:
1. Register at www.malts.com to become a friend of Classic malts (Free to register)
2. Print your distillery pass (print 2 if you are planning on visting both Lagavulin and Caol Ila )
-You can also become an Ardbeg committee member on their website: www.ardbeg.com (I don’t think you will get free entry with it, but you never know…)
-If you register as a Friend of Laphroaig (you need a code found in the booklet you get when you buy a bottle) you can claim your free dram in the Friends' lounge at the distillery and visit your very own plot given to you by the distillery!
-There will soon be a 9th distillery on Islay as you might have noticed on the map: Gartbreck



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