Welcome to Scotland: home of single malt whisky, peat, kind, friendly people, and heartwarming food. My partner and I had heard many stories of friends’ adventures at Fèis Ìle, so naturally, it rose to the top of the travel wish list. Many things about visiting Islay and participating in the festival seemed a bit difficult in terms of planning. There was a point we nearly called it all off but luckily managed just under a week of adventures on the island. So in this rather lengthy post, I would like to share what I learned. This is my ultimate guide to Fèis Ìle, The Islay Festival of whisky and music.
It is also important to point out that you don’t have to be a whisky connoisseur to attend and enjoy these festivities. It is open to everyone, even children. Though at least an interest in whisky is recommended, of course.
The dates for 2023 are Friday 26th May to Saturday 3rd June inclusive, a day longer than the previous years.
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- What is Fèis Ìle and where is Islay?
- All kinds of booking notes
- More on the Fèis Ìle events
- Where to eat
- Sightseeing & Exploring
- What to pack & How to dress
- Getting around Islay
What is Fèis Ìle and where is Islay?
Hosted annually during the last week of May, Fèis Ìle is an island-wide festival celebrating whisky and Islay culture. The festival and the spirit of Islay are much intertwined. The island’s peaty terroir lends itself to unique whiskies, which have been a fixture here since 1779 (Bowmore).
Fèis Ìle has risen to international renown, attracting tourists and whisky lovers from around the globe. The locals often relish in sharing how the island’s population (typically 3,000) can triple during the festival. As an attendee, you are encouraged to explore the island, meet the locals, dance, drink, and be merry.
For the festival’s 10-day span, each distillery takes a turn hosting, usually between 10 am – 6 pm. Common features include music, local food, and whisky education. Each distillery day is unique, a reflection of its history and the distillery’s character. Lagavulin, with its 200-year-old site and breathtaking views of the Southern Islay shores, hosts walking tours and cellar tastings of venerable whiskies. Bruichladdich, on the other hand, is the day every islander most looks forward to most: a giant party with a full-fledged concert, multiple drink tents, and a dozen food vendors, all hosted in the distillery’s massive central courtyard.
Another major Festival draw: the coveted limited edition special releases. Each distillery produces a 3,000-6,000 bottle run for Fèis Ìle that can only be purchased there directly from distilleries and a small number of retailers on Islay. The famed distilleries have lineups that stretch across the street with people ready to purchase these one-of-a-kind liquids. You do get to taste these at the events so if you find a bottle you are fond of get two: one to drink, and one to store.
There are a few, unspoken rules to participation in Fèis Ìle, but they are easy to follow, I think 🙂
- Be nice: meet locals, meet visitors, get to know people, and make friends. The people make the festival.
- Don’t just focus on the whisky: while it is commonly referred to as the world’s biggest whisky festival Fèis Ìle is much more than that. It is a celebration of Islay and an equally big event for the locals. So eat the food, dance to the music, and see the island.
- Have a great time. That’s all.
All kinds of booking notes
Planning for Fèis Ìle is a dance of research and anticipation. You must match your desired days to available accommodation stays. But that’s not all, you must also match those with the ferry schedule. I understand it might be overwhelming, but don’t forget – you are traveling to rural Scotland! Also, it will all be worth it.
1. Booking accommodations
These get reserved well ahead of time, often years in advance – yes Fèis Ìle is a big deal. It is also a small island and the number of people here during the festival week could triple so you see the dilemma. When we traveled in 2022 we booked very late and quite frankly got a bit lucky. Not all 9 days might be available in the same spot either. And to be honest, you might not want to stay for all 9 days, that’s just mental. So my advice is: first check the programming (more on that below) and then decide which dates are most important to you.
You must stay on Islay so pay attention to where the location of the hotel is if you are using a booking site (ie. Expedia*, TripAdvisor*, Booking*). There is also a high chance you might see nothing available on these websites, but don’t panic. A nearly full list of island accommodations can be found on islayinfo.com. Few listings will have an online calendar and more than likely you will have to email a handful of places to see what dates they might still have open. And while you are waiting, you can (as I did) literally zoom in on the map and just click through to anything that looks like it might be a B&B, hotel, or rental of any kind.
We stayed at the Bowmore Hotel which had a 6-night availability so we made that our trip duration. Luckily it was also over the days we most wanted to attend. If all fails, there is camping. People camp for the full duration of the festival and often move their tents along with the daily programming. Too far to hike to Lagavulin? No bother, camp outside of the distillery. More info on camping is here.
2. Booking travel
Flight + Car
There is an airport on Islay that you can fly to from Glasgow (Loganair) but it is a rather infrequent weekly flight and a fairly small plane. There are also neighboring airports in Colonsay and Oban (Hebridean Air Services), with similar limitations. The easiest option is to fly or take a train to a larger city (Glasgow, Edinburg) and rent a car from there. We landed in London, took a train to Glasgow, and drove from there (more on that adventure here). You can even rent a car you can leave in another city to mix up your trip.
Tip: Get a local SIM card at the airport on arrival to the UK.
Ferry to Islay
Islay is an island so the only way (other than the tiny plane of course) to get there is by sea. The ferry is operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) and they share the summer schedule in advance so you can book it well ahead of time as well. CalMac also recommends you pay attention to the status updates which you can sign up for by text or see in the CalMac app. The most popular departure point from the mainland is Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert which lands at Port Ellen or Port Askaig. If you rented a car it goes on the ferry, of course.
Quick tip: You will not have access to the car for the duration of the ferry journey so take all you need with you right away.
The ferry journey is about 2 hours. The boat is quite impressive. Upon entry you will see a large chandelier and a mini-casino – yeah, I know! On the lower level is also a shop and a few booths to relax in. A grand staircase will take you to the main deck. Up there are a lot of sitting areas and a cafe with pretty good food I must admit. But you know, bring your snacks if you can, and a game or a book to kill time with. The ferry has an outdoor deck (two levels), it does get quite windy up there. Keep an eye out on the water because you might spot some whales. See pricing here.
- Check-in is 30 minutes prior to departure for vehicles and 10 minutes for foot passengers
- Make a reservation ahead of time, they do sell out
- If anything happens, call them: 0800 066 5000 (we had to)
3. Booking events
You do not need tickets to attend Fèis Ìle, most distillery days are open. But you do need tickets for special events. Throughout the week there are many events, some run by distilleries and Fèis Ìle officials. Distillery events will be released directly by them so follow them for updates. Official festival event tickets are released beginning of January/February and dropped on various dates over the next couple of months. I strongly recommend you sign up for the festival newsletter and follow them on social media to not miss any notifications (scroll down for the newsletter).
Things to keep in mind:
- There is a time difference between Scotland and North America so the newsletter will arrive at unusual times. This can also be attributed to the fact that the entire thing is organized by one small committee, really mostly one guy.
- Their website is not super mobile-friendly, you might have issues with your credit card type or browser. So if any issues occur try a different browser, try a different card, try a different device, need be try someone else’s phone. We had to do all of the above.
- The tickets sell out fast, if you see one, stop whatever you’re doing and buy it. I mean it. The festival’s Instagram or newsletter would often mention the time tickets go on sale so I would set an alarm and watch my inbox in anticipation.
More on the Fèis Ìle events
Each day is dedicated to a single distillery that will host the celebrations in the manner they chose. The festival releases the program on the website here. It is worth noting that some events might be added quite late in the season. There is always a public opening event with performances from local dance troupes, bands, and pied pipers. The pied pipers appear around villages throughout the week unannounced as well which I loved. Do visit the website frequently as more details are added often and might include those rather important shuttle and ticket notes.
Other distilleries are open during the week too so it can be a good opportunity to pop in somewhere you might not get a chance to visit another day. Additionally, especially this year, there are off-distillery events celebrating Islay life and ingenuity in other ways. The schedule already notes a special event including Islay Gin, Islay Ales, and Islay Rum for example. There is also always a Jura Whisky even on a neighboring island.
There are nine active distilleries on Islay and a number of “lost” distilleries, no longer active but remnants of them are still present and historically significant (learn more here). The distilleries are spread across the island but three of them are located nearly side by side: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are all within walking distance from Port Ellen. I will not get into every single one of them but let’s touch on a few memorable moments from 2022 Fèis.
Lagavulin always opens the festival and this was hands down our favourite event. In addition to the public open house, they host a wide array of special activities. Last year, for example, our morning started with a rather special cellar tasting led by Ian McArthur.
McArthur retired a few years ago but had worked at the distillery warehouse for nearly 50 years prior to his departure. A group of us gathered in a cellar around five barrels which we got to taste over friendly banter. This being my first time on Islay intrigued Ian so he invited me up to pipe out a 17-year-old sherry cask straight from the barrel. The entire video is here if you want to see me struggle.
One of the other tours we did at ‘Laga’ involved a little stroll around the property to a fantastic view of the distillery in its full glory. Our guides, Ervin Trykowski (Global Single Malt Whisky Ambassador, Diageo) and Ewan Gunn (Senior Global Brand Ambassador, Diageo), shared stories about the village and whisky while offering scenic samples on the go.
From the day we descended on Islay nearly everyone brought up the Bruichladdich day. This re-imagined Victorian distillery produces wonderful classic whisky packaged in turquoise bottles with heavy modern lettering – a departure from tradition.
For their distillery day, Bruichladdich hosts a festival called Rock’Ndall. People lined up a hill early in the morning and most of them stayed till the end despite the rain. This distillery day is a full-fledged music festival with plenty of food and drinks to go around. Employees were also offering free tours on the hour.
Caol Ila Distillery
Caol Ila day in 2022 took place in a city square because they were still working on finishing up the new property. If you visit this year you are certainly in for a special treat because this will be their first ever Fèis Ìle in the new space. Personally, I am quite curious about all the events that will unfold at Caol Ila this time around.
The event itself is another fun occurrence. There were multiple food vendors, a craft market, a Caol Ila cocktail bar, and a few special event spaces. My favourite event on this day was hosted by the same dynamic duo as the Lagavulin walk. Ervin and Ewan hosted us for a relaxing tasting titled “Scotch and Vinyl” during which a small group of people nestled in beanbag chairs and chilled out to classic records matched to classic releases.
Where to eat
There are a few restaurants, pubs, and cafes. Some of them require reservations and you guessed it — they also book up fast. Many of them don’t rely on the internet so you will need to call to see if and when they might have an opening. Honestly though, plan ahead if you like variety. Naturally, each distillery day will have plenty of food vendors, and nearly every one of them will have fresh oysters – must try!
In Bowmore, you can eat at Bowmore Hotel Restaurant. The food is traditional pub snacks and local fresh seafood. On my first night, I tried the scallops, which here on Islay always come with the roe (orange tail) which was a bit odd (new) at first but after a few bites, I quite liked it. Bowmore Hotel pub is also a good spot to try a wide range of rare whiskies.
Around the corner is a restaurant called Peatzeria, a lovely spot with a heated patio and a view of the sea. Their menu is packed with some baked pizza options, pasta, and a few other plates. On a more upscale end, there is the Lochside Hotel & Restaurant serving up Scottish breakfasts and elevated Islay scallops. And a short drive will take you to a tiny spot called the Munchie Box with sandwiches and fish to-go
Kilchoman distillery cafe has some hearty soups and tasty sandwiches. Make sure to try the famous Cullen Skink soup (fish). The cafe at Ardbeg, called The Old Kiln is a fun spot to sit back and enjoy a home-baked pie. You can also hang out in their yard enjoying snacks from the Ardstream Trailer (opens in April).
In Port Ellen, there is SeaSalt Bistro, known for its fresh seafood. I would recommend trying one of the larger sharing seafood plates and if you aren’t able to dine in definitely try the takeaway. No1 Charlotte Street B&B nearby has a fun pub. Cozy atmosphere, hearty sandwiches on the menu, and a dart board at the back – a rather common type of entertainment on Islay. If we stayed in Port Ellen this would’ve been our local for sure.
Sightseeing & Exploring
If you have a car drive it down every road on the island, especially those that lead to the beach. Honestly, there aren’t that many and in the course of a week one way or another, you will see them all. As expected, there are many sheep out and about – they will stare back. And if you are lucky enough you will also see many coos (Scottish Cows) which I was absolutely obsessed with.
Islay boasts 130 miles of sea coastline so there are many beaches you can enjoy even in gloomy weather. Machir Bay is a smaller beach on the Western coast of the island and close to Kilchoman so you could easily pop in there before or after your distillery visit. Saligo Bay Beach is all beautiful dunes and dreamy sand with rocky formations arching along the coast. One of the other must-visit locations is Sanaigmore Beach, a hidden beach at Port Ghille Greamhair. See the full list of beaches here on islayinfo.com.
Note: Only a few beaches are safe for swimming: Laggan Bay, Loch Gruinart, and Loch Indaal.
There aren’t that many but those that do exist are worth a visit. The American Monument, for example, is an oval-shaped tower built in the mid-1800s. Better locally known as “The Oa” the monument is a memorial to all the soldiers who lost their lives in Islay in World War I. Another memorial is the Kilchoman Cross and churchyard of the Old Parish Church which has been there since the 13th century. And then there is the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse in Kilnaughton Bay. It’s a square-shaped, 2-part lighthouse nestled at the end of a rocky passage. You get a wonderful view of it immediately from the parking lot but do take the stroll to the front steps.
Walks & Hikes
There are many trails but some locals highly recommended RSPB Loch Gruinart. It is a protected wildlife reserve hosting a lush range of birds, insects, hen harriers, and otters, to name a few. The visitor’s center does have a map of all the different walks you can take. Some are shaded by trees, others are wide open fields. The greenery and flowers are all absolutely stunning creating rather magical forest passages in some spots.
If you are spending time in Bowmore there is a cute boardwalk near the distillery and a rocky beach. Bring your takeout and some whisky for a picnic, no reservations needed.
See all possible walking trails on Islay here on Walk Highlands.
What to pack & How to dress
Generally speaking, nothing fancy. Bring all your rain and wet weather essentials – rain boots, raincoats, etc. Many events take place outdoors so comfortable layers are essential. And so are the comfortable shoes, and I mean really, no place for heels here. The weather is mostly overcast and a little wet but miracles do happen. Pack an umbrella. You can still be cute obviously but warmth and comfort are key. Being whisky drunk while cold is not a fun vibe haha. During our visit in 2022, the sun decided to bless Islay, to everyone’s surprise. The first distillery day was so unseasonably sunny that many people got a sunburn, which they had to rock for the rest of the week. Yes, it was funny. Yes, pack a sunblock next to that umbrella.
Herschel classic rain jacket was definitely my most popular piece of clothing this trip.
Getting around Islay
If you have a car it will be your primary mode of transportation, naturally. Most of the roads are single lanes with specific rules for how to pass other vehicles, using a “possessing place”. There is a brochure on the topic at the ferry terminal, make sure to grab it. A common courtesy is to wave at a passing car. Just a simple raise of a palm would suffice. It is rude not to, so wave 👋🏻.
But let’s be honest, we are coming here to drink scotch so driving might not always be an option. And it is worth mentioning that for the duration of the festival, there are a lot more police on the island, shipped in from across Scotland. So here are some other options:
- Car hire: they’ll drive you around wherever you want to go. There are two companies: Creswell Cars Ltd and Islay Car Hire
- Taxi: there are a few, but they are sparse and also need to be booked ahead. I’ve added a list of taxis at the end of this section.
- Festival shuttle: on occasion Fèis Ìle does organize shuttle busses from popular locations to special events but I will be honest we had a hard time figuring out when and where those are. Some are posted on the website, like the “final flag” bus but those sell out quickly.
- Biking: if you are brave and not far from your destination you can rent a bike from Islay Cycles in Port Ellen or Islay Bike Hire in Bowmore.
- Walking: can honestly be a good option if you are staying close to the distillery. Port Ellen, for example, is within walking distance of three!
- Transit: there are two bus routes on the island. However, they only operate from 7 AM to 6 PM. See the timetable here.
- Make friends and carpool: is also an option, after all, you are here for a very social event 🙂
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And that is all folks. Enjoy your Islay adventures, be safe, and have a great time!
Islay taxis master list
- Bonnie Islay Taxis, mobile: 07903 568 724
- Bowmore Taxi Service, islaywhiskytours.net, phone: 01496 810 449, mobile: 07899 756 159. Also, offer distillery tours.
- Bruichladdich Taxis, bruichladdichtaxis.weebly.com, phone: 01496 850271 mobile: 07899 942 673. 24-hour service and whisky tours.
- Carols Taxi, carols-cabs.co.uk, phone: 01496 302155, mobile: 07775 782 155. 24-hour Taxi and Mini-bus service across Islay, as well as tours.
- Dougie Mac, mobile: 07474 686 367
- Hughie’s Taxi, mobile: 07737 491 429
- Islay Taxis, islaytaxis.com, phone: 01496 850170, mobile: 07771 921 157. Tours, hourly hires, or single rides. Cars sized all the way up to a 17-seater.
- Islay Tours and Private Hire, islaytours.wixsite.com/website, mobile: 07474 686 367. As described, tours and private hires.
- Jim’s Taxi Bowmore, jims-islay-taxi.co.uk, mobile: 07967 505 991. Offers tours and vehicles for up to 7 people.
- Lamb Islay Taxi, lambtaxi-islay.co.uk, mobile: 07846 055 399. Tours, single rides, and private hire service. Up to 14 passengers.