Idyllic Winter Break
The queen of the Hebrides, breathless and wild, the guardian of Great Britain she is the last piece of coastline, next stop Canada. Blog about taking a break Self Catering Portnahaven Islay in winter.
Self Catering Scotland Interview with Jonathan Newsam of Yardarm Cottage, Portnahaven, Islay.
2020, the year of feeling trapped, confused, isolated, restricted. No matter your circumstances, it is possible that you will have experienced one or all these feelings this year. Dreaming of escape, a trip, maybe even a deeper determination to go on an adventure of a lifetime may be burning in your soul. I imagine if it is, you are not alone. We do not even have to look too far away to satisfy these yearnings.
International travel is still possible but difficult, meaning there will be much reticence amongst globetrotters this year, who are more likely to opt to becoming tourists on their own doorstep, commonly referred to as a staycation.
For us in the United Kingdom we are truly blessed having many beautiful countries to visit, Wales, Scotland, England’s National Parks, Ireland’s glens and wild Atlantic coast.
The Most Picturesque Village in Scotland
This blog features the Number 1 Most Picturesque Scottish Village, according to Alex Burns writing for the Herald Scotland, Portnahaven on the island of Islay, Scotland.
Alex describes it thus
“The whitewashed cottages are so orderly that they almost stand to attention – all facing obediently out to sea. This may be because the village was a planned creation, built in the 19th century to house fisherman and crofters. It is centred around a small, sheltered harbour in which you can spot seals sitting on the rocks around the bay.”
Yardarm Cottage – See if you can spot Canada!
This sentiment is echoed by Jonathan and Angela Newsam, proprietors of Yardarm Cottage, a self-catering holiday let in Portnahaven, whose love and passion for Islay and Portnahaven were palpable and so persuasive I was almost packing my bags there and then. Jonathan kindly spent some time talking with me to ruminate on Islay life as distilleries shut their doors and visitors dissipate with the summer season drawing to a close.
Jonathan described how a calm descends on the Island over the winter months, when Islay takes on a whole new beauty. He enthusiastically painted the picture of a Scottish paradise still ablaze with colour, moderate temperatures, long white sandy deserted beaches, and the arrival of the Barnacle Geese create a changed atmosphere that brings forth a splendour of its own between November and March. With not a flake of snow in sight, this entices an altogether different kind of explorer.
Yardarm Cottage overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and with Portnahaven being the most South Westerly point on Islay, it means that there is no land mass from that point until you reach Canada.
Islay is incredibly famous for a certain tipple, which will remain nameless here. Islay, if you are not acquainted with it, may be less appealing if you hold a stereotypical view of what Scotland has to offer, mountains, snow and midgies. Islay conversely is flat and warm, although it still provides plenty of wind and rain!
“I love it!” Jonathan declared, “the population of Islay is only 3200 people, the size of a small village on the mainland. The Ilich are well known for their friendliness and this is largely due to the famous ‘Islay Wave’. This has nothing to do with the surrounding seascape, rather the unwritten law that every time you pass another soul whilst driving you must ‘wave’. Jonathan chuckles as he informs me of this tradition, “It must be strange for first time visitors who don’t know about it, and wherever they go people are waving at them! They must think they have been mistaken for royalty.”
The welcoming hospitality in winter is even more prevalent Jonathan muses, “They (locals) have more time for you and will stop and chat because they are not as busy. This is because tourism is Islay’s main economic source of income, aside from farming, therefore many islanders are working 2 or 3 jobs over the summer to make sure visitors are well catered for.”
Work hard the locals do, a lot of toil goes into maintaining gorgeous, clean accommodation, providing fresh, tasty cuisine, and upholding excellent customer service at local attractions.
Half the Fun is Getting to Islay
Picture yourself driving past Loch Lomond, its glassy reflections of golden, red and brown as Winter tiptoes in from Autumn. The scenery becomes increasingly more dramatic as you continue along the famous and stunningly beautiful A83 through the Arrochar Alps and over the Rest and Be Thankful Pass. At its pinnacle it is 245m above sea level and boasts a perfect vantage point to marvel at Glen Croe. ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ is an inscription carved by the soldiers who built the road in 1753. The road then descends to a perfect pit stop, Loch Fyne where you can sample the freshest fish and seafood at the Loch Fyne restaurant in Cairndow. Refreshed, you continue to Inverary another beautiful place that is home to the Duke of Argyll, passing through Tarbet and finally to Kennacraig the ferry port. You get that excited nervousness reminiscent of childhood as you embark on the two hour voyage over to Islay.
Prepared to be Amazed
On your arrival you are stunned. Where is that crisp cold that nips at your skin? Where are the snowy peaks? Islay refuses to conform to the typical Scottish landscape and climate. It proudly celebrates its luck at being sheltered by the more mountainous Jura, whilst being caressed by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, making it an unusually mild climate than its co-ordinates would suggest. In gratitude its land produces an abundance of barley over the summer, which gives way to the most stunning display of colour in winter from the heather and botanical delights that thrive in this balmy environment.
Portnahaven is the furthest South Westerly point on the Rhinns of Islay which makes it truly special. Jonathan owns and rents out a charming cottage in Portnahaven called Yardarm Cottage. The cottage overlooks the Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse, Jonathan excitedly described the tempest that encapsulates the structure. “We get all the storms the Atlantic is famous for, the cottage has 1m thick walls, and there’s nothing better than feeling cosy and sheltered whilst listening to the pounding waves as they break over the top of the lighthouse.” I immediately conjured up images of the future paintings, photographs, poems, stories and songs that staying there would inspire.
Portnahaven is a sheltered harbour that attracts a huge colony of seals, ever present on the beach and who don’t object to being surrounded by humans and their delighted squeals. “In fact they are extremely vocal themselves” Jonathan described the scene that is part of daily life in the village, and how the hush of the quieter months is pierced with the tonal honks of the excited mammals, reminding us who the true inhabitants really are.
Islay is a haven for nurturing the spirit. For escaping the pressures of modern living, it won’t prove too difficult to put away the devices and revel in the simple life. Bask in the joys of being in nature, the melody of the ocean, the chattering wildlife, the dramatic skies and the soothing and spectacular sunsets. As night falls the true extent of our solar system in all its magnificence as you witness in awe the Milky Way and millions of stars.
Wildlife enthusiasts love nothing more than being able to bear witness to the natural routines of some of the UK’s more rarer species. Islay has an abundance of birdlife, 200 different types from waders, lapwings, curlews, corncrakes, buzzards, hen harriers and eagles. There is an RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart which has the UK’s only colony of the thousands of Barnacle Geese that visit every year from Greenland. Barnacle Geese pick two destinations for their migration, Islay and Canada, with over 75% choosing Islay.
The White-Tailed Sea Eagle is another elusive bird that ornithologists travel far and wide to see. There are a few that are resident on Islay. Jonathan recalls, “seeing 2 juveniles sitting on the beach feeding off a seal carcass” not a sight we normally get to see every day. The Chough is another rare bird that is also resident on the island.
As well as sky borne creatures, visitors are charmed by deer, seals, otters, dolphins and basking sharks. It is no surprise that Islay was featured on Spring Watch a couple of years ago.
Be sure to take your camera to capture some once in a lifetime moments that you can proudly show your friends.
Calling Artists, Photographers, Writers
Islay in winter is an everchanging presence that cannot fail to inspire and ignite the creative juices. Dramatic skies, deep sunsets, stormy seas, howling winds, glowing heather, all bestow an endless array of stimulus to write those poems, paint those scenes, narrate those stories or photograph the landscape so different from home.
Not as Remote as You Think
There is a perception of the Scottish Islands that they are merely rocks in the Atlantic Ocean that are pretty but lack the modern comforts. This is certainly not true of Islay. Jonathan stressed that Islay is not lacking amenities, “Islay is larger than the Isle of Man yet only has 3200 people, there is an airport, 2 ferry terminals, 2 supermarkets, many corner shops, 9 whisky distilleries and abundance of shops, cafes and restaurants and a golf course.”
Go For It
In a year where we are daring to be different, don’t be put off by all the confusing rules and regulations around Covid-19 travel restrictions (read our blog to help you comply with rules for traveling and booking a Scottish holiday) and make Islay your winter holiday treat.
Yardarm cottage is light, cosy and modern that has everything you need for your stay. Angela and Jonathan present you with a welcome pack on arrival. As you head to the kitchen to make a brew you will be over the moon, two ovens, a microwave, and a Nespresso coffee machine.
Relax in one of the two lounges that have plenty to keep you all amused, a TV, a stereo, games, and a good assortment of books including Margaret Atwood and Iain Banks. There is a long, reclaimed table ideal for dining, games and chatting. Kick back and unwind as you stare out at the ocean waves from the comfort of the open fire.
Be assured of a great night’s sleep, freshen up in one of the walk in showers or take a dip in the luxurious Japanese style soaking tub and then sink into the plush king size bed and drift off to the sounds of the waves lapping the shore.
Still open for business November 2020-March 2021
Islay is still very much open for business. Similar to the rest of the tourist industry, Ilichs have been hit hard this year, probably more so than their mainland counterparts, given that the distilleries were closed and the Whisky festival, Feis Ìle, was cancelled. That is a loss of around 10,000 visitors in that week, so over the season it will have been extremely compounded.
Jonathan conveyed the spirit of the people and their strategies for coping. “Locals on Islay are managing really well, the community has really pulled together to help each other, mainly by swapping skills or carrying out repairs for those in need without asking for anything in return, that’s what it’s like on Islay. Ilichs are renowned for their friendliness and that has shone through more than ever this year.”
Jonathan hopes that people will still travel to Islay over the winter as it has so much to offer that cannot necessarily be enjoyed during the summer months. Ferry services are still very regular and if you enjoy nature, walks along deserted idyllic beaches, and are creative, it is probably the best time to experience the Island in its majesty and authenticity.
Yardarm Cottage, a stunning and cosy home for a week or two, and Portnahaven for lovers of the wild Atlantean magic, are the perfect combination for your winter re-treat. Slow down from the daily grind and get to do all those things you never find time to do at home because you are probably too busy.
Jonathan and Angela are complying strictly with the Covid regulations, they are certified by Visit Scotland as ‘Good to Go.’ They have also implemented extra cleaning measures, provide hand sanitiser, made by Spirited Soaps, and have a minimum 72 hours between bookings.
New Trend ‘Half Tourism’
Why not combine ‘working from home’ with a break at Yardarm Cottage? Combine your remote working with a stay at Portnahaven, the property has excellent WiFi, so you can be assured of remaining connected.
If this appeals to you and you are in no rush to go back home, Jonathan and Angela will accept longer bookings in winter, until mid-March, when it will return back to weekly bookings.
Conversely in winter they will also accept shorter bookings of 4 nights.
Clear the mind, feed the soul, rebalance.