WHETHER you arrive by sea or by air, Islay is a spectacular destination in every sense.

The southern coastline, punctuated by some of the most famous names in whisky – Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin – leads on to a beautiful Hebridean landscape of hill, glen, moor and machair. Not to mention another five distilleries.

The Queen of the Isles, as it is known, has a fascinating story to tell about its Gaelic heritage as well as its ancient association with the peaty variants of our national drink, while its present incarnation, as a whisky, food and wildlife mecca, attracts visitors from all over the world.

I’m basing this guide in and around the villages of Bowmore and Port Ellen, which are 20 minutes away from each other, overlooking Loch Indaal. But we’ll be returning to this island paradise in the near future, so don’t worry if your favourite Islay attraction isn’t featured this time around.

Historic Highlights

One of the best-preserved villages on the island, Port Charlotte has stunning views across Loch Indaal to the Paps of Jura beyond. It was founded in 1828 by the laird of the time, Walter Frederick Campbell, and named after his mother, to provide housing for workers of the Lochindaal Distillery, which opened a in 1829. The distillery shut a century later, but the buildings are still in use by the community today. And the closure didn’t end the whisky link – malt distilled at nearby Bruichladdich is matured in oak casks at Port Charlotte.

Founded in its current form in 1768 by Donald Campbell, pretty Bowmore – “place of the big house” in Gaelic - is the island’s administrative capital and largest settlement. The first pier was completed in 1750, extended and rebuilt on many occasions since, most notably during the Second World War to support a sea plane base. The Bowmore distillery sits at the heart of the village. Built in 1779, it is the oldest on Islay, the second oldest in Scotland.

What to do

Let’s start in Post Charlotte with a visit to the Museum of Islay Life, housed in the former Kilchoman Free Church. Covering the last 12,000 years from prehistoric times to the present, the quirky and evocative 3000-strong collection of objects, exhibits and photographs brings the culture and people of the island to life.

Andy Clark thoroughly enjoyed his recent recently visit. “It’s a fascinating place that’ll take you a good couple of hours to explore,” he says. “Well worth the £4 entry fee (it’s just £1 for children), it provides real insight into the history of the island.”

Opposite on Main Street, the Islay Natural History Centre offers a charming and informative overview on the island’s wildlife and more than 200 species of birds. Run by volunteers, this friendly homespun attraction has specialist areas for kids with impressive interactive exhibits. And, if you want to know the best places on the island to spot deer, seals, otters, dolphins and eagles, this should be your first port of call.

Over in Bowmore, take a stroll around the attractive harbour – once a busy destination for steamers from Glasgow – and you can’t miss the distillery, which even has its own little sandy beach. The visitor centre has a super café and shop, and offers different levels of tours. Whisky aficionados can get the full-on experience by staying in one of five on-site cottages.

Keep walking up Main Street, with its cute white-washed cottages, and you’ll come to the Round Church – aka Kilarrow Parish Church – which dominates the village from its prominent position on the hill. With its striking circular design, the church has a modern look. It was actually one of the first completed structures in the village, however, in 1767, with local legend proclaiming that the round design ensures devils will not be found lurking in any corners.

If the weather is poor, take yourself for a relaxing sauna and swim at the well-equipped Mactaggart Leisure Centre.

Those wishing to learn a few words of the island’s native Gaelic tongue should contact the Columba Centre, on the outskirts of town, which has a full schedule of Gaelic language and culture classes. Every year in May, the centre hosts events for the island-wide Whisky Festival.

Where to eat

In Bowmore, Peatzeria has built a reputation for its Italian-cum-island food, including some of the best pizzas you’ll eat anywhere in the west of Scotland. The seafood pizza with Islay lobster and scallops is a pure delight.

Andy Clark adds: “We went on a Monday and it was packed and buzzing, with locals and visitors. Booking is definitely advised.”

The Harbour Inn, owned by the Bowmore Distillery, offers an elegant and exciting dining experience: seafood lovers won’t want to miss the local oysters, crab and salmon.

The nearby Bowmore Hotel serves up hearty seafood stews, not to mention excellent steaks. Retire to the bar afterwards for whisky, good craic and, if you’re lucky, traditional live music.

The Taj Mahal on Shore Street offers friendly service and a mean masala, as well as a wide array of vegetarian options. The £20 meal deal is excellent value.

Back in Port Charlotte, head to The Port Charlotte Hotel for one of the great Hebridean food experiences. In the restaurant, expect a menu packed with local produce, including top quality venison, lamb, beef and game, cooked with flair and attention to detail. A more informal but no less impressive dining experience is available in the bar, which is renowned for its range of whiskies.

For a quick lunchtime bite, the café at the Port Mhor Community Centre has lovely selection of hot and cold options, not to mention excellent coffee and home baking. There’s also a lovely dog-friendly outdoor seating area, with great loch views.

Where to stay

Sea view: Right in the heart of the village, the Bowmore Hotel has comfortable, stylish rooms from £130 a night.

Boutique: Also in Bowmore, the Lochside Hotel’s rooms are chic, spacious and cheerful. The restaurant is rated by locals and visitors alike and it’s home to yet another great Islay whisky bar.

Arty: Set in an elevated position in Port Charlotte, overlooking the loch, the light and airy Artist’s Studio is the perfect place to get creative – or just relax. Sleeps three. Self-catering, from £55 a night.

On the beach: Housed in the former distillery warehouse right next to a sandy beach, the Port Charlotte Hostel is ideal for single travelers and big groups alike. Offers excellent shared facilities and private rooms, not to mention stunning sunrises over the Paps of Jura. From £40 per person per night.

What to do nearby

Just a 20 minute drive west of Port Charlotte, the sands at Machir Bay are as white and powdery as any you might find in the Caribbean. Andy Clark says: “A truly beautiful beach, you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself. Make sure you take the time to visit the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on top of the hill overlooking the beach – a humbling, powerful and very moving experience.”

On the way back to Port Charlotte, pop into the Kilchoman Distillery, one of the newest on the island – and indeed the smallest - which has a splendid café. You can sample the full range of its whiskies at your table for just a few pounds.

Twenty minutes north of Bowmore, at Port Askaig, you can take the ferry to Islay’s wilder neighbour, Jura. If the sun is shining, the beer garden at the Port Askaig Hotel, overlooking the harbour, is one of the prettiest in places in Scotland to enjoy a pint or glass of prosecco.

In the coming weeks I'll be visiting Drymen, Fort William and Millport. Send your hints and tips on what to do, and where to eat, stay and shop to: marianne.taylor@heraldandtimes.co.uk