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With its gorgeous Hebridean location, this luxe hotel is a stone’s throw from some of Islay’s best distilleries
The wild stag eyes me warily, like an insecure man in a bar who knows the girlfriend he’s sitting beside is much better looking than him. Even though I’m standing on the other side of a fence and his harem of russet-coloured does are resting on the shore of a small beach a short distance away, the look of hostility in his eyes tells me that, if I don’t get back into my tuk tuk and continue on my way, it won’t be long before his antlers make contact with my bottom. Tuk tuks? Stags? No, I’m not having a fever dream. I’m midway through a trip around the Hebridean island of Islay, in which I’ve already puttered along loch shores, through coppery peat bogs and villages of white-painted houses, and past ancient Celtic crosses and whisky distilleries.
By the time I get to the stag, I’ve ticked off most things on my Scottish sights bingo card. The only incongruous detail is the tuk tuk itself – a vehicle more suited to the streets of Mumbai and Bangkok than the Hebrides – though the ‘Tuk a Wee Tour’ sign on the roof helps redress the balance. With its low speeds and open sides, a tuk tuk is a great way to experience this isle of bleak beauty, in which you’re just as likely to see hares or roe deer on the roads as cars, low clouds feel almost within touching distance and winds whistle across the marshes like troubled spirits.
It may be stunning but, outside of summer, it can also be a little cold and wet. Luckily, I have two great options when it comes to getting warm. The first is to drink some whisky, for which Islay is rightly famous (its nine distilleries read like a rundown of the Scotland’s most famous single malts). The second is my hotel, The Machrie, a cosy refuge at the end of a mile-long track. It may be adjacent to one of the world’s best golf courses but it certainly isn’t one of those bland golf hotels in which guests like myself, whose only experience of the game is putting balls through miniature windmills, feel alienated.
Yes, there are golfers here. But there are also plenty of guests who clearly have no intention of picking up a sand wedge. They’ve come to The Machrie for the luxe rooms, chef Calum Hall’s locally sourced food and the ambience – and they’re using it as a base to see the island, tour the likes of the Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and Laphroaig distilleries and come back to the hotel to sample their produce beside crackling fires. I’m in full agreement.
The Machrie is beautiful and welcoming. Comfy sofas and chairs are everywhere, contemporary art hangs on Farrow & Ball-painted walls – none of your tired tartan trimmings here – and even the animal heads in the Stag Lounge and the 18 Restaurant & Bar are witty pieces made from fabric and wood. I spend my final night there in a fireside armchair, sipping Deer & Stormy whisky cocktails and G&Ts made with Islay gin, before heading through to the restaurant for a Taste of Islay menu that includes Loch Gruinart oysters in a seaweed-and-breadcrumbs coating, a loin of rabbit wrapped in leek, a creamy bisque made with local crab and lobsters, and vegetables from nearby Nerabus Farm. And that’s before I even get to the main. It’s venison, of course – a sunset-pink loin served with salted crab apple and spinach purée – and my mind goes back to earlier in the day, and those hostile eyes and sharp-looking antlers. It couldn’t be, could it?
Summer rates at The Machrie start from £340 per room, per night, including full Scottish breakfast. For more information, visit themachrie.co.uk