Sand between our chilly toes and a stiff ocean breeze in our hair, we watch the setting sun streak the clouds gold as it dips below the horizon.
We’re on The Big Strand, seven miles of the longest and mostly uninterrupted beach on the idyllic Inner Hebridean island of Islay.
And there’s not a soul in sight. In the gathering dusk, with the lights of our holiday haven – the uber-modern and luxurious Machrie Hotel – twinkling a welcome, we pick our way along a signposted path to its bar and restaurant, overlooking the 18th hole. The island is the ancient powerbase of our namesake Clan Donald and we’re here in search of a part of our family’s heritage, as well as trying our hand at a spot of golf.
We couldn’t have picked a better base. As well as being in the top-50 resorts in the UK and Ireland, The Machrie is ranked as one of the best golf resorts in the world and is on a top-100 list. Getting here is easy too.
Islay is just a 25-minute flight from Glasgow and only two hours by ferry from Kennacraig. We chose to make the picturesque drive to the tiny port so we could soak up the experience on the MV Finlaggan.
The Machrie’s 18-hole links course, overlooking Laggan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, lies dauntingly before us, a hopeless novice (yours truly) and her enthusiastic but beginner daughter. Designed by Willie Campbell in 1891, it has been fully modernised by DJ Russell, the former European Ryder Cup vice-captain and PGA tour player. It’s beautiful and “challenging”.
We needn’t have worried. Cue head pro David Foley. The dad of three, who for two decades was the PGA director of golf at Ireland’s Dromoland Castle before joining the Machrie, has a string of PGA wins under his belt. We’re heading not for the course but the classroom and an out-of-this world experience.
Foley introduces us to TrackMan 4, space-age technology that has helped hundreds of Tour players develop their game. It tracks and displays the full trajectory of any shot, mapping its path in 3D and real-time, accurately pinpointing the landing position as well as logging impact and launch information. It also provides video of the player for playback analysis.
Yours truly is up first, swings and misses – repeatedly. When the club finally connects with the ball, it rolls a mere three yards – a “dribbler”. My poison is posture. Some finely tuned Foley repositioning (it’s all in the hips) and the appliance of science (Tracker 4) and my ball is travelling 73 yards in the right direction. My daughter takes to tuition like a “birdie” to flight, and drives even further. We’re hooked.
Later that day, we take to the stylish Stag Lounge, where its floor-to-ceiling windows offer views over the ocean. Before a roaring open log fire we snuggle down on sumptuous sofas and sip pre-dinner drinks (our seasonal feasts of local produce include Gigot of Cornabus Lamb, peas, lettuce and turnip, and Highland Cow, Rumble-dee-thumps with Bordelaise sauce).
After dinner, we relax in the in-house cinema for a private viewing of films with drinks on demand – heaven. There’s also a spa, gym and sauna, but we’re keen to spend time with the ancients and day two sees us at Finlaggan, exploring the seat of power for a dynasty that centuries ago held much of western Scotland in his grip. Built on an island on Loch Finlaggan, the former castle was joined to the land by a causeway. It was the administrative and ceremonial centre of the realm. On the day we visit all is eerily quiet, save for the munching of cattle and the call of the buzzards.
Wildlife abounds here and there two RSPB reserves on the island – look out for corncrakes and hen harriers. Islay Sea Adventures offers safaris to spot sea eagles and sometimes whales. Seal Bay at Portnahaven teams with its eponymous creatures.
There are a wealth of craft and art studios on the island. The Woollen Mill at Bridegend has supplied the tartans and tweeds for countless movies like Braveheart. And there are coastal walks galore, like the route at Port Wemyss to take in the view of Orsay Island and lighthouse where we watch a mighty storm roll in.
Centuries ago, just 800 metres from where we stand is the spot from which Lord James MacDonald set sail in a birlinn, fleeing the English. It’s the perfect place to mark the end of an above-par stay.
The island is a Mecca for lovers of fine malt whisky. Islay home to a string of distilleries, including Laphroaig and Bowmore, the oldest. The island is also home to gin distillers like The Botanist.
Winter rates at the Machrie start from £150 per couple on a B&B basis.
Summer rates from £250 per room, per night, including full Scottish breakfast. themachrielinks.com
CalMac sail to two ports on Islay from Kennacraig. A car/4X4 is £73.40 for a return journey, the driver at £14.50 and a child passenger (5-15) £7.30. calmac.co.uk
For information on Islay see visitscotland.com
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