There’s a new hotel making headlines in the world of luxury hospitality in the British Isles, following the much-anticipated opening of Campbell GRAY Hotels first Scottish property, ‘The Machrie’, located on the Isle of Islay. Keen to discover if the hotel renovations of this iconic destination live up to the media excitement, our Editor-in-Chief, Jessica Way, visits The Machrie, where she enjoys a round of golf and discovers a taste for the local whisky.
Known as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, the most southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland, the beautiful Isle of Islay is already renowned for its magnificent dramatic scenery and numerous distilleries producing the island’s characteristically peaty single malts.
I’m not much of a whisky drinker, nor am I much of a golf player, but seeing the final images of this beautifully designed, newly refurbished hotel, ready for launch, was more than enough to lure me in and pique my interest to find out more about this luxury 5* hotel.
Following a three-year closure, it seems that everything other than the enviable location, nestled beside seven miles of pristine beach, has been entirely upgraded and renovated. A project close to the heart of Gordon Campbell Gray, founder of Campbell GRAY Hotels, as the first hotel within the group to open in Scotland, on his home turf.
Campbell Gray currently lives in Argyll, having spent the past 12 years travelling the world opening hotels for his company, and being personally involved in every aspect of the creation, design, and philosophy of each property. Alongside owning and managing hotels in Beirut, Malta, Bahrain, Liberia, Amman, and Zurich, it seems opening The Machrie has inspired him to invest back in his roots – as more recently he has focused his efforts on smaller properties, such as the 12-bedroom Pierhouse Hotel and Seafood Restaurant in Port Appin, Argyll, for the Wee Hotel Company.
Back to The Machrie – with such dramatic scenery, a coastline setting, abundant wildlife, superb Scottish cuisine and warm hospitality, the modernised, yet still traditionally Scottish hotel seems to have it all – now with 47 beautifully designed rooms, suites and lodges, some with their own outdoor terraces, an exquisite ‘18’ lunch and fine-dining restaurant, a 30 seat screening/cinema room, spa, and one of the finest Links golf courses in the world.
With regular flights from Glasgow and Heathrow, getting to the island is a breeze and Islay’s airport is quite literally down the road from The Machrie Hotel. This ideal location also makes it a great base for those wishing to explore the other nearby islands, including Jura, Colonsay, Oronsay and Gigha.
With the hotel being located so close to the airport, the staff will often share the duty of collecting and transferring their guests, offering a highly personalised service. It was lovely to meet Dana, Front Desk Manager at the hotel, who came to collect me from the airport following the short connecting flight from Glasgow. Chatting to her before I’d checked in set the tone for the warmth and friendliness to follow.
Dana explained how they will often rely simply on hearing or seeing the planes coming into land as their cue before setting off to collect their guests. A perfect situation for when there are delays, or when the planes arrive on the island earlier than expected. The airlines will usually suggest a flight time from Glasgow to be around 40 minutes, but it is often more like half-an-hour, as the pilot had explained during our take-off.
We reach the 1km loose stone driveway leading to the hotel, chosen for aesthetical reasons, and, while it takes us longer to drive than a smoother surface, it did offer the opportunity to take in the views of the magnificent buildings. We did joke that it actually took longer to drive down the driveway than it did from the airport.
I was delighted to arrive, and felt great, able to fully enjoy the experience without any travel fatigue, really important when on a weekend break.
The hotel entrance, front lounge and welcome desk certainly offer the ‘wow’ factor – striking architecture, lines of colourful sofas, authentic red wallpaper and tartan fabrics, rustic open fireplaces, modern art pieces and cosy cushions. This area is described as their ‘Courtyard Lounge’ due to the south facing french doors looking onto the hotel courtyard –sadly not quite ready for us to enjoy for our visit. But, even unfinished, it looked exquisite.
A central staircase, passing the golf shop, leads you to the upper level, where you will find the luxury restaurant and bar ‘18’, overlooking the 18th green, ‘The Stag Lounge’ and outdoor terrace, with impressive panoramic views across the Links course, and out to the beautiful dunes and lapping waves of Laggan Bay.
The setting here is both dramatic and beautiful, impressively modern interiors offering warmth and comfort. Ambient music, soft lighting and luxury touches add to the relaxing atmosphere whilst, working in contrast, the abstract art, stylishly bold colours, high ceilings and the friendly knowledgeable staff keep you feeling fresh and energised.
At the far end of 18 Restaurant & Bar there’s a more intimate private dining area they call ‘The Tower’, with panoramic views – it is a breathtakingly beautiful space, offering a unique dining experience. The food is fantastic, with chefs using local family-run suppliers wherever possible. There’s an excellent selection of seafood and shellfish from Islay and the mainland, as well as many vegetarian and vegan options to choose from.
On our first evening we wined and dined in The Tower, while watching the beautiful sunset. I ordered lobster and crab soup to start, served in a delightful whisky cream, with plaice fillet and prawns, caper butter and olive oil mash to follow. For dessert, I chose the most scrumptious vanilla pannacotta for dessert, dressed with fresh strawberries and mint and we shared a selection of Scottish cheeses – delicious.
Seeing other plates come out of the kitchen, including veggie burgers, chick pea and butternut squash curry, and a half-grilled lobster, it was the type of menu which I could have happily worked my way through each night for over a fortnight without feeling limited for choice. The food was extremely good, and there was an excellent choice of wines too, many served by the glass, small, medium, demi or bottle.
We retreated to the impressive Stag Lounge for our first little dram of whisky. With nine distilleries on the island, this was a great opportunity to sample some of the local malts, the likes of Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Bruichladdich, together with other Scottish favourites, such as Talisker, distilled on the Isle of Skye, and Glen Scotia from Campbeltown. This was possibly my first ‘proper’ malt whisky experience, demonstrated by the need for explanation and advice as to adding water, opening up different, new and subtle flavours previously not experienced. We discussed the differences in the various blends and strengths. The staff were extremely knowledgeable and proud of their authentic taste, an industry which attracts visitors from all over the world – with one in five visitors to Scotland making a trip to a distillery during their stay. It was the perfect training for our wonderful tour to the Lagavulin distillery the following day.
Back to the hotel and it was time for a round of golf on the wonderful historic Links course, offering an unforgettable guest experience. Pristine green turf set against the backdrop of the glistening blue sea – it was hugely inviting and accommodating of both professionals to beginners alike.
For those who don’t know, a links is the oldest style of golf course, first developed in Scotland. The word “links” comes via the Scots language from the Old English word hlinc, “rising ground, ridge” and refers to an area of coastal sand dunes and sometimes to open parkland.
The former European Ryder Cup Vice Captain and PGA tour player DJ Russell, modernised The Machrie’s course during the refurbishments, using innovative design to combine the thrill of a traditional, historic links course with the best of modern design. Its origins date back to 1891 when Willie Campbell created the original classic layout.
Golf at The Machrie offers an enjoyable challenge for golfers of all ages and abilities. As well as the stunning 18-hole Links, visitors can enjoy the Wee course offering six par-3 holes played from a multitude of tees, a covered driving range and short game area – and the glorious Hebrides putting course.
And it’s not just about the winning on the golf course for The Machrie – their focus on authenticity, a warm welcome and indigenous ingredients has already resulted in many accolades and awards, including; 3 Regional Awards at the Scottish Hotel Awards, Highland and Islands Regional Event, winners of the Best Newcomer Award at The Prestige Awards in Glasgow, and with general manager Iain Hamilton winner of the highly prestigious Best General Manager Award.
The scenery, the wildlife, the coastline, one of the finest links courses in the world and its proximity to some of the world’s most famous whisky distilleries, make The Machrie the perfect spot from which to explore the isles of Scotland’s west coast.
- Sitting by the fireplace in The Stag Lounge for pre-dinner drinks and seeing the most beautiful, strikingly red sunset filling the sky and reflecting over the ocean.
- Hitting a good shot on three consecutive par-3s on the Wee course.
- Enjoying a delicious Sunday roast while looking out across the terrace, over the links, to the sea.
- Relaxing in The Snug – a cosy retreat near the main reception area. Take a seat and enjoy a good book or meet friends for a board game.
- The views from the hotel, including the bedroom balcony’s unobstructed views of the island’s peat plains, the Mull of Oa, the green links and the Atlantic Ocean.
Out and About
The Machrie Hotel, Islay, is close to The Oa Peninsula and Nature Reserve, and is well located for exploring the local crafts at Persabus Pottery, Islay Woollen Mill and Islay Quilters – or enjoy Fly Fishing at Fly Fish Islay, based in Bowmore, perched right on the shores of Loch Indaal.
As well as enjoying a round of golf, Islay is, of course, well known for the smoky malts distilled on the island.
Make sure to find time during your stay to visit one or two of these distilleries and enjoy a wee dram to see for yourself the characteristics of the famous Islay whisky. We visited:
Lagavulin Whisky Distillery
Lagavulin Distillery is 6 miles from the hotel, nestled in between Laphroaig and Ardbeg distilleries. Founded in 1816 by John Johnston the name comes from the Gaelic Laggan Mhouillin – ‘the hollow where the mill is”. Lagavulin 16-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky is the Islay malt in Diageo’s established Classic Malts collection. Used to show the definitive Islay malt style. It’s one of Scotland’s “essential” distilleries, on a cramped, chaotic, wildly romantic site.
Islay boasts 9 distilleries in total, so make sure you add a visit to at least one during your time on Islay – others you might enjoy:
- Laphroaig Distillery, (5.5 miles) located near Port Ellen Ferry Terminal
- Ardbeg Distillery, (7 miles) located further along the coast from Port Ellen
- Islay’s first recorded distillery, Bowmore Distillery, (8 miles) north of the hotel
- Bruichladdich Distillery, (15 miles) located near Port Charlotte
- Caol Ila, (18 miles) in the north east of the island
- Bunnahabhain, (21 miles) also located in the
north eastof the island
- Ardnahoe, (19 miles) Islay’s newest distillery opening this year between Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila
- One of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, Kilchoman Distillery (16 miles) also located near Port Charlotte
There are daily flights with Loganair from Glasgow and Edinburgh airports to Islay, as well as local inter-island flights, and there are also several daily ferries from the mainland and connecting with other islands.
The Machrie also has its own Islander aircraft which is available for private hire.
Prices and Booking
Winter rates start from £145 per room, per night and Summer rates from £235 per room, per night, including breakfast