Islay is an easygoing place, and life on this Hebridean isle off the west coast of Scotland tends to move slowly. Change does not occur very often, and when it does, people take notice. Which is why the recent revamping of The Machrie hotel and golf links has been big news.
The renovation and expansion of the historic inn, which first opened on Islay (pronounced “Eye-la”) in the late 19th century, was led by hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray. A native Scot who has created acclaimed properties such as One Aldwych in London and Carlisle Bay in Antigua, he converted the broken-down structure into a stylish 47-room hotel with whitewashed walls and slate-shingled roofs. It reopened in August of last year.
The word “machrie” is derived from the Gaelic “machair,” which refers to the rugged salt grass links on which traditional Scottish golf courses are laid out. The hotel itself is located at the end of a narrow lane that cuts between pastures where cows and sheep peacefully graze. Having parked my car, I walked into a mudroom where raincoats hung from hooks and pairs of Wellington boots were arrayed. These were a reminder that inclement weather is not unknown in this part of the world; however, the climate on Islay is surprisingly temperate, as the island is washed by the Gulf Stream. I reflected that being wet is much better than being cold and wet.
Nowadays, from the outside, The Machrie looks like a large farmhouse, but inside, black-and-white photographs of iconic golfers share the walls with abstract paintings and framed Gucci and Hermès scarves with golfing themes. Overstuffed plaid-upholstered chairs evoke the feeling of an Edwardian library, while the tables and lamps have a contrasting sleek Scandinavian aesthetic.
Four of the rooms are suites, and I had been allocated to the 750-square-foot duplex suite named after the great Ben Hogan. The sleeping quarters were on the first floor, where a king-size bed came with fine linens and a fluffy down comforter. On the upper level, I discovered a sitting room with white walls, a soothing olive-green rug and lovely navy-blue curtains. During my stay, it became my habit to make use of the coffee maker in the upstairs kitchenette and then to sip the brew at a picture window while gazing across the links to the waters of Laggan Bay.
The Machrie soon proved a pleasing and hospitable place to stay. On my first evening, I headed downstairs. The restaurant and bar — called 18 because it overlooks the 18th green — is an airy, high-ceilinged space with sliding glass doors that open to a second-floor deck. Islay may be a relative backwater, but 18 boasts big-city bartending, thanks to Adam, its young mixologist. His take on a classic Manhattan is brilliant, and he crafts as good a gin and tonic as I have ever tasted — with the Botanist gin, of course. The dinner menu features superlative local lobster, crab, oysters and scallops. But if it is a steak you want, you cannot go wrong with the different cuts of grass-fed Aberdeen Angus beef the chefs prepare. In the morning, I discovered an unusually lavish breakfast buffet with fruits and yogurts, oatmeal and muffins, croissants and baguettes, plus scrambled eggs, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes. Scottish favorites such as smoked haddock with spinach and poached egg are available à la carte.
Making a tour of the property, I came across a 30-seat screening room for movies, as well as peaceful sitting rooms with fireplaces in which to relax with a book. The courtyard off the lobby is also a fine place in which to unwind. A variety of treatments for both men and women are available at the spa, and guests can work out at a well-equipped gym. The pro shop is located on the ground floor, and nearby, a glass case contains trophies won by golfers here in tournaments over the past 128 years.
Before stepping onto the third tee, I stood on the beach to savor the views and the scent of salt on the freshening wind.
The golf course itself was originally designed in 1891 by the fabled Scottish golfer Willie Campbell, routed along Laggan Bay and among the sand dunes. It must now be regarded as one of the very best courses in a nation full of great ones, thanks to a redesign by former PGA European Tour player and onetime Ryder Cup assistant captain DJ Russell. His wisest moves were eliminating many of the blind shots that had made Machrie among the toughest tracks in the British Isles and cutting back on over-penal rough and the number of sand bunkers. The result is a course that now is as much fun to play as it is challenging.
Few things are more pleasurable for a golfer than to be able to walk from his hotel room to the course, and the stroll from the Ben Hogan Duplex Suite to the first tee took me less than five minutes. On each of my three mornings at The Machrie, I was the first person out on the course. Getting ready to hit my drive, I could hear the sheep bleating in a nearby pasture. And gazing across the links to the bay, I felt the sea breeze on my face. A while later, before stepping onto the third tee, I stood on the beach to savor the views and the scent of salt on the freshening wind. On clear days, golfers at The Machrie can see the coast of Ireland, just 25 miles away.
Russell’s redesign of the old Campbell course is a revelation. I was especially delighted by the different shots he compelled me to hit and the creativity I had to employ, including draws and fades on my drives depending on the direction of the dogleg and bump and runs on many of my approaches. I think I used every club in my bag. My favorite holes were those on which I had to hit with mid- and short-irons onto greens that the architect had tucked into dells surrounded by dunes, like the par-4 eighth, “Big Strand,” and the par-3 ninth, “Ileach,” which is backed by Laggan Bay. Playing the par-5 12th downwind, I twice managed to reach the green in two, and then two-putted for birdie, personal triumphs that were sources of great satisfaction.
The renovation of The Machrie has also involved the construction of a driving range, plus a six-hole short track known as the Wee Course, as well as the establishment of a golf academy with five indoor hitting bays. There is also a short-game practice area and a putting course modeled after the famous “Himalayas” at St. Andrews.
American golfers can now add a new name to their Scottish bucket list. Playing The Machrie links is an experience made all the more enjoyable by having a comfortable hotel with excellent food in which to stay. And, of course, the scenic and peaceful Isle of Islay offers the additional pleasure of distillery tours, strolls along glorious beaches scoured by the Atlantic surf, fly-fishing for the native brown trout and exceptional birding on reserves at Loch Gruinart and the Oa, both administered by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Comfortable and well-appointed accommodations; hypnotic sea views; the superlative local seafood.
The first tee time is at 7 a.m., but the restaurant does not open until 7:30, which means that early rising golfers must wait for their breakfasts.
Islay is serviced by commercial aircraft, but it is much more enjoyable to travel there via the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The scenic trip from the tiny mainland port of Kennacraig to Port Ellen (on the southern end of Islay) or Port Askaig (on the northeast coast) takes a couple hours. The vessels making the crossing are clean and comfortable and offer terrific homemade meals like steak and ale pie, as well as beer and wine.