An afternoon sparking with salty sunlight and in Port Ellen, a trim, white Hebrid-ean village hugging a sandy bay, a Jack Russell is barking excitedly at something – or someone – beneath the shifting waters of the harbour. I follow the terrier's gaze and there, just below the surface, is a set of eyes, saucer-like and dark, peering straight at me.
To see a seal on Islay, one of the jigsaw-piece isles cast off from the raggedy coastline of western Scotland, is not unusual. In fact, at Loch an t-Sailein (Seal Bay) you are almost guaranteed to find grey seals doing their onshore stretches. But to be close enough to shake a flipper is a fresh experience. And I don't need to be Doctor Dolittle to see what it wants. "If only I had a fish," I remark to a local on the quayside. (On Islay, the habit of talking to strangers is soon acquired.)
A plump mackerel is placed in my hand. I dangle it above the waters and the seal surges up. As it tears the fish from me I feel the cod-liver-oil strength of a creature which cruises the firths and skerries under its own propulsion. I, too, feel a surge of energy. For a few enchanted moments, as the seal's gaze meets mine, despite the 40-odd birthdays behind me, I'm filled with a childlike sense of wonder. It's magical and yet, on Islay, it's one I've come to expect.
I didn't grow up here, but in the 20 years since my parents made the place their home, time and again, when visiting, I've found myself transported down the rabbit hole of memory to reconnect with my seven-year-old self. With its white sandy beaches, traffic-free roads (mostly single track) and sea-bathing warmed by the Gulf Stream, this southernmost of the Hebridean isles is the perfect destination for families with young children. But it's also one of the best places on the planet to experience the deep sense of relaxation that comes from conjuring up your childhood self.
The spell is cast partly by simple pleasures which cost very little, or nothing at all: catching ribbons of seaweed between your toes as you pad-dle through the shallows, island-spotting from cliffs crowned with wild orchids, buying fish and chips cooked by an island family. But a large portion of the charm comes from spending time in a community of 3,000 or so where people leave their house door open, their car unlocked, cash for the milkman on the doorstep.
Ninety nine per cent of islanders welcome strangers with a smile and even teenagers return a "hello". Local youngsters cannot go anywhere without their name being known but have the freedom of roaming far more independently than on the mainland. It's the existence "lifestyle refugees" seek when they flee Britain for the Auvergne or Abruzzi. Yet on Islay, it's a way of life unfolding, season by season, within the sterling zone. And, despite pure wind-scoured air and 239sq miles of solitude shared with golden eagles, otters and three kinds of deer, it's not the back of beyond.
Islay is in the Inner Hebrides, not the Outer. Nobody chains up children's swings on a Sunday or gives up buying a tax disc for their car. Letters are delivered daily by plane from Glasgow (a 45-minute flight) and most babies arrive in the same way. Everything else, including newspapers, arrives before lunchtime on a Caledonian Macbrayne car ferry, a two-hour sail from Kennacraig in Argyll.
Islay is therefore the gentle beginning of beyond; just remote enough for you to have a beach to yourself. (In August, admittedly, things can become more crowded. Last year, I counted eight beachcombers, two dogs and four pony trekkers all on the same bay.) The official tourist board delights encompass eight whisky distilleries in idyllic settings, including Lagavulin and Laphroaig, a celebrated links golf course and some of the finest natural wild brown trout-fishing in Europe. Add to that a world-class example of Celtic carving, the bluestone Kildalton Cross, and the former home, at Finlaggan, of the Lords of the Isles, who once ruled much of western Scotland.
But for me the main joy is that wonderful unloosening of stress that comes from putting several dozen sea miles between my hard-worked everyday self and the more playful, inquiring person I was as a little girl. The return to the past begins either on a red-funnelled ferry (listen for the captain announcing dolphins or porpoises alongside) or a small aircraft which dips low over loch, mountain and sea.
There are coaches from Glasgow to the Kennacraig ferry and buses on Islay, but it's best to have your own wheels – two or four. The island is free of double yellow lines and traffic lights, so drivers can also return to a golden age when Shell guides to rural Britain were penned by John Betjeman and courtesy prevailed. You'll soon learn to raise a hand from the wheel in greeting and to beware of unfenced sheep and cattle sharing the road.
You'll also be charmed to discover that a day at the beach need not involve lying like sardines on a barbecue. My favourite beach, Kilnaughton, is a sweep of pale honey sand, sheltered by grassy dunes where rabbits play and Highland cattle graze, watched over by a white lighthouse and a ruined chapel. The bathing is safe and, by Scottish standards, warm. Afterwards, I love to trace the shoreline, letting tide-furrowed sand tickle my feet as I gather razor scallops.
Kilnaughton is a five-minute drive west of Port Ellen. Shank's pony takes 50 minutes but brings the fun of climbing beeches in Cairnmore Woods (signposted on the left opposite Cairnmore House) before the path wends down the cliffs through the remains of a Victorian bathing house.
Wide island skies produce an inrush of light, and of pristine air, from all sides, but there's also mental refreshment – in this age of the Satnav and Google Earth – in following a walk you can learn by heart and in discovering geography, directly, with naked eye and scraped knee.
At Saligo Bay, on Islay's Atlantic side, nature slaps you in the face with ocean spray and dares you to scramble in a Boy's Own adventure over dark, dramatic rocks battered by boiling, foamed waves. Unlike pre-packaged theme-park thrills, there's no queue, no need to pay.
This emotional intensity, so rejuvenating, can likewise be kindled contemplating a stealthy Hebridean sunset – better than any TV show – when molten gold and violet drip slowly from the heavens. By day, there are so many moments when I lose myself, watching a seagull raise worms by stamping on fresh-mown grass or an orange-billed oyster-catcher stalking the shore. The full Ladybird Book learning experience is available on guided walks at the RSPB's nature reserve at Loch Gruinart.
But for people-watching – equally enthralling – take a perch on the main seafront in Port Ellen, the larger of the island's two ferry ports. Depending on the time of day and year, you can see fishermen landing crab, lobster and clams; children playing Swallows and Amazons on tractor tyres; yachts gliding out of the 24-berth marina; and worshippers making their way to St John's Church of Scotland. It's here that on Friday and Saturday evenings a bright yellow time machine – otherwise known as the Nippy Chippy – arrives. I liken it to Dr Who's Tardis because the haddock and chips taste as good as when I bought them from pocket money.
The other culinary treat with the effect of Proust's Madeleine, reminding me of Sunday school picnics, is sultana scones. These and other home-baked goodies are served in grand style in Bowmore (famous for its Round Church with no corners for the Devil to hide in) at the exceedingly comfortable Harbour Inn, in a conservatory overlooking the sea loch of Lochindaal and the glowering black peaks of the Paps of Jura.
However, for full nostalgia there's nothing to beat a church or charity coffee morning. Watch for what the locals choose first – they know who bakes the best shortbread and the lightest scones. Then relax and enjoy "the hundred thousand welcomes" as Gaelic so warmly puts it. Many islanders understand this ancient language but it's never used to exclude. If you see a live music night promising a Mod Gold medallist then don't miss it – these are the best living exponents of a story-and-song culture and you're likely to be spellbound. For what's on, pick up the fortnightly newspaper The Ileach (pronounced ee-lach) or study the notices in shops which announce everything from funerals to ceilidhs.
I love Islay in any season, even in winter when waves flail Carraig Fhada lighthouse. However, May to September are the months for sea bathing and with the Great British Holiday back in fashion, it's crucial to book accommodation before you land.
At the Bridgend Hotel I found a walled garden blooming with fuchsia ballerinas. Set in bluebell woods, this well-run 11-room establishment also has its own kitchen garden and the fresh fish and game at table come from Lord Margadale's Islay Estates, to which the hotel belongs. One step into the hidden garden and I return to a once upon a time, pre-Harry Potter, when The Secret Garden was a much-loved tale and at school in Aberdeenshire we sang about westering home to Islay.
Now I'm all grown up I know that the song lyric is true and that this really is the "goodbye to care" island.
How to get there
Caledonian McBrayne (0800 066 5000; calmac.co.uk) sails between Kennacraig and Port Ellen or Port Askaig. Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies from Glasgow International to Islay. Bridgend Hotel (01496 810212; bridgend-hotel.com); Harbour Inn (01496 810330; harbour-inn.com).
Isle of Islay Tourist Information
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