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Monarch of the glens
It is rare in this job to feel like you are being treated like royality, but on a recent trip to the west of Scotland I most defintely was. I had been invited to stay at Inverlochy Castle, the Relais & Châteaux hotel and restaurant near Fort William — which is right in the middle of Monarch of the Glen country if you are a fan of the popular TV series.
The Victorian castle, built in 1863 by the first Lord Abinger, is tucked away at the foot of the impressively snow-capped Ben Nevis and has been the haunt of various members of our Royal family for many years, being a particular favourite of the late Queen Mother.
Queen Victoria also stayed at the castle in 1873, spending a week at Inverlochy sketching and painting. She wrote in her diaries ‘I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot’.
Arriving at the five-star hotel along a winding tree-lined drive, we received a warm Highland welcome from the staff, including Calum Milne, the hotel’s friendly and efficient general manager. We discovered from Calum that, apart from royalty, film stars, actors, musicians and the odd US ambassador, the hotel’s distinguished guest list has included one Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. The fictional headmaster of Hogwarts had his study here — or at least the movie wizards who make the Harry Potter films had transformed the hotel’s private dining room into Dumbledore’s study with a bit of computer-generated graphics magic.
No movie magic is needed to create the luxurious but relaxed atmosphere of Inverlochy, however.
Calum showed us to the luxurious Prince’s Suite on the first floor of his hotel. And yes, as you are asking, Charles has stayed there, hence the name.
This is a large, bright and comfortably appointed room, with lovely views over the castle’s well-kept gardens, Ben Nevis and the surrounding mountains.
While maintaining a Victorian country-house feel, the suite had all mod-cons, including a widescreen TV, a wireless laptop, and Bang & Olufsen sound system — so we could keep up with the goings-on in Ambridge.
The suite also has an equally luxurious split-level bathroom, with separate bath and shower, and a beautiful Adams fireplace. I could imagine a fine blaze in the impressive grate, but as the weather was unexpectedly tropical for Scotland in early May, we decided to forego that pleasure.
The hotel’s suroundings are quite stunning, with beautiful views from the verandah (where we enjoyed a peaceful pre-dinner drink and canapés) over fields where ewes and their lambs grazed, a lake and, in the distance, misty blue mountains. Queen Victoria was undoubtedly right.
We continued enjoying the view from the restaurant, The Red Room, watching the sun slowly slip behind the mountains. And dinner was as perfect as our surroundings.
From the vegetarian dinner menu created by head chef Matthew Gray, I enjoyed a delicious blue cheese risotto with caramelised fig and port wine reduction, followed by a superb wild garlic veloute, and herb-poached egg with papardelle and butternut squash. Jennifer enjoyed a truffle and morel tortellini with celeriac purée followed by a delicious asparagus puff pastry pillow with broad beans and confit tomatoes.
To complete this excellent meal I indulged in an chocolate mousse with gingerbread and orange ice cream, which was as fantastic as it sounds, while Jennifer went for the selection of cheese (many from local producers) with oatcakes and homemade walnut bread.
We lingered over coffee and a wee dram in the hotel’s comfortable drawing room before retiring to our suite, wondering if there was a more perfect way to spend an evening and if it was really necessary to move on to our next destination the following day.
But move on we did — driving through some stunning scenery to reach Port Appin and The Airds hotel and restaurant, the second Relais and Châteaux venue on our itinerary.
Port Appin is a magically tranquil spot, just north of Loch Creran as it meets the sea.
This four-star hotell is an old ferry inn, once used by pilgrims to the romantic isle of Lismore. The island is steeped in history and was the seat of the Bishops of Argyll, with a Cathedral church, dating from the 13th century, which is partly surviving in the present Church of Saint Moluag, who brought Christianity to Lismore. There is also an Iron Age broch and a ruined Norse stronghold on the island — enough to keep any history addict busy for months.
Hotel guests can enjoy some great coastal walks and it is within easy driving distance of some spectacular Highland beauty spots, such as Glencoe. if you enjoy spotting wildlife, if you are lucky you may see otters and, as we did, the odd peregrine hunting over the cliffs.
While Airds doesn’t have the grand country house atmosphere of Inverlochy, it does have multi-award-winning chef J Paul Burns, (the current Scottish Hotel Chef of the Year) in its kitchens.
Paul has earned the hotel’s restaurant three AA rosettes every year since 1996, and a reputation for fine gourmet dining which has spread far beyond Port Appin. The hotel’s general manager, Robert McKay, is rightly proud of this achievement.
We were looking forward to sampling the menu — but also wanted to enjoy the views over the loch and Port Appin’s lighthouse from our cosy and comfortable country cottage-style suite.
The hotel has 11 rooms all with luxury en-suite facilities, and comfortable lounges, where you can spend time relaxing with a novel or a newspaper in front of the log fires. The hotel also has a pretty garden over the road from the front entrance, where you can take tea or simply sit and watch the world go by.
The hotel’s dining room also overlooks the loch, and we witnessed a spectacular sunset over Loch Linnhe and the Morver mountains while enjoying our evening meal, which began with a Kir Royale ice, created especially for us. Our main course was a fanatstic ‘garden leaves’ salad with caramelised artichoke, which wwere a real taste sensation!. The salad was created from the chef’s own small kitchen garden at the rear of the hotel. We completed our meal with some tasty local cheeses accompanied by a selection of locally-made breads.
The dinner menu changes daily and the chef insists on the best local seasonal ingerdients, which has helped him maintain that triple AA rosette rating. Paul runs culinary courses at the hotel if you fancy picking up a few tips. The next one is being held in October and the hotel is staging a special gourmet event in November, which is bound to be oversubscribed. In fact the hotel organises many themed events during the year. It is worth checking their website for details.
Airds is the place stay if you want to relax, wind-down and enjoy some truly marvellous food. It is also a wonderful base for touring the area on foot or by bicycle. There are many gardens and romantic ruined castles to visit, and a trip to the Isle of Mull is within easy reach.
As well as 11 luxuriously appointed bedrooms, Airds can offer a two-bedroom cottage which can be rented throughout the year. It caters for visitors who perhaps want a bit more privacy or flexibility during their stay in this lovely loch-side hamlet. While feeling remote and unspolit, Port Appin is just two-and-a-half hours driving from Glasgow and two-and-a-quarter from Edinburgh.
When I visited Robert, was in the process of setting up a new seaplane service from Glasgow, which would bring guests from the city centre to nearby Oban Bay. I can’t imagine a more wonderful way of arriving in this beautiful part of Scotland.
It is the little touches like the complementary whisky mac left in your room as a nightcap and the personalised daily newsletter left in your room (which provides details of the weather and possible activities) as well as the friendly staff which make Airds such a homely and welcoming place. But why just take my word for it?