HEAVEN IN THE HIGHLANDS – Achnagairn
Living the manor house dream in the heart of the Highlands
AFTER a nightmare year for the hospitality industry, big decisions have had to be made by many hotel owners. One such was taken a few weeks ago by Gillian and Mike Lacey-Solemar concerning their beautiful estate – Achnagairn near Inverness. Business in 2020 was down by a soul-destroying 95% so something drastic had to be done. And quickly.
Until lockdown, the 24-bedroom manor house, built in 1812, was rented out in its entirety – generally as the perfect Highland setting for a lavish wedding or for conferences. Several thousands of pounds would have had to be shelled out before you or your guests could have enjoyed the impressive whitewashed manor house but, this year, from mid May, you can book in and enjoy a night’s B&B for just £150.
The reason this is a big wow is that this place really is something else – I’d even go as far as to say it’s that over-used word – “exceptional”. The massive en-suite rooms are a sheer delight. Quirky doesn’t touch it – some of them are downright barking…but in a good way.
All individually themed and designed by Gillian, they are named with some truly awful puns, some examples are, The Importance of Being Urn-nest (a room decorated with urns); ‘Thistle Inspire You (you guessed it…); Monet Monet Monet (in the French-inspired adjacent lodge called La Belle France, which also boasts Bayeux Leave).
Then there’s Ring a Rosie’s – a tower room with a circular bed and themed with roses of all descriptions, or Antigua (where the family own a villa for rental). This is decked out in brilliant Caribbean colours and boasts twin side-by-side baths. Come to that, all the bathrooms have the wow factor. The one in the room Victoriana is fabulous, with its two-tier ceramic 19th century Edinburgh sink, and a cast iron bath with an early version of a shower.
The Old Nursery suite is a must if you visit with children, with its cot bed and child-sized doors into tunnels between rooms and into a secret playroom filled with toys.
A 19th century safe is a hidden feature in the panelling of another suite, and all over the castle you find original fireplaces, hidden rooms off secret corridors and lots and lots of wood panelling. It’s a great manor house to explore – not for one minute do you feel you’re in a hotel, but then of course, you’re not. If you baulk at standardisation and the Holiday Inn approach, you’ll love Achnagairn.
The Old Nursery
When I visited with my partner, just before it re-opened to the public, I felt like this was my own little crumb of a silver lining out of the sheer misery and hell of lockdown. How special to know that the public can enjoy the manor house this year for a fraction of the normal price.
This is likely to be the only summer the manor house will be open to the public as a B&B, so make hay. Despite the staycation market seeing a huge 41% increase in British holiday prices, happily Achnagairn are not cashing in and charging rip-off prices. Even the enormous bridal suite – 70 square metres – costs only £350 a night and a room of that size and with that finish in any equivalent 5 star hotel would cost in the four figures.
The Bridal Suite
Ordinarily the castle will host between 50 and 60 weddings a year. The reason for its popularity is because in addition to the manor house and its beautiful grounds there are also seven luxurious self-catering lodges sleeping up to 12. These are dubbed ‘mini manors’ and, although modern (jacuzzi baths are the order of the day throughout the manor house and lodges) they’re equally quirky.
One of the ‘mini manors’ – perfect for a large group’s self-catering break
Each lodge – again – has a theme with artwork and décor to suit. One even has its own log-fuelled sauna and Canadian hot tub. Prices this summer start at £850 a night to sleep ten. Right now they have an offer on, if you book a week, you can have a mini manor for £450 per head– so £4,500 per week for ten. For twelve it is £500 a head a week.
My younger son is getting married in July so I’m already in wedding overdrive which is why I know that Harpers Bazar listed Achnagairn in the top five wedding venues in the UK. For the past three years running (pre-Covid) they won the Scottish Vows Awards for the North of Scotland, voted for by clients. A key selling point is the magnificent wood-panelled ballroom which, at a squeeze, can seat up to 200.
There’s no restaurant for dinner but you’re only a 15-minute drive to the capital of the Highlands and if you want to have your dinner professionally cooked there are two good local companies who will provide top restaurant-quality food in your lodge. Michael and Yvonne Crook run www.goodhighlandfood.com out of Tomatin and cater for five-star castles all over the Highlands. Their food is excellent. Equally impressive is www.thelunchboxboys.com from the Cairngorms, run by two creative young Scottish chefs, Sam and Dougal who delight in offering the finest Scottish produce to guests. For just £60 a head a day they will supply an excellent breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Round and about….
Apart from enjoying the estate grounds if you venture out a short distance you can enjoy a walk in the Forestry Commission-run Reelig Glen. It’s a beautiful woodland walk with a mixture of mature conifer and broadleaved trees – some spectacular Douglas Fir.
This part of the world is at the start/end of the ridiculously popular North Coast 500. Inverness doesn’t really boast any great hotels so the addition of Achnagairn as a nearby base from which to explore the Highlands is seriously good news, especially in a year where holidays at home are the order of the day.
THREE TO SEE
Fort George – an 18th-century fortress built after the Jacobite rebellions with some of the biggest artillery fortifications in Europe. See www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/fort-george/ (pre-booking required).
The wildlife in this area is one of the great joys of a visit. Take in a trip to Chanonry Point for dolphin spotting in the Moray Firth. www.moraydolphins.co.uk/chanonry-point.html
An obvious excursion is a boat trip on Loch Ness, just in case….well, you never know. Jacobite Cruises (www.jacwww.jacobite.co.ukobite.co.uk) will take you Nessie-hunting.