SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS & ISLE OF MULL
AS I write this, I am feeling really rather proud of being a Scot. It had been many years since I’d properly travelled as a tourist in my own country, but I’m recently back from a week that took in some of the highlights of the western Highlands and islands, and I have to say, it was truly impressive. One upside of all the horrendous Covid restrictions, I suppose – rediscovering your own country.
Judging by the plethora of English visitors, they rather like it too. Every pub, hotel and restaurant was packed to capacity, which after the year the tourist and hospitality industry has endured, gave me a rosy glow (the social distancing meaning it never felt too crowded).
One of the reasons I felt so proud was, just what a good job we now do of it all. Friendly staff, high quality food, and really high standards all round, from the hotels to the souvenir shops full of locally crafted produce. How different from a few years back where ‘the kitchen closed five minutes ago’ was the norm (even if the Royal Mile is still full of tartan tat).
As it turned out all the places I wanted to visit were conveniently locations of the Scottish hotel group Crerar (www.crerarhotels.com) who specialise in four star doggie-friendly luxury and suited my budget just fine.
Stop one was Inveraray where we booked into the Loch Fyne Hotel. The weather obliged and the hotel was impressive, with newly-renovated rooms, an impressive pool and spa, and the food was truly excellent – something, it has to be said, this was a recurring theme in all the Crerar hotels. Special mentions for the fresh seafood, succulent steaks and imaginative starters and desserts. After years of hotel dining rooms being the butt of sarcastic humour, it seems they can now hold a torch to any gourmet city restaurant, at least in this group’s hotels.
When you’re in Inveraray it’s obvious where to visit: the castle and the jail.
The ancestorial home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell, was rebuilt in 1744 and its grand rooms have hosted many royals over the years, most famously Queen Victoria in 1874. This is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s grandest castles with beautiful gardens.
Another Inveraray classic is the George Hotel, and a meal in the restaurant won’t disappoint, though book well ahead as it’s always busy.
Inveraray Jail and Courtroom is one of the best preserved examples of its kind in the world. This is a truly exceptional family attraction (mind you, as the tour describes some of the prisoners’ assorted crimes, be prepared to explain terms like ‘bestiality’ and ‘sodomy’).
The Courtroom, with its spookily-realistic life-size models of everyone from sheriff to jury, accused and witnesses, is a hoot. It also brings back to life just how horrendous penal life in Scotland was in the 18th century.
When I visited this part of Scotland it was full-on rhodies and azalea season and, boy, does Argyll do it well.
Ardkinglas Gardens were nothing short of heavenly: a riot of colour and perfume, all 25 acres of it, which includes the ‘Mightiest Conifer in Europe’ (a whopping 217ft Silver Fir).
Another gem is the spectacular woodland Crarae Gardens – a visit in June is worth putting in the diary months ahead for pure rhododendron heaven.
From there it was off on the Cal-Mac ferry to Mull.
First stop Castle Duart. On discovering I was from The Herald, I was really touched to be given a personal show round by no less than Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean Bt, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Argyll and Bute, 28th clan chief and 12th Baronet of Morvern. What a charming gent.
And what a gem Duart is.
For over 600 years, this seat of Clan Maclean has dominated the Sound of Mull with its huge curtain walls and solid keep. None of your namby-pampby stuff, this is a proper castle, complete with dungeons, stonking thick walls and a rooftop walk to kill people from, all lovingly restored from a ruinous state by the current chief’s great-grandfather.
It is still very much a family home with countless interesting paintings, photos (admit it, we all love a good nosey at the resident aristo’s family), antique furniture, ancestral robes and ancestor’s clothes. Oh, and one of the best tearooms and souvenir shops in Scotland, with delicious home-baking and quality souvenirs.
For me, this castle was the highlight of Mull – an absolute ‘must’. Obviously so is Tobermory with its famous painted houses. The overriding thing I took away from a visit there was how surprisingly good the shopping is. Here you find proper handicrafts and imaginative souvenirs at reasonable prices. Don’t miss the family-run Isle of Mull Soap Co with its wonderful smellies: homemade soaps, candles, bath bombs and so on. Brilliant products based on locally grown plants at bargain prices – sure beats a stick of rock.
For well-priced pub grub with a view over the harbour try eating at the Magochans. The other classic Tobermory watering hole – The Mishnish Hotel – was so chocca we couldn’t even get a seat after 20 mins, so gave up. Obviously Tobermory this year is the place to be.
There didn’t seem much point going to Iona this trip as the abbey was fully booked for the available time-allocated visits, but Staffa was an absolute highlight. We took the excursion with Staffa Trips. The swell wasn’t too bad and we managed to spot dolphins and the odd puffin, but the highlight, of course, is the extraordinary sight of the basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave. It really is, as Sir Walter Scott said “…one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld.”
This uninhabited island is home to hundreds of seabirds, and it is other-worldly to listen to their screeching as you look upon a landscape formed a staggering 60 million years ago.
The Isle of Mull Hotel may not charm from the outside but once in, it’s a different story. There’s 75 newly-renovated bedrooms, superb food, and a brand new spa. The top-end rooms have hot tubs, and there’s a new ‘wilderness spa’, located outdoors on a wooden deck which you can book out for a small group in its entirety. An outdoor sauna, a new indoors spa, a 17m swimming pool, it’s all rather surprising – a proper spa hotel on somewhere as remote and beautiful as Mull? Yes, it now exists.
Among the spa offerings are detoxifying Hebridean seaweed treatments and new therapies designed to promote deep sleep which can be enjoyed at night when, unusually, the spa is still open and offering treatments.
Oysters for breakfast? It’d be rude not to when you can almost see where they were plucked from the sea when you sit in the glass-fronted restaurant. They were superb, like all the food.
Chef Noel Escobal is complemented front of house by his lovely Filipino wife, Rema, who has certainly mastered Scottish craic during her time in our country. I thoroughly recommend this hotel (and I don’t give praise easily…).
After rolling back onto the mainland it was off to The Glencoe Inn. The drive over is a classic, punctuated by lochs and castles, including the scenic Castle Stalker – a great photo opp, with the isle of Lismore in the background.
All the Crerar hotels are different in character and the Glencoe Inn & Gathering (the bar/grill) is a wonderful addition. It’s very relaxed, dotted with log fires, wood burning stoves, soft furnishings in plaid, and there’s a lovely wooden deck for residents to watch the sun set (or the clouds swirl up that hauntingly-beautiful Glen).
After a day of Munro bagging, it’s the perfect place to kick off your boots and enjoy a drink.
The inn’s 15 rooms start at a very reasonable £149 but it’s not just rooms – they now also have a large self-catering lodge and, for all residents, a new outdoor hot tub and sauna. Their big news though is that it has just been granted an official AA five-star rating, just one month after finishing its £500,000 refurbishment.
It collected the AA Breakfast Award in recognition of its focus on the use of fresh, local produce. A typical breakfast could take in fresh oysters (again!), venison carpaccio and a classic ‘Full Scottish’ to last you a day on the hills.
The delicious surf ’n’ turf at dinner is exactly what you’d expect from an award-winning restaurant called The Steak & Lobster Bistro.
So, you’ve got the message by now – this really is your one-stop shop for good food in Glencoe. Oh, and before I forget, there’s also a new wood-fired pizza hut – Red Shed Pizza. All tastes and budgets well and truly catered for – and all that in the middle of nowhere.
But that’s one of the great things about Scotland. We still have space – miles and miles of it; we have stunning scenery and friendly locals, and now – at last – we really do offer world-class accommodation and exceptional food, even in the remotest places.