Lochside luxuriance in stunning Argyllshire
So breath-taking are the mountains and lochs of Argyllshire that it’s distractingly possible to feast on them from the humblest of vantage points.
Indeed many of us will have been happy to rough it from a tent in these parts, such basic kit long accepted as a part of the experience.
But add into this adventure in some of Britain’s most striking terrain Scotland’s luxury hotel of the year and you really do have something ultra-special.
Sitting un-ostentatiously on the banks of Loch Linnhe at Port Appin is the Airds Hotel and Restaurant.
A one-time ferry inn dating from the early 1700s, it is these days an 11-bedroomed establishment (plus two cottages) which has garnered a clutch of awards for the quality of its food, accommodation and service.
It’s a fair stretch to get there from Lancashire but, once past Glasgow, the traveller is rewarded with almost continuous stunning views to temper the journey’s length; and the wait is well worth it, I promise you.
Arriving at Airds, the missus and I paused for a few minutes to drink in the silence and spectacaular views across the loch to Lismore and, further away, the snow-capped peaks of Mull.
Once inside, we were afforded the warmest of welcomes and paused for a few minutes, this time to drink in the complimentary glass of chilled prosecco that was handed to us before we were shown to our room.
This was the Lodge View Suite which was as sumptuous, attractive and comfortable as you could wish for.
Spacious, with a super-king size bed, it had a separate lounge area with a television in each room.
The bathroom had a wow factor all of its own, what with the plush carpeting, twin wash basins, generous bath and separate large shower cubicle.
And throughout the stay, meticulous attention to detail was what elevated the holiday experience to an even higher plane.
A bowl of fresh fruit, his and her towelling robes, upmarket coffee machine, chilled water, a carafe of whisky mac, free morning paper and an early morning cuppa were all part of the room’s luxuriousness.
And if you want to stay in, Airds has a library of more than 200 DVDs into which you can dip.
No surprise either to learn, given the suite’s name, that the view from the window was a joy in itself.
The evening meals we enjoyed at Airds were of exceptional quality and are a credit to head chef Calum Innes.
On the first night we sampled the a la carte menu which offered five very different dishes for each of its three courses.
We had no quibbles with any of our selections but I ought to make special mention of the loin of Newtonmore venison, braised haunch, creamed cabbage, parsley root, pommes dauphines with a red wine and bramble jus that Mrs G had her main. A more delicate and flavoursome piece of meat I have never tasted.
Our food envy was equalised by my dessert though: a stupendous Mirabelle plum souffle with Earl Grey ice cream and a cinnamon doughnut which won special plaudits from several fellow diners too.
The restaurant boasts a fine wine list and I should add that the meal was also prefaced by a trio of delicious canapés and punctuated by a couple of amuse bouches.
On our second and final night we took the plunge with the fare on the facing page: the tasting menu. It came at a £27.50 supplement per person (and there’s also a £45 per person tasting wine menu for which we didn’t opt) but was well worth the outlay.
Each course was an exquisite, miniature work of art, packed full of delicate and rich complementary flavours.
One stand-out was the sweetest langoustine I have ever tasted, accompanied by an oyster emulsion and mussel tempura. Another a fillet of Scotch beef, braised shin, salsify and carrot with a horseradish jus.
Introduced with an amuse bouche and rounded off in the lounge with coffee and petits fours, it was a hugely satisfying culinary adventure: not over-filling nor so minimalist to leave you still hungry!
The comfortable restaurant is open to non-residents too, so if you happen to be passing by...
Breakfasts were to a high standard too and Airds also serves quality afternoon teas and supplies, on request, packed lunches to guests.
At every turn the hotel staff were attentive, polite, friendly and informative.
Oh, and each time we went down for a meal, some secret fairy seemed to slip into the room and freshen up the beds and laundry again (it is possible to ask them not to do this by leaving a bull doorstop called Hamish outside your door).
There are some lovely strolls to be had around Port Appin - a small community which includes a village store, craft shop and gallery - not least the Clach Thoull walk which takes in an eye-catching geological feature called the Hole in the Wall.
The hotel lends out wellies for less clement weather and you can also hire electric bikes.
Off shore, a short distance up the road, sits Stalker Castle which can be visited by boat at certain times of the year.
While centuries old, it is perhaps best known as featuring in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!
About half a mile’s drive from Port Appin is the town of Oban: a picturesque treasure all in itself and well worth a visit and whose attractions include a distillery, War and Peace Museum and the he Colosseum-like McCaig’s Tower.
While we were there we ventured up a snowy Glen Coe (using a chairlift for some of the journey) which was great exercise, afforded more spectacular views and could, if we have wanted, allowed us to try out skiing (clearly the latter doesn’t apply in the summer!)
For more leisurely excursions you can take wildlife and Tobermoray ferry trips from Oban or, even more indulgently, purchase a range of relaxation release treatments at Airds.
Space precludes going into detail about all the golf courses, further castles and monuments, Inverawe Smokery and Fishing Centre, Cruachan Power Station and Inverary Jail House which could constitute days out during a stay up there (not to mention the limitless walks and mountain adventures).
But starting and ending any day in the lap of luxury at Airds couldn’t be more highly recommended.
Airds Hotel & Restaurant (www.airds-hotel.com) in Port Appin near Oban on the West Coast of Scotland - named Luxury Scottish Hotel of the Year 2020 – offers a three-night winter escape priced from £125 per person per night (two sharing ½-board for three nights) and includes a heart-warming whisky mac and early morning tea/coffee delivered to the room with a newspaper of choice each day. Valid to March 26 2020, subject to availability (excludes Valentine's week)
Reservations: www.airds-hotel.com / 01631 730 236 / [email protected]
ACCOMMODATION: As well as being named Scottish Luxury Hotel of the Year 2020 (Good Hotel Guide), Airds has membership of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux, Pride of Britain and Connoisseurs Scotland portfolios.
CUISINE: the restaurant has featured in the Good Food Guide for more than 40 consecutive years and held three AA Rosettes for more than 25. "Fresh, local and simple" is head chef Calum Innes mantra.
ACCESS: fly to Glasgow or Edinburgh and drive or enjoy a picturesque train ride to Connel (followed by a short taxi ride).
Airds also has a Valentine's package. The price - from £325 per room on Friday February 14 - includes chef’s five-course Valentine’s menu, a feast served in the romantic candlelit dining room. Stay two nights (from £650 per couple) and in addition to a five- course à la carte dinner on Saturday night, a bottle of Champagne will be waiting on ice in your room. Prices also include Airds’ Scottish breakfast and early morning tea or coffee served to the room. Reservations: 01631 730236. For more information visit www.airds-hotel.com