BEFORE booking holidays, smart cookies consult travel guides, where first-hand reviews alert them to the pleasures and pitfalls of a potential destination. The less organised book first, then hold their breath as they check out online accounts, only to be filled with dread.
But those heading for a seaside break at Broad Bay House on the Isle of Lewis can feel pretty smug. Past guests trip over themselves to be emphatically nice about this place. "Heavenly Hebridean hideaway" and "faultless" are among the outpourings that won this venue, within a year of opening, the accolade of Tripadvisor's top Hebridean guest house.
Owners Ian and Marion Fordham have popped open the bubbly several times since embarking on their island adventure three years ago. VisitScotland quickly granted their guesthouse five stars, and Ian's cooking has garnered two silver Eat Scotland awards. Local recognition arrived in the form of a Best New Tourism Business prize at the 2008 Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards.
Marion moved to Lewis a year before Ian. The couple, from south of the Border, had long contemplated a lifestyle change and when a job came up for Marion in the Hebrides she took the plunge. Ian, meanwhile, disentangled himself from the business world and arrived on Lewis to pursue a shared dream to open an upmarket guest house.
"From the start we wanted to offer something special," he says.
The location would have to match the luxurious mood of the house, and time was spent searching for an ideal place in which to base themselves.
"We were set on a coastal position," says Ian. Relative proximity to Stornoway, with its ferry port and airport, would also be important. Ultimately, the couple wanted a unique house that could accommodate a personal home as well as guests and the best way to achieve this was to build from scratch.
At the end of 2005 they found the perfect spot on the island's east coast, seven miles north of Stornoway. However, the rural site had to go through de-crofting, which, in tandem with the planning application, took around six months. Nevertheless the couple just had to stand on site to know it would all be worth it; with easy access to a sandy beach, they enjoy views across the Minch to the mountainous mainland.
Building work got underway in May 2006 and within a year the doors were open to guests. The one-and-a-half-storey, timber-frame house with pitched tiled roof remains sympathetic to traditional island homes but also enjoys unique features. Environmentally friendly construction materials were specified, and the generous use of glazing and sections of timber cladding lend a contemporary feel. All that glass also allows the building to have a strong relationship with the outdoors and all four downstairs bedrooms have access to decks, as does the lounge.
Ian and Marion engaged a local architect and builders, explaining their desire to keep their living space separate. The result: a private entrance from the exterior gives access to their apartment on the upper level,which can effectively be sealed from the ground floor.
One internal space stretches through both storeys. The concept behind this large lounge/dining room, with its vaulted ceiling and glazing on three sides, is for a space where guests can relax, dine and enjoy the views.
All the bedrooms are on a generous scale too, with spacious en suites. "Everything was created with five stars in mind," says Ian.
Throughout the interior, the decor is calming with a contemporary edge. "We were looking for warm, natural finishes and clean lines," Ian continues.
A stove was a must for the lounge; even when logs aren't burning, the shiny steel flue creates a focal point. Italian leather furniture was sourced in London, while the solid oak flooring came from Inverness.
Ian searched on the internet for solid oak bedroom furniture but ended up finding exactly what he wanted in Stornoway. Always keen to involve local businesses, the couple also furnished the hotel with art from a local gallery. Bathrooms are graced with striking photographic work, the contemporary style complementing sleek fittings from a Stornoway supplier.
Like the bedrooms, each bathroom is different. Room one has a practical wet room while room two, the largest in the house, boasts a contemporary, free-standing cast iron bath, big enough for two. Both of these bedrooms also have beautiful oak headboards, handcrafted on the island.
Gadget lovers will be happy, as all rooms are equipped with flat-screen TV, hi-fi, a DVD home cinema system, iPod dock and wireless broadband connection. Comfort and style being key, there are leather armchairs to relax in, and the desk is made of oak.
Dining at Broad Bay fits the five-star experience – Ian, who always enjoyed cooking, honed his skills after moving to the Hebrides at masterclasses at Nick Nairn's Cook School.
Broad Bay House offers bed and breakfast and the option of an evening meal. "We're seven miles from Stornoway and not everyone wants to head out again at night," explains Ian.
From Stornoway kippers and local smoked salmon for breakfast to shellfish, lamb and venison at dinner, local ingredients are central to his menus. It's lucky then that Ian and Marion have bikes guests can use to work up an appetite.
The couple's latest addition to their guest accommodation is a micro gym, cunningly located in an outbuilding. It comes complete with rowing machine and cross trainer – just in case guests aren't content to squirrel themselves away with a book in the snug library and go bird watching without ever straying from their leather armchairs.
• For more information, tel: 01851 820 990 or visit www.broadbayhouse.co.uk