Roaring fires, home-cooked food and breathtaking scenery are only part of a romantic weekend getaway. For guests to travel hundreds of miles for a short stay, the place requires something really special.
When Alistair Pearson bought the Old Inn in Gairloch four years ago, he stripped back the walls to reveal stone dating from the 1780s. Roaring fires and home-smoked haddock for breakfast add to the appeal, but it’s the real ales, such as the Blind Piper of Gairloch, for which the Old Inn is best known.
At Glenelg Inn, overlooking the Isle of Skye, evenings can get lively with the irrepressible Chris Main manning the bar in his kilt. Of the seven bedrooms, the master bedroom is the most coveted. "The conception rate is quite high," he laughs.
To get to Applecross Inn you must cross Bealach Na Ba, the highest mountain pass in Britain, but the route hasn’t stopped guests returning to be "Applecrossed". "With cheap flights we have lots of people come up for two or three days’ worth of deep breathing on the beach," says Judith Fish.
At the George in Inveraray, Donald Clark has been continuing a 140-year family tradition, while the recently opened Merchants’ Room, with a double jacuzzi, has fuelled a surprise trend for guests ordering champagne mid-week.
Rooms at Angela and Tom Lewis’s converted farmhouse, Monachyle Mhor, feature a mix of antique furniture and contemporary artwork. Tom heads the restaurant using home-grown veg and a lot of their own game.
Meanwhile, the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool has grown from a caf to become a bookshop and stage for live music and prominent speakers, with bedrooms upstairs. "There’s always something happening," says Jean Urquhart. "People ask what they should expect, but there’s no stock answer. It might be a life-changing experience."
The floor of the Port o’ Leith, the legendary Leith bar, is a rare sight - usually, the neighbourhood pub is packed full of warmth, chat, good music and raucous drinkers. Landlady Mary Moriarty is a legend in herself, today hosting an unusually civilised group of customers: Edinburgh’s top restaurateurs.
But the Port o’ Leith’s lively reputation has not escaped them - as Moriarty poured a mineral water for Andrew Radford of the Atrium, Jake Miller quipped: "It must have been a while since anyone ordered that in here."
The group includes James Thomson of the atmospheric Witchery on the Royal Mile and the Tower restaurant, both favourites with locals, tourists and celebrities; and Andrew Radford of the Atrium, the award-winning restaurant just off the foyer of the Traverse Theatre.
Dave Ramsden’s Rogue, on Morrison Street, offers a modern British menu with a Conran approach, with dishes such as Buccleuch beef, sausage, egg and chips and jelly and fruit.
Fishers on the Shore opened in 1991 and its sister restaurant, Fishers in the City, opened in 2001. The restaurants are owned and run by Jake Millar and the camera-shy Graeme Lumsden, and known for excellent fishcakes and blackboard specials.
Howie’s, an urban village group owned by David Scott, offers inexpensive, contemporary Scottish food. There are four well-established sites in Edinburgh, one in Aberdeen and another in Dundee, with a seventh due to open in Perth next year. There are even plans to expand south of the border.
Glasgow’s Barrowlands has been host to many a star, from Donatella Versace and Lulu to Simple Minds and Runrig. On the steps of the world-famous ballroom today, however - and looking rather less rock’n’roll - are the city’s top restaurateurs.
Alan Tomkins is owner of some of Glasgow’s most notable establishments, such as Papingo, Frango, Vroni’s Wine Bar, Vodka Wodka and Booly Mardy, but it’s Gamba, co-owned with chef Derek Marshall, that scoops the most awards, including this year’s winner of the AA Best Glasgow Restaurant.
Tomkins recently paired up with Billy McAneney, owner of the Baby Grand Bar and Restaurant Group, and will be opening a new venture, Blue Dog, from this Friday: "It’s an evening-only bar licensed until 3am, live piano music and great cocktails."
Meanwhile, Ronnie Clydesdale’s restaurant, the Ubiquitous Chip, was the first in Scotland to state the provenance of its food. "Back when we opened in 1971, no one cared," he says. "But we wrote our menus in proper English rather than French. It was quite a radical change in the perception of fine dining."
His son, Colin, followed him into the business, setting up Stravaigin and Stravaigin 2. He’s about to open a new restaurant in honour of the endless misspellings of his father’s venue, called the Liquid Ship. "It’s a genuine caf bar that will also serve good Mediterranean food," he says.
For the best Italian cooking, most discriminating Glaswegians will head to Sandro Giovanazzi’s La Parmigiana on Great Western Road. It’s a favourite posh place to eat pasta and vitello - and that’s just for starters.
In the Palm House at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden the temperature never falls below 10C. Which makes it warm, but still a lot cooler than the kitchens manned by the chefs nestled among the cacti.
Scotland’s top chefs have arrived from all over the country, their names synonymous with fine dining. Their careers span decades (most began banging pots and pans in their teens), and success is down to hard work, stamina, supportive staff and, above all, a passion for working with the best local Scottish produce.
Andrew Fairlie, who this year lambasted the parlous state of Scottish cooking, shows us how it should be done at Gleneagles, while David Wilson and his wife have owned the Peat Inn near St Andrews for more than 30 years. Shirley Spear is synoymous with the Isle of Skye, where she operates the Three Chimneys. As Irvine writes: "It’s a long road to Colbost, but you find out why Shirley’s cooking has won just about every Scottish award."
Meanwhile, the Cellar in Anstruther, the classic bistro headed by Peter Jukes, attracts all sorts ("even the crabs want to come here"). Martin Wishart, of the eponymous Leith restaurant, is one of Edinburgh’s "most notable foody experiences", and Jeff Bland has made the Balmoral Hotel’s Number One an address with a certain cachet. Or visit Tony Heath and Shona Drysdale’s restaurant, Let’s Eat, in Perth, and do just that in great style.
But for an hour,these busy chefs revelled in a chance to escape work. "It’s great to see everyone here. I would like to have spent the whole evening catching up with the boys," says Spear, speaking for all.
Save for a second, when it looked as if the photographer was going to disappear backwards off a precipice, not much could disturb our tranquil November afternoon at Stirling Castle. But then, an innate sense of calm is what you’d expect from nine hoteliers - owners of some of the most luxurious establishments in Scotland.
Darroch Learg, run by Nigel and Fiona Franks, is a 19-bedroom country mansion in Deeside with a three-AA-rosette restaurant; the scenic Roman Camp, run by Eric Brown, dates from 1625 and has low ceilings and creaky corridors, with the River Teith and Roman ruins nearby; and Lochgreen House in Troon is just part of Bill Costley’s empire - he owns another five hotels in Ayrshire. Peter Taylor’s Townhouse group includes some of Edinburgh’s finest: the Bonham, Channings, the Edinburgh Residence and the Howard. The Isle of Eriska in Ledaig is a baronial house in the midst of a 300-acre wildlife sanctuary, whose chef, Robert MacPherson, won hotel chef of the year for 2003; Crieff Hydro is a vast Victorian pile ideal for families; and Kinloch House, with its pool and walled garden, is the ultimate country retreat.
From installing marble bathrooms and luxury fabrics (Kinloch) and a 40-bedroom extension (Lochgreen), to plans for a new 2 million children’s club (Crieff Hydro), each has a wildly different agenda, but all share genuine admiration for Pete Irvine, who visits each establishment personally to ensure every last detail in his book is correct. Nigel Franks of Darroch Learg sums it up: "It’s a super read and well researched. He covers so much more than the obvious."
FISH AND CHIPS AND ICE-CREAM VENDORS
What’s behind the perfect fish supper? The owners of the country’s best fish and chip shops reveal that it’s a combination of the temperature of the pans; cooking to order; and the freshness of the fish. No problem, then, for the Anstruther Fish Bar, which picks its fish from Aberdeen market at 6am, fillets them in their factory and has them in the shop by 11.30 the same morning.
Potatoes count, too - John and Marco Valente of Valente’s in Kirkcaldy swear by English Maris Pipers. It doesn’t hurt to diversify, either, offering pasta, pizza and fine wine, as Gino Crolla and father Filippo have done at Edinburgh’s L’Alba d’Oro.
Family ownership is what keeps these businesses ticking over, and three of Scotland’s top ice-cream vendors are now in their third and fourth generations, having rung the changes with an ever-increasing choice of flavours. At Janetta’s in St Andrews, the Hazels started off with vanilla, but now dish up delights such as butter pecan, Irn-Bru and tablet-flavoured ice-cream. Mothers-to-be are warned: Nicola craved their Dime bar variety throughout her pregnancy with son Ross, now 18 months.
Pete Mancini of Mancini’s in Ayr, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the photo-shoot, laughs when asked the number of flavours they have at Mancini’s, now in its 90th year and winner of this year’s National Ice-Cream Competition in Blackpool. "Two hundred-odd at the last count," he says.
Meanwhile, Yolanda Luca can’t help but grimace as she describes their latest foray at Luca’s in Musselburgh: tomato-and-basil sorbet. Truthfully, it’s their more traditional parfaits and sundaes that inspire people to queue up outside in the middle of winter.