Travel: Crieff

Knock Castle. Picture: Contributed

Knock Castle. Picture: Contributed

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Spa virgin David Robinson discovers his inner sybarite on an indulgent visit to Crieff

I don’t know why, but I have never particularly felt the need for a spa break. The urge to tint my eyebrows, have a pedicure and exfoliate everything in between has, like so many other things, passed me by.

One of those other things is Crieff, although strictly speaking it’s never passed me by because I’ve never been there in the first place. So a spa break in Crieff would remedy that embarrassing omission: and anyway, my wife wanted to go.

First impressions weren’t good. So soulless a place is the Crieff Visitor Centre, so clearly dedicated to selling knick-knacks and tea-towels to muzak-stunned, rainy-day tourists, that it was all I could do not to bolt within seconds of pushing open the door.

In the town itself, at least a third of the shops are empty or selling for charity. The high street is monumentally scarred by the boarded-up Drummond Arms Hotel, a late Victorian sandstone building on the site of an even older hotel where Bonnie Prince Charlie held his last council of war before Culloden.

“Welcome to the Heart of Scotland,” it says on the map I picked up in the town’s tourist information centre, just a few yards further up the high street. Which certainly doesn’t square with the news that it too is facing closure next year – once the Ryder Cup is out of the way.

First impressions were, however, infinitely better at the Knock Castle Hotel and Spa. Unlike nearby Crieff Hydro – one of the great success stories of Scottish tourism – it’s not surrounded by a vast and thronged car park. You drive up a private road, and there it is round the corner, a Scottish baronial Gothic fantasia of corbelled turrets and crow-stepped gables on a steep hillside.

There are wonderful views of Strathearn even from the (heated) summer house among the trees and in the gym/sauna/pool complex slightly below the hotel. The 50-mile views from the hotel’s top-floor restaurant, however, must be among the best in Perthshire.

The food you’ll eat there, looking out over the twinkling lights of Muthill or the dark massif of the Trossachs, doesn’t disappoint.

Jason Henderson, the hotel’s manager, is also its chef. We tried both the degustation menu – carpaccio of venison served with a delightfully sharp duck liver pâté, fillet of beef with a celeriac, truffle and rosemary-scented potato, finished with a light red wine jus were among the highlights – and the à la carte, and were delighted with both.

The menus couldn’t, in fact, be more flexible: guests are told that if they see anything they want on any menu – including the table d’hôte and bar meals menu – he’ll happily incorporate it.

Breakfast also passes my key test – not just kippers on the menu, but Arbroath smokies too.

You won’t meet many people more passionate about what they do than Henderson. The chef/manager twin-job role is, I think, a giveaway: if there was a third that he could plausibly do to build up the hotel’s business – chief masseur, for example – he probably wouldn’t hesitate.

His father, Inverness serial entrepreneur Chic Henderson, bought the hotel in December 2007 and put him in charge – he’d already worked as a chef in France and at Skibo.

That’s easy, you may be thinking: we should all have such generous fathers. But no: the hotel his father bought had 42 staff – about twice what they have now – and was losing three-quarters of a million pounds a year.

It was known only as a health retreat for Seventh Day Adventists (which meant that its restaurant shut on Fridays and Saturdays), and did not serve meat, fish or alcohol.

So the Hendersons bought it off the church and started trying, with no track record in hotels at all, and a half-Adventist staff who probably hankered after the old regime. Within a month, the global financial crash had happened.

They’ve certainly made the transition since: changed the hotel’s name; brought in booze, meat and fish; got good customer feedback (top in the area on Trip Advisor); changed the staff; spent some 
£2 million refurbishing the rooms; upgraded the gym (when we went the changing rooms were being worked on) and converted the top floor to the restaurant with those spectacular views.

And in the basement there’s a spa where the sybarite can feel completely at home, pampered to perfection with such treats as the Thermal Chocolate Experience – £85 for full body massage with oils containing orange, thyme and ginger, then a hot chocolate mask on your back.

So yes, I’ve been exfoliated, and wrapped in seaweed, been gently massaged with hot stones by masseuses who’ve moved on from Crieff Hydro and Gleneagles and whom I would unhesitatingly recommend.

My skin is definitely the better for the experience, and so am I. Stress-free, toxin-free, skin smelling of vanilla pod and sweet warm cinnamon, I headed out, homeward-bound, into the Heart of Scotland.

Knock Castle Hotel and Spa, Drummond Terrace, Crieff, Perthshire PH7 4AN, tel: 01764 650088, www.knockcastle.com Double rooms start from around £150 a night including full Scottish breakfast.

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