Travel: At home in the Highlands at Airds in Port Appin

The view from Airds Hotel, Port Appin
The view from Airds Hotel, Port Appin
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It was the perfect illustration of the sod’s law weather rule for weekenders visiting the Highlands, possibly exacerbated because it is still technically winter.

To wit, a beautiful Friday afternoon in Edinburgh, dry enough on the way up the road, wall to wall rain on Saturday, and then glorious sunshine punctuated by mocking rainbows just in time for the drive home.

One of the bedrooms at Airds Hotel

One of the bedrooms at Airds Hotel

Not to be deterred we got fully waterproofed up and headed out. Exercise had to be taken as we were staying at the Airds Hotel and Restaurant at Port Appin and we had our eye on the seven course tasting menu, and if our walk could justify the calories, the matching wines too.

Located on the Appin coast, just north of Loch Creran, Port Appin is a great spot for base camp as you’re about half an hour from locations including the playground of Glen Coe, Fort William, the Jacobite railway, Oban and the Isle of Mull.

We didn’t fancy testing ourselves on the high tops in these conditions so we set off for the Lost Valley, Coire Gabhail, also known as the hidden valley, a historic walk which could be achieved by most abilities as there’s a bit of scrambling, but good paths to take you to the secret pasture where the MacDonalds are said to have hidden their rustled cattle. Before long the rain had turned to whirling flakes of snow, and I was extra glad of our caution.

That’s not to say I got off lightly. It was five hours later that we managed a swift refreshment in the Clachaig Inn, always worth the short diversion. The lounge bar is quite smart so if the steam is coming off your merino make for your more natural habitat of the boot room around the back, where you’ll find all the dogs and your fellow outdoor enthusiasts drying their waterproofs by the fire.

The anticipation of a scorching hot shower lured us back to Airds, where we had time to enjoy the hotel’s unique comforts before dinner. Originally a ferry inn servicing nearby Lismore island, Airds combines the quirkiness of its origins with modern guests’ expectations of luxury. With just 11 bedrooms – with lovely views across Loch Linnhe to the Morvern mountains – and two self catering cottages, you can be assured of the personal touch. Rooms – each decorated differently and regularly upgraded – were furnished with a jug of iced water, a Nespresso coffee machine and complimentary treats from the Oban Chocolate Company. The bathroom was stocked with Bulgari minis and there were three tellies – including one at the end of the bath.

Suitably refreshed we were ready for dinner. The restaurant has featured in the Good Food Guide for more than 40 consecutive years and has held 3 AA Rosettes for more than 25 years. Head chef Chris is doing a fantastic job of balancing the twin demands of responding to new trends on the culinary scene and pleasing repeat visitors who make up much of the clientele.

We’d love to return and explore Lismore in more clement weather. Around 140 people live on the island full time, mostly farmers and in the summer the heritage centre and coffee shop are open, and can be found around four miles from the ferry (which runs every hour except between 1pm and 2pm) so it’s a good one for bikes. It’s also a popular spot for botanists as Lismore, meaning garden, is home to some unusual plant varieties, thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Graham, the incredibly helpful general manager at Airds, also told us about recent developments at Castle Stalker, formerly derelict and now restored by the Allward family, who welcome small numbers of visitors in the summer. Graham told us that when Lt Col Stewart Allward was held as a prisoner of war he vowed he would achieve three goals when he was free. He would set up a business, treat himself to a Rolls-Royce and buy a Scottish castle. Amazingly he achieved all three. Airds can arrange a private visit to the castle whose turbulent and often violent history dates back to the 14th century.

Another innovation the hotel is involved in is a star gazing wine dinner, arranged for later this month. The Highland sky at night, which has the lowest light pollution in Britain, should be the perfect backdrop to see Comet 41P Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, due to make an appearance for the first time in ten years. Fingers crossed for good weather.

But as we now know and the 
comet will surely learn, the best 
way to beat the Highland version 
of sod’s law is simply to visit more often. ■

Airds two-night Star-Gazing Weekend (24-26 March) costs from £827 per room based on two sharing for two nights and includes breakfast and dinner each day, all talks and excursions (events during the course of the weekend are weather dependent and may be subject to change), airds-hotel.com, tel: 01631 730236.

Airds’ three night Easter package starts from £157pp per night including five-course dinners each night with coffee and petit fours.