Appearances can be deceptive. Take, for example, the boathouse on Dundas Castle’s estate near South Queensferry. From the outside, the self-catering cottage appears tiny, but open the door and it takes on a Tardis-like quality.
The main room stretches the full width of the boathouse, with windows on three sides flooding it with light and offering views up, down and across the private loch.
While the bed-spread and some of the furniture in the bedroom-cum-lounge looked a little dated, the kitchenette and shower room were bang up to date, with a massive shower-head for the walk-in shower and a kitchen kitted out with all the essentials, including a nifty under-the-counter fridge and a fast-boiling kettle.
Sitting out on the covered decking that overhangs the loch was the perfect place to enjoy a nip of whisky or a gin and tonic from the complimentary decanters on the sideboard. It also brought an interesting angle to wildlife watching on the loch, giving an uninterrupted view in each direction and offering cover so as not to disturb the birds.
And the wildlife watching began even before we drew up at the boathouse. As we edged slowly along the estate road, we watched a little grebe – or dabchick – diving beneath the surface of the loch.
The soundtrack to our stay was provided by a buzzard gliding overhead, making its characteristic “mewing” cry as it rode the thermals rising above a cliff-face on the opposite side of the loch.
Yet the wildlife highlight of the trip came in the early morning as we watched an otter splash into the water beside the boathouse and then proceed to catch and eat fish as it lazily paddled around the loch. Otters are my favourite mammal and seeing one within just eight miles of Edinburgh city centre was really special for me.
Not to be outdone, the resident kingfisher on the loch then put on a display for us, flitting from one bank to the other with its blue and orange feathers catching the autumn sunshine.
While the otter and kingfisher were the wildlife highlights, it was some of the more common birds whose appearances were deceptive. Watching the pair of swans go about their business on the water became quite mesmerising, as was listening to the babble of the mallards as they squabbled amongst themselves.
Dragging ourselves away from the wildlife, we dived into a luxury hamper for breakfast, full of Isle of Mull cheddar, Ayrshire ham and smoked salmon to stuff into croissants or munch with a brioche loaf. A homemade granola, fresh orange juice and a selection of jams rounded off a delicious start to the day.
Appearances continued to be deceptive at the Dakota Hotel, which we visited for dinner in the bar and grill. Although the Dakota looks like a dark monolith from the outside, the inside was full of warm and welcoming waiting staff, who spend three shifts in the kitchen to learn more about the dishes they serve.
My fish-loving wife ordered salt and chilli squid, followed by cod with dauphinoise potatoes, while I opted for the mushroom and tarragon soup and then a sirloin steak. My eyes lit up when I saw the steak was 18 ounces – and then I realised it was being served on the bone. Both the fish and the meat lived up to the billing on the menu, washed down with glasses of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Côte du Rhône.
The estate itself also had surprises in store. Having driven past the entrance gates so many times on the old A8000 road from the Forth Road Bridge to the Edinburgh City Bypass, I was intrigued to see what was hidden behind the wall. The castle on the 1,000-acre estate is booked for private use and is not somewhere you can just turn up and wander around.
Staying at the boathouse gave us access to the many walks on the estate, and the view from the hill over the Lothians – from the bings and viaduct in West Lothian across the Pentland hills to Edinburgh Airport in the east – was stunning, especially in the late autumn sunshine. The opposite side of the hill afforded a view across the bridges to Fife.
• A night for two people at Dundas Castle’s boathouse (0131-319 2039, www.dundascastle.co.uk/boathouse.html) costs £235, with the breakfast hamper costing £57 for two people. The Dakota Hotel (0131-319 3690, www.dakotahotels.co.uk) offers bar and grill menus.