AS we entered this fine Georgian mansion, the young receptionist almost bounded from behind her desk in the hallway to give us the grand tour.
Through one door, white tablecloths and silver cutlery gleamed from a sunlit dining room packed with Sunday lunchers.
Through the next, those waiting for tables were gathered around a log fire in the bar.
We settled into armchairs overlooking the snow-covered lawns, with their views to distant hills, and took our first sips of locally brewed Deeside ale. It was one of those places where you exchange glances and silently mouth, “We are going to like it here.”
Built on the low ground beneath the Hill of Fare for William Innes, a wealthy Aberdonian businessman, in the early 19th century, Raemoir remained in the family until 1921, when it was bought by Lord Cowdray and his wife, whose formidably stern portraits still dominate the dining room. Converted to a hotel in 1943, it is now owned by Neil and Julie Rae, who appear to be working wonders with this old granite and slate house. Raemoir won Scottish Country House Hotel of the Year in both 2011 and 2012, an impressive and unprecedented double.
WINING AND DINING
One of the Raes’ best decisions was to install former Masterchef David Littlewood as executive chef. Last year he cemented his credentials – and that of the hotel’s two AA rosette restaurant – by winning Scottish Chef of the Year. Littlewood’s showcase is the main dining room, where he serves an à la carte menu Sunday to Friday and a six-course table d’hôte version on Saturdays.
I plumped for two dishes that helped him win his latest wings. Venison tartare, with mustard, fennel and coal oil, which brought the best out of this locally sourced meat and was as delicately nuanced as you would expect from a kitchen of this calibre. Littlewood’s pork fillet and pig’s cheek with artichoke, savoy and pancetta – the tender fillet contrasting with the darker, gamier cheek – also wowed the judges, and us. An intense tomato soup split the starter and main while my malt brûlée, pear frangipane, sorbet and crisp demonstrated that the kitchen was equally skilled in the dessert department. Coffee and sweeties back before that fire in the lounge rounded off a great meal.
If our room – Raemoir – wasn’t the Earl’s room then it should have been, with its uninterrupted views over open parkland. A magnificent chandelier, huge, ornate mirror and a comfortable four-poster bed were the centrepieces of this cosy space but not enough thought had gone into supplying a smaller mirror near a power point where hairdryers/straighteners could be plugged in. Ladies want to look their best when dining in such elegant surroundings. For me, the huge bath in the recently refurbished bathroom made up for any deficiencies.
WORTH GETTING OUT OF BED FOR
Raemoir is on the eastern fringe of Royal Deeside and the Cairngorm national park, two of our favourite playgrounds. Fishing is the name of the game in the immediate vicinity, with some of the best beats on the Dee within easy reach and plenty of salmon fishermen in the bar to swap stories with at the end of a day out. Some of Scotland’s most splendid castles – Crathes, Balmoral, Craigevar and Fyvie – provide historic interest but we spent our first afternoon strolling in the grounds, driving the short distance to the salmon-leap falls at the Bridge of Feugh. We retreated to the Raemoir Garden Centre, a busy spot – probably on account of the café’s splendid meringues.
The next day we drove through a sunlit Royal Deeside, trees sprinkled with overnight snow and the big hills beyond looking like the Alps. The ski slopes called and we spent an exhilarating afternoon at the Cairngorm resort, near Aviemore, which has been enjoying one of its best seasons for many years. When you can ski the West Wall and the gullies in perfect conditions then it makes for a memorable experience.
BUDGET OR BOUTIQUE
Boutique and proud of it. There’s a feeling the Raes have only just started in making Raemoir one of Scotland’s best in its field.
Staff who know their stuff and a sommelier who goes beyond the wine list. In the bar, as well as great local ales there is an extensive menu of Scottish gins. You are tempted – and encouraged – to try new flavours.
A seductive environment from arrival to reluctant departure. Prices start from £165 per couple for bed and breakfast, and from £205 per couple for dinner, bed and breakfast.
• Raemoir House Hotel, Banchory, Aberdeenshire (01330 824884, www.raemoir.com)