A FEW miles north of Oban, facing the crystal-clear waters of Loch Linnhe, is the picture postcard-pretty hamlet of Port Appin, home of whitewashed houses, well-kept gardens, friendly people and what is reportedly the most successful community shop in Scotland.
The four-star Airds Hotel & Restaurant, a former ferry inn with a sloping lawn leading down to a croquet green, looks out on to the water. The view from the dining room, conservatory and many of the bedrooms takes in a lighthouse, Castle Stalker and the island of Lismore. The elegant simplicity of the hotel’s exterior belies the luxurious treats that lie within. There’s a country house hotel atmosphere with roaring fires in the cosy sitting rooms. The package for a night’s stay includes dinner, bed and breakfast, newspaper and a tray of tea or coffee delivered to your room before your first meal of the day.
Budget or boutique?
Definitely the latter, and although the initial price seems a bit steep, it’s really very good value given the quality of the food that’s included. The service is exceptional.
Each of the 11 rooms is decorated in its own style, with delicate patterned wallpaper and elegant furniture. There is free wi-fi throughout and all rooms have satellite TV, iPod docks and access to a huge library of DVDs. Even the fussiest princess will sleep like a dream on the glorious Vispring beds covered with the softest cotton bedding. Large, well-designed bathrooms are stocked with Bulgari toiletries, big fluffy bathrobes and slippers. Nice extra touches include a coffee machine, a small fruit bowl and a gift of Whisky Mac – a traditional local drink of whisky blended with ginger wine and favoured by fishermen. Guests can also book a relaxation treatment, which is provided in your own room.
Wining and dining
The food is outstanding. New head chef Chris Stanley (formerly at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow) has maintained the Airds’ three AA rosettes with cooking that is intelligent and artistic without ever being too fussy or showy. He’s clearly enjoying making the most of local produce, from the wide range of delectable seafood and venison to vegetables and herbs grown in the polytunnel at the back. The seasonal menu changes quarterly and each course is punctuated with a fabulous surprise from the kitchen – such as a crispy egg yolk (how this feat is achieved I do not know) in Mull cheddar foam, or onion and thyme velouté with toasted brioche. Highlights during our visit included an exquisite sweetcorn velouté with smoked bacon and scallop; butter-roasted seabass fillet with pomme mousseline, clams and fennel; pan-roasted monkfish tail with shellfish risotto, chorizo and mussels; and a delicate, flavoursome vegetarian lasagne. (It’s always appreciated when a kitchen acknowledges that non-meat-eaters love good food too.) Breakfast is a divine experience in itself, with a marvellous selection of smoothies, home-made granolas and fruit and Scottish staples.
Worth getting out of bed for
This part of the world is a walkers’ paradise. The hotel is also a short stroll from a picturesque ferry port from which you can take the short trip across the water to the gorgeous, unspoilt island of Lismore, where orchids grow naturally in the summer and where the temperature seems to be a bit higher than the rest of the country in the winter. On our visit we saw a sea eagle soaring in the clear skies, and when it’s quiet you might spot otters and porpoises.
It’s worth staying for more than one night if possible in order to try as much of the inventive cooking and explore as much of the area as you can. The restaurant is quite formal so don’t forget to dress appropriately for the evening meal (to which children under eight are not invited, though guests can eat with them in the conservatory). Good dogs can stay, but can’t be left unattended.
• Dinner, bed and full Scottish breakfast starts at £295 per room. Winter offer (until 24 March, with exclusions) up to 30 per cent off normal rates. Prices start at £107 per night. The Twixmas package (27-30 December) is 15 per cent off for a three-night stay from £376 per person. The Airds Hotel & Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll PA38 4DF. Tel: 01632 730236, www.airds-hotel.com