Jessica Kiddle discovers a luxury holiday hideaway where some of what’s on offer is truly priceless
It was the marmalade that did it for me. Two miniature pots stuffed full of homemade deliciousness presented to me on my last morning at the Isle of Eriska hotel. One throwaway comment about it being so good they should sell it, and here they were packing me off with some to take home. It was a final act of thoughtfulness that remained with me long after we’d left.
Located on a private island in Argyll, there’s something more than a little special about driving across the well-worn iron bridge that connects the island to mainland Benderloch. As far as first impressions go, they’re also pretty special as the tree-lined drive gives way to a groomed croquet lawn that draws the eye towards the house.
Built in 1884, this uniquely positioned property is a mix of baronial beauty (think gargoyles and turrets) and warm red stone. But although the house is grand, it’s by no means intimidating.
Whether deliberate or not, it’s the fact that the interior hasn’t been decorated to within an inch of its life that makes you feel like you can kick back. And a series of adjoining spaces – sitting room, bar and fire-lit drawing room – offer up a myriad of opportunities to do just that.
The fact Eriska was and is a family home (a contemporary eco-beachside property on the island is where the current custodians live, but they spend much of their time at the main house) gives it a cosy atmosphere. Built by the Stewarts of Appin, it then passed to two families: the Blairs and Clark Hutchinsons (who built the bridge). When they left in 1930, little was done to it until its current owners – the Buchanan-Smiths – took over in 1973 with a view to opening up the west coast to visitors, whilst operating a non-profit retreat for open thinking in off-season months.
With more than 300 acres of land and 25 bedrooms it was no easy task, and it’s because the couple put so much of their energy into the place, that the property now has such a palpable soul. However, the investment required to build Eriska into the celebrity hideaway that it is today (Dame Judi Dench is apparently a fan), meant the retreat proved unviable. Instead, when the couple’s son Beppo joined the business in 1992, they focused on carving out a five-star offering from this remote Scottish country house.
While peace and quiet are the property’s naturally-given gifts, the impeccable service that is now Eriska’s signature comes from investing in people and training. Ever-present but never intrusive, chatty but not overly so, every single member of staff seems to pitch it just right. Nothing is too much bother – from my request to eat dinner on our first night in the room to opening a bottle of my favourite South African wine and giving me the weekend to get through it.
Oh and then there’s the food which bears the signature of new chef Ross Stovold. A talent at raiding the local larder and celebrating it (he believes in cooking in a way that enhances the flavours of the ingredients through as little manipulation as possible), his mushroom soup with coal oil was a revelation – but I liked the cheese toastie bites with watercress butter canapés just as much.
In terms of activities, sailing, shooting and a round of golf are all on offer, but after a delicious breakfast (which included king-sized dollops of the heavenly marmalade on thickly sliced granary toast), a morning jog that took in the view over to the neighbouring island of Lismore and Loch Creran was just the thing for me. Badgers, golden eagles and highland cattle are just some of the other residents on the island but on this particular morning I didn’t see – or hear – a soul and it was wonderfully restorative.
With any hotel positioned in the luxury category debate can occur over whether the money you pay is ‘worth it’. To a point, this is justifiable – for a bigger price tag you expect things like more square footage or a better location, for example. However, there comes a point on the spectrum where your money starts to buy you less tangible things.
It is at this point where the expectation as to how much bang your buck does – or should – buy becomes skewed. Can you put a price on waking up to total silence on your own island hideaway for example? How can you put a value on ever present but near-invisible staff who are there with a glass of wine just as you’re thinking of ordering one?
And I would struggle to put a price on how happy those little pots of marmalade made me on a midweek morning when the weekly grind had well and truly returned. These are the little things which make a weekend at Eriska priceless.
In low season (1 February-31 March), room rates start from £185 per person per night for a twin/double room. This includes dinner, bed and breakfast, morning coffee, afternoon tea and exclusive use of the leisure facilities.