On our previous visit to Scotland in 2007, we drove from Edinburgh through the central and northeast Highlands. This time, we chose to follow an itinerary around the western Highlands to renew our acquaintance with the region’s brooding peaks, deep glacial valleys and magical coastline.
We decided that we would begin, however, by fulfilling a long-held ambition to sail on the Hebridean Princess, a small ship best known for its cruises through the myriad offshore islands. (Among the vessel’s most notable passengers have been Queen Elizabeth and members of the British Royal Family, who in recent years have twice chartered the Princess for summer vacations.)
After an early-morning arrival in Glasgow, we picked up our rental car and headed for Oban, a charming Victorian town and the main port for ferries to and from the Western Isles. Having arrived well in advance of the boarding time for the Hebridean Princess, we went for a stroll, grabbed a light lunch and paid a visit to the well-known Oban Distillery, which has been making whisky since 1794. Tucked away on a side street, it is home to one of the single malts most popular in the United States. Its gentle “West Highland” flavor contains just a touch of sea saltiness and a whiff of peat.
We first caught sight of the Hebridean Princess from across the harbor: a ruggedly handsome ship with a black hull, a white superstructure and a bright red funnel. Weighing just 2,100 tons, she has 30 cabins for a maximum of 50 passengers, attended by 38 crew. A 10-foot draft enables her to enter harbors inaccessible to larger vessels, and a bow thruster means that she is extremely maneuverable.
We were greeted at the top of the gangway by friendly and attractive young women in crisp navy uniforms, waiting to guide us to our cabin. (Most of the staff hail from Central Europe; the officers from Scotland.) Opening our door, we were immediately delighted to find a cozy, comfortable space, appealingly decorated in a smart country house style. Floral curtains bordered a large porthole, with matching fabric forming a half-canopy over the bed. Numerous built-ins included a well-stocked fridge, a pullout shelf with coffeemaker, a small ironing board and a small but adequate closet. A pleasing grace note was a silver tray with a decanter of sherry. The bath was clad in marble, with plenty of storage for personal items and railings to grab in the event of rough seas. However, I strongly recommend booking a cabin with a full tub, as the showers are tight. All of the cabin’s metal fixtures had been polished to a mirror finish, a sure sign of attention to detail.
In essence, the Hebridean Princess is a country house hotel afloat. The public areas — which include an intimate library and a conservatory — are welcoming and filled with comfortable seating for informal gatherings and private relaxation. By far the most popular spot on the ship is the Tiree Lounge, a drawing room with a sweep of windows that affords a marvelous panoramic view of the ocean and islands ahead. The lounge proved so congenial, it was difficult not to settle into an easy chair beside one of the windows before succumbing to the lure of the full afternoon tea, served with finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream.
As on every cruise ship, meals on the Hebridean Princess are an important part of the day. All are taken at a single seating in the comfortable Columba Restaurant. At breakfast, a well-provisioned buffet was augmented by substantial cooked breakfasts, including delicious smoked haddock with poached eggs. For lunch, there were heartier dishes such as baked ham, or lighter sandwiches. And dinners always presented a conundrum of equally appealing selections like rack of Argyll lamb or pan-fried sea bream. Everything was well-prepared and served by solicitous staff, who were always on hand to pour one of the evening’s excellent complimentary wines.
Fortunately, a full program of fascinating shore excursions prevented us from falling into a rhythm of meal-centric days. These trips were executed via sturdy tenders, with the staff displaying a consistent concern for passenger safety. I was especially keen to visit some of the smaller Hebridean islands. Most memorable was the Isle of Rum, which is noted for its mountainous beauty and its large population of red deer.
We landed on the island’s slipway to be greeted by a guide from Scottish Natural Heritage, who led us on the 20-minute walk to the key draw: Kinloch Castle. This lovely Baronial stone edifice was built between 1897 and 1901 for Sir George Bullough, a playboy whose family had amassed a fortune in the cotton industry. Its great halls are hung with the original paintings and fixtures and provide a vivid insight into the lavish lifestyle of the era. (There is even a contraption called an orchestrion, one of only two working examples in the world, an elaborate machine that uses music rolls to play an incredible array of instruments.)
Other excursions included visits to the beautiful Isle of Eigg, which is laced with walking trails; the little town of Inverie, home to The Old Forge, the remotest pub on the British mainland; and the charming port of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, with its rainbow of painted quayside buildings filled with restaurants, shops and the Tobermory Distillery. On these outings, we fell in with different groups of fellow passengers — most in their 50s but with ages ranging from late 30s to late 80s — hiking with some, lingering over a spectacular view with others, before trooping back to the tenders and rejoining the ship for afternoon tea or a single malt.
Virtually everything about the Hebridean Princess impressed me, and I am unable to point to any significant failing. As a testament to its success, a large number of our fellow passengers were repeat guests. The ship sails from early March to late October, traveling from the coast of northern France up to the Scottish Orkney Islands with an intriguing array of itineraries, many of which involve active days of walking. Cruises can be as short as four nights and as long as 10. (During the peak months of July and August, almost all cruises are eight nights.) I strongly recommend booking nothing lower than a Double Cabin on deck three or four, the “Isle of Bute,” “Isle of Berneray,” “Isle of Barra” and “Isle of Benbecula” having private balconies.
Hebridean Princess 97 Double Cabin (peak summer season), from $11,300 per person for eight nights. Prices are proportionally less on shorter itineraries. The ship also has several single cabins. Tel. (877) 600-2648.
After disembarking at Oban and retrieving our car, we set off on a four-and-a-half-hour drive to Torridon in the majestic region of Wester Ross. We opted to make a scenic drive along the shore of Loch Ness to the city of Inverness, where we turned abruptly west toward Kinlochewe. The final section of our journey was along a single-track road with semicircular passing places. Fortunately, it was not heavily trafficked and the scenery was pure Highland magic.
Heading into Torridon village, we soon saw signs for The Torridon, the 2011 Scottish Hotel of the Year. Set on a 58-acre estate, the turreted Baronial red sandstone structure was built as a hunting lodge in 1887. The main hall with its high ceilings, blazing fire and paneled walls created an overwhelming sense of place. Owners Daniel and Rohaise Rose-Bristow took over from Rohaise’s parents in 2002, and in the past nine years have restored all of the public rooms and given them new life with updated fabrics and wallpaper that complement the rich woodwork and original architectural detailing (such as the ceiling in the main drawing room, intricately carved with the signs of the zodiac).
In addition, some of the bedrooms are now decorated in a much more contemporary style, with bold patterns and colors. To be honest, we still prefer the more traditional rooms, which seem more in keeping with the essential character of the hotel. Our room came with a big, comfortable bed backed by a fabric headboard; a sizeable armoire; an ample desk; and a cozy seating area. The bath held a wonderful surprise — a soaking tub positioned right next to a double window with a glorious view across the loch to the mountains.
Heading down for dinner, we paused in the atmospheric wood-paneled bar, which offers almost 400 single malt whiskies. Curated by Colleen Calderwood, the senior duty manager, this trove presents an advanced seminar on the fascinating world of single malts (one augmented by Calderwood’s extensive notes). The dining room offers a fireplace, soft lighting and white linen tablecloths, providing a sophisticated setting for outstanding cuisine. Choices for dinner included a rich smoked haddock and chive risotto, langoustine and smoked salmon ravioli in a langoustine reduction, and a memorably flavorful roast sirloin of Highland lamb with fondant potatoes and a shallot purée. The cheese selection was particularly good and included Scottish choices new to us such as Black Crowdie, whose maker elevated the common Crowdie — a soft, creamy cheese — by rolling it in a mix of pinhead oats and black peppercorns and aging it for three weeks.
Activities abound at The Torridon, including hiking and sea kayaking led by qualified guides. However, I found myself in conversation with a couple from London who confided, “We say we’re going to hike, but all we really do is go out for a little while and come back for a read and a nap.” That sounded like a plan to me.
The Torridon 94 Deluxe Room, from $545; Master Room, from $685. Annat, by Achnasheen, Wester Ross. Tel. (44) 1445-700300.
Our next destination was the romantic Isle of Skye, famous for the grandeur of its mountain scenery, as well as for the colorful tale of Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Following his army’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, fled to Skye disguised as Flora’s maid. From there, a French frigate returned him to exile in Paris. His escapade was immortalized in the most hauntingly beautiful of all Scottish ballads, “The Skye Boat Song.”)
We had been promised one of the most memorable drives in Europe if we took an indirect route from Torridon informally known as the Applecross Road. Having climbed to an unforgettable panorama of the Hebrides, we descended into the quaint village of Applecross (where there is a superb seafood restaurant) before climbing once again to the highest road in Britain, a former cattle pass that commands even more magnificent views.
Skye has been connected to the mainland by a bridge since 1995, an addition valued by a majority of local people but much resented by romantics. The largest of the Inner Hebrides, the island is 48 miles long and between three and 25 miles wide, which can make driving times hard to gauge. Its celebrated landscape combines rugged coasts, windswept moorland and spectacular mountains, the most famous of which are the mysterious Black Cuillins, jagged peaks often sheathed in mist.
We, however, were pleasantly situated in Sleat, a peninsula at the southeast of the island known as “the garden of Skye” for its benign microclimate. Kinloch Lodge is right on the water, nestled at the base of pine-clad Kinloch Hill. The property comprises two appealing whitewashed buildings, an original 1680 hunting lodge and a more recent addition constructed in the same style. There are 15 rooms in total. Kinloch is home to Lord and Lady Macdonald of Clan Macdonald, who have filled the lodge with heirloom antiques, family portraits and keepsakes. Lady Claire Macdonald is a beloved cookbook writer and periodically teaches classes in a dedicated facility at the lodge.
Rooms vary greatly in size and character. Ours was in the newer building, which features its own lovely lounge and fireplace. Our room came with floral curtains, large windows, a super-king-size bed and night tables with excellent lighting, plus an eclectic selection of books from the Macdonalds’ library. The bath was pokey, however, with small pedestal sinks and a combined tub/shower that was almost too narrow to stand in comfortably. During my stay, I managed to see other rooms, and the key to happiness is specifically to reserve one with a separate bathtub and shower.
Kinloch Lodge is justly renowned for its restaurant, which boasts a Michelin star. Chef Marcello Tully’s menus abound with imaginative choices. We started with his “soupçons,” which are airy in texture but deep with flavors such as carrot and white truffle, or spicy pea. My favorite starter was a generous serving of seared local scallops with a warm scallop mousse. Although Tully undeniably has a way with seafood, we both felt that the outstanding main course was the Buccleuch beef with a blue-cheese mousse, parsnips, horseradish-infused potatoes and a brandy sauce.
Throughout our stay, the service was exemplary. Staff members at the lodge have a transparent desire to make your Skye sojourn a happy one. We were also impressed by the hotel’s activities folder, which outlines walks with excellent background information and specific directions.
Kinloch Lodge 91 Room, from $260 per person, breakfast and dinner included; Suite, from $360. Sleat, Isle of Skye. Tel. (44) 1471-833333.
A short drive south from Kinloch Lodge brought us to a Victorian stone mansion perched on a hill with a commanding view of the Sound of Sleat. Duisdale House is the most recent venture of Anne Gracie and Kenneth Gunn (captain of the Hebridean Princess for many years), who were recently named 2011 Scottish Hoteliers of the Year.
In transforming this handsome structure into an 18-room country hotel, they retained much of the interior of the original building — most notably the fine woodwork and detailing — and invigorated it with modern wallpapers and fabrics. The comfortable drawing room has a marble fireplace and leads out to the large conservatory where breakfast is served.
Our Four Poster Room came with sea-facing windows, contemporary flower-print wallpaper, a large armoire and a sitting area with a table right by the window that could double as a desk. The bath was done in attractive taupe tiles but offered only a combined tub/shower and a single sink.
In the elegant and dramatic dining room, we enjoyed excellent contemporary Scottish cuisine. Among my favorite dishes was a starter of John Dory served with a tangy side of passion fruit. The standout main course was a roast loin of pork with the ideal accompaniments of Savoy cabbage and caramelized apples with Madeira, served with a grain mustard sauce.
Balancing the aesthetics of a fine old building with contemporary décor is a delicate task, but Anne Gracie has succeeded admirably. If your preferences are generally more traditional, however, then you are likely to prefer Kinloch Lodge.
Duisdale House 89 Double Room with Sea View, $230 per person. Isle Ornsay, Sleat, Isle of Skye. Tel. (44) 1471-833202.
From Duisdale, we headed south to the Armadale ferry terminal for the half-hour crossing to Mallaig on the mainland. Our destination was the Isle of Eriska, which lies 11 miles north of Oban. The property has long been a Harper favorite, but several changes have been made since our last visit, and we wanted to see their effect.
The hotel sits on its own 300-acre island, and its heart remains an 1894 Baronial red-stone manor house, with a turret and crenellations. It was transformed into a hotel in the late 1960s by the Buchanan-Smith family.
After a warm greeting, we were escorted through the great hall, with its ever-blazing hearth and oak paneling. All seemed as lovely as ever. My initial impression on entering our bedroom — where, coincidentally, I had stayed on a previous occasion — was that not much had changed. On closer examination, however, I saw that although the fine old furniture remained, the fabrics had been updated, with subtle tartans rendered in a restrained pattern on the couch and chairs, and in a bolder version on the bed. A flat-panel TV and Wi-Fi had been installed.
In general, the rooms I recommend most highly at Eriska are the Deluxe accommodations in the main house, although some travelers may prefer the patios and hot tubs that come with the Spa and Cottage suites. (The ESPA facility contains a gym and 55-foot indoor pool.)
The most significant change in the main house has been in the library bar, where a new conservatory effectively doubles the space. In the dining room, the décor has been refreshed with new carpet in a subtle gray plaid and wainscoting painted deep plum. Chef Robert MacPherson’s food is as memorably good as ever. I particularly liked his tian of local crab with guacamole, mango emulsion, sweet tomato and sweet chili, and a main course of guinea fowl with Savoy cabbage and thyme fondant, accompanied by a mustard seed velouté.
Outdoor activities on Eriska include walking, clay-pigeon shooting, windsurfing and croquet. The final three holes of the lovely Howard Swan golf course have been finished, bringing the total to nine and making for a pleasantly challenging game. And when the weather turns disagreeable, a just-completed sports hall has provision for indoor games of badminton, tennis, basketball, table tennis and squash.
Overall, the Isle of Eriska retains its unique character, with solicitous but not stuffy service and a prevailing atmosphere of a congenial house party. Further planned changes include the conversion of a small island house to a three-bedroom self-catering cottage for six, and the creation of a dedicated space for cooking classes led by chef MacPherson. I was tempted to sign up for the latter before our departure!
Isle of Eriska 96 Deluxe Room, $645, breakfast included; Suite, $740. Benderloch, Argyll. Tel. (44) 1631-720371.
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