The call of the wild
ENTRANCED BY THE VIEWS FROM HIS HILLTOP RETREAT, RICHARD BAYNES GETS ON HIS WALKING BOOTS AND DISCOVERS THAT THE MAGICAL ISLAND OF ERISKA REALLY IS A FEAST FOR THE SENSES
WE are watching the view. Not just gazing idly at it, but enjoying the constant small movements, the shift in the shadows on Morvern’s soft steep hills, the gentle sway of the oak and birch woodland just below our terrace, the wind-patterns on the steely-blue Lynn of Lorne, all in the ever-changing light.
The vista is everything you could want on the Highland west coast: small skerries and a wooded headland, mountains and sea, and at the centre of the frame, a long green slice of limestone turf and trees: the island of Lismore, studded with white cottages.
Clouds beat their way up the Firth of Lorne like big, soft, white birds being tumbled over by the south-westerly winds funnelled up the rift in the land; at one point the mountains disappear altogether and Lismore is picked out in the light in front of a bank of mist.
All the while there are small boats: a creel fisherman heads for Loch Creran, north of the island; a sleek modern yacht slides by, then a graceful wooden one with old-fashioned sails: a traditional fishing boat, a miniature Vital Spark, chugs along.
This, of course, is the reason the Hilltop Reserve lodges at the Isle of Eriska Hotel have recently been built here, perched on the highest hill on the little island of Eriska in Benderloch, north of Oban and south of Glen Coe.
A sensible traveller would be happy with the view alone from the picture windows and outside deck, but the stylish modern wooden lodges are a delight too: smartly and unfussily furnished, with all the comforts of home and a few more.
There’s a well-equipped kitchen; a spacious bathroom with his-and-hers sinks and a vast bath; a super-king-sized bed; and a comfortable lounge. The deck with the view has sturdy wooden furniture, and of course a hot tub.
We’re here for the weekend, and before we check in on the Friday we enjoy a local walk just to the south of Eriska on the peninsula we cross to reach the island. We reach a small sandy beach for a picnic, and explore an old lime kiln, evidence of the importance of Lismore’s rare geology in the area. After we arrive at our lodge it’s tempting just to stay in and enjoy the sunset, but we’re booked into the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, so we troop down to main house, an old granite and sandstone pile that now has 16 hotel rooms plus large comfortable bar, lounge and dining room.
We’re ushered through the dark firelit hallway, whose burr-oak panelling has a remarkable craggy richness, into a conservatory overlooking the grounds, where we are served drinks before being shown to our table.
The food is everything you would expect of a restaurant with a Michelin star, and the young, enthusiastic staff add to the experience. Over two evenings here we enjoy tiny tasters – including an oddly delicious one based on cod skin, and a crisp porridge biscuit – neat, savoury hors d’oeuvres, meaty mains of beef and lamb, and succulent turbot and halibut. It’s all served with clever touches such as the samphire, which grows on the island shore.
Our coastal walk on the Friday inspires us the next morning to take a stroll down from the lodge to the northern tip of Eriska and its small pontoon pier for boat-borne visitors.
The increasingly blue skies tempt us to continue out on to the island’s western shore, past a surprising bronze sculpture of an otter on a rock at Otter Point. There are no other otters to be seen, but crab claws and cracked cockle shells tell us they’re here.
Heading south the walking is rougher despite the path marked by white posts, but it’s worth it to come out at the salty flat turf – home of that samphire – and small dark pools that rim Rhuba Mor, Shell Point on the hotel’s map, the island’s southerly tip. Walking across it is easy and oddly agreeable, and the view to a cottage sheltered by pines at Ardentinny to the south is idyllic.
In warm sunshine we head up to the bridge by which visitors access Eriska, and rejoin the island’s road to enjoy the shade of the woodland, deep and thick with a variety of trees: there’s a pinkleaved acer among the birch, beech and oak.
Back at the lodge it’s a quick change into sportswear to sample the pool and gym, and they’re excellent, with just three
of us enjoying the 17m pool. We have the gym to ourselves for most of an hour and peek into the Stables Spa, which has a full range of treatments available.
Back at the lodge the hot tub has to be used, and we wallow while still enjoying the view. In the kitchen we rustle up toasties with excellent smoked salmon from a breakfast hamper ordered from the hotel. Services on offer to lodge residents range from these simple hampers to a chef and waiter for the evening.
At dinner on Friday a highlight is the cheese trolley, for which the impressive waiter has learned dozens of names and descriptions, so on day two we leave space especially for this, then retire to that panelled lobby for a dram and coffee by the fire.
The next morning I chat to hotel general manager Gordon Cartwright. The island has recently changed hands, with a Chinese family firm buying it from the Buchanan-Smiths who owned it from the 1970s.
Cartwright is unfazed by the change. The new owners are “incredibly supportive,” he says, and at the same time have brought in more money for investment; two of the Hilltop Reserves were built at the start of 2015, the rest were completed only a few months ago.
There are “lots of amazing hotels” in the UK, he says, but the trick at Isle of Eriska is to marry that to the unique environment, the quirky building, extensive gardens and stunning landscape. The Hilltop Reserves repeat the feat.
I’m surprised to learn that many guests are content simply to look at the environment, rather than walk in it. Perhaps I should have guessed – in our two-hour we saw no-one else on foot.
But back at the lodge before we leave, I look at that stunning view again and wonder how anyone can resist the temptation it presents to get out and really experience the landscape of this jewel of an island. Richard Baynes was a guest of the Isle of Eriska Hotel. Standard rooms for two with breakfast at the hotel are £430 per night.
An Eriska Hilltop Reserve (sleeps two) can be booked at £900 for three nights, or £1,800 for seven nights.
Hilltop Reserve membership packages are currently available for £10,000 plus VAT, which buys 70 nights over 10 years.
Eriska is roughly a two-and-a-half hour drive from Glasgow, and just over three hours from Edinburgh.
View from the Hilltop Reserve
The main house of the hotel houses 16 rooms, a bar, lounge and Michelin-starred restaurant.