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

Sunday Herald Life - - TRAVEL FEATURE - www.eriska-ho­tel.co.uk

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.

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