Neil Sowerby discovers a beautiful boutique inn and an island to treasure
ROBERT Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped has a lower profile these days than his Treasure Island. Yet there’s much to offer in this epic Jacobean off-road trip buddy tale, laced with derring-do and spectacular Highland scenery.
As the holy duo sped towards it Moluag cut off his own finger and flung it onto the island, claiming it for himself
I’d not read it since I was a lad but serendipitously every room in the Airds Hotel Port Appin comes equipped with a copy. Why? Well, the novel’s plot is inspired by a murder in the Appin area in 1752 that led to a notorious miscarriage of justice. As the rain squalls gusted in across Loch Linnhe, the far mountains of Morvern obliterated by mist, I snuggled up in a window seat and was hooked once more by the adventures of Kidnapped’s hapless hero, David Balfour.
Our route to the Airds Hotel, the cosiest of Scottish boutique inns, had not been without its own atmospherics. The A82 had swept us through craggy Glen Coe, a Kidnapped backdrop and, of course, site of the 1692 massacre of the MacDonald clan. The name in Gaelic means ‘Valley of the Weeping’. On a day when England was sweltering in a heatwave we were ambushed by a tumultuous storm, the roadside falls turned into terrifying torrents.
The next day after a remarkably fine welcome at our destination the sun came out and the world seemed a different place. So that when we were stranded on an island (not – spoiler alert – in the harrowing circumstances of David Balfour) we didn’t have a care in the world, save the fear we would miss dinner. After a seafood tasting menu as good as it gets the previous night that would have been heartbreaking,
As it turned out, we were rescued. A replacement boat was eventually hired to replace our non-functioning ferry for the 10 minute shuttle back to Port Appin from the Isle of Lismore. And there was us thinking that island of rolling hills would be a gentle alternative to tackling the arduous mountains of the Argyll mainland. Captain Smidge, our chihuahua, loves a challenge, but we were frightened he might get swooped on by a rogue eagle.
Homely, easily bikeable Lismore has its own legends. Back in the sixth century both St Columba and St Moluag coveted this slim eight mile long outcrop as a missionary base and as the holy duo sped towards it Moluag cut off his own finger and flung it onto the island, claiming it for himself.
Lios Mor means ‘great garden’ in Gaelic and indeed the island is lush and fertile with an almost Postman Pat charm to it. Yet it is the panoramas of much grander landscapes that make the expedition worthwhile. Take the eastern coastal path from the modest Achnacroish car ferry port or visit the sheltered haven of Port Ramsay at the opposite end of the island and be entranced.
In truth, there’s little else to do on Lismore. The one place to eat is a cafe attached to the heritage centre, Ionad Naomh Moluag, the ticket to which covers entry to a thatched 19th century cottar’s (landless tenant’s) cottage alongside.
The Cathedral of St Moluag is down the road, much reduced and turned into a modest parish church in 1749, though medieval doorways remain. Give or take a couple of ruined castles and ancient burial sites, that’s about it. Still, perching on a jetty in a warm westerly awaiting rescue and then leaping on to the first boat back to make a G&T in the panoramic Airds garden, it doesn’t get much better. Caorunn Gin’s botanicals include coul blush apple and bog myrtle. It must be medicinal we told ourselves as we ordered a pre-prandial second.
The Airds Hotel, once a humble ferry inn, has spent 42 years in the Good Food Guide, held three AA rosettes for 27 years and yet has never coveted a Michelin star. General manager Robert McKay told us that would entail having full service at lunch, hardly viable in such a small scale establishment also offering afternoon tea to a passing trade. You sense that a recent Good Hotel Guide award for Scotland’s Most Romantic Hotel gives them the most satisfaction.
As it is, chef Calum Innes’ food is exceptional, responding vividly to the region’s rich resources of seafood and game, as you’d expect from a chef hailing from tiny Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. His debut £87.50 seafood tasting menu featured oysters, Inverawe smoked salmon, seared Loch Fyne langoustine tail, roasted Tarbert scallop, pan-fried fillet of Scrabster halibut, shellfish and saffron broth with a strawberry (Scottish naturally) parfait to follow. The a la carte with well-sourced meat options was equally impressive.
To walk off these quite substantial menus we took advantage of the hotel’s footpath advice. First up, with the rain still a factor, we took the simple half hour stroll around the Port Appin headland. More attractive is an hour trek to the tidal inlet of Loch Laich, off the road back towards Glen Coe. The big attraction is the picturesque four-storey medieval tower house, Castle Stalker, accessible from the shore at low tide but we didn’t dare. A glorious sunset back at the Airds Hotel completed our day.
Neil, wife and small dog stayed at Airds Hotel and Restaurant, Port Appin, PA38 4DF. 01631 730236. This former ferry in north of Oban has eight luxury rooms and suites plus two cottages. It is a dog-friendly Relais & Chateaux property. Check out its three night Autumn Gold package from £165 per person per night. In addition to a luxurious double room with a whisky mac, the price includes half-board meals – a five-course dinner and full Scottish breakfast, early morning tea/coffee delivered to the room and a newspaper of choice each day. Valid from September 22 to November 23, subject to availability (excludes October 26). Airds is dog-friendly but there’s a charge of £10 per dog per night and guests are asked not to leave dogs alone in the room. It’s a seven hour drive from North West England or fly to Glasgow and hire a car.
They broke their journey at Dakota Hotel Eurocentral, Parklands Ave, Motherwell ML1 4WQ. 01698 835444. From £95 B&B in a classic bedroom. The ‘Companion Package’ is a £30 upgrade and includes doggy bed, bowls and snacks. Captain Smidge loved all of these and was made much of by staff in the private dining room, where we had dinner and breakfast (as at Airds dogs are not allowed in the dining room). The rump of lamb was his particular dish of choice. He also enjoyed scampering around the spacious suite we got upgraded to.
Set in a state of the art business park with convenient motorway access, it is a 15 minute drive into Glasgow city centre. It was the first hotel in the stylish and affordable Dakota chain, whose most recent addition is on Ducie Street in Manchester. As in the Grill there the Eurocentral version offered big flavours from impeccably sourced raw material.