Great Places to Stay
- Ardanaiseig Hotel, Near Taynuilt, Argyll
"The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where man can lose himself."
William Moon, 20th century American writer
Travel writer Vivien Devlin and her partner journeyed to the North West Highlands of Scotland and stayed at the Ardanaiseig Hotel, near Taynuilt. They were clearly impressed by the Victorian mansion which is more of a private home, open to guests who will appreciate sharing the wonderful hospitality, and lingering magical Celtic atmosphere.
A Sense of Magic
I personally recommend that you take a journey to the North West Highlands of Scotland, driving north up the A816 through Oban or depending on your starting point, from Loch Lomond on to Crianlarich, then west on the A85.
Each route will take you to the small village of Taynuilt from where you take the 10 mile winding, single track road down to the shores of Loch Awe. This is where a sense of magic begins, a strangeness, leading you to a place untouched by time, a place where you can certainly "lose yourself" The road leads to Ardanaiseig, (a Gaelic phrase meaning "the point of the ferry over") an exquisitely preserved early Victorian Baronial mansion house, set in its own natural gardens and woodland right on the lochside. Privately owned, it is a truly charming, magical, unique and according to the brochure, a "wildly romantic" country house hotel.
Wildly romantic? Yes. My first impression of the house as we turned the final bend and saw Ardanaiseig for the first time was a recollection of what the heroine must have thought arriving after her honeymoon at Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's romantic novel, Rebecca. At the head of the circular driveway, we saw an elegantly designed, almost Gothic, ivy-clad, grey-stone family home, attractive crow-step gables, with a wide porch guarded by ancient Grecian statues. The front door was open offering an immediate welcome, as well as a friendly young boy rushing out to greet us and assist with luggage. The porch had a selection of green wellies, umbrellas and walking sticks such that the ambience on arriving is one of visiting a friend's private home for a weekend house party.
The wood panelled hallway features antique tables, sideboard, chairs and works of art. To the right is the elegant drawing room with old, some quite shabby, but extremely comfortable sofas and armchairs. Here there's a log fire, piles of magazines, newspapers and writing desk. Pride of place is a grand piano with a note attached. Guests who would like to play the piano are welcome to do so. Again all part of the house party style, where guests are encouraged to mix and mingle after dinner.
There are sixteen bedrooms, all featuring an individual style, decoration and view. Choose between a loch or garden view, master rooms, some with four-poster beds or a smaller double room. We were shown up to Inishail on the second floor of the house with a super view across the lawn to Loch Awe, with its scattering of islands in the bay. All the bedrooms are named after local mountains, glens and lochs which is much more personal than a number. Inishail is a beautifully proportioned square room, painted in a soft amber gold, with contrasting fern green drapes and furnishings as well as a huge King Size Bed.
Two antique armchairs are placed at the window for an undisturbed view out the picture window, and also a matching chaise-longue - perfect for a daytime nap. But not yet. Time to walk down to the loch, explore the gardens and sample the fresh Highland air before dinner. The 100 acre woodland garden was in the old days of Ardanaiseig's history, regarded as one of the natural splendours of Argyll, but time and neglect in past years has left wild thick undergrowth, and a sadly overgrown though still very pretty Walled Garden. Time and money is now being spent on recreating the original Victorian estate. There are thousands of exotic shrubs imported from the Himalayas, and a diverse range of trees including a 130 feet Fir. The Ardanaiseig garden is the home to a rich and varied wildlife including red deer, foxes, badgers, otters, red squirrels, as well as buzzards an golden eagles swooping and hovering above.
We took a path down towards the loch, which veered off into the woods. A signpost indicated a Graveyard. This is a small walled plot with about six ancient moss-covered graves, presumably members of former Ardanaiseig families. The tombstones amidst this wonderful wild lost garden all add to the history, mystery and atmosphere of this lovely house.
Sitting on a bench right down on the lochshore, there was perfect silence. Just birdsong, fish jumping, bees and butterflies dancing by. The natural beauty of the loch with its tiny islands, trees reflecting in the still water and majestic mountains beyond, all induced a true sense of calm and contentment.
Dinner at Ardanaiseig
Guests are invited to come down to dinner when they wish, between 7 and 8.30pm. We sat in the library bar and here the log fire was burning - it was a cool July evening - sipped a glass of champagne and studied the menu.
We appreciated the simply presented short menu of three choices per course, which immediately indicated quality, innovative style and great attention to detail in the small selection of dishes. I began with tartare of wild salmon, tapenade crust and trout caviar with avocado. This was a feast in itself, an artistic blend of salty flavours and bright colours. My partner enjoyed a bowl of cream of haricot blanc soup with truffle oil, of which I sampled a delicious spoonful. Next up a choice of Fillet of Aberdeen Angus Beef with Wild mushrooms and potato puree; Breast of Guinea fowl, Celeriac puree and puy lentils or finally Pan roasted Halibut with Clam provencale, hand rolled macaroni with tomatoes and pesto. We both selected this latter dish because it sounded exquisitely unusual. It was superb, tender flakey fish, presented as an island with a tasty pesto green sea.
The dining room is charming by the way, with fine art around the walls, soft lighting, and several tall windows overlooking the gardens.
The portions are perfectly proportioned so that you don't feel stuffed after each course and we looked ahead to pudding. The Prune and Armangac Soufflé takes 20 minutes to prepare personally so that was ideal. My partner scoffed this in an instant when it arrived while I leisurely tasted my Lemon Tart with lime puree. A perfect end to the meal. The chef is Gary Goldie who is only in his late twenties, with a kitchen brigade of similarly youthful yet highly experienced sous chefs who together make a cracking team. Everything is homemade from the bread to the after dinner chocolates while herbs, fruit and vegetables are grown in the kitchen garden and seafood is caught locally.
Back in the bar, a few guests who had not retired to bed or the snooker-room were making new friends over a nightcap, from the fifty single malts on offer. The chat was about the various fishing, walking or boating plans for the next morning. David Keith, the barman, happy to serve drinks to the wee sma' hours, is a keen fisherman himself. "I can teach you the basics in ten minutes" he suggests, " but another twenty years practice might be useful".
We ask David about hiring a boat the next day but other guests have already booked up for the morning. It's a popular pastime here and no wonder. The hotel has a rowing and outboard motor boats for fishing and exploring the loch. Picnic lunches can be prepared for a day out, stopping off at some of the islands including Ardanaiseig`s own private island, Eilean a Chomlraidh, a short distance from the jetty. Also on offer are trips on the Lady Rowena steamboat and Flower of Scotland ferry, (for 55 passengers) for a peaceful cruise around the loch.
At Ardanaiseig the philosophy is simply to relax and in this isolated spot, ten miles from the main road, it's a world apart. If you require a little exercise there's a tennis court and croquet on the lawn, where afternoon tea is served on sunny summer days. How very civilised and traditional.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that quite a few celebrities have made their way down the track to enjoy a rural retreat, including a best seller spy-fiction writer and a popular Scottish actor, who celebrated his wedding here. Well, this is an utterly romantic place!
Myths and Legends
Professor Benjamin Gray, who is an antiquarian and naturalist, now privately owns Ardanaiseig. His love of history, architecture, fine art and antiques is clearly reflected in the eclectic mix of quirky, often eccentric paintings and artefacts as well as the careful preservation of the house. What drew the Professor to this remote spot is surely connected to the ancient Celtic myths and legends which live on in the unchanging magical spirit of the place.
The story goes that in the hills above Ardanaiseig was a magic well, guarded by a goddess called Bheithir. She bathed in the waters to preserve her youth, but once she failed to replace the capstone and the spring waters flowed down the mountainside and flooded the valley. Thus Loch Awe was created. Bheithir, no longer able to keep young and beautiful was cursed with immortality and her voice can, it is believed, still be heard echoing around the snow-capped hills.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, this lovely Victorian house is the perfect timeless place to "lose yourself". Indeed, it is difficult to use the word hotel because it is quite simply a delightfully unique private home, open to guests who will appreciate sharing the wonderful hospitality, personal friendly service and lingering magical Celtic air and atmosphere that is Ardanaiseig.
For more details about Ardanaiseig Hotel see their Web Site or write to Ardanaiseig Hotel, Kilchrenan, by Taynuilt, Argyll, PA 35 1HE.
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