Great Places to Stay
- Darroch Learg, Ballater, Aberdeenshire
Edinburgh-based travel writer Vivien Devlin and her partner travelled north to Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire to sample Darroch Learg, a privately owned hotel in Ballater. Here are her impressions of its comfort and traditional Scottish hospitality.
The Oak Copse on the Sunny Hillside
I would warmly recommend the Darroch Learg hotel, small, homely and privately owned by the Franks family for the past forty years. It is personally managed by Nigel Franks and his wife Fiona. The charming grey granite house built in 1888 is typically Victorian with gables and steeply pitched roof, and perched on the lower slope of Craigendarroch which is the Gaelic for "Hill of Oaks". Darroch Learg in turn translates as "the oak copse on the sunny hillside". So you are certainly surrounded by trees in this delightful spot on the western edge of Ballater with superb open views from the hillside of the Dee valley.
Be warned - arriving from Braemar on the A93, there is no prior warning of the hotel entrance up a steep slope immediately beyond a sharp bend as you come into Ballater. Driving from the east through the town, there is a green oval sign giving directions although this is partially hidden by trees.
A Highland Paradise
Whenever you walk into the hallway and see the cosy snug with sideboard laden with whisky, sherry and liqueurs, there is an immediate sense of a genuine welcome, comfort and traditional Scottish hospitality. There are fourteen bedrooms of different grades - master, superior and standard - all with en-suite bathrooms, bathrobes, TV, trouser press, tea and coffee, with the extra touch - flowers, fresh fruit and shortbread biscuits. Two bedrooms feature Four Poster beds for a special romantic ambience. For guests requiring easier access there is a double/twin room on the ground floor and while the bathroom is not adapted for wheelchair users, there are plans to improve facilities.
All bedrooms are attractively furnished as befits a classic country house with a real sense of flair and style such as the imaginative use of bright colours in some attic bathrooms.
We were in Room 2, facing out to the front - spacious, comfortable and homely with two armchairs beside a double window offering a superb picture postcard view of lush green landscape across the River Dee to Lochnagar. A Highland paradise indeed.
Darroch Learg is not simply a delightful place to stay. The hotel's reputation is also due to its excellent restaurant, so widely praised for its gourmet cuisine that people will travel for miles to visit for lunch or dinner as well as many repeat residential guests. The restaurant under Chef David Mutter, has been awarded 3 AA rosettes for the past six consecutive years, an outstanding accolade, and also included in the prestigious Good Food Guide which highlighted it as one of only two commended restaurants in Scotland in 2002.
Dinner at Darroch Learg is indeed a delightful experience. Fiona Franks is an elegant hostess, welcoming guests into the drawing room for an aperitif, describing the menu and overseeing the attentive service throughout with a very gracious manner. You notice the perfect little touches such as a bowl of olives (unusual in Scotland) and nuts served with drinks and with dinner a selection of home-made soft focaccia bread.
Two Menus to Choose From
There are in fact two menus to choose from - the three course dinner menu and also a Taster gourmet set Menu of six courses, which understandably has to be taken by the whole table. Dinner is served in the Conservatory overlooking the patio garden, with tables arranged along the window, beautifully laid out with white linen table cloths, napkins and fine crystal.
The dinner menu offers four or five choices for each course and a few specials of the day. A typical appetiser might be Pan-fried Foie Gras and fig chutney or Loch Fyne Scallops with home-made black pudding and etuvee of cabbage. My Smoked Salmon with Fromage Frais and potato salad was a little disappointing with a tiny portion of salmon, dominated by the accessories. Also sampled was a traditional dish of smoked haddock served with a poached egg on top - though this turned out to be overcooked. What you expect is for the yolk to burst open and soak through the fish.
The cuisine as you would expect is based on the very best, local game, beef and seafood. Next was a delicately cooked, tender, white Fillet of Halibut on a bed of truffle pommes puree and salad leaves - delicious; alternatively, Loin of Deeside Venison with Puy lentils and raisin jus or Fillet of Highland Beef with braised oxtail, celeriac and a tarragon sauce.
There are no vegetarian options on the menu but we were informed that the Chef can prepare a special dish on request, although it was implied, perhaps wrongly, that this would be awkward.
We sipped a very smooth and rich Pinotage, selected from a wide ranging wine list of 230 bins which is commended for a fixed, rather than a percentage mark up.
Time for pudding to complete the meal. A Classic Lemon Tart was just perfect, to clean the palate with its fresh tangy taste, while also enjoyed was an Iced Vanilla Parfait with agen prunes. Fresh berries with ice-cream, White Chocolate Mousse and a cheese board were also on offer.
Coffee, petit fours and drinks are then served in the drawing-room or the separate sitting room for smokers next door.
Exploring the Area
Darroch Learg is certainly the perfect place to stay if you wish to explore the area. South of Braemar is Glenshee, crowded out with skiers in the winter if the snow falls at this famous ski-centre, and by hill climbers during the summer months. This section of the A93 offers a super, wide mountainous road for a lovely drive, all year round.
The `what to do, where to go` information guide from Aberdeen (that's Aberdeen's Castlegate here) and Grampian tourist board is colourful and inspirational, emphasising the diverse range of leisure activities, sports, history, culture, gardens, and not forgetting the local whisky. Ballater is a charming historic town right in the centre of the region, and ideal for touring along the River Dee to Braemar, Balmoral Castle, Crathie, Banchory, or north to Forres and Elgin. Queen Victoria who loved to stay at Balmoral Castle described this part of Scotland as "her dear Highland paradise" and this association gives the valley its name of Royal Deeside.
To the north there is a specific Malt Whisky trail to such famous distilleries as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. Or if you are interested in Scottish history take the Castle trail, from the rugged ruin of Dunnottar to the Baronial splendour of Balmoral Castle. And then take the highest road in Britain south over Cairn o` Mount to Fettercairn for stunning views. This is part of Queen Victoria's Heritage Trail, which she loved to explore in order to sketch the scenery and describe in her travel journals. Back in Ballater visit the Old Royal Station, now the Tourist Information Centre, featuring an exhibition which re-enacts the original design and the arrival of Queen Victoria.
For more information or to make a reservation, e-mail Nigel Franks or contact Darroch Learg, Braemar Road, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5UX by mail or by telephone - 013397 55443 (or, if phoning from abroad, use the International Dial Code for the UK and then dial 13397 55443 (ie without the preceding zero).
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