Great Places to Stay
- North West Castle, Stranraer
Travel writer Vivien Devlin, from Edinburgh, travelled to the south-west corner of Scotland to sample the North West Castle, one of five properties scattered across Dumfries and Galloway owned by the award-winning hotels personally owned and managed by members of the McMillan family. North West Castle is opposite the port and ferry terminal in the heart of Stranraer.
History of North West Castle
The property was built in 1820 for Sir John Ross, a famous Arctic Explorer. As a naval Captain he took up the challenge to find a trade route from Baffin's Bay through the Arctic to the Pacific and from there east to the Orient. Ross began his quest for the North West passage in 1817 but this voyage and several others during the next few years proved unsuccessful. Setting off again in 1829, determined to explore and map out the territory, his ship the Victory had to be abandoned in the ice. After four years Ross and his crew were eventually rescued and returned home to a heroes' welcome. His arctic experience and nautical charts were written about in his "Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of the North West Passage" and his valuable work was recognised by a knighthood in 1834.
By this time he had built a magnificent family home right on the seashore with uninterrupted views up the length of Loch Ryan. As a naval captain his home was his ship, with huge windows featuring hinged apertures where telescopes could be inserted. On the roof there was a Camera Obscura in order to view all the ships and vessels from far around. A very special room was designed for the Captain - the Cabin Room, an exact replica of his own cabin on board the Victory.
North West Castle as a Hotel
The hotel opened for business forty years ago in 1962. While it has been developed and refurbished over the years, many of the original features, beams, ceiling cornices and windows of the original house still remain. The Cabin Room is now the Ross Bar, a very comfortable and cosy wood-panelled lounge.
There are 73 bedrooms and suites in the original house and a modern wing at the back of the car park. I was rather disappointed with the chintzy flowery furnishings (circa 1970s) of these "new" rooms, so I suggest that for a good sea view and a more spacious traditional room, do pay just a few pounds extra and select one of the five suites in the old house. The Honeymoon suite has a four-poster bed and spacious sitting room area. You don't have to get married to sleep here! The Penthouse Suite on the top floor is a wonderful bedroom which also has two balconies at the front and back where you can sit outside for breakfast on a warm day. It's such fun to see the arrival and departure of the huge ferries with a stream of cars and lorries driving on and off with military precision.
The hotel is old fashioned in many ways but its faded grandeur all adds to a quaint charm and character. The bar and lounges, with leather upholstered Gentleman's Club style sofas and armchairs, are very relaxing and, at times, a lively place for coffee, snacks and evening drinks. The Regency Dining Room is a gracious and elegant setting for dinner with a pianist playing a medley of popular tunes for our entertainment, reminiscent of an ocean-going cruise liner. It's all in keeping with the atmosphere of this sea captain's home. Live piano music is a delightful touch and far, far nicer than piped musak.
Award Winning Restaurant
Dinner at the North West Castle hotel is a special occasion where guests and non-residents dress up to enjoy a good night out. The award winning cuisine is first class matched by professional attentive and friendly service by an army of staff. Bruce McLean leads the team in the kitchen and he has built up an enviable reputation for the use of wonderful fresh local produce. A different four course a la carte dinner menu is presented each night and as you will gather from these sample dishes, this is of an exceptionally high standard and flair - especially for the all inclusive price of £21.00 (September 2002).
There are four choices for starters and mains, with an intermediate soup course. You may begin with a Terrine of Guinea Fowl Breast with Apricots served with home made Apple Chutney, accompanied by Toasted fruit and nut bread or perhaps, a Ballotine of Local Oak Smoked Salmon and Smoked Trout served with a herb salad, dressed in lemon cream.
Alternatively a popular choice, Crispy Potato Wedges, served with a tossed salad and Garlic mayonnaise - simple, fattening but yummy - or the homemade soup of the day such as Carrot and Orange or Wild Mushroom.
Then on to the heart of the feast - perhaps a choice of Lightly Poached Paupiettes of Sole, filled with Fresh Salmon and Herb Mousseline, served with Brandade of Cod, surrounded by Pernod Sauce. That sounds as if it should win a Michelin award just for the idea.
Alternatively, Pan Fried Breast of Barbary Duckling served with Orange, honey and ginger sauce. For those who prefer something very plain and straightforward there is always the choice of a Prime Aberdeen Angus Sirloin Steak. Vegetarians are not forgotten either and the menu always features a tasty and imaginative non-carnivorous/ pescatarian dish.
Have a breather now as there's still another course to come, along the lines of Meringue with Strawberry sorbet, Walnut and Toffee Tart, Ice-Cream or a selection of cheese and biscuits. The very comprehensive menu also lists a selection of pudding wines and port to accompany pudding. Coffee is served in the lounge for a relaxing sit-down after such an excellent meal - of course the bar is still buzzing late into the night for a welcome nightcap.
A Good Centre for Activities
Today the North West Castle hotel is very popular indeed by a wide range of guests of all ages and interests. Families, parents, grandparents, children, couples, business-people and of course travellers before or after a trip to Ireland. While I was there a large group of golfers were enjoying a special sporting weekend away. A perfect combination - a day out on one of the many excellent golf courses in the region and then back to the hotel for a slap up dinner, a few drinks, good sleep, breakfast and off in the coach to another course the next morning. They certainly looked as if they were having a great convivial time. The hotel can organise tailor made Golf packages with the option of a round on the exclusive Cally Palace course (pictured here) within the grounds of its sister hotel, at Gatehouse of Fleet.
Sports and leisure is at the heart of the hotel, which features a fitness centre with a superb heated swimming pool, spa bath, saunas, sunbed and excellent gym. It`s in the winter that the hotel really comes into its own. North West Castle was the first hotel in the world to have its own indoor curling rink. From October to April, this attracts curlers from all over the globe with special events, competitions, leading to the grand final, The Dalrymple Championship Cup.
Following the great success by the Scottish team winning the Gold medal at the Winter Olympics this year, curling may become even more popular with younger people perhaps keen to take it up. Even if you are not a player yourself, there is a viewing lounge and the Alpine Restaurant and bar, which draw the crowds to create a unique atmosphere for spectators watching the curling matches.
All year round there are other activities to keep all the family amused with a large games room featuring carpet bowls, snooker, pool and table tennis. Other sports such as sea or loch fishing, sailing, horse-riding, tennis and squash can all be arranged in the area.
North West Castle Hotel, Stranraer is an excellent base to tour the Rhins and Machars of Galloway, with its beautiful open landscape made famous in the BBC drama Two Thousand Acres of Sky. Drive over to the charming fishing village of Portpatrick and down the coast to Port Logan with its fabulous Botanical gardens. There's an RSPB nature reserve here protecting a large puffin and rich seabird colony. It's also an easy trip over to Wigtown, Scotland's famous Booktown with dozens of second hand bookshops and regular special literary events and festivals. Further south is Whithorn, the cradle of Christianity with a wealth of archeological and historical sites. And all around, fabulous coastal roads, wide sandy beaches, low hills and woodland.
For more information on the North West Castle Hotel, or to make a reservation, see the hotel's own Web Site.
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