I JUST couldn’t resist the beautiful grand piano in the corner. I had only had a few sips of wine, but somehow, the antique furniture, the magnificent, high-ceilinged room and stunning views over Loch Awe transported me to another era.
Sadly, though, my piano playing remained firmly in the present. A few, halting bars of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was all I could manage before some jarring wrong notes betrayed me as someone who had firmly neglected their musical education.
I’m not sure what the other guests made of my feeble attempts but, after just a few hours at the Ardanaiseig Hotel, where visitors are encouraged to treat this beautiful, 19th-century baronial manor as their own home, I think everyone was relaxed enough to forgive my very amateur performance.
The hotel’s address is given as “near Taynuilt”, but in truth this is a place built in splendid isolation. After a long journey across Scotland with the world’s worst back-seat driver offering regular, unhelpful hints on my motoring skills, and 10 miles on a twisty, steep single-track road, we were looking forward to some rest and relaxation. Fortunately, that’s just what the Ardanaiseig Hotel specialises in.
The Ardanaiseig is set amid 100 acres of wild, woodland gardens, with thousands of exotic shrubs and trees, as well as beautiful rhododendrons providing some stunning bursts of colour. We had to restrain ourselves from stopping the car and jumping out to explore before we had even reached the hotel to check in.
We weren’t actually staying in the hotel itself, but the boat shed – the “shed” being a beautifully converted boathouse, situated about 200 metres from the hotel, with a floor-to-ceiling window and a balcony overlooking the loch.
Downstairs, we had an open-plan lounge area and kitchenette, as well as the bathroom, while upstairs was a balcony area which housed the bedroom – so you could simply lie in bed and enjoy the views right over the loch. The building had been furnished simply but stylishly and we spent some time feasting our eyes on the views over the loch and watching the wildlife.
If you’ve ever visited the west coast, then you will know that a waterproof coat is essential. The ominous clouds and burst of heavy rain didn’t put us off exploring the gardens, though. We spent a couple of hours getting happily lost and unlost in the grounds, where there are all kinds of mysterious, winding paths and muddy tracks to explore. Neither my partner nor I are gardeners, but we couldn’t fail to be impressed by our lush, green surroundings.
The grounds were beautiful and varied, from the amphitheatre situated at the front of the house – a favourite spot for weddings – to the wild woodland and glorious walled garden. On our travels, we stumbled across the hotel’s jetty – and little flotilla of boats.
The hotel allows guests to take boats out on to the loch during the summer months. After some discussion – I am renowned for my clumsiness and there were some “man overboard” fears – we booked a boat for the next morning.
All the exploring, however, had built up quite an appetite. Happily, though, we were in just the right place for some fine food. The hotel’s chef, Gary Goldie, has won a host of accolades for his food, and the hotel prides itself on using first-rate produce, including herbs, vegetables and fruit from its own gardens. We had been looking forward to our five-course, gourmet dinner since booking our stay, to the extent that we arrived at the hotel’s doors nearly half an hour early in anticipation of a real treat.
Our punctuality gave my partner plenty of time to try a couple of whiskies from the hotel’s comprehensive collection, and gave me ample time to browse the extensive wine list. The hotel’s bar area – formerly the library of the house – is a really cosy place, with an open log fire and views across the loch.
In contrast, the hotel’s lounge extends the whole width of the house, and is full of beautiful antiques, as well as the piano that attracted my amateurish enthusiasm. The weather had finally cleared, and we watched the sun set over the loch, enjoying our drinks and some delicious basil crisps and plump, juicy olives that had been brought to us as pre-dinner snacks.
We were dining from a set menu, but those with food allergies and intolerances need not fear. When I rang to book our stay, I explained that I was unable to eat dairy products, and the chef was happy to produce an altered menu for me.
Occasionally, when my partner has something truly delicious to eat, he is simply rendered speechless. Needless to say, his conversation floundered over the next hour and half while we were brought course upon delicious course. We began with a veloute of Jerusalem artichoke, followed by Stornoway black pudding with foie gras, red onion confit and caramelised apple. I am not normally a huge fan of foie gras, but I found these flavours simply irresistible, with the richness of the foie gras contrasted beautifully by the red onion and apple flavours.
Scotland’s reputation for world-class seafood was fully justified in the main course, with our pan-roasted halibut, with deep-fried Oban scallop ravioli, purple carrot puree, confit garlic and sauternes sauce. When my partner’s dessert – a fromage frais pannacotta with crispy filo and marinated rhubarb – arrived, he scraped the plate clean, while my fruit confit was equally delicious.
We retreated to the bar to enjoy our coffee and homemade petits fours, before the knowledgeable barman recommended some whisky to round off the evening.
With such a fantastic meal and drinks the night before, we surprised ourselves by honouring our boat booking the next morning. The hotel provided us with life jackets and some safety advice. Our little vessel was not designed to be taken too far out into the loch, so we just ventured about a mile from the shore, to explore a few of the tiny islands that are dotted about the loch. From the loch, we had fantastic views of the hotel and the dramatic hills and surrounding scenery, including Ben Cruachan.
We were sorry to return to the shore, and even sorrier to realise that our stay was at an end. Ardanaiseig Hotel is a really special, romantic place to stay, where staff go to every effort to make you feel at home. But as we made our way down the sweeping driveway, the thought struck me that at least their next guests would really have some peace and quiet – rather than some badly-played Beethoven.
Bed and breakfast at the Ardanaiseig Hotel, staying in the boat shed, costs £153 per person per night until the end of June. From July until August, the cost is £189 pppn. Dinner, bed and breakfast, staying in the boat shed, costs £187 pppn until the end of June. From July until August, the cost is £223 pppn. Rates for other rooms at the hotel vary.
For further details, see www.ardanaiseig.com or contact the hotel on 01866 833333.