Nancy Alsop takes a journey to remotest Scotland’s Isle of Eriska to experience peace, still, calm… and a world-class hotel
From London, by far the quickest way to reach the Isle of Eriska, near Mull in the west of Scotland, would, of course, be to fly. But to prioritise speed here would be to miss the point. The Isle of Eriska must, surely, boast one of the most tranquil settings of any hotel just about anywhere, and the mode of transport should surely be correspondingly leisurely. With that in mind, we hop onto the Caledonian Sleeper train at Euston at midnight. As weary workers and merry revellers wend their way home, our journey is just beginning, and feels every bit as thrilling as if we were boarding on to the Hogwarts Express via platform 9 and three-quarters.
A jolly man with a clipboard takes us to our berth, proffers bacon rolls or porridge for a room-service breakfast upon arrival in Glasgow the next morning – and warns us that there may be some unusual activity owing to a VIP’s presence aboard. Cue curiosity on our parts and police Labradors diligently checking each berth for anything amiss. Sleepily, we tuck up in our comfortable beds and are rocked to sleep by the gentle chug-chug of the train. The next morning at Glasgow, fortified by our Scots’ porridge and tea, we bump into the friendly clipboard wielder who, upon prodding, reveals that our mystery guest had been Princess Anne. “Aye, and she was in the room next to yours.” If it’s good enough for royalty…
Our journey, however, is far from over. We cross to Glasgow’s secondary station, board a train (a more stripped-back affair, this) bound for Oban, embarking on surely one of the most beautiful journeys this country has to offer, via highlands clad in heather, running waterfalls and clear-water lakes. Finally we alight at Connell Ferry, where the hotel has thoughtfully sent a taxi to pick us up and deliver us at our final destination: the Isle or Eriska Hotel, at the mouth of Loch Creran.
Upon our reluctant return, the pain of leaving is alleviated by travelling in a sumptuous first class carriage on Virgin Trains‘ service from Glasgow to London Euston.
The dazzling beauty of the journey is, you realise, a preamble to what awaits once you drive over the rickety bridge to Eriska. We are deposited around a manicured lawn in front of the main hotel, a private mansion until 1973 when this 19th century house opened for guests. That sensation of it being a family home has, happily, never really been dispelled. Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a rack of wellies, and then welcomed by exceptionally friendly staff who, in this order, whisk our bags away, tell us about an impossibly sweet nightly badger-feeding ritual, and give us a whistle-stop guided tour of the house. Our gaze is directed towards the sofa-dotted, wood-panelled sitting rooms in which to take tea by the perennially roaring fire, towards the bar (again, this has the feel of a particularly well-stocked, book-lined sitting room) and upward to the majestic staircase and our room at the top of the house.
As one might expect of a non-identikit, historic former private residence, each room is different – although there is one unifying thread that runs throughout: that of utter, sublime comfort.
Ours happens to be at the top of the main house and involves a more-than-worth-it climb up three flights of stairs. Capacious and cosy all at the same time, the enormous bed proves an all-too tempting proposition for afternoon curling up with a book. There are sofas and armchairs for further reclining, and a luxurious bathroom, presented in a pleasingly traditional manner for a Scottish highland retreat – while all is complemented with contemporary touches, such as an iPad loaded with the hotel’s relevant information and a room service facility at the touch of a button. Outside the main house, the new spa suites are vast slick and contemporary, while for those seeking total escape, there are self-catering cottages on the island.
Each room has a copy of a book about Eriska Island’s history (facts we pick up: its name is likely derived from the 10th century Norse invader, Erik the Red, while the big house was built in 1884 in the Baronial style by the architect Hippolyte Blanc – visit and read on for more), as are many of the tables in the common rooms. Even better, upon checkout, every guest is presented with a copy of the book home as a memento of their stay.
Food and drink
The big draw here is the Michelin-starred restaurant, overseen by head chef Ross Stovold, which skilfully manages to synthesise local ingredients with top-end cooking. The service and wine list are those that you would expect of an expensive (over £50 per head for the a la carte) but top-end dining destination; what is makes it extra special, however, is the friendliness and warmth of the staff, who make everyone feel that they are VIPs. (The general manager, formerly at Raymond Blanc’s exulted Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, is a wonderful host, raconteur and a great authority, despite being newly in-post.)
Dishes we try include superb local partridge and venison, which find the perfect sweet spot between innovation and tradition and a delightfully light crab dish with whipped avocado. We are also impressed by the complimentary afternoon tea served to all guests – delectable cake and scones are the order of the day, all served up in exemplary silverware. There’s also a more casual dining spot, The Deck, located above the spa, which is ideal for simpler meals and can be popped into either for lunch or an early dinner. Given its comparative lack of formality, it’s very popular with families. For breakfast, it’s back to the main house, where a highlight is the smoked salmon which comes from the island. Do also try the exemplary porridge (for Scottish authenticity, eschew sugar or honey in favour of salt).
Unwinding is par for the course on the Isle of Eriska. But for those wishing to zone out completely, the ESPA spa is just the place to do it. A two-minute walk from the main house, the staff is just as welcoming here as there. The near-empty pool is a joy to swim peacefully up and down, while treatments using ESPA and ishga products, are as divine as they come. Emerging half-hypnotised from the sheer indulgence of it all, spa visitors are revived by a bowl of sorbet and views from loungers across the loch. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Strewn with highland cattle, the grounds present a mixture of the wild and rugged with the carefully cultivated (there is a golf course on site). Island life on Eriska is all about getting outdoors – however tempting the fireside teas inside may be.
The walks are astonishingly, blissfully peaceful (apart from the odd person being picked up or dropped off, the sound of cars is virtually unknown), and the air is squeaky clean, as is the water of the loch. We wander down to the otter beach and do some shallow wading, but the more energetic may wish to shoot, sail, fish, mountain bike… or play a round of croquet on the lawn. On our November jaunt, the landscape is a medley of soft oranges and mellow rusts, though it’s hard to imagine that this island would not wear any season exceptionally well.
The Caledonian Sleeper travels nightly form Euston to Glasgow Central: www.scotrail.co.uk
Virgin Trains travels daily between Glasgow and Euston: www.virgintrains.co.uk