Team Wunderdog is quite partial to a castle (or grand house – we are happy to blur the lines as long as it looks posh and has beds the size of our entire flat). Ardainaisaig, on the aptly named Loch Awe in West Scotland, had been on our list for years. Finally, we spent a night
When we arrived, a complete rainbow shone over Ardainsaiaig, perfectly positioned. Had it been a painting, you would have thought the artist slightly overdid it. But this is Scotland. It rains a lot, and in return, you get a lot of rainbows. Especially in autumn.
A good two hours north of Glasgow, this grade-II listed house deserves the description “hidden gem”. William Burn, a famous architect from Edinburgh whose buildings include the church of St John in the centre of the Scottish capital, built Ardainaisaig during the late 18th/early 19th century. Today, it is owned by antiques dealer Bennie Gray, a towering figure of the trade who turned Alfies and Gray’s Antiques Market in London into bustling venues for independent traders during the 1970s. Gray bought this Scottish property in 1995 and brought his taste to open a hotel like no other: historical and eclectic, luxurious and homely – and very, very remote.
The stone walls house wonderfully eclectic furniture, art and artefacts, mixed with a few creature comforts, such as wellies for guests. Invisible from the other side of the loch (and we really looked) in a small cove with a picturesque island seemingly placed in front of it for added romantic effect, the tranquil hotel is at the end of a 20-minute drive down a single-lane road through ferns and woodlands. Once you enter the Ardainaisaig estate, mammoth monkey puzzles overshadow the path and slender trees, in full autumnal dress for our visit, sit alongside an enchanted forest full of moss-covered tree trunks.
When we reached our destination with only a manicured lawn separating the house from the loch, my dog Goldie jumped out of the car but didn’t know which way to turn first. Water? Woods? Grass? House? People? Other dogs? Life can be very complicated when your sense of smell is both fantastic and overwhelmed. She turned shy and just pootled onto the lawn, before dashing for the water. The hotel staff had a towel at the ready for her when she came back.
A little bit of Edinburgh
Ardainsaig warranted its long-time place on my wishlist from the second we entered. A warm welcome was followed by a quick tour of the downstairs: a stunning reading room – ostentatiously decorated with golden thrones, green marble columns, plush sofas, a grand piano and a chess table – runs front to back with an awe-inspiring view of the loch. The loch-facing second reading room with fireplace felt homely by comparison, provided your home is the sort of place where you have a second reading room.
The corridor doubles as a gallery and leads to blue dining room with thick carpets. The “piece de resistance” here is a substantial painting seemingly of the 19th century, featuring very important men sitting in their black suits and white ruffles around a desk making very important decisions. But then your eye is drawn again to the faces of these important men: is that…? Could it be…? He looks a bit like Rod Stewart. And a second one looks like Mick Jagger. But that makes no sense, especially as a third character looks like a young Gordon Brown.
It turns out to be true. During dinner, the waiters were only too happy to tell the story of the painting: bought by a London restaurateur in the 1960s, he was a bit bored with it, so he decided to have the faces changed to some of his favourite people.
Goldie had not been invited for dinner – a sumptuous feast of local cuisine including salmon and Cranachan for dessert – and instead lounged in our stunning loch-facing room. The bed was big enough for approximately 12 Goldies. The marble bathroom and antique closet were perhaps lost on my rescue dog, but we people thoroughly enjoyed the luxuries.
Down the rabbit hole
As for the walkies after breakfast the following morning, there would be no point including a map here. We zigzagged our way across the 1000 acre estate without a plan. Walk down to the loch for some stunning vistas. There is a boathouse, which belongs to the hotel and from where a path leads along the carpark to the enchanted forest. A small wooden bridge feels very Alice in Wonderland, and Goldie even found the rabbit hole through which she nearly fell into another world. Near the walled garden, a deer crossed our path, which Goldie decided to chase mainly to protect her reputation, and the deer dutifully played the game. After a slight detour through the thicket, we ended up under the canopy of the giant monkey puzzle, before turning back to the hotel.
Of course, we didn’t want to leave, but Ardainaisaig was only a stop-over on our trip to the Isle of Skye. When we crossed the Eilean Bàn to the island, we realised how wonderfully sheltered Loch Awe was in this weather-beaten part of the world. Our B&B on Skye, the Ship Inn in Elie, was far more basic and stood head first in the near-horizontal rain. While also with views of the water, it is situated on a bay from where boats launch to the Outer Hebrides. It may be unfair to compare a listed house on a loch to a B&B by the sea, but I also know where we shall spend our next trip to Scotland.