Castles, inns and isles

Great Scots... Glengorm Castle on the Isle of Mull.
Great Scots... Glengorm Castle on the Isle of Mull. 

Sophie Dening recommends where to stay and dine on a driving holiday of the Scottish west Highlands.

The west coast is my perfect driving destination, calm, uncrowded and a lovely place to potter around for a week or so, taking in at least two ferry crossings and one tailback owing to livestock on the road. Hire a car in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and pick just one spot off the beaten track each day so as to allow time for hill walking, seal spotting and whisky tasting - and for sleeping off all the excellent cooking. Try to book for dinner, bed and breakfast, then tuck into bacon, eggs and Stornoway black pudding each morning and you can laugh in the face of lunch.

Here are six of my favourite places to stay in the southern half of the west Highlands, all of them family owned, attractive, comfortable and sincerely welcoming. All deserve praise for their cooked breakfasts.

The Crinan Hotel looks over an Oban fishing village.
The Crinan Hotel looks over an Oban fishing village. 

Glengorm Castle

Isle of Mull, Argyll

As a good castle should, Glengorm reveals itself teasingly on approach. Although the road from the seaside village of Tobermory is pitted and hard going, the welcome couldn't be warmer: the owner, Tom Nelson, greets me and leads the way through the giant hall to the panelled library.

There are five handsome rooms for B&B guests, decorated with serious 20th-century art, smart toiles and stripes and furnished in a shabby-chic style with overstuffed sofas. As well as a self-catering flat in the castle, there's a newer flat above the estate's great coffee shop and six characterful old cottages, all with open fires and pretty interiors.

Stonewalls of Kilberry Inn.
Stonewalls of Kilberry Inn. 

There's a line-up of fine single malts in the library but no dining, other than the coffee shop and farm shop, so B&B guests drive to one of the five pubs in Tobermory (the best food is at MacGochans or the MacDonald Arms).

Glengorm is remote: a working farm and estate at the furthest tip of a Scottish island, and it takes all day to get there, even in good weather. When you look out from the breakfast room, the sea is right there. At various times of year, on walks around the estate, you might spot white-tailed eagles, seals, basking sharks or a pod of dolphins. All this, and there are no locks on the doors. Heaven.

From £350 a week ($528) for self-catering cottages and flats, or £160 a night for a double room with breakfast. Phone 01688 302 321; see glengormcastle.co.uk.

Produce of Monachyle Mhor.
Produce of Monachyle Mhor. 

Isle of Eriska

Benderloch, Oban, Argyll

Back on the mainland, or nearly, the Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa and Island, as it is emphatically named, occupies a 121-hectare island where 50 guests are looked after by 40 staff. The hotel's a smart and comfortable place in the country-house style, with houndstooth-check carpet and leather club chairs in the library, and botanical prints in some rooms and suites. It's a great place for families, who can take over one or more of the cottage suites, yet there's a tranquil atmosphere appreciated by older guests. There's no dress code but, as staff gently point out, many gentlemen choose to wear a jacket and tie in the dining room.

Eriska is in quite a different league from Glengorm Castle, where guests are welcome interlopers but essentially a sideshow; here, everything is laid on carefully, from fine dining to spa treatments - and a nine-hole golf course. The location is wonderful: seabirds, herons, seals, otters and roe deer can be seen, and badgers come to the library door at night to be fed milk and brown bread.

Spa suite guests have a tub, conservatory and an extra degree of privacy, but I prefer the rooms in the main building - not just because they feel a little more old-school, but because it's a pleasure to saunter down for breakfast, or read, or sip a single malt in the library bar.

From £360 for a double room, half board. Phone 01631 720 371; see eriska-hotel.co.uk.

Kilberry Inn

Kilberry, Argyll

A district on the western side of Argyll and Bute, north of the Mull of Kintyre, Knapdale is wooded with trees ancient and modern and feels more remote than it really is, with few bitumen roads but scores of forest trails and cycle paths, from which you might spot red squirrels, otters and beavers. As you drive south from Crinan Canal, you are treated to one wonderful sea view after another.

David Wilson and Clare Johnson run the nearby Kilberry Inn with an intuitive sense of what their guests want. Turning up in the dark and being served a perfect Negroni cocktail within minutes convinces me that restaurant work is a vocation, not a job. David looks after the guests while Clare cooks, brilliantly. Keep an eye out for beef or lamb from the Ormsary Estate, perfect potted crab, and scallops with chorizo or pork belly.

The old stone walls in the inn's dining room are hung with paintings by established local artists, and an open fire and wood-burning stove make the room feel as cosy as it looks. Bedlinen and robes in the inn's five contemporary-style rooms are well up to par and I'm charmed by the home-made ginger biscuits.

From £195 for a double room, half board. Phone 01880 770 223; see kilberryinn.com.

Crinan Hotel

Lochgilphead, Argyll

It's 42 years since the Ryans acquired the Crinan Hotel, an ancient drovers' stop in a tiny fishing village, which assumed a more baronial identity during Victorian times. The family has kept the hotel looking handsome, yet moved with the times. Nick Ryan, whose trews (Scottish trousers) I swear match the chairs in the bar, and his wife, the artist Frances Macdonald, see the place as "an art gallery with rooms".

Where there was once a seafood restaurant on the first floor, overlooking the tiny boatyard and lock-keeper's cottage, visitors now view (and buy) art by members of the Royal Glasgow Institute and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. A second gallery is housed in a coffee shop down the road, near an annexe that is to open later this year as a studio for visiting artists.

My room is big, comfortable and quiet, with a picture-window view over Loch Crinan towards Moine Mhor and Kilmartin Glen, where I'm heading the next day to clamber up the Iron Age fort of Dunadd.

This hotel is as full of life as its remarkable owners: look out for the white piano originally shipped in for Dave Brubeck; Nick's collie-cross, Fly, who uses the lift if you'll push the button for him; and, of course, dashing seascapes by Frances. There's a ground-floor restaurant with loch views, a seafood bar, pub and coffee shop.

Sailors love it here, especially the pub, where you can eat razor clams from Colonsay and smoked salmon from Rothesay.

From £210 for a double room, half board. Phone 01546 830 261; see crinanhotel.com.

Monachyle Mhor

Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Perthshire

At the end of a single-track lochside road in the Trossachs, close to Balquhidder, is the hippest of my Highland half-dozen. Monachyle Mhor is a working farm, family affair, and the vision of Tom Lewis - farmer, entrepreneur and food-lover. There are five guest rooms in the pink farmhouse, and nine around the courtyards. I'm put in Sawmill, one of the more rock'n'roll rooms, with a chaise-longue, dressmaker's model wearing a paste necklace, and a luxuriously minimalist bathroom that features a huge bath and a walk-in shower-steam room with slate-topped bench.

Modern canvases add to the property's edgy glamour and the lounge, decorated in tweed, velvet and leather in mossy, heathery hues, is full of art; the bar feels almost urban with its teal tongue-and-groove, sweetie-coloured Scandinavian stools and Wild West bric-a-brac. The food, prepared using produce that's nearly all grown, raised or foraged nearby, is top-drawer, and in step with culinary trends - from canapes of spiced popcorn and haggis bonbons to smoked potato with a pink fillet of Highland beef.

Monachyle Mhor is, to my mind, one of the best small hotels in Britain: stylish, unique and slightly cheeky. There's another "room" you'll have to book ahead: the Lovestruck is a converted horse truck, rather like a log cabin on wheels, a five-minute walk from the main house, with a view straight down the glen and over Loch Voil.

From £279 for a double room, half board. Phone 01877 384 622; see mhor.net.

Cross Keys

Kippen, Stirlingshire

Less than an hour's drive from Glasgow, the Cross Keys is a whitewashed village pub dating to 1703 with two atmospheric bars and a breakfast room with old beams.

Brian Horsburgh and Debby McGregor took on the pub five years ago, creating the sort of "Sunday lunch pub" that they liked - a relaxed alternative to country-house weekends. Young, local staff take time to chat, and the background iTunes playlist is excellent (Jimmy Cliff, Buddy Holly). I'm told the twice-monthly Sunday folk sessions go down a treat.

Expect to eat good bistro food. I had excellent chicken livers with a home-made thyme sauce, then grey mullet with crispy skin on mash.

The meal offers terrific value - wines by the glass start at £3.95, there's cava or prosecco - and local beer on tap. Breakfast is also excellent, and comes with black pudding as well as fruit pudding.

The three rooms upstairs, in a newer part of the building, are spruce and contemporary, with puffy white duvets, spotty blinds and strong showers. In all, this is a good base for exploring the Trossachs.

From £70 for a double room with breakfast. Dinner costs about £30 for three courses, excluding drinks. Phone 01786 870 293; see kippencrosskeys.com.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

KLM has a fare to Edinburgh or Glasgow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1980 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 9hr with a partner airline), then to Amsterdam (13hr 10min) and to Glasgow or Edinburgh (about 90min); see klm.com. This fare allows you to fly via a number of Asian cities and back from another European city. Most car rental companies have offices at both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports. There are trains to Stirling and Perth from Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Queen Street. The main west-coast ferry operator is Caledonian MacBrayne, known as Calmac; calmac.co.uk.

More information

See visitscotland.com/surprise.

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