It’s 2020 and Alexa, Siri or Google are running our lives, Fitbit’s tracking our steps, and 1,000 TV channels provide 24/7 entertainment on tap. It could be argued that it’s more important than ever to just stop. Relax. Breathe. Slow-paced, quiet time is an increasingly rare commodity; the chance to chill-out such a valuable indulgence.
Step forward Airds, a beautiful hotel and restaurant spectacularly sited on the West Coast of the Scottish Highlands. ‘Breathtaking’ is an overused cliché used to describe views, but even after many visits to this lovely spot, the panorama of the ruggedly beautiful Loch Linnhe, picking out a little lighthouse and the slate-blue Morven hills beyond, is truly unique. Owners, the McKivragan family, have continued a legacy of great proprietors and chefs who have gone before them at Airds, not changing too much, just gently updating and finessing this ultra-comfortable space.
Fine food has always been at the heart of the Airds experience. Young Chef Calum Innes retains the three AA rosettes that Airds has boasted for almost 30 years, and though their claim is that the food is “uncomplicated, allowing the natural ingredients to speak for themselves,” that’s slightly disingenuous: a leisurely dinner here offers highly sophisticated cooking, where those ingredients might take the spotlight, but with a rich supporting cast of textures and flavours.
The McKivragan’s have made substantial investment in the rooms and public spaces at Airds, and although refurbishment has given a bright, contemporary feel to the main lounges, crackling log fires, well-stocked bookshelves and stacks of board games remain, as well as plenty of cosy corners with plump, over-stuffed sofas and chairs. It’s a wonderful place to take afternoon tea, a pre-dinner drink, or relax before bed with a dram. Conversation usually strikes up with fellow guests, who are always keen to discuss the highlights of their meal or the latest finds in the surrounding area.
Some of the bedrooms now boast 21st century chic, with lime-stoned ‘spa’ bathrooms, flat-screen TVs and Nespresso machines, but all eleven bedrooms and suites are hugely comfortable, with fine linens, thick fluffy towels, Bulgari toiletries and natural fabrics throughout. There’s also excellent wifi if you can’t bear to be totally separated from the outside world. Though personally I find one of the joys of Airds is that it hasn’t tried too hard to add extra facilities, in-room massage and therapies can be booked.
Spectacular views are on offer from the dining room and from some of the upper floor rooms and suites. There are also rooms at the rear with private balconies that some might prefer, and wherever you sleep, silence is guaranteed. Perhaps the nicest thing about Airds is the attention to detail and almost spooky ability of the staff to be invisible right up until the second you need something. At Airds, things are always perfectly done.
Did I exagerrate the views from Airds? Well, this is from my most recent visit and is what you’ll see from dinner or from loch-facing bedrooms. The hotel lies 19 miles north of Oban on Scotland’s west coast, down a winding single track road to the Port of Appin. It is an old white-washed building, originally a ferry inn. A short walk round the coast brings you to the village shop, another seafood restaurant, and the little foot ferry over to the historic Isle of Lismore. Hire a bike perhaps, for a day on Lismore (a popular day trip for many visitors). Back at the hotel, summer afternoon tea taken in the garden looking over the loch is magical, but then winter brings those log fires and a good book or two. It’s a tough call on which is more enjoyable.
Further afield, Oban is Scotland’s main ferry port, with Caledonian MacBrayne operating multiple sailings to the islands. A day-trip to Mull is entirely feasible for example. Driving north from the hotel takes you to Fort William and the monumental Glencoe. If motoring is your thing, the roads heading further north or west are generally empty and beautifully maintained, perhaps take the tiny Corran car ferry across to the unspoiled Ardnamurchan Peninsula and make for the port and harbour of Mallaig for a spot of lunch.
For a different day out, I’ve really enjoyed a visit to ‘The Hollow Mountain’. This very unusual visitor attraction at the side of Loch Awe is a 45-minute drive from Airds. On a guided tour, travel over one kilometre deep inside Ben Cruachan, the hollow mountain, to discover a hydro power station at its core. Built in the 1950s, it is an extradordinary feat of engineering, its giant turbines generating 440 Megawatts of electricity, all deep within the mountain and entirely invisible from outside.
The restaurant at Airds really is excellent, with an innate understanding of balance and classical techniques, married to definite flavours and emphasis on the finest Scottish ingredients. We sampled the standard dinner menu, offering four courses with a choice of half a dozen dishes at each, and the seven course tasting menu, for which there is a supplement for residents on the dinner, bed and breakfast rates. Pictured is Loch Fyne langoustine with an oyster emulsion and mussel tempura, a delight of a dish with plump, juicy langoustine and mussels and the delicate sauce, the batter light and puffy, and the whole dish satisfyingly moreish.
A beautifully cooked, medium-rare loin of Newtonmore venison came with a beignet of soulful braised haunch meat, along with creamed cabbage, parsley root and pommes dauphin. A scattering of seasonal brambles and bramble sauce finished the dish, and that combination of sweet, sour and meaty umami was terrific. On another night, breast of wood pigeon with wild mushrooms and black pudding possibly stole the show. Desserts (and pre-desserts) are not to be missed. A Mirabelle plum soufflé was fabulous, served with Earl grey ice cream, but a black cherry parfait with an Amaretto jelly and a little cinnamon doughnut was irresistable too.
The wine list at Airds seems a little less extensive than it once was, but still offers a broad selection to suit a variety of budgets, with some more mature bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as well-chosen more affordable bottles.
I cannot finish without a word for breakfast: cheery staff deliver excellent fresh-squeezed orange juice and pots of strong coffee along with a basket of breads, croissants and fruitcake, but there’s also porridge, cereal or fruit compote and, the cooked breakfast too of course. Most guests will try Airds’ full Scottish breakfast at least once, a fantastic array of quality produce that will easily sustain you through to lunch (if not afternoon tea), though kippers, delicious eggs Benedict, American pancakes and more gives lots of choice.
The low down
Airds is a very grown-up sort of place, where the team is led by the highly experienced General Manager, Robert Templeton-McKay, setting a tone that could not be warmer or more charming. Airds has a peaceful, calm atmosphere. Does that make it formal? Not at all: formality is often a state of mind, but there’s always chat and laughter among the guests, and the staff are discreet, but friendly and eager to advise. A few days in Airds, Scottish Luxury Hotel of the Year 2020, is one of the most relaxing and restorative ways to forget about the tech and the pressures of daily life that I can possibly imagine.
Airds Hotel & Restaurant offers a 3-night winter escape priced from £125 per person per night (2 sharing, half-board) and includes a heart-warming whisky mac and early morning tea/coffee delivered to your room with a complimentary newspaper of choice each day. Valid to 26th March 2020, subject to availability (excludes Christmas, New Year and Valentines weeks).
The seven-course Seasonal Tasting Menu carries a supplement of £27.50 per person. A wine pairing option for either menu is available at £45 per person.