Recently I took a long weekend break split between two Scottish Highland hotels, one of which was an old friend, The Summer Isles Hotel on the north west coast, and one which was to be a new acquaintance, Coul House Hotel not far from the Highland capital of Inverness. These are two very different establishments – and very different experiences – yet each comes highly recommended in its own, unique and inimitable style.
Coul House hotel
Contin, near Strathpeffer, IV14 9ES
Tel: +44 (0)1997 421487
There are many reasons why guests chose to stay in a particular country house hotel. Sometimes it’s because the nearby walking, fishing or sailing is so good, sometimes it’s because of significant local history, sometimes it is purely down to the quality of welcome they receive. Coul House does a simply brilliant job of the latter: the degree of personal attention from owners Stuart & Susannah Macpherson is extraordinary, and every member of the team from general manager Chris McLeod to the chambermaids provide one of the warmest welcomes in the Highlands.
But Coul House has another ace up its sleeve, and that is the building itself. A beautiful Scottish house dating from 1821 and built by Edinburgh architects Robert & Richard Dickinson, the original features in this category A listed building include 18-foot high ceilings decorated with the most intricate plasterwork and the grand octagonal dining room. Stuart Macpherson tells me that many visitors are keen students of architecture who travel from across the UK, and indeed the world, to stay at Coul. Queen Victoria is one famous guest to have spent some time at Coul. This contemporary painting from her 1888 visit hangs above the fireplace in the dining room. Today’s guests will find bedrooms that are beautifully done, some facing onto a pretty duck pond and others to a little pitch and putt course that is freely available for guests to use. Quality linens, abundant hot water and luxuriously thick towels are touches that point the way the Macphersons are heading with the hotel. Whilst refurbishment of the public areas has been completed, the bedrooms are a work in progress. Yet I have to say our regular double room was supremely comfortable.
There is an air of unstuffy informality about Coul, and yet dinner is a smart affair – though it could hardly be otherwise given the splendid atmosphere of the Octagonal dining room with large picture windows facing to the distant mountains of Strathconon (still snow-capped on my early May visit). There are three or four choices at each course, and the food under chef Garry Kenley is sophisticated, though served in substantial portions.
Though the basis of the kitchen is local ingredients, there are also interesting nods towards world cuisine, such as crab cakes made from local West Coast crab, but served with sweet and sour pak choy salad. My starter of a carpaccio of lightly smoked venison loin came with an intriguing beetroot pave, sharp sweet ‘n’ sour rhubarb vinaigrette and toasted raisin bread. Main courses like rack of lamb are also given a twist, being served with a haggis and stout crust and celeriac au gratin replacing the ubiquitous potato. My chocolate and raspberry mousse cake was really more of a clafoutis, served with a delicious malted barley ice cream and hibiscus syrup. Three courses will cost around £30 – £35.
The wine list at Coul isn’t quite up to the standard of The Summer Isles weighty tome, but there is plenty of interest. We started with a half bottle of Graham Beck Brut, a satisfying South African take on Champagne, and sticking to an unplanned South African theme, drank a bottle of Martin Meinert’s excellent Devon Valley Merlot at £35. Breakfast is the final indulgence at Coul House – unless you want to fit in a last round of pitch and putt or feed the ducks of course. This will end your stay on a very positive high note. The dining room is filled with light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and the perfectly cooked eggs Benedict or more traditional Scottish breakfast is guaranteed to set you up for the day ahead.
Coul House is a must for a return visit. Food and comfort are of a high standard, but it is the uniquely welcoming and cheery atmosphere that guests are bound to remember long after their visit.
Rooms from £80 single, £150 double, bed and breakfast.