It would be extremely easy for the gourmet and wine lover to spend a splendid couple of weeks wending their way up or down the length of Scotland’s stunningly attractive west coast. Not only are there dozens of terrific, simple restaurants, pubs and hotels celebrating local ingredients – especially some of the world’s finest seafood – but there’s a string of luxury hotels with very good restaurants, all of which sit directly on the coast or islands and offer extraordinary peace, tranquillity and uplifting surroundings. This is one of the world’s great travel destinations.
Many of these country house hotels have been reviewed here on wine-pages. Your journey could begin in the deep southwest of the country at Knockinaam Lodge, take in two fabulous hotels near Oban, Airds or Isle of Eriska, and finish far to the north near the wild and rugged Cape Wrath at the famous Summer Isles hotel. But I was recently introduced to a new option in the shape of the Loch Melfort Hotel, around 19 miles south of the port town of Oban.
Unlike the properties above, Loch Melfort is not aimed at the super-luxury, Relais & Châteaux-style end of the market. It’s official three-star rating means prices are moderate, with bed, breakfast and full dinner from less than £200 for two people in peak season. But that also buys one of the most dramatically beautiful settings of any hotel in the British Isles.
The hotel describes itself as a “Luxury three-star,” and indeed our suite (£306 per night in peak season for two people, including dinner) not only had patio doors leading to a private roof-top terrace with those majestic views over the isles, but a modern bathroom, luxury products, flat screen TV and all the upmarket niceties of a king-size bed and cool Egyptian cotton sheets, bathrobes, bottled water, fresh fruit and stacks of lifestyle magazines. However most of the rooms are a little more modest, housed in a timber-clad extension to the side of the old house, but still with those floor-to-ceiling views of the coast. Decorative order is good, and although I noted some exterior finishes that needed a bit of TLC, the hotel is comfortable and relaxing throughout.
The setting is wonderful. A path leads directly to a rocky beach, through a field of chickens (to provide breakfast eggs) and Highland cattle munching contentedly at the grass. The view across Asknish bay to an endless array of islands is absorbing, dotted with white-sailed yachts and wheeling sea-birds.
The Loch Melfort hotel offers two dining options. The first is the Chartroom, a busy bar/bistro that serves hotel guests and tourists, and visitors to the National Trust Arduaine coastal gardens with which the hotel shares the bay (and which are well worth a visit). Coffees, cakes, beer, wine and snacks are served by day, and simple food by evening. The main restaurant, the Asknish Bay, holds two AA rosettes and offers a grander dining experience with a £41 table d’hôte menu that for most guests is part of their dinner, bed and breakfast package.
The Asknish Bay restaurant takes full advantage of Loch Melfort’s beautiful setting, with panoramic views of the coast and islands. Competition for window tables means you may be best to choose an early dinner slot. Guests are invited to sit in one of two comfortable lounges for pre-dinner drinks whilst they peruse the menu.
In truth our two dinners at Loch Melfort did not stand comparison with the haute-cuisine refinement of Knockinaam, Airds or the Summer Isles for example. Overall the quality was good, though a couple of disappointing dishes included a seriously burnt tarte tatin that in all honesty should not have left the kitchen. But foodies need not fear as they will also find plenty to like, and there are some locally sourced, high quality ingredients in use here including west coast fish and seafood of course, but also Argyll hill lamb and saddle of local rabbit.
My favourite dishes of the weekend all came on our second night’s stay, kicking off with a risotto of smoked haddock, pea and Parmesan. I requested that the advertised truffle oil was left off, which it was, allowing me to experience the flavours of the fish, bright punch of the peas and nutty richness of the rice and cheese to the full. After a pleasing little apple and celeriac velouté, a simple main course of steamed fillet of Gigha halibut was cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, and was accompanied by buttered asparagus, sautéed potatoes and a chive beurre blanc, a light, creamy but tangy sauce. This was the kitchen at its best, keeping things simple with accurate cooking, and letting fresh ingredients speak for themselves. After dinner, coffee and home-made petit fours are served in the lounge.
In terms of the wine offering, the list is fairly modest, though it is well chosen. There are some interesting smaller producers and the house Champagne Poilvert-Jacques is good value at £35 per bottle. Wines start at less than £16 per bottle, and the list tops out around £60 reflecting I suppose a clientele looking to enjoy the scenery, comfort and good food of Loch Melfort rather than the hautest of dining experiences. We enjoyed the excellent Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc at just £22, and Francesca Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir (made by Sherwood Estate) at £23.50.
The low down
Loch Melfort will appeal to those who do not want to blow the budget, but do want to enjoy the west coast with a bit of style. It’s moderate prices bring friendly staff, comfortable rooms, an elegant dining experience and, of course, those views and majestic location. The food and wine offering is very good, though in itself not enough of a draw for the dedicated gourmet. But guests at Loch Melfort will get very good value for their money, and some of the best views of any dining room anywhere in the world, not just in this little corner of Scotland.
Loch Melfort Hotel
Arduaine, by Oban
Tel: +44 (0)1852 200 233