What are the ingredients for the perfect weekend break? Excellent food would be high on the list, cooked with finesse and elegance, with a strong wine list to match. Loch Ness Lodge has it all.
Glorious views, ideally with water and hills should be involved somewhere, and with good walking paths nearby. A room which offers a level of luxury not found at home, with crisp sheets, big telly, deep bath and shower, lots of fluffy towels and robes, a DVD player and a bottle of sherry by the bedside cabinet. Finally a sauna and Jacuzzi for warming up after a brisk autumnal walk and soothing aching calf muscles ahead of dinner.
That’s my personal list, and pretty much all of them can be found in a weekend stay at Loch Ness Lodge (see 'Mike Recommends'). Set on the hillside on the west side of the mighty Loch, it has fantastic views especially when the sun rises, and sometimes the mist gives the multi-coloured hills an eerie quality. It’s an easy half and hour’s drive from Inverness airport, itself an hour’s flight from London Luton, and renting a car is useful for reaching the best walking spots.
The Lodge, unlike many of the hotels and B&Bs in the popular tourist area, is relatively new. The brainchild of hotelier Scott Sutherland, the land was bought in 1997, building started in 2006 and in 2007 the Lodge opened. He explains his idea behind it: ‘I wanted to create a restaurant with rooms attached – it’s all about great food first here.’ The main Lodge comprises just seven rooms, with some self-catering cottages in the grounds too. The dining room is set up for seven tables, but can be expanded to accommodate 24 people for wedding parties and the like.
For a modern building the Lodge has a traditional feel to it, with tartan carpets, wooden staircases, log fireplaces and candles, but with a level of finish that comes from modern technology, like the huge, double-glazed windows. There are two lounges for reading the papers in deep sofas in front of a log fire, and plenty of magazines to flip though, the likes of Conde Nast Traveller and Country Homes.
The rooms are airy and crisp, with the main selling point being those amazing views across the Loch, especially on a sunny day with the water shimmering, and the autumn leaves turning into burning red and orange. Turning on the tap for a bath can be alarming, as the water is slightly brown due to the high level of peat in the area – don’t worry, it’s harmless, perfectly drinkable and softer than London’s hard water.
After a go in the small sauna and Jacuzzi and a nip of sherry in the room it’s time to go down for dinner, the pivotal reason for a stay here. Jeans and trainers are discouraged, the whole atmosphere is geared up to elegant dining and it’s worth digging out a nice shirt or dress. Guests firstly enter the lounge for an aperitif on the sofa, some amuse-bouches and a peruse of the menu. The three amuse-bouches can contain something as simple as olives, or as ironically retro as frog’s legs, and are simply served on a slab of slate.
Chef Ross Fraser has worked in Quo Vadis in London’s Soho amongst other restaurants, but has now returned home to cook his local ingredients in a modern style. The menu is five courses, but brilliantly simple in design – there are only two choices to be made. It kicks off with a cup or ‘potage’ of soup. On the first night it was a thick cauliflower winter warmer with olive oil, which had remarkable depth of flavour, on night two it was a tomato tea with basil and chives, amazingly light and refreshing and poured out from a clear teapot.
The only choices to be made are for the starter and main. One usually involves seafood, recommended as the fish comes directly from the boat in the Highlands, and the other lamb, beef or poultry. The lamb was particularly tender and perfectly pink in the middle, with just a smear of vegetable puree to add to the flavour.
The cheese course has local cow and sheep choices, served with homemade breads and crisps, and that is followed by a dessert. It’s all done with real style, but the staff are friendly and unfussy, offering just the right amount of attention. The only problem is trying not to fill up on the homemade rolls and butter at the start – it’s advised to leave lots of room for later but difficult to do in the moment.
The wine list is a mixture of old and new world, with some interesting choices, especially the Albarino from Spain and Gruner Veltliner from Austria, wines not always thought of a blockbuster crowd-pleasers but which show a lot of thought and knowledge. The champagnes are pricey as they always are in this sort of venue, but the still vines are very good value – think around the £30 for an interesting bottle. Three dessert wines are available by the glass and, a good sign, the waitresses know them all off by heart.
After dessert the coffee is served back in the lounge in front of the fire with three petits-fours, the perfect time for a game of cards or Trivial Pursuit.
The breakfasts, ironically, offer more choices to be made than dinner, with porridge, cooked Scottish, fish and pancakes all on offer in addition to cereals, lots of toast, croissants and tea or coffee. This is not a weekend for dieters.
After all of those calories some exercise is in order. A short drive away is the Glen Affric nature reserve, which has a variety of walks depending on how energetic you’re feeling. All are up and down hills though and definitely not wheelchair accessible. There are two water falls to see, the more spectacular one being Plodda falls which has a ledge jutting right out over the falls.
Amongst lots of other superb local attractions are Castle Urquhart, a 10-minute drive away offering great views of the Loch, and, back towards Inverness airport, Culloden, the site of the last pitch battle on British soil. Fought between the Jacobites and Government forces in 1746, it’s an eerie moor with blue and red flags marking the opposing forces. A gps-guided headset tells the horrific story of the battle in which 1500 Jacobites met a bloody death along with just 50 Government troops. A splendid new visitor centre gives a thorough and fascinating background to the battle and tells why the Duke of Cumberland’s forces won – in the end it came down to money, as so many things do.
It’s a great way to end a thoroughly recharging weekend in the Highlands. Sometimes it’s easy to think of abroad for weekend retreats, but the Highlands is a stunning region well worth exploring, and now with a base well worth coming back to. And I’ve managed to write a feature on Loch Ness without mentioning Nessie – what’s that? D’oh.