Forget what you've heard about deep-fried Mars bars or tartan tins of shortbread. Achiltibuie, in the north-west of Scotland, is an unexpected foodie paradise. Just make sure you go in the summer
The locals in Achiltibuie will tell you that winter doesn’t end until lambing is over, around the middle of May, and you’d do well to heed them – they don’t call these the Summer Isles for nothing. At any time of year, the landscape of this blustery corner of north-west Scotland is worth the trip; the ever-changing skies and shifting shadows over the islands are as spectacular in poor weather as in fair. But visitors in the colder months will miss out on much that the area has to offer.
We arrived in early April, hoping to take a boat cruise to see the islands’ seal colony. Frustratingly, our plans were repeatedly foiled by bad weather. Andy, the local scallop fisherman, offered to take us in his own boat, but even he had to bow to the elements. The porpoises and whales we’d hoped to spot would have to wait for another visit in more clement conditions.
No matter – Andy was still responsible for one of the highlights of the holiday. When we tasted the meltingly tender scallops that he’d plucked from the seabed that morning, our disappointment was miraculously cured.
This unassuming stretch of coastline, perhaps best known for its scenery and wildlife, turned out to be a surprisingly upmarket source of foodie pleasure. The Summer Isles Hotel, where we stayed, is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant and its tiny bar, packed with villagers, rivals the restaurant with its platters of seafood and locally smoked salmon.
At breakfast, though, the creamy scrambled eggs and dark, chunky mushrooms had to vie for our attention with the views outside. Guests – at first shyly British – were soon noisily pointing out rainbows, patches of turquoise, hailstorms and brief, bright bursts of sunlight, as one island after another was suddenly spotlit, then just as rapidly plunged into darkness.
The gastronomic adventure continued further up the road, at Summer Isles Foods (01854 622353, www.summerislesfoods.co.uk) in Achiltibuie – a small, family-run smokehouse selling smoked salmon (which I’ve since seen on the shelves of chi-chi delis down south), smoked meats, herring marinades and a variety of Scottish cheeses. All of these products, we were thrilled to discover, were also available online.
Across the road from the hotel lay a more unexpected culinary surprise – the Achiltibuie Garden (01854 622202, www.thehydroponicum.com), a hydroponicum where vegetables are grown in water rather than soil. Though still in development (it was closed for a year or so and won’t be open to visitors, except by appointment, until 2010), it provides salads and other produce for locals, supplies the hotel with herbs and decorative leaves, and sells hydroponic growing kits by mail order. Plans are afoot for a café and visitors’ centre.
For all the buzz around locally produced food, though, it’s hard to say what the future holds for this part of the world. The area has suffered in recent years. Fishing stocks are shockingly depleted; several disgruntled fishermen spoke of the Spanish and French wiping them out. The average wage, they told us, was less than £15,000 – small beer next to the average house price of £300,000, thanks to a brisk trade in second homes and holiday lets over the past few years.
This depressing state of affairs didn’t seem to have quelled the locals’ spirits, though. All were keen to chat – and to offer lifts when we were caught in a hailstorm – and were full of conviviality and good humour. They pressed us to join them at the Coigach Hall (http://www.achiltibuie.net/coigach_hall.htm) for a dance, but dinner got the better of us and we fell asleep in our room as we awaited the appointed hour.
What to do
This is walking territory – and if you’re not prepared to pull on some boots, you might find yourself at a bit of a loose end. Stac Polly is said to be the most climbed mountain in Scotland and the views from the top make the ascent worthwhile. The hotel provided maps with suggestions for hikes, from the gentle to the heart-pumpingly strenuous, and the prospect of lunch at the hotel bar helped us to make light of an eight-mile morning trek.
Down on the water, boats are available for seatrout and salmon fishing on nearby lochs and on the river Garvie. Weather permitting (of course), a passenger vessel, the Hectoria, departs for the Summer Isles every day except Sunday.
Birdwatchers should also be kept happy: there is an RSPB sanctuary on Priest Island (so named, say some, because it was used in medieval times by a Lochbroom priest as a punishment island for a licentious monk). The island is a breeding ground for a wide variety of seabirds, and the resident breeding population of Greylag geese is one of the very few in Scotland.
If it’s sand and sea you’re after, the coastline is dotted with sandy beaches which in warmer weather might make for some thrilling – if bracing – swims. Visitors looking for the arcade’n’chips experience would be sorely disappointed, though; you’d need to venture further south for rock and slot machines.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Summer Isles Hotel. Under new ownership since 2008, it has retained its chef and many of the staff and there are no plans to change the formula. The 13 rooms and suites were elegant and airy, though visitors should be sure to ask for a sea view; it’s the main attraction after the food, and the rooms at the back miss out.
Guests tended to be there for the food and the walking and most were of a certain age, but the romantic fisherman’s cottage, set apart from the main building, would be perfect for honeymooners with its gigantic bathroom, woodburning stove, Champagne-filled fridge and squashy sofas.
How to get there
There are flights to Inverness from Gatwick, Heathrow, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Liverpool, Luton, Bristol and Belfast.
Hire a car at Inverness airport (www.hertz.com and others). The last leg of the road is a winding, single track; watch out for sheep on the lanes.