Best for a Highland fling: Scotland
Saturday 06 February 2010
The rain lashed against the windscreen and all I could see was the headlights' feeble beam on the dry stone walls and ghostly lichen-crusted trees that bordered the slick lanes. We were heading north from Inverness, somewhere on the borders of Ross-shire and Sutherland, home to verse-inspiring scenery, but I couldn't see a bloody thing. I coaxed the car on and up. "Drive to Ardgay and turn left at the phone box in nine miles", read the directions and, just as we were thinking we had to be on the wrong road, there was the red box. A left turn, more wet miles, and on to an unmade track. Finally we had arrived at Alladale. The lodge loomed, grey and shadowy like Baskerville Hall and through the deluge we saw the door creak open to reveal ... a very nice man who loaded our three-course dinner in his Land Rover and escorted us to our bed for the night.
We weren't staying in the lodge itself, but in Eagle's Crag, one of the two bothy-style stone buildings up an even more pot-holed track, at what seemed to be the last outpost of civilisation. But this is no spartan shelter. This is modern chic, Highland style, with underfloor heating, deerskin rugs, vast plasma TVs, huge sofas, wet rooms: all the paraphernalia of contemporary luxury accommodation. And although it's nominally self-catering, it's lazy luxury self-catering, where chef's selection is delivered with instructions on how long to put it in the oven. And it's good stuff – soups, salads, fresh rolls, and local produce such as haggis or Highland beef. And venison. Lots of venison.
That first night was approaching freezing and buffeted by gales but we were cosy by the wood-burning stove. Next morning we woke up to clear skies. And the most astonishing view. Eagle's is the most remote accommodation at Alladale and looking west is what appears to be your private glen with the river burbling by, and mountains that slope to 1,300ft above you framing the view. And this is just from the window while you're eating breakfast.
The estate, or wilderness reserve as it aspires to be, covers 23,000 acres. Paul Lister, scion of the MFI empire, bought it in 2003 with a vision to return this remote area to its prehistoric glory as part of the vast Caledonian forest. To achieve this, Alladale's estate manager, the ebullient New Zealander Hugh Fullerton-Smith, is embarking on an audacious programme of replanting hundreds of thousands of Caledonian pines to expand the forlorn patches of old-growth trees, culling the red deer and reintroducing native animal species that can promote tree growth.
Wild boar and elk are already on site. The pair of elk are an imposing sight even from behind a fence. They're not fully grown – when they are, in a couple of years, the male will weigh about 750kg and stand about 2m at the shoulder. One of the most radical plans is to bring back wolves. "Our long-term ambition is to introduce two packs," Hugh told me, "but for that we need 250,000 acres. We would have to bring in the neighbouring estates." For now they've applied for a zoo licence to keep three wolves, eight wildcats, plus the boar and elk, in a 500-acre enclosure. You certainly can't fault Alladale's ambition.
All this worthy rewilding doesn't stop you having a splendid time playing the country gent or lady for the week: there's the full range of Highland sports – deer stalking (at least until the wolves take over, to show how it's supposed to be done), clay-pigeon shooting, fly fishing and riding. And, when the weather behaves, the view isn't bad either. Alladale.com; 01863 755338. Ghillie's Rest (the smaller of the two cottages) is £400 per night, low season, full board
# You can walk straight up into the heart of the Lake District from the front door of the Michelin-starred Samling Hotel, situated just above magical Lake Windermere. Ask to stay in one of the estate's old cottages – they are beautiful and secluded. Prices from £190 b&b; thesamlinghotel.co.uk
# With its stunning location on the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Awe, the 300-year-old Taychreggan hotel has often been voted Britain's most romantic place to stay – and under the friendly management of Fiona Sutherland and her family team, we can confirm that this cosiest of Highland boltholes is performing better than ever. Fabulous dinner, bed & breakfast from £99.50. See taychregganhotel.co.uk
# One of the great figures of modern British cooking, Ian McAndrew was once the youngest Englishman to hold a Michelin star. Now he and his charming wife Jane have relocated to the Scottish Borders, realising a dream by transforming Blackaddie House – a historic country inn amid the spectacular scenery of the Southern Upland Way – into the most welcoming of small hotels. It's well worth the detour from the M74 – and, of course, the food, most of it sourced locally, is quite simply superb. Dinner, bed & breakfast from around £80. Visit blackaddiehotel.co.uk
# Rossahilly House is a beautifully-appointed seven-bedroom house in a secluded setting on the edge of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. It makes a perfect base from which to explore Northern Ireland's picturesque Lakelands – or try a day's invigorating surfing at nearby Donegal Bay. Prices from £1,700 for a week. See rossahillyhouse.com
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