Highland fling

When Gillian Bowditch and her husband went to Perthshire for a romantic break, their hopes for solitude looked as though they might be shattered...
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The Independent Travel

As starts go, it was inauspicious. Actually, as starts go it was the Apollo I of weekend breaks. We had driven four miles down a single-track road running alongside Loch Voil. The weather was glorious, the setting stunning. Monachyle Mhor, our destination, was in sight and, most importantly, the kids had been offloaded at their grandparents' en route. A rare, romantic 24 hours à deux beckoned.

As starts go, it was inauspicious. Actually, as starts go it was the Apollo I of weekend breaks. We had driven four miles down a single-track road running alongside Loch Voil. The weather was glorious, the setting stunning. Monachyle Mhor, our destination, was in sight and, most importantly, the kids had been offloaded at their grandparents' en route. A rare, romantic 24 hours à deux beckoned.

Monachyle Mhor is a pink-painted farmhouse in the lee of Ben More that has been transformed into an excellent, if little-known, hotel. The food is beginning to win awards but for the time being it remains a reasonably well-kept secret. This was our first visit. We were greeted by a tall, loud, friendly man in kitchen whites who turned out to be Tom Lewis, the chef-proprietor. Tea, he announced, would be served to us on the terrace. While my husband went to deal with the bikes, I sat down and waited.

At the next table proud parents and doting grandparents were celebrating a child's first birthday and conversing entirely in baby talk. Next to them a childless couple, owners of more than "a hundred convenience stores throughout England", described in loud and loving detail every toy they had ever owned, many of which they still possessed - in their original wrapping. On the other side, two middle-aged women and a bitchy man discussed the dress-sizes of their acquaintances. ("Betty is definitely a size 16, I'd say." "Oh, and some!")

A banter ensued across the tables, fuelled by forced bonhomie, double entendres and dubious jokes. There was no sign of tea. I had no book to hide behind and my husband had gone off with my shoes. I fixed my eyes on Stob a' Choin in the middle distance and thought about the smallness of the dining room and the fact that everybody had to be seated between 7pm and 8.45pm. Monachyle Mhor was clearly one of those places where guests were deliberately thrown together by the proprietors and expected to create a house-party atmosphere.

We experienced something similar at the marvellous Altnaharrie Inn in Wester Ross some years previously when the divine food was spoiled by having to spend hours listening to a company director from Yorkshire describe in great detail his home in an "exclusive cul-de-sac". But this had the makings of a something altogether worse. It was highly possible that these people played charades. I could sense our precious evening of freedom ebbing away.

Half-an-hour and no tea later, husband and bikes arrived and we made our escape back up the road we had driven along. We cycled past the Buddhist retreat - a potential bolthole if things got too bad - and on to Balquhidder. Balquhidder is the Trossach village that development forgot. Lochearnhead has its water sports and is fast becoming the poor man's Loch Lomond. Callander has its cheap woollen mills and garish high street. Aberfoyle has the sheep show and Glaswegian day-trippers. But the gods have smiled on Balquhidder and blessed it with a by-pass.

What puts Balquhidder on the map is Rob Roy MacGregor, who lived in the area in the late 17th and early 18th century and who is buried with his wife and sons in the graveyard at Balquhidder church. "MacGregor Despite Them" reads the pleasingly cussed plaque.

To call the church charming is to undersell it. It is one of those 19th-century grey stone kirks that can be found dotted all over the Highlands. Built by David Carnegie and designed by David Bryce, it sits alongside the ruins of its 17th-century predecessor. Inside is the Angus Stone, a carved early Christian memorial believed to have marked the grave of St Angus who is said to have come from Dunblane in the 7th or 8th century and who is credited with introducing Christianity to the Glen. The kirk, which is open to visitors, contains a delightful exhibition written by somebody with a real love of local history.

From there it was a quick stop in the library tearoom - no hot drinks after 5pm but they gave us drinks and cakes that we ate outside in the sunshine - and then a bike ride to Strathyre, a round trip of about 14 miles. The loch-side setting, the Highland cows and the hills, which include several munros, give the place a truly Highland feel. In fact Balquhidder is just a stone's throw from Scotland's Central Belt and 90 minutes' drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow. It was impossible, even in our grumpy moods, not to be bewitched by its chocolate-box perfection.

And so, with some trepidation, we cycled back to Monachyle Mhor. The room we had been given, one of five in the courtyard, was on the first floor and reached by an outside staircase. Inside it was a pleasing mix of spaciousness, contemporary design and luxurious finishes. The bed was firm, the linen crisp and white. There were proper blankets, eiderdowns and heavy chenille bedspreads in sables, greys and browns, the work of interior designer Fiona Denham, who trained at The Royal College of Art in London. A window in the wall beside the bed opened on to the bathroom and a sparkling white tub. I poured myself a bubble bath while my husband lay on the bed and watched the giant plasma-screen TV on the wall opposite.

By the time we ventured down to dinner, most of the other guests had been seated. We drank a glass of champagne in the garden overlooking the loch, until the midges drove us indoors. The dining room had that Tardis-like quality of seating more than had originally been apparent. It was full, as it is every weekend in summer. Despite this, the table we were given was private. The loquacious convenience store owners were in an alcove. We were free to concentrate on each other and the food.

The food is certainly absorbing. My crab tureen - a thick potage - was rich and unctuous. His pigeon breast was just gamey enough. The menu said all main course meats were served rare. While I am happy to eat a steak which is practically still lowing, I do like duck to be crispy. "No problem," said the charming waitress and she was right. The duck arrived well-cooked without having sacrificed any of the flavour. The turbot was delicate, fresh and light enough for him to contemplate the well-stocked cheese board, despite the fact that between courses we had both had a bowl of celeriac and apple soup. My panna cotta came with gloriously Kirschy fresh cherries.

One detail belies the illusion of a truly top-notch hotel. The price. Dinner, excluding wine but including amuse bouche, coffee and petits fours, was £37 a head, unbelievably cheap for food and cooking of this quality in such a spectacular setting.

The next day, after a relaxing night and an excellent breakfast - kippers for him, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for me - we cycled in the other direction along the side of Loch Doine to the end of the road which peters out into a forestry track. The tranquillity, the scenery and the steep cycling made it feel like Torridon rather than the Trossachs. It was hard to imagine we were still on the edge of the Central Belt.

When it was time to leave Monachyle Mhor, we did so reluctantly but refreshed. The enforced bonhomie had turned out to be relaxed friendliness. In our stressed-out state we hadn't recognised it for what it was. We will return, and soon. It's hard to believe Monachyle Mhor will be able to maintain these prices for long, especially as it has recently been named hotel of the year in the new Scottish catering, tourism and hospitality awards. What had started out as Apollo 1, with a threatened blow-up on the launch pad, ended as Apollo 11. Compared with most of the Trossachs' hotels, Monachyle Mhor is in another stratosphere.

Monachyle Mhor Hotel Balquhidder, Perthshire (01877 384622; www.monachylemhor.com). Dinner £37 per head, bed and breakfast £95 to £150