It's that age-old chestnut. In Edinburgh for the festival, you want to escape the city for a while. Top of the list of requirements is fresh air, a long walk (preferably along the side of a scenic loch) and a lunch that's sophisticated enough that you won't need an emergency stash of Kendal mint cake but not so posh that there's a dress code. In a country of heart-stopping scenery and so much great produce, it surely can't be that hard.
Well, yes it can sometimes. Scotland isn't the place to potter around aimlessly, hoping to find somewhere nice to eat before sunset. Follow that route and you may end up in the kind of place that has duct tape holding up the ceiling and a flock of dead birds gracing the front lawn (which is what happened to me the last time I tried it). To find somewhere memorable for the right reasons, you're better off relying on word-of-mouth. That was how I first came across the Ardeonaig hotel near Loch Tay.
A couple of hours' drive north-west from Edinburgh, the Trossachs is a region of glassy lochs, pine forests and amber mountains that runs roughly from Stirling in the east to Loch Lomond in the west. It may not exactly be a diversion from the tourist trail (having Rob Roy as a former local and Sir Walter Scott writing its praises in print has seen to that) but, if you're pressed for time, it almost out-Highlands the Highlands in terms of rugged Scottish scenery.
The area is slowly developing into a kind of Scottish answer to Bray, albeit with kitchens serving porridge unsullied by snails. Local places of pilgrimage for foodies include the classy Monachyle Mhor hotel, Nick Nairn's swish new cook school near Aberfoyle and the Real Food Café in Tyndrum, which has just won an award from Radio 4's Food Programme.
Then there's Ardeonaig. This cosy retreat on the quiet southern shore of Loch Tay may be run by a South African chef, Pete Gottgens, but it is the quintessential Scottish gastropub with rooms, complete with open, peat fires, chic but comfortable bedrooms, young, friendly staff and a communal lounge whose best feature is a picture-window view across the loch to the shimmering bulk of Ben Lawers.
The main attraction, though, is the food. The bistro menu in the bar and leather-sofa'd "snug" is available all day (a rarity north of the border) and there's a more sophisticated restaurant attached, where Gottgens offsets diver-caught scallops, steamed razor clams, local black-faced lamb and the treacle-tart-like malva pudding against a lengthy South African wine list.
There's just one problem. Unless you're staying overnight, you've got to navigate a long and very windy road home again - seven miles along a single track, before you're even in the nearest village. For those without the stomach for the drive, there is a rather decadent alternative. Pilot David West, of Loch Lomond Seaplanes, has added Ardeonaig to his list of lunch-time jaunts. Because of the number of lochs that must be skirted rather than crossed, travelling by road in Scotland often involves long journeys. But, weather-permitting, seaplanes can use Scotland's waterways to get passengers where they want to go in a fraction of the time - once they've got to the Loch Lomond take-off point.
One of West's most popular routines is flying clients to lochside restaurants for lunch, with a bit of sightseeing on the way. As well as cutting down on time, it's a great way to explore the landscape. Through the plane's windows, the skinny shadows of trees form delicate line drawings and, if you're lucky, a flash of sunlight will briefly illuminate otherwise inky green pools of water and transform the chilly Scottish scenery into a Caribbean fantasy of clear turquoise water and dazzling white sand. There is one proviso. "If it's gusty, people tend to get a bit queasy," says West. "That's why I try to do most of the flying before lunch."
Lunch flights by seaplane leave from Loch Lomond and cost £139 per person, excluding the restaurant bill (0870 2421457, lochlomondseaplanes.com). For more information on Ardeonaig, call 01567 820400 or visit www.ardeonaighotel.co.ukReuse content