Cullen Skink is one of Scotland's most famous dishes. It is a fish soup made with potatoes, onions, milk and/or cream. It is delicious and one of my favourite Scottish foods.
I have to confess that, until recently, I had no idea there was an actual place in Scotland called Cullen, and that the soup originated here. I also discovered that Cullen is a coastal town famed for its beaches, harbour and relaxed atmosphere. That was it, I had to go! And where better to try the soup than the Cullen Bay Hotel, the host venue and previous winner of the Cullen Skink World Championships?
Overlooking Cullen Bay this hotel has probably the best location in town for views.
A short walk from the front door and you are on the beach, via the golf course. A main road, the A98, is right in front of the hotel and you must cross this to begin the walk down to the beach. The hotel is not in the centre of the town, but you can walk there in about 15 minutes.
This area of Scotland, the Moray coast is spectacular, but does not seem to get talked about as much as some other parts of the country. How many people would say Cullen when asked to think of a Scottish coastal town or village? I felt like I had come across an undiscovered part of the country, but that's just me. If you are looking for places in Scotland that might be less busy with visitors then Cullen could be a good choice.
There are 14 rooms and some have sea views, but they are more expensive. My room, without a sea view, was cosy with very comfortable beds.
Coming to the restaurant was like one of those TV ads for the perfect holiday. Someone shows you to your table and it has the most gorgeous view of the sea. The sky has no clouds and the water is a tranquil dark blue.
It was time to try Cullen Skink, in Cullen. I was was surprised to see not one, but two types of Cullen Skink on the menu. There was the traditional option and there was 'Cullen Skink With a Twist.' The 'twist' version had sherry, port jam and smoked haddock marinated in dark molasses.
I wanted to try the original version and it more than lived up to my expectations. It was thick and creamy, with succulent fish and the satisfying potato chunks that make this such a filling meal. I have tasted a lot of Skinks and this was definitely one of the best. Actually, it was the best because it was delicious and I was eating it in Cullen with this magnificent view.
For my main course I had the Fisherman's Pie, with salmon, haddock and prawns. It looked small, but it was packed with chunky bits of fish and a thick, creamy sauce.
Stroll on the beach after dinner
Take advantage of the hotel's location and head down to the beach after dinner, particularly in the summer when it is still light at 9pm.
From the hotel's front door it is a short walk across the golf course to the beach. The sand is soft and there might be a gentle wind sweeping across it. Let your mind relax and focus on the waves rolling in. Turn around and look back towards the hotel where you had just enjoyed Cullen Skink and you will feel very fortunate to have experienced this place.
Look out for the wildflowers growing here.
The sunsets are spectacular and during my stay I noticed that someone had written in the sand "last night here. Maggie is sad." I know exactly how she felt, it is a place that you don't want to leave.
The breakfast menu here is excellent with items like smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, grilled haddock with a poached egg and haggis with poached eggs. I tried the French toast and it was perfect.
How to get here
Cullen is on National Cycle Network Route One, but if you are not doing that route the best way to reach the town is from Keith. There's a train station there and it is a 14 mile ride using quiet B-roads. There is a full description of this route in my blog about the Willows Tearoom.
I stayed at the cosy and welcoming Elphinstone Hotel in Biggar. It features a restaurant that has a Taste Our Best Award from VisitScotland. This hotel is a great base for exploring the attractions of Lanarkshire and the Scottish Borders. Read on for my review of the hotel.
The History Bit
Let your imagination take you back to the eighteenth century and you are travelling from Edinburgh to Carlisle on a stagecoach. The horses had to be changed every 10 miles or so and this takes place at a network of coaching inns that provided facilities like accommodation, meals and stables. The Elphinstone in Biggar was one of those inns. For over 400 years it played host to many travellers including Queen Victoria's Royal Company of Archers, the Dukes of Bucchleuch and acquaintances of Robert Burns. It is an impressive historical pedigree that is carried through nicely to the present day.
The Elphinstone is in a perfect location, on the High Street, right next to the town's attractions. The white washed exterior screams 'coaching inn' and it looks really pretty with the profusion of flowers in window boxes and hanging baskets.
The bar and lounge have plenty of coaching in features- low ceilings, roof beams, squeaky floorboards and working fires. The 11 bedrooms are a more modern style, but the traditional furniture and the sash and case windows (double glazed) maintain a connection to the building's past. The staff are friendly, welcoming and easy going.
I stayed in room 9. This is a family room with a double bed and bunk beds. Here is my video tour of the room:
There are two sash and case windows that bring a generous amount of natural light into the room. It is very spacious and includes a seating area where you can relax with a tea or coffee and browse the brochures of what there is to see and do in the area.
The bed was really comfortable and I had an amazing night's sleep. I liked that the room has two televisions- one next to the bunk beds and one next to the double bed- to allow children and adults to watch their own thing.
Everything in the room was immaculate and the bathroom sparkling. A nice touch is the inclusion of Arran Aromatics shower and bath products.
Restaurant and Bar
I took a cosy table next to the fire place in the lounge. The menu is impressive in it's variety and choice. It goes way beyond traditional pub grub and features curries, lamb tagine and pasta. There is something for everyone here.
The Elphinstone has a VisitScotland Taste our Best award. What this means is that the menu features ingredients with Scottish provenance, local ingredients and seasonal ingredients. The first page of the menu lists the suppliers, including meat from the butcher on the High Street, fish from the deli on the High Street and ice cream from the sweet shop on the High Street.
I ordered the haggis croquettes for the starter. They were beautifully crispy on the outside, giving a satisfying crunch. The interior of peppery meat was delicious and the creamy peppery sauce was the perfect accompaniment. They left me with a nice, warming aftertaste. I could easily have eaten another portion!
For my main course I had the fish and chips. It was exactly how you want this meal to be with succulent flaky white fish inside non-greasy crispy batter and chips with fluffy insides and a crunch on the outside.
The dessert menu is full of temptation, in particular the ice cream sundaes made with ice cream from the sweet shop just a few doors down from the hotel. The choices included Brownie, Applie Pie and Malteser Delight. I found it hard to decide so asked my server for her recommendation and she said the Malteser Delight was a good bet. When it arrived there was a gasp from the other dinners in the room- "look at that!" It looks the business and it was a joy to dig my spoon in and crunch the Maltesers buried within the vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce.
The bar offers a changing menu of guest ales and I tried a very nice one from The Orkney Brewery. Those who love their gin will be pleased to find an extensive menu of gins and tonics. Wines, cocktails and spirits are also well represented at the hotel.
This is a buffet format. There is a table set out with cereal, juice, yoghurt and a bowl of fresh fruit salad that had melon, kiwi, pineapple and orange.
You can also help yourself to the hot selection which includes sausage, fried eggs, beans, tomato, potato scones and bacon. I usually prefer my breakfast cooked to order, but the quality and taste was excellent. I really enjoyed it.
Biggar and the local area
The town of Biggar has plenty to see and do. There is an excellent museum, interesting architecture and a superb collection of independent shops. Biggar is located in South Lanarkshire, near to the border with the Scottish Borders. Pebbles is just 18 miles from Biggar and Dawyck Botanic Garden is just 10 miles away. New Lanark World Heritage Site is around 13 miles from Biggar.
I reached Biggar by taking a train to Addiewell (40 minutes from Edinburgh, 52 minutes from Glasgow) and then cycling around 19 miles. The route is mainly by quiet country roads. Carstairs station is closer- a 10 mile cycle from Biggar- but trains are less frequent (around 40 minutes from Glasgow, under 30 minutes from Edinburgh).
Disclaimer - My accommodation and meals were provided for the purposes of this review. These views are my own and reflect my honest experience.
For a special treat Fonab Castle is one of Scotland's finest luxury hotels. It is located on the banks of Loch Faskally in Pitlochry, Perthshire. The lochside views are hard to beat, especially if you select a room with a loch view balcony. Enjoy innovative cuisine using many Scottish ingredients and select a gin or whisky from the extensive bar menu.
The hotel has a choice of 9 different room types. There are rooms inside the castle, in the modern extension attached to the castle and in the lodge buildings which are a short walk from the castle. If you are looking for a loch view room then most of these are in the modern extension and the lodge buildings, rather than in the castle itself. I found it difficult to decide if I wanted a room with castle features or a room with loch views.
Room with a View
As my stay was a special occasion I booked a loch view hotel room, located in the modern extension attached to the castle. This has a balcony overlooking Loch Faskally and Ben Vrackie. The balcony was my favourite place during my stay. We were blessed with good weather so I was able to sit out here for many hours.
Not much happens here and that is the delight of this hotel's location. There might be the occasional fisherman on a boat. Pheasants sometimes appear on the lawn. You can watch the mist slowly covering Ben Vrackie's snowy cap. The loch sometimes has ripples and sometimes it is completely still and reflects the surrounding hills and trees on its surface.
The style of the rooms is modern and elegant. A Scottish touch in the design comes in the form of the Tweed sofa and the Tweed cushions. Everything in the room is immaculate and high quality.
A card on the bed lists the choice of pillows that you can request- duck, goose, memory foam, head & neck support and back support. The bed was luxurious and provided the most perfect deep sleep. Inside the closet there are slippers and dressing gowns that have the Fonab Castle logo.
The room has a Nespresso coffee machine and one of my favourite things to do was to sit out on the balcony with a morning coffee. Another Scottish touch is the Tunnock's tea cakes supplied with the coffee facility. These are one of Scotland's most famous sweet treats- a chocolate, marshmallow and biscuit concoction that is truly addictive.
The room is also supplied with a copy of Scottish Field and a wine magazine, Decanter.
There is a shower, but no bath, in this room. Toiletries are from Thierry Mugler. The shower cabinet is massive and the water pressure perfect for a long, luxury soak.
I loved the antler coat hooks on the back of the bathroom door:
Fonab is very much a mixture of the old and the new. This is clearly seen in this photo where the glass and wood modern wing is seen to the right of the castle.
The stairwell is where you can find the most interesting fusion of these two architectural eras. The stone walls of the castle turrets can be found alongside modern chandeliers and polished wood floors.
The castle is made of red sandstone from Dumfrieshire. It was built in 1892 by Lieutenant Colonel George Sandeman. His family had made their money from cotton manufacturing and importing wine, sherry and Port from Spain and Portugal. The Sandeman name lives on in the present hotel- it is the name of the fine dining restaurant. This is located within the castle in a room full of original features, like fire places and wood paneling. Sandeman port also features in the well stocked bar.
During the First World War Fonab Castle served as a Red Cross hospital for wounded soldiers and there is a plaque marking this occasion.
The Lounge Bar is the venue for this delightful experience. This room has loch views through floor to ceiling windows. Choose a chesterfield sofa with tweed coverings or a leather chair. There is a tartan carpet, but this room is definitely more modern than traditional with the chrome tables and a wine cellar behind a viewing window at one end of the room.
The afternoon tea can be upgraded with gin or champagne. The fizz is from Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house.
On this special occassion it was the champagne afternoon tea that I had booked. The choice of teas is excellent and I can thoroughly recommend the Fonab Blend. It has a wonderful vanilla and coconut taste. I was going to have a go at describing it, but the menu description does it so much better:
Afternoon tea at Fonab is not your usual cucumber sandwiches and scones on a teird stand. They have their own unique take on the tradition. It begins with an oyster with champagne foam. The oyster was coated in batter and the foam is one of those things you could quite easily eat a lot more of. The oyster shell was resting on a sprinkling of salt.
Next up was the beetroot macaroon and truffle croquet. The beetroot dish was particularly amazing as the sweet vegetable flavour worked really well in the format of melt-in-mouth macaroon. I loved that the croquet was served on a small log to give it that connection to the countryside outside the window.
After we were finished with these delights our server arrived with a trio of small dishes. There were smoked celeriac and onion, crab beignet and chicken and foie gras, although we asked not to have the foie gras. All three were delicious.
The smoked salmon sandwich arrived on one of those beautiful tree trunks. This was a triumph of a sandwich with delicate slices of cucumber, a thick slice of salmon topped with globes of lemon mayonnaise and some herring roe. The Salmon is smoked on-site, using beech briquettes and hickory smoking chips and this gives it a lovely flavour.
Finally comes the cake stand with the warm fluffy scones and the jam and cream to spread all over them. The scones were on the bottom layer of a modern and elegant stand and on the top there was a delightful selection of cakes, including a macaroon and a lemon meringue tart.
vMy favourite of the cakes was the coffee layer cake. It was so moist and creamy. There was also a dark chocolate window box filled with mousse and cherry pieces- sensational.
Walks in the grounds
Fonab Castle is right next to the paths alongside Loch Faskally, so there is easy access to the great outdoors. From the Lounge Bar you can see the staircase leading down to the loch. At the bottom of this stair you can turn right to head into Pitlochry via the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, or turn left for a pleasant walk along the shore of the loch.
The walk is through woods with sections where you are right next to the water. Despite the close proximity to the busy A9 this is still a peaceful place of moss covered tree trunks, birdsong and the scent of pine.
Spa and Swimming Pool
Fonab boasts a 15 metre pool and a jacuzzi, located in a separate building a few steps from the castle. This is not a place for serious exercise as the pool is not deep and is kept at a warm temperature. Gentle, relaxing swimming is the order of the day.
There are also steam rooms and a sauna. Spa treatments include facials, manicures and massages.
There is a choice of two restaurants at Fonab. There is Sandemans Fine Dining, a 3 AA Rosette award-wining restaurant located in the castle part of the hotel. There is also the Fonab Brasserie in the newer part of the hotel with the loch views. This is where I ate. The starter of West Coast crab lasagna was delicious with the moist crab meat working so well with the fresh pasta and the broth.
For the main course the sea bass with fennel, sea herbs and smoked herring roe looked beautiful and tasted superb. My partner had the fillet steak. The beef is aged for 28 days and this enhanced the flavour.
For dessert I had the Scottish snowball. It was intriguing to find this on the menu as a snowball is something you would normally find in a high street bakery, not in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel. It was a refined version of this Scottish classic cake. Raspberry jam, coconut and crumbly biscuit are the main components and it was absolutely divine.
To accompany dinner there is an impressive selection of wines. If wine is your thing you will be in heaven at Fonab. The benefit of having a sommelier working in a hotel is clear to see- the wine menu reads like poetry and everything sounds amazing. Even the wines with the lower price point tasted like the best I have ever had.
Whisky and Gin Bar
Fonab is rightly proud of its huge selection of gins and whisky. The bottles are displayed in enormous cabinets, so you can have a good look at what is on offer. The gin cabinet is on the central staircase so you must pass it every time that you come this way. If you are bewildered by the choice the bar staff are on hand to help. If you are selecting a gin they will listen to what you like, what flavours you enjoy and then make a recommendation.
All of the staff at Fonab were friendly and pleasant. They made you feel relaxed and cared for.
A choice of juices, smoothie or a Bloody Mary kicks off breakfast. You can then choose from a selection of three continental options. These are beautifully presented on a tiered stand that brings a touch of elegance to breakfast. A bit like an afternoon tea, served in the morning. It is a really lovely touch to present breakfast in this way. Our selection was the granola with yoghurt and lemon curd, the pastries and a selection of Scottish cheeses. All of it was superb, particularly the tart lemon curd.
For my cooked breakfast I selected the French toast with maple syrup and bacon. Delicious and perfectly cooked.
How to Get Here
Fonab Castle is located about 1.2 miles from Pitlcohry train station. If you are cycling from the station the route on my map avoids busy roads.
The hotel offers a free pick-up from the station. During my visit I used this service as the bicycle was at home and we had a lot of luggage. They sent a BMW with leather interior; a nice bit of luxury for our arrival. It is at odds with my sustainable transport beliefs, but I think it is okay as a one-off when I am using train and bicycle on all of my other journeys.
It is not cheap to stay at Fonab Castle, but if you are looking to splash out on luxury in the Scottish countryside this is the place to be. The lochside location is the standout attraction and when you combine this with excellent service, a spa, fine dining and an impressively stocked bar it makes Fonab a prime candidate for a luxury Scotland experience. It is advisable to book direct with Fonab Castle for the best deals. They often have seasonal packages and if you can avoid peak summer times and weekends you can find a good deal.
Other Castle Hotels
Further north in Dornoch you will find Dornoch Castle Hotel. Read my review.
The location of the Bettyhill Hotel is breathtaking. It overlooks Torrisdale Bay on the far north coast of Scotland, around 100 miles north of Inverness. It is on the route of the North Coast 500, Scotland's version of Route 66, so ideally placed for visiting this beautiful area. The rooms are modern and comfortable and the food is excellent.
If you manage to bag one of the rooms with a sea view you will be mesmerised by the stunning blue bay and its golden sands. On a sunny day you would be forgiven for thinking you were elsewhere, perhaps Australia. The view is just as good from the restaurant. The hills across the water are green and golden; golden because they are peppered with sand all the way to the top, the cause of powerful storms spraying the hill with the grains.
Traditional meals like haddock and chips are cooked perfectly. Desserts like chocolate torte are gorgeous and indulgent. The breakfast is solid with the usual choices and my scrambled egg on crostini was perfection.
The hotel building is traditional 19th century architecture and painted immaculate white. It sits right on the main road, but don't worry as this is a very quiet place at night. There are 20 bedrooms, some with shared bathroom facilities, so if you want en suite make sure to check before you book.
The hotel has an interesting history. It had originally been affiliated with a petrol station - look out for the gate posts with the stone shell emblem, representing a certain oil company. The hotel would have had a petrol pump and appealed to wealthy fishing clients who expected high standards of service that included shoe shinning and an onsite hairdresser. These affiliated hotels were once common across the Highlands, so it is nice to know that you are staying in a place with heritage.
The owner had told me about the building's past- the friendliness of the staff is another plus point of the hotel.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Bettyhill Hotel is one of the most outstanding locations in this part of Scotland. That view of the bay is to die for.
I stayed in the Bettyhill Hotel during my cycle ride from Kildonan to Cape Wrath.
Comfort, elegance and delicious locally sourced food. Mackays Hotel offers all of this in a characterful nineteenth century building in the centre of Wick.
If you stay at Mackays, and even if you don't, make sure to have a meal at the restaurant. Tasting something from the region that you are visiting should be high on your priorities. Number One Bistro at Mackays Hotel excels on this front. The food is delicious, beautifully presented and authentic to Caithness.
My starter of local crab rillette with capers and pickled cucumber salad was creamy, lemony and succulent. It left me wanting more.
The main course of pan fried Scrabster hake with pea puree, capers and brown shrimp butter was sensational. Scrabster is the most northerly port on the Scottish mainland and about 22 miles from Wick. It was a meaty piece of fish with crispy skin that sat on a bed of mash that was creamy smooth perfection. I loved the shrimp with their satisfying chewiness.
The dessert was Halkirk marmalade pudding (hot) with vanilla custard and minted orange segments. Halkirk is a village about 16 miles from Wick. The orange segments had mint leaves torn over them. Such a simple idea but a brilliant flavour combination, it worked so well.
Dine on the shortest street in the world
The meal comes with some nice extra touches. There was brown bread flavoured with onion and white bread flavoured with rosemary. A complimentary whisky liquor from Old Pulteney, Wick's distillery and the most northerly on the mainland, was presented at the end of the meal.
My table was located on the shortest street in the world. This is Wick's most famous quirky claim to fame. The entrance to the restaurant and a couple of the tables are located on Ebenezer Place, officially the shortest street in the world, at 2.06m.
The restaurant is kitted out with marble tables, polite waist-coated servers and a sophisticated, but laid back atmosphere. I liked the old photos on the wall of Wick street scenes. Next to my table the photo portrayed a woman with a massive, ballooning skirt that stretched almost to the ground. There was a man in a flat cap, suit and waistcoat. Behind him is what looks like a whisky barrel dumped at the side of the road. Perhaps this is how whisky was delivered to public houses or had it fallen, unnoticed, from a cart?
Location, location, location
The hotel is in an excellent location next to the River Wick and less than 5 minutes walk from the train station and the town centre.
I love the building. The unique shape reminds me of the iconic Flatiron building in New York. It is this shape that has resulted in the narrowest part of the building being located on the shortest street in the world.
Inside the building, the corridors leading to the rooms have quirky angles that replicate the shape of the building. Plenty of interesting 19th century architectural features remain, including arched recesses.
Special mention has to go to the window shutters. My room still had its wooden shutters, although they were painted over, but I could see that all the mechanism was still there. Perhaps it is just me, but I love traditional wooden shutters. They are really effective at keeping out light and noise and retaining heat in a room, but they went out of fashion and many were ripped out of Victorian-era properties. I think it would be really special if the shutters could be returned to operation at Mackays as I have yet to come across a hotel that still has them.
My room was very comfortable and stylishly decorated with tweed soft furnishings. I found it quiet at night and had a perfect sleep. A nice touch is a copy of a guide book to the North Highlands by Charles Tait. It is great bedtime reading and full of information about what there is to see and do in this part of Scotland.
If you are heading to Wick and Caithness then Mackays Hotel is a comfortable base with really superb food. You can book the hotel using this box which links to HotelsCombined, a site that searches across hotel booking sites to find the best deal:
Ever wanted to stay in a castle with a four poster bed and a blazing log fire? You can do this at Dornoch Castle Hotel. Check in to the Old Courtroom and you can light the fire, listen to it crackle and cosy up in a bed fit for a king.
This is a unique experience. It is rare to find a working fire in a hotel room and to be in charge of lighting it and stoking it with logs. I have been to hotels that have fireplaces in the lounges, but never in the rooms.
And what a room this is. Many people dream of living in a Scottish castle. It is something they would love to be able to experience on a trip to Scotland. Staying in the Old Courtroom makes that dream come true. There are several other castle hotels in Scotland, but I have not yet come across one that matches Dornoch Castle for the authentic feeling of the room.
It is not just the four poster bed and the fireplace that make is special. There is wood panellng, exposed stone walls, and roof beams.
The window seats are my favourite feature in the room. There are two window recesses that have face-to-face stone seats, topped with cushions:
The Old Courtroom is the most expensive room at the hotel. As of 2016 it is £260 for bed and breakfast, but when you consider the uniqueness of this room and being able to stay in an authentic Scottish Castle this is worth a treat. It is unlikely that you would find such a special room like this in London for a similar price.
The Tower Room is the same price and has a wood burning stove and a four poster bed with a carving of a squirrel running up one of the posts.
The other categories of rooms do not have stoves or fires. I have also stayed in one of the other rooms- the Terrace Room- which is lovely. It has a large, comfortable bed and views of the castle gardens.
It is worth signing-up to the hotel's newsletter as they email you with special offers and you might pick up a good deal, particularly during the low season.
A stay in the Old Courtroom at Dornoch Castle Hotel has to be one of the most special places to stay in all of Scotland. Treat yourself to this unique experience.
When staying at the hotel:
Visit Dornoch beach
Cycle the snowy mountain view road, from Dornoch to Golspie
This adorable building with the tall monkey puzzle in the driveway is the place to stay in Golspie for delicious food and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
The Golspie Inn is one of the prettiest buildings in the village. It is over 200 years old and has some quirky features. It was the first bar in Sutherland and Scotland's oldest post box is in the wall of the inn. Original features like sash and case windows and cast iron radiators add to the character of the rooms.
My room was simple and comfortable. I was a bit concerned about my window overlooking the A9 road, but I need not have worried as the road is virtually silent at night and I had a perfect sleep.
At breakfast there was perfect poached eggs on toast. The couple from Spain, sitting at the next table, were craving some croissants and the manager, Tricia, produced a freshly baked batch especially for them. I heard the woman say that they were the best she had ever tasted.
Tricia offered me one and explained that she also runs the cafe/bakery, Poppy's, on the Main Street and the croissants came from there. It was a delicious croissant, as good as any I have had in France. It is quite unusual to be able to have one for breakfast in a Highland hotel, but this was the kind of personal touch that Tricia likes to provides for her guests.
Tricia told me about what there is to see and do in the area- she has great passion and knowledge. The hotel offers a variety of sightseeing tours, including visits to whisky distilleries and Tricia knows about the hidden gems of Sutherland. She mentioned beautiful waterfalls that few other people know about.
I was glad that she recommended The Big Burn Walk, which is right next to the hotel. It became my favourite walk in Scotland and I wrote a blog about this.
I loved the collection of old photographs of the hotel in the lounge area, particularly this one of the front of the hotel which shows that little has changed, apart from the old car.
I think that it is important that the history of a hotel is shared with guests as it makes it more special and authentic to the area to stay there. With modern hotels you have none of that and even some older hotels fail to tell guests their story, so it is good to see that Golspie Inn makes the history of the place a central part of the guest experience.
I really enjoyed the conversation over breakfast. I chatted to the Spanish couple about travel plans and even a bit of current affairs. Tricia joined in and provided us with lots of tips about things to see and do in the area. It is that kind of relaxed and friendly atmosphere that makes a hotel stay enjoyable and memorable.
A double room with breakfast is around £90 and you can book online on the Golspie Inn website.
For cycling in the area try the quiet road between Golspie and Dornoch
Read more about Golspie: 10 Things to See and Do in Golspie
If you love a bit of railway nostalgia or just want to stay somewhere unique that you will remember for years to come then this is the place.
A collection of 1969 railway carriages have been converted into overnight accommodation at Rogart station. The compartments have bunkbeds on one side and the original British Railways seating on the other side. One of the compartments is now a kitchen so that you can cook your own meals.
The compartments are cosy and even have the original under-seat heating systems. I like that they have kept the seating so that you get an authentic feeling of being on a train. These seats are extremely comfortable and there is nothing on today's trains to match their quality. You can pull down the armrests and sink back with a good book and a smoky single malt.
It is not only the seats that have been retained. You will find plenty of the original signage and even the emergency pull cords. And to get into the carriage there is the sturdy door which you can give a satisfying slam, a sound that once echoed within railway stations across the country.
If the carriages are not unique enough for you then there is also a Bedford bus and a 1930s fairground showman' s wagon. These can accommodate 3 people, so ideal for couples or a family.
The location of Sleeperzzz makes this place even more special. Rogart station is about 2 hours north of Inverness on the Far North Line. This is rural, lightly populated country and the train will only stop at Rogart if you "request" it- showing the guard your ticket so that he or she will ask the driver to stop and let you off. If you don't do this the train will speed right through the station. There is a 10 per cent discount if you arrive by train or bicycle.
This video captures the excitement of arriving and departing at Rogart by train. It provides a great view of the carriages and other railway paraphernalia at Rogart:
This is a great place to bring a bicycle because there are miles of single track roads to explore. There are also several walks in the area. This is a tranquil place and if you want solitude you will find it here.
The only place to go out for a meal in Rogart is the Pittentrail Inn, a two-minute walk from Sleeperzz. It serves bar meals, but it is worth checking in advance if they will be open during your visit. Golspie, ten miles away and the next stop on the line, is the place to go for supplies if you are going to use the kitchen facilities at Sleeperzzz. The town has a good selection of shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants.
Sleeperzzz is clased as hostel accommodation, so this is good value for money. It is not luxury, but it is lots of fun and in a stunning part of Scotland.
Cycling the Strath- a travel feature about cycling in the area whilst staying at Sleeperzzz
The Atholl Palace in Pitlochry made it to number 22 on a list of hotels rated by TravelGround, a South African travel blog. I recently stayed at the hotel and here is my verdict on TravelGround's endorsment.
Pitlochry is 70 miles north of Edinburgh, 85 miles south of Inverness, and located in the heart of highland Perthshire. Lochs, forests and mountains are what this area is all about. Pitlochry is one of the best places in Scotland to embark on cycling trips as there are so many routes starting and ending in the town. This is where I first got the bug for cycle touring and I have a soft spot for the town.
Ever since discovering The Atholl Palace I have been intrigued by its romantic architecture and fascinating history as a Victorian hydropathic where the wealthy once came to be cured of their ailments. I have wandered its public rooms and explored the museum in the basement, but I had always been put off booking a room because the hotel has mixed reviews. It is currently (December 2014) ranked 18th out of 22 Pitlochry hotels on Tripadvisor. Based on this it may be surprising to see it feature as a jaw dropping hotel, particularly as no other UK hotels feature on the list.
Regardless of the mixed reviews I have found myself drawn to this place- the grand Victorian architecture, the mountain scenery, the promise of a unique experience. I was determined to try it for myself and make up my own mind.
The type of room that you choose in the hotel is fundamental to the experience. The TravelGround blog begins "Stay in Turret Suites" and this is key to having a "jaw dropping" experience. These rooms are spectacular, but there are only two of them in the hotel. The hotel also has some rooms with four-poster beds and many have impressive views. From what I have read on Tripadvisor there are many rooms that are fairly standard, so it is worth upgrading to something special to get the experience that TravelGround promises.
This photo shows one of the two turret rooms, located on the top two floors of the tower, with the 360 degree windows:
The turret room is on two levels. A bedroom downstairs and a separate living room upstairs. It is the living room that has these panoramic views:
There is a spiral staircase that leads up from the bedroom to the living area:
This is one of the best hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. It feels like you are in a Scottish castle, staying in the top of the castle tower, above the clouds, part of a fairytale. There are few places in the country where you can have such a unique experience.
This is the view of the sunrise:
Some aspects of the furniture and furnishings are a little old fashioned, like the sofas in the sitting room. Some furnishings are modern and typical of a standard 4-star hotel and not particularly unique. However, this becomes forgotten about because of the uniqueness of the room and the remarkable view.
I was quite happy spending hours in that sitting room staring out at the view and curled up with a book. The verdict so far is that, yes, this hotel deserves its place on that list.
The TravelGround blog states "the formal gardens are an unexpected delight". Exploring the extensive landscaped gardens is an essential part of The Atholl Palace experience. The hotel owners are proud of the gardens and devote an entire section of their website to them. If you are walking to the hotel then you will have the wonderful experience of strolling the long driveway passing ponds, waterfalls, trees, plants and birdsong. Suddenly you round the bend and the magnificence of the hotel, sitting high above everything else, is before you.
The public rooms and lounges
Real log fires, the smell of their smoke and the feeling of cosiness that they create, is my enduring memory of the Atholl Palace's lounges. It is great that they have kept up the tradition of lighting the fires, instead of the fireplaces being blocked off and becoming a mere decorative memory of what once was- a practice common in many properties of this era. These are huge spaces, in the Victorian tradition, where sitting for hours in sofas and armchairs was de rigueur.
The recently refurbished Stag's Head Bar is particularly impressive with its leather sofas and antler light fittings.
My meal in the Verandah Restaurant featured crisp table linen and formal, but friendly service. The love songs of the '80s CD playing in the background seemed at odds with the elegant ambiance. My starter of langoustine and prawn soup was stunning. It was thick, hearty and with small chunks of fish meat. I could easily have had a second bowl, it was so good.
The main course of fish and chips was nothing special, although nicely presented with the chips in their own little pot. I have tasted better fish and chips and I have tasted worse- this was average and enjoyable. My girlfriend's sweet chilli chicken breast was disappointing as it lacked flavour.
Cranachan, a Scottish dessert of toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, whisky, honey and raspberries, was our choice for the final course. It was good, but I would not describe it as jaw dropping.
Dinner was the least impressive aspect of our stay at the Atholl Palace. The TravelGround blog mentions nothing about the food.
Pool and spa
In the basement there is a swimming pool and spa offering a wide range of treatments. To my delight I discovered that some of the original architectural features of the original Turkish baths from the Victorian era have been retained. These take the form of Moorish archways leading to interconnected rooms where you will find today's steam room, sauna and relaxation lounge. It is the original features of the building that I love most about this hotel and this is what makes it a jaw dropping hotel for me.
History and architecture
The hotel has its own museum located in the basement. For a hotel to invest in a museum and use up potential space for rooms shows how important the heritage of the place is to enhancing the guest experience.
The hotel was opened in 1878, originally as a hydropathic which was a very popular branch of medicine in the Victorian era. Hydrotherapy involves the use of water for therapeutic purposes. The museum explores this period of the hotel's history and brings the story up to the present day. I discovered that the turret rooms were not originally bedrooms, but one was an exclusive male-only smoking room and the other a view-room for women only. Back in my room I picture groups of men, clouds of pipe smoke swirling around, discussing the affairs of the day. Imagining the hotel as it was makes it special to stay at the Atholl Palace.
So, should the Atholl Palace be on this list of 28 jaw dropping hotels?
Lists of "things to do and see before you die" are so omnipresent that they have to be taken with a good many pinches of salt. They are often based on the personal opinions and experiences of the writer and so it pays to do your own research.
The Atholl Palace is a special place, but it is not perfect. The turret rooms are certainly jaw dropping, but the restaurant food could not be described as such. I enjoyed it and I would go back, but next time I might eat out in one of the many good restaurants in the town.
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Gleneagles Hotel is world famous for luxury and golf, but is it a place you could stay when cycling in the area?
A shiny silver trolley was delicately maneuvered to our table. The waiter slowly opened the cover to reveal a succulent piece of lamb. “These are our Scottish lamb cutlets, served with pont-neuf potatoes, béarnaise sauce and minted herb butter.” My girlfriend and I had not ordered the lamb; in fact we had not ordered anything. The lamb was merely being shown to us, to tempt us, as we perused the menu.
There is a certain showmanship to the dining experience at Gleneagles. A section of the menu is headed “Prepared at The Table” where food is finished off before your very eyes. This includes fillet steak flambé, Dover sole, and 'Crépes Suzette' which we saw being flamed in front of enthralled dinners at an adjacent table.
This is perhaps not the kind of place to turn up wearing lycra shorts and a luminous yellow jacket. At dinner smart clothing is expected, but the hotel offers all kinds of outdoor activities and is used to catering for guests who enjoy walking, cycling, tennis, and of course golf. Although I was here for a romantic treat I wondered if it might be an option for cyclists to stay here considering the hotel’s close proximity to some great routes.
I emailed Gleneagles to check if they had somewhere to safely store a bicycle and received this reply: “As per your request, you will be able to store your bicycle with us at the concierge during your stay. If you approach the concierge upon your arrival, we will ensure that your bicycle is placed in our storage area.”
So, the hotel clearly has a place for bikes and this is great news for those that want a bit of luxury whilst enjoying the outdoors. One possible route to consider is the ride via Dunning where you can visit the spooky witch memorial and enjoy a speedy descent through glens. The hotel grounds also have cycling routes and there are bicycles for hire, so you don’t even need to bring your own.
However, you may not want to go completely cycling mad. You see, Gleneagles is a special hotel experience, a cocoon of luxury where you get to completely escape from your normal life. It is a place where many memories are made, so try to spend some time enjoying the hotel in between bike rides.
Our room looked over the tennis courts and a hedge maze. In the bathroom there was a pair of fluffy white bathrobes with the Gleneagles crest embroidered on the left lapel. The bed had a sleep inducing mattress and because the hotel rests within its own grounds there is not a sound at night.
We loved exploring the hotel interior with its grand rooms and Art Deco decoration. There is a shopping arcade with small stores either side of a long corridor. Luxury goods like cashmere knitwear, designer clothing and malt whisky are on show. I even found a teddy bear with the Gleneagles logo on the left paw and a Gleneagles badge on his knitted sweater. I discovered a gentleman’s bathroom with mosaic tiled floor and panels between the cubicle doors illustrated with grapes and oak leaves.
Food is the highpoint of a stay at Gleneagles. Dinner in The Strathearn is accompanied by candlelight and piano music to create the perfect romantic evening. We both agreed that this was one of the best meals we have ever had. In particular, the desert of chocolate fondant that came with a piece of white chocolate that was reminiscent of an Aero bar. The waiter explained that “the chef pours Dalwhinnie whisky on the white chocolate and this makes air pockets inside the chocolate. The whisky gives it that distinctive sweet honey taste and glossy, airy texture.”
Cream tea in the bar was delightfully decadent and relaxing with soft leather chairs, newspapers and loose leaf Earl Grey. Our cake stand had mini scones and a meringue shaped like a swan.
The breakfast is rightly described as “legendary” on the Gleneagles website. The menu even has an option of steak and chips! The choice and freshness of the food at the buffet was amazing, considering that this is prepared every single morning. There was a whole smoked salmon, fresh fruits, chesses, pastries and you can have a duck egg cooked to order. A Gleneagles blend of coffee, smooth and strong, is served to your table.
No wonder that Gleneagles is so geared up for activities- it is the only way that you can possibly justify eating so much! Apart from cycling, fishing and horse riding there is the option to have a spa treatment, go for a swim and relax in the sauna or steam room. Walking in the hotel grounds allows you to try and find your way to the centre of the maze, do a circuit of the loch and admire the landscaping of the famous golf course. The British School of Falconry is located in the grounds and we came across the birds of prey perched by the windows of their enclosures. Nearby is the Gundog School where guests can learn to handle and command one of the sleek, black Labradors that are trained to fetch game that is hunted by their master.
I could write on and on about Gleneagles being the ultimate luxury Scottish hotel experience, but back to the original point about its suitability for a cycling trip. I would say that going on a cycling trip that involves a stay here would make it one of the most memorable journeys you have, but as long as you put aside sufficient time to really savor the hotel. To feel comfortable in the hotel and the dining areas in particular you would really want to pack suitably smart clothing. I have never tried to pack a suit into bicycle panniers, but I am sure it is possible, although you may have to make use of the in-room iron and ironing board to get rid of the creases!
For Perthshire cycling and a touch of luxury it does not get better than a stay at Gleneagles.
Gleneagles Hotel website
Cycling route to visit the Dunning witch memorial
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.