Friday, 17 June 2011
Highland Hospitality? Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B, The Real Food Cafe, The Cluanie Inn, The Bothy, The Ballachulish Hotel
Kinloch Hourn Farmhouse B&B and Tea Room The Real Food Cafe, Tyndrum The Cluanie Inn The Bothy, Fort Augustus The Ballachulish Hotel Despite the inclement weather forecast we pressed ahead with our mini-Highland break, sampling as much hospitality as we could stomach, and including a wee stroll or two amidst the sedentary nature of the whole. A warning though: This recent holiday from the confines of Glasgow included very little imbibing, so it breaks from my habitual brief but hopefully it will be as worth reading as the rest. Tyndrum & Spean Bridge I’ve been in the Real Food Café in Tyndrum before, for fish and chips on that occasion, about two years ago. As I recall things didn’t run quite as smooth back then, the operation callow and finding its way. Its reputation was good though even then, and the slight untidiness of the place and mediocre service disappointed. Now, the place is well established, their systems tried and tested, reputation still growing, and the service excellent. They even have an adjoining porch with wood-burning stove. We enjoyed a mid-morning coffee at the sociable high bench seating along with the best flapjack I’ve eaten since school play pieces. Sweet, great texture and remarkably light. The coffees weren’t bad either. All the cakes are freshly home-baked – we exalted in the sight of a new batch of scones appearing – and the hot meals including pies, chicken, sausages, burgers and curries use locally sourced and referenced meat. And the speciality of fish and chips, which continues to win admiration and awards, features sustainable options such as coley. The place, which invariably has a real buzz, is everything a modern café should be. At least six wet walkers had entered and were enjoying their break from the elements before we left. Little did we know that we were to get even more sodden than them before the weekend was done. The Real Food has brought another dimension to Tyndrum, a village blessed with being an ideal stop-off point on the way to Glencoe, Fort William and further north. The café does rival its near neighbour The Green Welly Stop, but having talked with its owners I know they see this competition as a good thing, knowing that it will bring more footfall and benefit to the village as a whole. We moved onward through the rain, only stopping at the Spean Bridge Woollen Mill cafeteria. Not very cool, I know, but the only other place we could find was the next door hotel’s chippie whose fatty smells warded us off very quickly. The mill’s cafeteria laid on baked potatoes, chilli, lasagne, basic salads, paninis etc. Uninspiring but necessary in this natural stage point in many journeys north. Kinloch Hourn & Cluanie Inn Luckily the rain ended around Invergarry near the southern tip of Loch Ness, as we turned off the main A82, heading west on the country’s longest dead end road. 22 miles later we reached Kinloch Hourn. This is as remote a settlement as you can get. Two farmhouses with three residents in total. One offers a small B&B –more of which later. Car parked, we trekked for two days – first night in a bothy, sadly without a recognised bar, so no review for that – and the second was back at the aforementioned farmhouse after a 13 ½ hour tramp through the best and worst that the Highlands can offer. High passes, secluded lochans, sea vistas, isolated lochs, raging torrents and treacherous mud flats. The last of these almost sucked me to somewhere cold and dark and the mud covering made it hard for me to look respectable when we arrived back at Kinloch Hourn desperately looking for a bed for the night. Luckily Mary and Joe, the folk who run the wee B&B took pity on us despite there being no official rooms left. Joe took us up the steep stairs in the overflow building across the yard. Basic accommodation but very welcome. We returned to the living room for hot soup, cups of tea and a bath each in their own bathroom, their little diesel generator re-booted just for our benefit. In the morning a massive cooked breakfast was laid in front of us. Over the beautifully cooked eggs, bacon and sausage we talked to Joe about life in such a remote spot and his experiences helping walkers in trouble. On leaving he handed us the bill. A ridiculously tiny amount for the hospitality we had received. We added something to the bill and drove back along the B road, pausing halfway to allow a procession of MGs past on their way for tea and scones at Joe’s place. The rest of our weekend was spent in Skye where unfortunately we were unable to sample any of the interesting pubs and hotel bars in and around Portree. Next time I will include the Isles Inn and Portree Hotel on Somerled Square at least. We did mange to visit the Cluanie Inn on the way there. A habitual favourite of mine, situated fifteen to twenty miles from any other hostelry, on the edge of Loch Claunie on the A87. It’s been tweeked over the years, different owners I think. The open- fire in the bar area down steps to the right of the main room still remains, but some of the cosy charm has gone. I need to return on a cold winter night to find out if I’m correct. Fort Augustus & Ballachulish On the leisurely drive south we detoured via Fort Augustus to see what has changed there since a night spent in the The Lovat hotel four years ago. The Lovat offers features such as bio-mass underfloor heating and other trendy boutique hotel bits and pieces alongside more traditional highland-lodge-style fittings. The open-plan bar area lacks a little atmosphere though so imbibers need some alternatives. There’s 2 or 3 places by the impressive locks that join the Caledonian Canal with Loch Ness. The Lock Inn is a basic little pub but not without interest, cosy little corners and community feel to it. Its closest neighbour is The Bothy, a far more ambitious and spacious establishment. I remember watching the Rugby World Cup 2007, an Ireland match I think, and the atmosphere was nice and raucous. I also remember the tiny toilets up in the rafters. This time we wanted some edibles and asked for a table in the front bar area. Sadly they shipped us through into the characterless back extension conservatory. Thus the specials board was out of sight, and not one of the waiting staff informed us what was on it. The menu was a dreadful affair, nothing fresh nor local in sight. The experience not helped by us seeing the kitchen staff going back and forward through the courtyard to retrieve the next frozen thing to be cooked. Two of those things were a carpet, sorry veggie, burger and the worst venison burger in history delivered to yours truly. Even our request for a baked potato instead of a burger-roll was swiftly refused. Neighbouring tables weren’t doing any better, four German tourists nearby had asked for local whiskies, but were left to choose for themselves as the waiter didn’t have a clue. But he did shout out their order for all to hear once they had picked. Nice touch. I don’t know if The Bothy is owned by a local or is part of a national chain but whoever is in charge is complacently counting their money – the place was busy – while offering sub standard fare and service. I left the Muse to deal with the bill while I went upstairs, thinking that I had seen better food served in a real bothy in the middle of the wilds of Knoydart three days previously and that was freeze-dried pasta carried in on backpacks. The toilets were how I remembered them: cramped. But now there was a shower cubicle, with no curtain. Good for any exhibitionists passing through, needing to freshen-up. One more stop before our return to Glasgow. The Ballachulish Hotel sits under the bridge of the same name. Once you have crossed from the north instead of going left to Glencoe and beyond, take the Oban road. The hotel sits by the confluence of Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven, alongside the Dragon’s Tooth golf course whose use is free for residents. Its baronial appearance impresses, rather more so than the anodyne Isles of Glencoe Hotel just along the road. The Isles, also owned by Akkeron Hotels, is a modern building housing accommodation and leisure facilities available for use by residents of both establishments. The Ballachulish’s appeal grows as you enter the Bulas Bar & Bistro, contemporary luxury as the blurb says, alongside the traditional wood panelling of the main reception and hall. Comfortable and chic, with decent leather seating, exposed stone and all the latest features you would expect in a city wine bar. Perhaps, then, not wholly appropriate for the setting, but perfectly acceptable. The menu offers hot basic meals, as well as, a selection of cakes and muffins and warm scones with cream and jam, from 12-6pm. Then the more extensive night-time brasserie fare comes in. So at mid-afternoon we expected no problems ordering some fresh coffee and scones. We waited for a good 5 minutes for anyone to appear at the bar. Eventually a young eastern-European lady appeared and took our order. We’d been settled for a wee while when she returned to say there were no scones but she could offer us shortbread instead, as if scones and shortbread were one and the same thing. Shortbread! No money-back was offered but we insisted we would only pay for the coffees. The Muse then went looking for the manager while I began scribbling this blog, nothing like frustration to get the juices flowing. The manager was unhelpful, stating that he should have been told that they couldn’t provide the food advertised, and nothing more. No apologies, no explanation. A very disappointing end to our little sojourn and survey of Highland hospitality. Ironic that the most humble of our hosts, at Kinloch Hourn, provided the best welcome and dedication to service. But the bad points remain in Scotland, continuing to drop the holidaymaker experience below expectations, squandering the chance that our landscape provides and making it less likely we will ever reach our potential as a thriving tourist destination.