A Pre-Xmas Escape
An anniversary and a wish to just get away together for an overnight in a favourite small hotel, saw us heading to Kilcamb Lodge, in wild Ardnamurchan on Saturday 17 Dec.
Ok, not cheap at £200 for dinner, bed and breakfast for us both (total) but this is such a gorgeous wee gem of a place, Michelin recommended and as Chris always says, ‘we’re only here once.’
With my youngest son also having headed to Hong Kong for two weeks the day before, I was missing him and fretting( I have a Masters in that) about his long haul flight.More good reasons for a cheer up.I didn’t sleep well with my mobile on all night, waiting for Gregor’s message that his flight had landed ok.I was also monitoring it through Flightaware, guaranteed to leave you wind you up like a top and then some. I kept waking every hour or so to check the little plane icon as it skirted to the north of the Himalaya, squinting to see where it was and trying to read the screeds of data that came up – speed (why was it losing speed so much??) , altitude(seemed ok), direction (thought it would have been further north.Need to tell KLM that when I get a minute) and other bits I never deciphered. It was just after 4.30am that the message came in saying he’d arrived safe and sound.Relief beyond belief.Number 2 son’s mental mother finally fell asleep.
The weather promised gloom and dark clouds but even under grey skies, the Highlands still work their magic and manage to astound.One of the world’s great landscapes tends to emerge victorious from anything our damp Scottish climate throws at it.
Set off at 9.15am, feeling mildly groggy (the champagne the night before which I drank like an analgesic hadn’t helped either.) Despite the thick cloud, as we sped past Loch Lomond, with the mountain tops in cloud, it was all looking pretty majestic.Stopped off at the Artisan Cafe, a converted church beyond Crianlarich and a really charming place, with first class home baking, great value too.The stove was working hard to heat the enormous space and just about winning.
Good cuppa served on lovely old china, Chris had a latte and an enormous piece of excellent Victoria Sponge.I had an Almond and Raspberry slice, rich and moist and a great boost of carbs to my slightly flagging system.
Nobody had told the many Rabbie’s and Timberbush and Wild and Sexy minibuses crammed with tourists that the weather wasn’t the best and really, they should all go home and wait for it to get better. All the famous viewpoints were filled with people taking photos and selfies. We stopped several times ourselves, despite how familiar it all was, just to drink it all in.Loch Tulla, Rannoch Moor, Lochan na h’Achlaise and finally, Glencoe itself as the Great Shepherd of Etive loomed out of the mist.This mountain pyramid guards the entrance to the glen, an iconic sight in the Highlands.
We had our walking gear on but hadn’t decided what to do en route to Kilcamb, waiting to see what the weather was doing.The big stuff was out given the cloud cover and the 30mph ‘breeze’ forecast on the tops.Not a pleasant combination.We like good views on our walks these days, a lot of bang for our buck.It was however, dry and relatively mild (7C) with little sense of the wind when we got out of the car at Altnafeidh.
A hike to Stob Mhic Mhartain
A hike up the Devil’s Staircase, the highest part of the West Highland Way , seemed a good bet , giving us a chance to check out a longer ridge walk we fancied doing in summer.
Donned the walking boots and set off up the excellent path which climbs at a pleasant gradient up to a large cairn.In no time, we were away from the A82 road, not a soul about and climbing high above the glen into wild moorland and big empty country.
It felt so good to be up here, the air almost sweet, cold and clear.Shafts of sunlight broke through the mist and cloud, glancing across the dark slopes and turning them golden.
In 40mins we had reached the top of the pass and saw the Way heading downhill towards Kinlochleven.Another track headed left and uphill and we followed that towards the top of the ridge.
Another 20mins took us onto the 700 metre top of Stob Mhic Mhartain….MacMartin’s Peak which gave us incredibly wild views over Glencoe’s famous big mountains – Buachaille Etive Mor, Etive Beag and the Three Sisters group. On a clear day, it must be magnificent:today, it was still SO atmospheric and grand and we both loved it.
I always know Chris, who rarely uses superlatives, is really enthused when he starts talking about possible summer wild camps.He was pointing out various pitches, flattish areas which would give us a great place to watch the sunset and sunrise and offer a head start for the ridge proper.The idea was to head out along it towards Am Bodach, the start of the scary Aonach Eagach ridge, one of the finest but most challenging walks on the mainland.Beyond me, too much exposure, with sheer drops of a couple of thousand feet on each side of the knife edge.But I’d like to get some photos of the start of it and of the Three Sisters mountain range opposite.
What WAS now a bit of a shock was the strength of the wind. My rucksack wasn’t secured properly and I felt it being whipped across my back violently, as if someone was trying to wrestle it from me. With the windchill factor , we reckoned it was around -10 up here, too cold to stand around in for long. Got a ton of photos then we beat a retreat and made our way back down, very glad not to have ventured up onto the cloud wreathed summits of the 3,000 footers which surrounded us.In total, the walk took us around 2.5 hours, perfect for a stormy-ish winter’s day.
Down the magnificent glen we headed in the car, stopping off at the shop in Ballachulish to pick up milk and a newspaper.Then across on the tiny Corran ferry to Ardgour and the 12 mile easy drive to Kilcamb.
It was getting gloomier by the minute and of course the light was fading; it would be dark by 4.15pm , we were only days away from the shortest day on 21 Dec.It’s a fastish drive through wonderful Glen Tarbert to tiny Strontian village(pron.Stron cheean) Xmas lights were everywhere, really pretty.But loveliest of all were the lights around Kilcamb Lodge, all pine garlands round the door, sprinkled with fairy lights.It sits all on its own,the hotel, with a lawn running down to Loch Sunart, a sea loch.Across lie the mountains of Moidart, wild , empty country.
Lovely friendly welcome in the hotel and even better, we were upgraded for free to Room 5, with its little window seat and kingsize bed and view of the gardens and – just , if you sort of leaned your head to one side as far as possible – the loch.Nicer again than the small double , their cheapest room, which we’d originally booked.Good start!
A very attractive blonde Polish girl with the most beautiful blue eyes and a lovely manner, showed us upstairs.It was a delightful, spacious room and we loved it right away.Got a quick shower and washed my hair.I’d caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and realised I didn’t have a scrap of make up on and looked like a washed out rag.With my ‘hat hair’ it wasn’t a pretty picture.God knows what that lovely young girl must have thought looking at my very handsome husband and the bedraggled skelf that accompanied him. Got wrapped in one of these ultra thick fluffy dressing gowns and then Chris handed me a flute of Morrison’s Best Champagne – nectar at £12 a bottle. We clinked glasses and wished each other ‘Slainte Mor’ – the Gaelic toast for good health or ‘cheers.’ It was great to be here and what an fantastic walk we’d had, despite the iffy weather.
Relaxed for a while, chatting about summer plans and Xmas and read a little.We had booked a very early dinner at 6.15pm, reckoning we’d be pretty tired later on and realising too, we’d had no lunch.In fact, I’d had half a banana and that cake in total all day.No wonder the fizzy stuff was going to my head! I have no capacity for alcohol at all….two glasses of champers or Cava is my limit pretty much.Chris is the opposite, a typical Highlander who has an ability to consume huge amounts of drink with almost no effect.His brothers are all the same.To keep them off the hard stuff, his father encouraged them all to drink wine with their meals when they were growing up.They all prefer wine to whisky but they enjoy A LOT of it!(and don’t say no to a wee whisky or brandy or three either).I must admit, his penchant for alcohol has caused tensions between us, to put it mildly, in the past.I grew up in a house where the only time Dad drank, was a single whisky at Hogmanay.So I’ve always had a slightly Calvinistic attitude to drink. Opposites attract! Chris’s family enjoy their drink as much as their food I would say and meals can go on into the wee small hours with the conversation flowing along with the wine and brandies.But I’ve learned (over nearly 20 years ) to leave well alone (mostly).Life is too short and Chris is never drunk or boorish when he’s enjoying his wine of an evening.
Headed down for 6pm and sat in the lovely lounge where Chris had a Chardonnay.
Suddenly a girl, dressed all in white, hair beautifully coiffed and tottering on huge heels, came sweeping over to us, her hand outstretched in introduction.We stood up and found ourselves each in turn, being given a big hug!
“Welcome, she sounded slightly breathless and spoke in a southern English accent, ‘so glad you’re going to dine with us.’ Were we? Turned out, she was the bride of a wedding party of 8 who were staying at Kilcamb and – she then confided in us – they had all been consuming some very fine whisky since just after midday!
I was impressed she was still standing and on those ginormous heels too.She was doing well.The bridegroom appeared and waved a hello, then the bride’s father, an absolute double of Del Boy from ‘Only Fools and Horses.’ Laughing, cracking jokes, a life and soul of the party guy.
We went outside for a few minutes to see if the stars were out and chatted to him.He was one of these people you like right away.His family, he explained, had been coming up to Scotland from Devon for years now and loved Kilcamb. ‘It’s the mountains, ‘ he said, pointing out into the pitch black nothingness, but we knew what he meant. So, the wedding had to be here. He had two daughters so reckoned he’d got off lightly with Bride No 1 who’d wanted such a small affair.She’d gone up in my estimation again.These big £20k weddings(the reported average cost today) , seem such a waste of money.Unless the family is rolling in it of course.
As we chatted, I was stealing an admiring glance at some stars, twinkling in the utter blackness beyond the hotel.How lovely and romantic. I pointed them out to Chris and we both peered at them, blinking hard.’Those aren’t stars, ‘ says he.’They’re lights on that tree in the lawn.’I blinked again and sure enough the old oak tree came into focus, bedecked in fairy lights. My eyesight is getting worse.Del Boy gave a throaty laugh and finished off his whisky, mellow to the world and willing to suffer fool gladly no doubt.There was rain in the cold night air too so we headed inside before my now carefully curled locks turned into a frizz bomb and the mascara started to run.
We’d opted for the Tasting Menu , an extra £19 each but it looked wonderful.Chris had perused the Matching Wine Flight menu too but hadn’t been too impressed with the choices on offer.Adding up the measurements of each glass, the five wines were less than half a bottle in volume.Not good enough value, he thought, for the £40 supplement.
Kilcamb has two AA Rosettes and is Michelin Recommended for food.We’ve always enjoyed eating here and the meal was really first class.Here it is: –
The portions were very generous and coupled with lovely homemade bread, almost like a brioche, by the end , I hadn’t felt so stuffed full for a long time.Each course was superb.(The Parfait was the only one I wouldn’t have chosen again because I’m not keen on that texture.)
The wedding party were finished just ahead of us, fairly quiet and clearly feeling, by now, the long day of celebration.Some of the older family members said goodnight and headed for bed.Our whole meal had taken over two hours, followed by coffee and tea and petit fours in the drawing room.We had the space all to ourselves and sat by the Xmas tree, enjoying just being here, in this tiny slice of West Highland paradise. I felt as if I wouldn’t need to eat for a week.
Headed for our room around 9.15, real party animals.Ah, age doesn’t come alone!
I never sleep well in a ‘new bed’ and had another restless night, not helped by feeling stuffed to the gunnels.Yet at 8.30am we were perusing the breakfast menu, with a full cooked Scottish on offer along with other interesting choices.I plumped for fresh fruit, granola and yoghurt, grapefruit juice and we both ordered the smoked haddock, poached egg and hollandaise.Toast and croissants arrived too and more tea. (You always get a tea tray in your room in most Scottish hotels so Chris had brought us our tea in bed, a ritual we love to start each day with now that the 5 children we have between us are all grown up and away.)
When the fish arrived however the smell of it was awful.I love smoked haddock but it should smell …well, of nothing really, a mild smoky aroma at most.This was pungent and I actually recoiled from it.It sat on my plate and I picked at it with my fork.When the waitress came over to ask how things were I explained the problem.’Oh I hate the smell of that dish too, ‘ she said.’Hmm..but fresh fish shouldn’t actually smell,’ I suggested; she looked surprised.I ended up having a small plate of very nice bacon and scrambled egg instead, they were quite happy to replace it.Chris soldiered on, as he usually does but I couldn’t have stomached it.
Got packed, then had a walk down by the loch shore, a flock of curlews and oyster catchers rising up as we approached and calling plaintively.That piping , melancholy ‘ker-lew ‘ call of the curlew is so evocative of the Highlands; it seems to sum them up, the beauty, the lonely shores and moorland, the wildness of it all.
It was very overcast now and rain was promised as we waved goodbye to Kilcamb, so we tootled along to check out the wildlife hide at Garbh Eilean, a few winding miles up the Ardnamurchan road.It’s a very beautiful spot overlooking Loch Sunart with just the mountains all around.Two guys were already there, big lenses trained on the water.We crept in quietly and had a look.In seconds, the otter they had been watching surfaced again then dived once more, on the hunt.He or she was a bit away, we’ve seen them much closer but it’s always a thrill. They’re so active, always on the move.Then it surfaced with what looked like a fish and sped off towards an islet in the loch.That’s when you often get a great view, when they come on shore.Their eyesight isn’t brilliant and if you can get yourself quite close before they land, you have a chance for some real up close views.
But this little guy sneaked behind a big rock and disappeared from sight.Drats.The two guys said cheerio and packed up; we waited a bit but no otter.Maybe he made for a holt for a while, who knows.We were just having a last look when Chris spotted a large bird, way across the loch high up and circling. Got the big lens on it – it was a sea eagle! What looked like a peregrine began to mob it from above, though not too close.It didn’t look like a raven from the wing shape and flight though it was very far away.
We had a brief wander along the shore at Resipol where there is a small caravan site in summer; there is a resident otter there too.But no sign of her today.A pair of handsome Mergansers and a little Dipper with his white bib.
Ah well, we’d done not too badly.Time to head for ‘the mainland’ via the Corran Ferry. Ardnamurchan always feels like an island, it’s so remote, a long peninsula that ends in the most westerly point on the UK mainland.It is a stunningly beautiful area and great for wildlife.
The rain was coming down now and my oldest son was coming for dinner later so home it was. Skipped through a very dramatic Glencoe then cut down the Glen Orchy single track road to see Kilchurn Castle.
I’d never been down the 12 mile stretch that joins the two major roads before.It was lovely – very lonely country, mountains and the big Orchy river to our right the whole time.Some little groups were out kayaking; the river was very full, tumbling fiercely down the glen.
Finally, we reached the Inveraray road and turned off to the unsigned parking area for the Castle.It’s a 10 minute walk on a good wide path to this iconic ruin, sitting all on its own in the grasslands beside Loch Awe.Unfortunately it was closed so we made do with a wander round the outside.Very impressive.
Then a drive over the hill road to Inveraray where the mist on Loch Fyne was stunning – ethereal.I’ve never seen the mist so low down.Ghostly outlines of trees and occasional houses loomed in and out of visibility.The mist hung over the water in places and it was difficult to make out which was which.Everything was silvery and white – stunning in its own way – but the tree colour on the birches was wine red.
It was 2pm by now, another 90 minutes would see us back home from here.Stopped for a first class takeaway Red Pepper and Tomato soup in the Tree Cafe beside the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar (what amazing homemade cakes they have too) and enjoyed that while Chris drove us home.Popped some music on through my Samsung phone and listened to Nat King Cole and The Everly Brothers and other 1950 and 60s favourites.Very mellow.
It had been a wonderful 32 hours away, a great little break pre the final Xmas countdown.