TRAVEL GUIDE: Glenapp Castle
You know you're somewhere special when there's a helicopter service on offer, and when your room has a name all of its own — not to mention a croquet lawn outside.
Oh, and if you happen to say over dinner that there's a particular movie you might like to see some time, chances are it will be sitting in the DVD player, ready to view, when you retire for the evening...
It's this attention to detail that has helped make Glenapp Castle one of the most desirable places to stay in Scotland. And beyond.
The myriad of excellence awards this luxury hotel has garnered over the past decade or so is testimony to that; Glenapp's reputation is already well established in its home land.
Yet few people this side of the Irish Sea may be overly familiar with it — even though thousands of Ulster folk pass close by this sandstone gem every week en route to places such as Turnberry, Ayr and Glasgow.
There are no signposts directing you off the A77 to the hills above Ballantrae village, 20 minutes from Stranraer, where the 19th century, privately-owned mansion nestles in deciduous woodland.
You can't see it from the road either; no, Glenapp wouldn't so vulgar as to shout at you.
But a gentle, almost whispered word-of-mouth invites you through the gate, up the long, meandering, drive and into the elegant 30-acre site where several staff are waiting to greet you.
They'll park your car and take your bags; so far, so luxury five-star hotel. But get ready for a culture shock when you go through the large front door.
Where's the reception desk? The bar? The signposts directing you to rooms, restaurants, etc? Well, there are none of these, and that's deliberate. Owners Fay and Graham Cowan don't want you to think ‘hotel' when you stay here.
No, you're guests at their home — literally, in this case, because the Cowans actually live here.
They bought it 17 years ago, spent a full six years restoring it and are now the proud custodians of an idyllic bolthole on the Ayrshire coast.
Built in 1870, Glenapp, with its towers, turrets, beautifully landscaped surroundings and walled garden, is every inch a Scottish baronial castle.
Inside, wood-panelled corridors guide you to the drawing room, library and dining rooms, and of course to one of the 17 individually-decorated bedrooms, most of which boast terrific views of the Irish Sea and the magnificent granite monolith, Ailsa Craig, that juts out of it.
We stayed in the ‘Earl of Orkney’, one of two high-ceilinged master suites with separate sitting room (and fireplace), walk-in wardrobe, full-size bathroom, huge Victoran windows — and bed — and original, ornate period furni
ture. You could spend a lot of time in there — but, of course, there are other attractions.
Horticulturists will, for instance, adore the lovingly-restored walled garden and accompanying formal garden with their azeleas, rhododendrons, curry plants, cordylines, polyanthus and conifers.
The rebuilt glasshouse now boasts apricots, nectarines and kiwi fruit among its products, which ultimately end up in the kitchen.
A delightful adjacent wooded glen guides you down towards Ballantrae village and back — a decent trek to whet your appetite for Glenapp's number one attraction — the Michelin-starred AA Rosette-winning food.
This isn't a dinner, it's a gastromical experience; an inventive, six-course, locally-sourced, set gourmet menu prepared by head chef Adam Stokes that takes two hours to consume.
So take a deep breath, and here we go...our Saturday evening repas was: 1) tuna, black pepper, olive, epicure potatoes; 2) veal sweetbread, button mushroom beignet, bay leaf, hazelnut sauce; 3) John Dory, saffron, buckwheat, garlic, cauliflower; 4) milk-fed pork, grelet onion, trotter cromesquis, crackling; 5) Scottish cheeses, white truffle honey, grape chutney, salty and sour crispbreads; and 6) strawberries, caramel, lime marshmallow, almonds...
Plenty of time then to discuss Glenapp's fine antiques, original oil paintings — or, indeed, the intriguing history of the place.
Initially designed by Edinburgh architect David Bryce for the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire, James Hunter, it was sold to James Lyle Mackay, later to become the 1st Earl of Inchcape, in 1917.
Mackay's kin owned the place until 1982, when it was bought by the hitherto estranged daughter of a Japanese billionaire who had provided the funds as reconciliatory act. The pair fell out again, however, and the castle fell into a state of chronic disrepair until the Cowans stepped in and began the building's long, laborious conversion from the unsightly ruin it was then to the elegant masterpiece it is now.
Ulsterman John Orr, from Holywood, Co Down — is Glenapp's hands-on manager.
But neither he nor his staff display any of the overbearing obsequiousness that can sometimes ruin the experience of staying in, or having a wedding reception, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner in, such a luxurious place.
They're right there when they’re needed; they're not when they aren't.
John said he would like to see a few more of his compatriots enjoying this place; after all, and courtesy of Stena Line who brought us over, the castle is, technically only a short drive from Belfast — even shorter when the company's new Lough Ryan terminal opens later this year.
Glenapp does do special offers but, as you can imagine, it's not a cheap place to visit. It does, however, display the confidence gleaned from the knowledge that the experience is worth every penny.