Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

TRAVEL GUIDE: Loch Earn

If you're in search of a ‘picture-postcard perfect hideaway’ to recharge your batteries, after A Hard Days Night or two, then look no further than the spot which the Fab Four ‘Beatled' themselves away in!

For the stunningly beautiful Scottish village of St Fillans, near the town of Crieff — and more particularly the Four Seasons Hotel — is where John, Paul, George and Ringo sought solace in between two shows in Edinburgh, Dundee and onwards to Glasgow, way back in 1964.

Unfortunately, there are no visible signs now of the magnificent musical moptops’ stay at the wonderfully comfortable and idyllically located hotel on the shores of Loch Earn.

However, it is known that in those more cost conscious days, John and Paul shared one of the chalets perched on the hill above the main hotel building, with George and Ringo settling down in another close by!

Forty seven years on from The Beatles’ two night stay, the Strathearn area of the southern Highlands retains an olde world charm worth its weight in gold — as golden as the burnished landscapes and summer sunsets which the area is rightly famed for. Crieff and adjoining villages such as St Fillans first became popular with the advent of the steam railway in the Victorian age. And it's no wonder, with its status as the gateway to the world famous Highlands offering majestic lochs and rivers, green pastures, rolling hills and mist shrouded forests.

The quaint town, whose most famous son is Star Wars/Trainspotting actor Ewan McGregor, is only one hour's drive from both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports — making it easily accessible for Northern Ireland travellers. It’s choc-a-bloc with individual shops, ranging from chi-chi arts and crafts emporiums to the amazing Gordon & Durwood confectionery shop, famed for its sugar mice, candy sticks and yummy macaroon bars!

There's plenty of good value eateries too, including filling savoury pancakes for under a fiver in the Paparazzi Bistro and substantial portions of subtle, yet spicy Nepalese and Indian food in The Gurkhas restaurant, with main courses ranging in price from £5.95 to £10.95.

But it's not really the food which is the most substantial delicacy on offer in these parts. Quite simply, it is the God blessed ‘all things bright and beautiful' nature of the landscape, with the freshest air this side of a Scandinavian fjord!

Looking out the window of my large, airy and comfortable room in The Four Seasons, you

lose yourself in the Cinemascope widescreen view from the eastern shore of Loch Earn to the south west. A little jetty, straight out of an art postcard or rock video, juts out from the hotel location, bringing you onto the still clear waters and immersing you in the wonder of nature.

The beauty of the loch and countryside is empathetically harnessed for a wide variety of activities — from sailing, canoeing, water skiing, white water rafting, fishing, pony trekking, biking, hiking and two nine hole golf courses in the immediate area.

I paid a visit to Comrie Croft, a beautifully expansive area of land — right on the Highland fault line with a stunning 3,000ft mountain nestling behind it.

With a cool eco-aware vibe, including farm house, camping and Swedish-style tent accommodation, Comrie Croft is a good budget traveller option for spending time in the area.

Surprisingly though, a significant amount of land isn't actually public, with Russian oligarchs and high fashion handbag company owners said to be lording it over their private estates for ‘huntin 'n shootin' expeditions.

But the area's annual Crieff and Strathearn Drovers Tryst gets you out and about along the land open to everyone. This October’s walking festival offers a programme of guided walks into the heart of the Perthshire countryside to suit everyone — from leisurely strolls along rolling hills and riverbanks, to more arduous treks.

Stunning views and a Twilight movie-like woodland spot shrouded in spooky mist made my Knock Mary and Laggan Hill walk a definite atmospheric highlight of my trip. So, too was a wee nip over to Scotland's oldest distillery, Glenturret, for a wee dram, as part of The Famous Grouse Experience visitor centre in Crieff.

A tour costs £8.50, including a hi-tech award winning interactive show featuring a very lively animated grouse and a sample or two of the ‘water of life'! I had a hearty laugh too when our highly informative guide admitted that she never touches a drop of the stuff!

Back at The Four Seasons, the always helpful team, led by Andrew Low, offer up adventurous cuisine in its AA Rosette Meall Reamhar restaurant, specialising in locally reared beef and lamb and high end seafood dishes, including hand dived sea scallops and Shetland salmon.

But the most mouth watering food for me was simply served up after a late afternoon lochside dander – an off menu, but specially presented plate of freshly made, hot scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam.

Gazing out onto the still, serene beauty of Loch Earn from the hotel's thoughtfully created relaxation area, this honorary Scotsman felt completely chilled and blissed out- in front of a crackling, blazing log fire! Days like this are just perfect.

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