Review: Retreat to private Scottish island, the Isle of Eriska
Light the fire, hunker down and cosy up at a remote island hideaway
Wild Scottish weather has its perks: skies that bring drama with every turn, and an excuse to stay indoors.
I'd been dreaming of a weekend retreat. One that involved no whirlwind sightseeing, but simply the chance to sit down with a great book and a glass of wine.
The weather gods must have heard my prayer, and promptly delivered two days of rain just as we embarked on a two-hour drive from Glasgow to the western Highlands.
Clouds rolled across mountains and lochs, pierced now and again by rainbows, as we snaked around the chicanes of the Trosachs towards the coast.
After two hours of stunning scenery, we bumped across an iron bridge connecting the mainland to a private island: The Isle of Eriska.
It was the peaceful isolation of this resort that attracted a church of minister and his wife to buy a country house in the middle of nowhere in 1973. Hotel guests would cross the causeway and feel they had reached a safe haven.
For us, two thirty-something women worn out from hectic workloads, Eriska turned out to be a sanctuary like no other: a phone signal black hole. We were instantly liberated from work emails and demanding bosses.
As we reached the centre of the 350-acre island, the woodland parted to reveal the 'Big House', radiating the smell of the fire burning in the hearth of the main hall inside.
British traditions endure in this country house classic. Afternoon tea is served in the drawing room, where you'll find yourself scoffing divine cherry bakewell alongside men in tweed jackets and women in expensive tartans. But Eriska isn't snooty in the slightest. It's comfy and radiates hospitality.
Our 'room' was in fact a cottage - a plush 'spa suite' with a living-dining room, bedroom with double ensuite and dressing room, a conservatory, and our own hot tub in the garden.
Add fluffy bath robes, slippers and Molten Brown toiletries and this would be a weekend to wallow in.
As my friend got the fire going, rain pounded the conservatory roof, making our suite seem even snugglier.
There were glossy lifestyle magazines to browse and crime novels to get lost in - at long last, a chance to read, I sighed, sinking into the huge, squishy sofa with 'Scotland Life' magazine.
This was the exact scene that had always come to mind when things were getting stressful at work. A weekend in a bolthole far from home: rain on the window outside, fire glowing, Merlot in hand.
Later, when we managed to extricate ourselves from our lap of luxury, we set off on a walk around the island
Borrowing welly boots and umbrellas from reception, we strolled on saturated ground to take in the views: Scotland at its Highlands-and-islands finest.
Mist over mountaintops, geese flying close to the water, distant islands providing the backdrop to the golf course.
This wild corner of Caledonia was formed by a series of cataclysmic geological changes more than ten million years ago, great plates of metamorphic and igneous rock buckling to leave the gaping gash that is the Great Glen.
Eriska lies at the mouth of Loch Creran and the island is teeming with wildlife. Otters hunt for crabs and butterfish, seals fish for salmon, cormorants skim across the loch and serpulid reefs grow offshore in this designated Special Area of Conservation.
At night pipistrelle bats hunt for insects in the eaves of the roof at the Big House, which is also where two badgers - Bertie and Brock - present themselves each evening for a supper of brown bread, nuts and milk.
After drying out, we too presented ourselves at the dining room, which has held a Michelin star since 2014.
The Scottish larder is plundered royally by head chef Paul Leonard. Aged Scotch beef, Glenfinnan Estate venison, Isle of Skye mussels and salt-baked beetroot garnished with rainbow chard, turnip, onion and herbs plucked from the garden that day.
The quirky dessert 'Baked Eriska' is an enormous improvement on baked Alaska; enveloping pickled raspberry sorbet, whisky parfait and oats in a spiked meringue reminiscent of a military flail. No matter, it's delicious.
For this cheese lover, however, the farmhouse cheese trolley was the highlight. A charming waitress encouraged us to work our way through an impressive variety of UK cheeses with devine homemade walnut bread and oatcakes.
And as if we hadn't indulged enough, the high standard continued at breakfast the next morning, where we ordered west coast kippers and organic salmon from the 'Eriska Smokery'.
Don't come to Eriska on a diet.
Do, however, come for the spa.
Friendly staff treat guests like royalty in the luxurious spa set in former stables. An indoor swimming pool opens onto a sheltered garden in summer, or so I'm told as I make a beeline for the heat of the sauna.
Local seaweed is hand-harvested to produce the organic Ishga skincare range used for signature treatments. I plumped for an invigorating Ishga massage and said goodbye to weeks of muscle tension from too many long hours hunched over a desk.
The next day brought skylark song, sunshine and awe-inspiring views.
We traversed the island again, this time exploring the hilltop viewpoint and it's panorama of Loch Creran.
We greeted Highland cattle grazing in the fields. We found wild orchids growing in grassland. The tide was low so we walked on the pebbled beach, where crystal clear waters revealed horse mussel clinging to the pier. Sailboats peppered the view to the Morven mountains, suddenly looming large against mostly blue sky.
Gordon Cartwright, the general manager, informed us that it was to be a clear night.
So as the sun set, cloud cover dissipated and cool air breezed around my neck, I slipped into the steaming hot tub and lay back.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the North Star revealed itself. One by one, a sprinkling of smaller stars emerged around it. And after ten, twenty minutes more, a multitude of stars blinked into sight, creating a canvas of celestial sights.
Isle of Eriska Hotel, Argyll & Bute, Scotland, is a member of the Relais & Chateaux portfolio.
B&B from £350 per room per night. Three-course dinner £55 per person. Ishga massage £67 for 60 minutes.
How to get there?
Fly from Belfast to Glasgow Airport then hire a car. It’s a two-hour drive through the stunning Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Stop at the Drover’s Inn for lunch surrounded by antiques and taxidermy.
Belfast Telegraph Digital