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Loched and Loaded
Stephanie Davis Smith | Photo: Courtesy Images | May 10, 2013
Ancestral splendor and laid-back luxury take root in Scotland, where tradition intersects with contemporary style—no matter where you roam.
The inky opaque waters of Loch Ness are as deep as the surrounding mountains are steep and as dark as Scotland’s signature black pudding and the murky walls of Stirling Castle after sunset. But the island itself is not a dark place—far from it.
Aside from its Gothic architecture and the rich blackness of the peat that runs into the rivers, giving Scotch whisky that wonderful smoky flavor, the island is bright and verdant. Almost every vista recalls a cinematic scene—the countryside’s green-and-gold undulations are straight-up Braveheart—and the people are the friendliest I’ve ever met.
I’m thankful this is true, as my mother’s people hail from Scotland. Her family name, Henderson, is derived from “the sons of Henry”—according to ScotlandsPeople Centre (scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk)—a fact my husband and I discover in Edinburgh (pronounced Edan-burah), our first stop after arriving. Tracing your genealogical history has become one of the most popular travel trends in recent years, and, with records dating back to the 1400s and beyond, the Centre can help you nail down ancestral specifics, from region to clan.
In my case, I learn that the long line of Hendersons dates back to 1374, when William Henderson (coincidentally, my uncle’s name) was chamberlain of Lochmaben Castle. Additional perusal of census, voting and even Catholic church records reveal that the clan settled in the Highlands, where we plan to go after exploring Scotland’s vibrant capital.
Our search brings us to a quaint side street on the quieter side of Edinburgh, where Twelve Picardy Place Hotel (twelvepicardyplace.com), a newly minted boutique property, opened in a Georgian townhouse in late 2012. The historic building sits above STEAK—a fine-dining restaurant with an apartment-turned-kitchen that served as the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes scribe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The hotel’s interiors reveal nothing of its age, with just 10 luxurious suites—superior, executive or master—decked out with unique contemporary decor and modern furnishings. Named after individual local lochs, all spaces house exquisite bed linens, soaking tubs and rainforest showers. Our pad, the Loch Fyne room atop the building, boasts an enormous photographic mural of the Scottish landscape, which takes up one whole wall, facing a downy bed, 3-D HD-LED screen (with 3-D glasses on the nightstand), a SKY TV and iPod docking station.
Hospitality is nearly as dapper. Don’t be surprised to find an umbrella (outside your door); a CD of Scottish hits (on your pillow); or locally made treats, a European wall adapter, housemade shortbread, newspapers or 3-D Blu-ray discs (in your room) sans request—it’s just how they roll.
When it’s time for us to do the same, we head down the winding stairs and out into the bustling streets of Edinburgh, eventually landing at—wait for it, men—The Scotch Whisky Experience (scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk). OK, so it’s a bit touristy—a Disneyland ride for alcohol—but the tastings are top-notch. With aid from seasoned instructors who know all about the country’s four scotch-producing regions—Islay, Lowland, The Highlands and Speyside—we learn just enough to sound off an intelligent and correct order, which is good, considering it’s pretty much bottoms up from here on out. The venue also hoards the world’s largest collection of scotch on its top floor, with almost 3,500 individual bottles, each like a work of art, donated to the museum by Brazil’s magnate millionaire, Claive Vidiz.
Having not quite gotten our fill, though we’re both warm and full of scotch, we walk off our buzz around Edinburgh, stopping to eat lunch at Angels With Bagpipes (angelswithbagpipes.co.uk)—a true find. Excellent respite is on the table at this stylish bistro, with artful repose not far behind. Dishes like stone bass over farfalle with razor clam, and Norfolk duck breast with port turnip and chicory jam reinvent the usual pub fare.
Following this sumptuous spread is a late-afternoon trip just out of town to see Stirling Castle (stirlingcastle.gov.uk)—the majestic building grants a glimpse of what life was like for the Royal Court. Suffice it to say, the likes of throne-holders Mary, Queen of Scots and King James V weren’t exactly roughin’ it. Here since the 14th century, this magnificent structure hosted centuries of Scottish monarchs. Touring the caverns is a veritable peep show of the battles and scandals that went down among the castle’s stone walls—and it rules.
Once back in the city proper, we head out for predinner drinks in the lobby at The Hotel Missoni Edinburgh (hotelmissoni.com). Located in prime Fringe Festival territory on the Royal Mile, the place is an edgy, bold ode to its namesake fashion house’s signature zigzag style—it also ratchets up the exclusivity factor with its status as one of only two Missoni properties worldwide (the other is in Kuwait, in case you’re ever in the neighborhood). Our cocktail servers? Attractive lobby and bar staff clad in Missoni-patterned kilts. Their look sets a tone—the hotel’s 136 guest rooms (larger than those at Twelve Picardy Place Hotel, but with the same mod vibe) are awash in pops of pink and orange, reflecting the brand’s bright, textured aesthetic. Dudes not all about the decor will still appreciate the details—the brand’s renowned attention to the crucial extras is on full display here.
After polishing off some Italian-inspired cocktails, we hit dinner at Tower Restaurant (tower-restaurant.com) at the top of the National Museum of Scotland, where the buzz is that it has the city’s best cuisine and view, looking out over Edinburgh Castle. All true—but not all at once. At first, we’re not even sure if we’re in the right place—it’s after hours so the museum is empty and a security guard takes us on a silent ride up the elevator. Suddenly, the doors open into a secret culinary sanctuary. A swift seating and, almost immediately, an amuse-bouche of Scottish salmon and scallop ceviche arrives. We go on to devour piccalilli (pickled vegetables) and whole grilled plaice, as well as a goat cheese voulette with watercress and black onion seeds, all beautifully presented on thin slate slabs. The sommelier does his duty, recommending an exquisite wine for me and an Islay scotch for my husband, but he assures us that the locally made beer, Edinburgh Gold or Innis & Gunn, will also pair nicely with our entree—scotch lamb served three ways. Too full for dessert (a complete crime!), we embark out into the dark, but completely safe, streets, strolling back to our hotel at Picardy Place, passing lively revelers along the way.
The next day the hotel brings round our rental car, just in time for us to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road, and the wrong side of the car, with the opposite hand on the gearshift. But mastering new motoring skills is completely worth it—Scotland drives are spectacular, and imperative to the whole experience. On the way to Perthshire, for example, we spy large hairy cattle called coos. Cool, but we’re here for this fabulous remote inn, tucked deep into the Scottish countryside, called Monachyle MHOR Hotel (mhor.net)—a family-run boutique operation near Balquhidder, where the famed Rob Roy is buried.
After driving down a one-lane road for what seems like forever, passing the most stunning landscapes and offbeat villages along the way, we finally find the fog-shrouded pink hotel that, for 20 years, has been chilling on the banks of Loch Voil in The Trossachs National Park. Run by Welshman Tom Lewis and his wife, Lisa, we’re surprised to find hip Manhattanlike room decor—especially way out here. But a total of 14 rooms—five in the actual inn, five more spacious and private courtyard spaces with fireplaces (in what was once a carriage house), and additional hotel rooms in MHOR house—up the luxury game, with organic Sedbergh toiletries and spoils like deep soaking tubs. (Of which, ours is soon christened).
All meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner is served daily) at Monachyle MHOR are an experience, but dinner shines. It’s so exceptional, in fact, its virtues have been lauded in The New York Times Dining Section. Perhaps that’s due not only to Lewis’ self-taught wizardry in the kitchen, but also to this: He uses his own hogs, pulls produce from his gardens and hooks fish from the frigid waters nearby. Our five-course feast features a bevy of choices, but I opt for beetroot cured salmon with vodka relish, then pan-fried turbot (a white fish with loads of flavor) with brown shrimp and shaved fennel, and finally a scrabster cod with squid-ink orzo pasta and pumpkin-seed pesto. My husband favors a corn-fed chicken, morel mushroom and smoked potato dish, and the homemade puddings and petit fours. As each new divine plate arrives, we share samples.
After only a couple of days here—walking the national forest, taunting sheep and indulging in Lewis’ hospitality—it feels as though we’ve regained weeks of rest. Needless to say, we issue a hesitant goodbye to the lodge’s friendly staff and motor toward my ancestral pool, the Highlands.
Heading north from Perthshire toward the illustrious Loch Ness, armed with a stellar lunch recommendation from our former host, chef Lewis, we eventually land at Lochleven Seafood Cafe (lochlevenseafoodcafe.co.uk)—situated off the beaten path on the rocky shores of Loch Leven, on the West Coast of the Highlands. Not straying from his advice, we both order the famous seafood platter, which comes out in big red pots. The lids are lifted with a steaming flourish, revealing a heap of locally caught oysters, langoustines, scallops, littleneck clams and razor clams, complete with a side of crusty warm bread to soak up all the briny broth. Better than any New England clambake or Southern low-country boil I’ve ever had, it’s just the right warm comfort food to send us off toward the much colder Northern regions of our afternoon destination.
Wandering the windy roads overlooking Loch Ness, the black freshwater lake becomes more beautiful than menacing. Once in the quaint Loch Ness village, we hop a Jacobite Cruise (jacobite.co.uk) out onto the mysterious waters to hear all about the deep below and the centuries of reported sightings of legend’s storied monster. Worth noting: So murky is the water, if you were to fall in, you wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face more than a foot below the surface (black peat streaming down the steep mountains makes for low visibility). Also, very little of this enormous lake—which holds more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined—has actually been explored, which means you’re not likely to best “Nessie” at hide-and-seek anytime soon. I won’t lie, by the end of the tour I’m guzzling the boat guide’s swill—he’s convinced me that there’s a creature out there somewhere, as well as that we should take a more scenic route than the one we’re planning for the rest of the day. He glances at our map and, as an alternative to the main highway, advises a narrow, unknown road up the eastern side of the loch that really shows off the Highlands’ beauty.
Much obliged, we drive up over the steep mountain to the Highlands, where the height levels off and cliffs drop on either side. Up here, with only one-lane bumpy roads and the two of us for miles, all we see are fields of heather, cotton grass and moss-filled moors. After passing by this paradise for some time, we stop, get out of the car and soak in the beauty. Then the temperatures hit—it’s cold up here. We throw on scarves and hats, and jump back inside the warm car.
Seeing all the small farms and homes dotting the Highlands, I think of my Henderson ancestors who came to America—a move that produced generations of dairy farmers. I picture them eras before, toiling in these fields, hard at the same work. Aching nostalgia (and many photo-op stops) aside, we hook right onto a highway and head down through the countryside toward the shores of St Andrews.
When St Andrews—you know it as a mecca for golf-worshippers across the globe—appears in the distance, my husband’s excitement is palpable. Ever since he first saw its greens from his rabbit-eared TV set as a kid, he’s dreamed of being here. But here? The fabled, five-star Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa (oldcoursehotel.co.uk)? Not even he saw that coming. Our bags are whisked to our room, and evening begins with an early dinner at The Road Hole Restaurant. Set on one of the hotel’s upper floors, peering out over St Andrews golf course, the views are stunning, only matched by the fine-dining and country-club style—think East Neuk lobster gratin with Arran mustard, roast mallard breast and Tournedos Black Isle beef sirloin with wild mushrooms. Sitting courseside, sun setting, we just barely make out the distant waters of St Andrews Bay.
Once in our suite, the floor butler throws open the curtains to reveal that we are staying on one the most famous golf holes in the world—the Road Hole Bunker on the par-4 17th hole. It is at precisely this moment that I think my husband’s head is going to explode. Just wait until daylight, I think to myself. But this is not the only luxury at this resort—there are also 144 beautiful rooms, including 35 stunning suites. Of these, we’re in one of the 23 suites that have been completely redesigned with sumptuous interiors by acclaimed French designer Jacques Garcia. Many of the rooms have private balconies with picture-postcard views of the Old Course and the town of St Andrews. While my husband ogles the greens scene, I’m all about the Kohler chromatherapy (color therapy) baths with whirlpool jets and later falling into a blissful sleep, cocooned in luxurious bedding on a perfect mattress—a true win-win.
Awaking fully rested the next day, we’re scheduled to work out lingering kinks from the long drive with a morning massage at the hotel’s Kohler Waters Spa. Stopping to look at old photos gracing the walls, we realize that the view from our room hasn’t changed since the late 19th century. Even then you can see Hamilton Grand (hamiltongrand.co.uk) in the distance. One of the most photographed buildings in all of sports, the Grand is exactly that, with a regal facade that has stood for more than a century. In 1895, Thomas Hamilton created the lavish retreat at The Grand Hotel, boasting infinite views of the Old Course at St Andrews, West Sands Beach and the North Sea. At the time, the hotel was Scotland’s only building to claim a pneumatic elevator and hot water running in every bathroom—setting the benchmark for the ultimate in luxurious hospitality.
After World War II, though, The Grand Hotel was never again to host high society and, instead, was crafted into college dormitories under the name Hamilton Hall, which, for 56 years, faithfully served St Andrews’ student body. Now it’s beginning its new chapter as the Hamilton Grand luxury residences. Each unit features a completely unique layout with high-caliber details, like rich hardwoods, marble accents and views that stretch for miles. The collection’s 26 apartments—22 two-bedrooms (1,050 to 1,342 square feet), one three-bedroom (2,251 square feet) and a trio of four-bedrooms (2,257 and 2,779 square feet)—cater to a residential mix of wealthy, global golf fans. (A Swedish couple purchased the first apartment for a cool $2.74 mil.). But it’s not just the residences that enjoy top billing—downstairs, on the lower level, a public bar and grill restaurant invites the whole neighborhood to imbibe, while Hamilton Grand residents also have the benefit of a membership at The Duke’s Course—highly regarded as one of the premier golf courses in the British Isles—and access to Kohler Waters Spa and restaurants, like the Sands Grill, Road Hole Restaurant and The Jigger Inn.
Continuing to tour the luxury apartments, we walk down the regal, historic staircase that was saved during the renovation. I begin to picture a life on this magnificent island—or, at the very least, one with regular and frequent returns. “How many units are still available?” I casually query. “I can look into that for you,” says our guide. My husband looks at me, his expression of the “Are you serious?” variety. I give him a nod and smile. He, of course, was hip to this idea last night at the par-4 17th-hole reveal. Now I’ve got my own dream of Scotland.
But that’s par for the course in this country—one of the most majestic on Earth. Why, I wonder, would my relatives ever want to leave this idyllic land? Perhaps fate has intervened, and I will be the one to lead us back. Perhaps.