Despite having lived in Scotland for more than sixteen years the natural beauty of Caledonia’s hills, mountains and coastline still has the power to take my breath away. The lowlands have a gentle charm all their own, sometimes reminiscent of my native heath, but there are few landscapes to match the raw splendour of Scotland’s highlands and islands. I was reminded of this only a few weeks ago when I took a trip over to Airds Hotel, a little north of Oban, on Scotland’s west coast.
Airds Hotel is an old 18th-century ferry inn located in Port Appin, which is the departure point for a tiny shuttle which carries foot passengers over the waters of Loch Linnhe to the island of Lismore. No doubt it was once an important staging post and watering hole for weary travellers, while today it offers a respite for those wanting to get away from the pressures of modern life for a day or two. Visitors can soak up the majestic scenery and slower pace of life for a weekend or even just an overnight stay, relaxing in one of the eleven sumptuously appointed bedrooms. However long you rest your hat here though, fine dining, courtesy of chef Calum Innes, will be a significant part of your stay.
At the time of my visit, late in November 2021, the Airds Hotel was in the hands of Shaun and Jenny McKivragan, who have been in charge here for nineteen years, since they acquired the property in 2003. A few days after my stay – by which time I was already touring the vineyards of Bordeaux, tasting the 2019s for a forthcoming report – news broke that the property had been sold. Despite any rumours you may have heard, the sale was not a result of my visit causing the exasperated owners to throw in the towel (honest!). In truth the McKivragans decided it was time to retire, and with that in mind they have sold the business to Benjamin Andrews, a Scottish hotelier and investor.
So what’s the first thing you do on arriving in your hotel room? Hang your shirts? Raid the mini-bar? Collapse on the bed, exhausted? I could have done any of these I suppose, but keen to make the most of the daylight I downed a wee dram of Whisky Mac, a cocktail of whisky and Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine (a complimentary decanter sits in your room, magically refreshed each day), donned a warm jacket, and struck out along the coast road.
The area is rich in walks short and long, inland and coastal, and I chose to head north along the line of the coast, crossing the Jubilee Bridge (pictured above), a wooden footbridge built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, in the direction of Castle Stalker (pictured below).
A four-storey tower house on a tidal islet at the mouth of Loch Laich, Castle Stalker has a history dating back to at least 1320; it is surely best known for its appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the French guard (John Cleese) hurls insults from its battlements at King Arthur (Graham Chapman). The privately owned keep is in itself imposing, and yet dwarfed by the magnificent scenery wrapped around it. I fear my photograph – taken from some distance, across Loch Laich – does not really do it justice.
I stayed at Airds Hotel for two nights, on a weekend deal, and thus dined twice in the restaurant. Those looking for a change of dining room could always walk down the road to The Pierhouse, a restaurant with rooms in the same ownership as The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye, but I decided to save that experience for another time. As noted above the head chef at Airds Hotel is Calum Innes, who stepped into this role only a few years ago. He offers two menus, one a limited à la carte menu (three options for each course), and one a fixed seven-course tasting menu. Naturally, with two evenings to fill, I checked out both options.
The style of cooking at Airds is fresh and modern, Calum Innes taking full advantage of the coastal produce, seafood and game on the kitchen’s doorstep, marrying these ingredients with sensitive precision on the plate. While I enjoyed dinner on both occasions, all the weekend’s highlights were packed into the seven-course tasting menu on the second night. After a very good Loch Fyne oyster with caviar, Champagne and lime granita, followed by a decent crab salad with whisky-cured trout and avocado ice cream, Calum took it up several notches with a dish of Loch Linnhe scallop, salt-baked celeriac, samphire and shellfish bisque; these scallops (pictured below), from the very loch on which Airds stands, were melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous, but the high point of the dish was the rich and savoury deliciousness of the shellfish bisque.
I was excited by the concept of the Pigeon Wellington, with wild mushroom and chorizo, but while the flavours were delicious the pastry felt like it needed another ten minutes in the oven. By which time, I suppose, the pigeon within would have been dried out. Perhaps this dish needs a little more thought? But the fillet of beef, with braised cheek, duxelles, shallot textures and Bordelaise sauce was a return to divinity on a plate, the combination of flavours presented here, with the soft bite of the beef (pictured below), the savoury shallots, and the oozing umami-rich depth of the red-wine-and-marrow Bordelaise sauce nothing less than sublime. Nothing else matched the star quality of this dish, and while the praline cheesecake, salted caramel and pistachio macaroon, followed by the dark chocolate délice with caramelised white chocolate were both delicious, it is the memory of that beef which still lives with me.
The wine list at Airds includes some interesting bins. I was rather taken aback by the listing of the Sancerre Les Baronnes, from Henri Bourgeois, at £89 per bottle, although since I last bought a bottle of this entry-level Sancerre retail prices seem to have doubled (when did that happen?) to stratospheric levels, which explains the price here. Instead I found more joy in Burgundy than in the Loire Valley (there is a first time for everything); the 2018 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles worked well on the first night, even if the fruit and oak added a very subtle twist of confected sweetness. The 2016 Domaine Leflaive Macon-Verzé which I drank on the second night was a good step up, with subtle fruit swirled with mineral and oatmeal elements. It worked really well with the oyster, scallop and trout dishes. Of course, for those interested in matching wines, this is an option with the tasting menu.
My weekend away at Airds was a delightful opportunity to relax, take some fresh air, do a little walking and then to chill out over dinner, each evening kicking off with cocktails gathered around the crackling fire in one of the hotel’s two cosy lounges. The staff are friendly and never intrusive, the welcome warm and polite, appropriately formal but never overbearing. It was a joy to come here, and even the drive from Scotland’s east coast, past the majestic and rugged Glen Coe, was a joy. I have my fingers crossed that quality remains high now that Airds is in new hands, but with that proviso I thoroughly recommend a stay here. Just remember to pack a warm coat and some good walking shoes.
Prices: I paid my own way at Airds Hotel, taking advantage of a two-night weekend offer, which secured a room for two people, for two nights, for £287.50 per night. This includes dinner on the two nights, but with a £32.95 supplement (per person) for the tasting menu. The wines were £62 and £96, close enough to 300% of current retail price to be considered ‘fair’. Matching wines is another option, at £47.50 per person. With lunchtime sandwiches, beers, waters, cocktails and coffees, a weekend away at Airds could set you back to the tune of £800. (14/1/22)