Glenapp Castle Hotel in Scotland
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Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews

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The Scotsman (April 2005)

IMPECCABLE MANOR by Lee Randall

"Effortless style, fabulous food and a very warm welcome. Glenapp has it all."

I can’t count the number of luxury hotels that have put me off the notion of ever leaving home again. Chief among my complaints are bizarre décor (such as the “suite” containing two televisions but no dividing wall separating bedroom from living quarters), baffling electronics (I shouldn’t need and HNC to operate the bedside lights), or tortured cuisine (foam, anyone?).

So pay attention when I tell you that Glenapp Castle is perfection itself. Or if you doubt my powers of discernment, listen to the experts.

Though it only opened in 2000, Glenapp has won a clutch of awards including three AA red stars and rosettes, four red turrets from Michelin, five stars from the Scottish Tourist Board, Johansens Most Excellent Country House Award in 2002, and Andrew Harper’s Hideaway of the year in 2001. It’s also a member of Relais & Chateaux.

This lovely pile bears an impressive pedigree, dating back to 1870 when it was designed in the Scottish Baronial style by architect David Bryce for James Hunter, then Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire. In 1917 it was bought by James Lyle Mackay, who subsequently became the first Earl of Inchcape, and it stayed in his family of shipping magnates – who expanded and improved the estate – until 1982.

But by 1994, the castle was seriously neglected, having fallen off the TLC radar in about 1987. Enter Graham and Fay Cowan. She was a hotel manageress and he a country vet. Both were itching for a life change allowing them to spend less time travelling and more quality time with family.

Glenapp was in a sorry state. In addition to structural problems such as damp rot, doors falling off their hinges, and black and peeling windows, the placed suffered from the ravages of interlopers who held impromptu parties, vandalising and littering the place by way of thanks. Not a pair to shrink from a challenge, the Cowans – along with Fay’s parents – acquired the hotel after a solid year of negotiations, then set about the six year project of restoring the castle to its former glory.

The results are impressive and spot on the money. Too often, country house hotels suffer from terminal tweeness, full of overblown and overly profuse chintz, tartan run wild, and heraldic escutcheons up the ying yang. Yet from the moment we pulled into the drive to be greeted by an enthusiastic spaniel, helpful staff, and the owners themselves, I suspect we were on to something special, a hunch confirmed upon entering the Austrian oak panelled reception hallway with its bifurcated stairway and inviting low slung chairs.

En route to our bedroom we passed two large residents’ lounges with high, corniced ceilings and a wealth of chairs designed for luxuriating – sheer perfection if your goal is to while away the hours reading, sipping tea and contemplating your great good fortune at being here. We also passed two dining rooms, one fitted out in romantic red, the other in cheerful golden yellows. All these public spaces have mullioned floor to ceiling windows offering tantalising glimpses of the 20 acres of grounds.

To our delight we were housed in the enormous ground floor Earl of Orkney master bedroom (pictured below). How big was it? Suffice to say the canopied king size bed was a mere speck on the horizon, dwarfed by multiple crystal chandeliers and at the far end, seating commodious enough to allow a family of five to cosy around an inviting gas fire. Just as well, since it was a dreich weekend and we spent a lot of time indoors.

EARL OF ORKNEY, A MASTER ROOM The Earl of Orkney Luxury Bedroom
The "EARL of ORKNEY" ~ A Master Bedroom

Despite the rain, we were lured out for a peek at Glenapp’ s magnificent gardens, once open to the public but now exclusively for the use of guests. We sloshed around the walled garden, attempted to without much success to identify exotic blooms in the 150 foot Victorian greenhouse, and generally marvelled at the beauty of it all, ever thankful we didn’t have the job of weeding.

As is our wont on such weekends away, the husband and I lazed about, but for those made of perkier stuff, Glenapp has a tennis court and croquet equipment. If you fancy golfing you can choose from Turnberry (though you have to book well in advance), Royal Troon, Prestwick, or other local courses. If that doesn’t float your boat, why not ask the Cowans to organise rough shooting, archery, fishing, horse riding or a session of curling?

“We want our visitors to consider themselves honoured personal guests in our home,” say the Cowans, and that’s how we felt. They, like their well trained staff, were everywhere and nowhere at once, attentive and personable without becoming intrusive or overbearing. They’re on hand to answer any question, to pore over the restoration photos (two bulging albums that make my DIY projects look manageable), and talk you through the local history.

A word to the wise: do print out the detailed directions the Cowans provide in your confirmation e-mail. I failed to read the bit warning the castle wasn’t signposted, and after driving around in circles we had to stop several residents of Ballantrae out for afternoon constitutionals. On the plus side, they were happy to help and convinced us that the denisens of this wee village are some of the friendliest in Scotland, a theory confirmed by an afternoon visit to the village pub where we received a warm welcome. What else can I say except that if you have a special occasion coming, start saving. Glenapp won’t be the cheapest weekend break you’ll ever take, but if your experience is anything like ours, it will be the most memorable.

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