Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews
The Scotsman (Saturday 9 June 2007)
King of the Castles
IT WAS when we saw the saucer of sliced lime on our table that we realised Glenapp Castle was something special.
At dinner the previous evening, my fiancée Isabelle had asked for some lime to go with the bottle of fizzy water we had ordered. A small plate of neat slices duly appeared. When we arrived for dinner the following evening, and before we had ordered anything, the lime was already there.
That attention to detail confirmed our suspicions that the hotel, situated just outside the village of Ballantrae on the Ayrshire coast, was something out of the ordinary.
We had arrived on a Friday evening and, during the 90-minute drive from the centre of Glasgow, speculated on what might lie in store for us. Our experience of five-star accommodation was pretty limited, so we let our imaginations run wild. It is safe to say, however, that neither of us were prepared for the two days of unbridled luxury that were to follow.
When we finally arrived at the castle's imposing gates - the lack of roadside directions were a minor annoyance at the time but, on reflection, it served to underline the hotel's exclusivity - we were immediately impressed. Guests have to buzz the hotel to notify staff of their arrival, allowing a proper welcome to be prepared.
After motoring up the mile-long, tree-lined driveway, we were confronted by the hotel's imposing façade. Built in 1870 for James Hunter, the deputy lord lieutenant of Ayrshire, the castle retains the aura created by the celebrated architect David Bryce.
Our bags were taken from us by one helpful member of staff while another parked our car - a piece of pampering completely alien to me. After signing the guest book in the oak-panelled reception area, we were shown to the "Earl of Inchcape" master bedroom, named after the aristocrat who bought the castle and its surrounding land in 1917.
It is no exaggeration to say - and I am not embarrassed to admit it - that the room was bigger than our flat in Edinburgh's Meadowbank. It had ample space for a four-poster bed, two chaise longues and a three-piece suite.
The adjoining bathroom was equally luxurious, with a fabulous walk-in shower and enormous bath, which Isabelle immediately acquainted herself with while I found out just how many channels we could get on the television.
One of the major inducements to visit Glenapp Castle was the promise of sampling a menu created by Michelin-starred chef Matt Weedon.
Helpfully, the menu for the evening's six-course dinner had been dropped off in our bedroom and the two of us were virtually salivating as we read it. The ballotine of Gressingham duck caught my eye, while Isabelle was particularly looking forward to the poached apple with vanilla parfait.
As far as I'm aware, I had never previously eaten a meal prepared by a chef boasting one of the prestigious Michelin ratings, and I wasn't disappointed. After an amuse bouche of cullen skink - deliciously creamy and dotted with chunks of potato and fish - it was time for the duck, which was accompanied by fine beans in truffle dressing and Madeira jelly.
Delicious as it was, it was soon bettered by the pan-fried fillet of red mullet with a tomato, basil and langoustine risotto and bouillabaisse sauce.
Halfway through our six courses I began to wonder whether I could make it to the end, and my doubts seemed well-placed when the roasted loin and braised shoulder of Highland lamb with wild leeks, young vegetables and rosemary jus arrived. Although not a massive fan of lamb, the meat was so wonderfully moist and tender that I ignored my straining waistband and greedily cleared my plate.
Isabelle decided not to finish hers, no doubt with half an eye on the upcoming dessert, which duly arrived after we had nibbled at the cheese course.
Thoroughly satisfied, we retired to the drawing room with our bottle of St Aubin La Pucelle, where we relaxed for a while before heading for bed.
The following morning, we decided to walk off the previous night's gastronomic exertions by exploring some of the 30 acres of gardens and woodland which surround the castle.
We also walked into Ballantrae to visit the pebbly beach and had probably covered nearly five miles by the time we got back to the hotel.
Taking that as justification for ordering more food, we arranged for soup and sandwiches to be sent up to the room. Although they were very tasty I couldn't help thinking that the £30 we were subsequently charged was a bit on the steep side.
After a well-deserved afternoon snooze, we prepared for our evening meal which, judging by the menu left in our room, would be every bit as impressive as the night before. The light smoked salmon mousse topped with crème fraîche, lemon and capers was probably my favourite dish of the whole weekend, while the mixed salad - again with smoked salmon - freshened our palates in preparation for the mouth-watering roasted Isle of Arran scallops accompanied by cauliflower puree and crispy pancetta.
The sirloin of Scotch beef rossini with pomme lorette - essentially, little deep-fried balls of mashed potato - was simply outstanding, the meat having been perfectly cooked just the right side of medium-rare.
Again, we limited ourselves when it came to the cheese - although we could happily have eaten a whole block of the Mull of Kintyre cheddar - leaving us with just enough room for the classic lemon tart with raspberries.
After some deeply unscientific debate - at one point I suggested we just flip a coin - Isabelle and I decided that the second night's menu had won by the shortest of short heads. And not just because of the saucer of lime.
Graham and Fay Cowan, who opened Glenapp Castle as a hotel in 2000 after six years of painstaking restoration work, say they want to "make life as easy as possible" for their guests. Judging by our own experience, they definitely succeed.
The Jaguars and BMWs parked outside prove that Glenapp Castle is very much aimed at a niche market, but that is not to say that the experience is in any way elitist. On the contrary, the hotel's laid-back atmosphere means that the seriously wealthy can happily rub shoulders with those who have saved up all year for a special treat.
It is a difficult balancing act which Glenapp Castle pulls off with aplomb. I think it might well be time for me to get saving.
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