Scotland... A breath of fresh Ayr
What is it about castles that so attracts us? Or, more to the point, what is it about Scottish castles that we find so enticing?
There's a sense of the macabre - or at least there is for any of us taken in by the Gothic preconceptions which might surround our take on the Scottish castle. But, as is often the case, there's a huge gulf between perception and reality.
So it was with some anticipation that my wife Catherine and I set off recently for a 'Scottish castle escape' in Ayrshire. The idea sounded so grand yet we feared the worst. We need not have worried. It was perfect.
The break began with a very pleasant crossing of the Irish Sea on the Stena Superfast ferry - which sails from Belfast to Cairnryan up to six times a day. The journey is just two hours and 15 minutes and with several lounges, restaurants, a cinema, a kids' play area and free wi-fi, it passes very quickly. You can even upgrade to the Stena Plus lounge or enjoy a sauna or Jacuzzi if you wish.
It's such a stress-free way of travelling, especially when your destination is the west Scottish coast or north west of England that we didn't even contemplate a flight - and all its associated stresses - when planning the trip. Plus, we got lucky, because we didn't realise until after all was booked that our ultimate destination - the five-star Glenapp Castle, just outside the Ayrshire village of Ballantrae - was only a 20-minute drive from the ferry terminal in Cairnryan.
Glenapp Castle is more than everything you hoped it might be. We arrived at the same time as two ladies who were treating themselves to afternoon tea and that set the tone for our stay. As we waited to check-in, the excitement as the ladies were fussed over brought home to us that we were in a special place. Several hours later, after we had gone for a stroll around the stunning castle grounds and taken the car out to explore Ballantrae, we passed through the drawing room again and the two ladies were still engrossed in conversation in front of a roaring fire and were still being fussed over by the attentive staff.
Our room, or rather rooms, for we had a bedroom, lounge and large bathroom, offered us a spectacular view across the glen and out to sea and whetted our appetite for our planned walk the next morning. The glen walk is beautiful, but also a little muddy at this time of year, so if you're not prepared, then boots, warm coats and a map will be left out for you. The castle will also provide you with bicycles so we took a cycle along the coast, through Ballantrae and north towards Ayr before circling back around.
There is nothing ordinary about meal times at Glenapp Castle. An aperitif in front of the aforementioned fire or, better still, in the library, is recommended. On our first night, we opted for the six-course dining experience and it was sensational.
Because we found it so spectacular, I actually kept the menu, so here's a rundown of what we had: White onion and leek veloute with white truffle oil; beetroot risotto with parmesan, feta and aged balsamic; pan-seared fillet of Loch Duart salmon with pink grapefruit and coriander emulsion; grilled fillet of west coast cod with ratatouille couscous, wilted spinach and a cherry tomato and basil essence; chef's pre-dessert; hot apple crumble souffle with freshly churned bourbon vanilla ice cream and a selection of Scottish cheeses. I'll leave that there!
As much as we would have liked to spend all of our break soaking up the luxury of the castle and its surrounds, we wanted to explore the area too.
Although there is no spa in the castle, there is access to Pebbles Spa and Leisure just a couple of minutes away, with a gym, a wide range of treatments and an infinity pool.
Ailsa Craig looms large along this part of the Scottish coastline and the castle will organise a boat trip to the iconic rock, which is a wildlife sanctuary and home to over 40,000 sea birds, including puffins, guillemots, gannets and razorbills. The summit of Ailsa Craig - at around 1,100 feet - offers incredible views. The boat trip includes a picnic lunch and wine.
If golf is your thing, another suggested boat excursion available at Glenapp Castle is to the more remote golfing outposts off the Scottish west coast, including to the courses on the island of Arran or the spectacular Machrihanish links on the Mull of Kintyre.
The beauty of travelling to Scotland by ferry is that having your car expands your options. The sleepy fishing village of Portpatrick lies south of Cairnryan, a few miles from Stranraer. It's the kind of place where you can feel right at home with your woolly hat and your woollier jumper. The bars and restaurants along the harbour are extremely inviting - especially on a cold November afternoon. We took a stroll along the cliff-top, its well-worn path a sure sign that it is a popular track. Across the Irish Sea lies the Antrim headland of Islandmagee, maybe 30 miles away, and as we enjoyed a drink by the fire in one of the village's homely bars I couldn't help wondering about the connections between the two, especially with a name like Portpatrick. Indeed, further investigation revealed a long history between the village and the north of Ireland, as it was once an important ferry port.
Portpatrick actually hit the headlines a few years ago when the local community formed a Trust and raised enough money to buy the harbour and secure its future, and by extension, their own future.
Galloway Forest Park, about 25 miles inland from Ballantrae, is an amazing place for outdoor enthusiasts - walking, trekking, cycling, mountain biking... it's a vast, unspoiled landscape covering around 300 square miles. Indeed, it's so unspoiled that it is now known as a dark sky park because light pollution levels are so low that on a clear night you can see over 7,000 stars with the naked eye.
There are several visitor centres at different locations where you can start your chosen adventure from. One that came highly recommended is the short stroll from Loch Trool up to Bruce's Stone, one of two sites in the park linked to Robert the Bruce, which commands incredible views. If you are more adventurous than me, you can continue on from here to the Merrick, the highest summit in Scotland's Southern Uplands.
Of course, it wouldn't be a trip to Scotland without the obligatory whisky tasting experience and the castle staff are very helpful if you want to organise one during your stay. There are plenty to choose from, but the Whisky Experience in nearby Kirkoswald is popular.
We managed to pack a lot in during our short stay, striking a nice balance between making the most of our time in such an amazing castle and getting to see a little of the area. As you leave towns and villages in this part of the world, you are greeted with a sign, Haste Ye Back. And as we drove out of Ballantrae on our last afternoon the feeling was, Indeed We Will.
Rooms at Glenapp Castle start from £295 per night (B&B). See glenappcastle.com for more information.
Stena Line sails from Belfast to Cairnryan, with a choice of up to six sailings a day on the Stena Superfast VII and Stena Superfast VIII from as little as £79 single for car and driver.
The ships are equipped with lounges, a restaurant and a kids play area, with video games, cinema and free wi-fi. Customers can upgrade to the luxurious Stena Plus lounge from £16 per person single and indulge in a wide selection of complimentary snacks and beverages or indulge in the Pure Nordic Spa where you can make the most of the Jacuzzi and sauna from £10 per person.
To make a booking, click on www.stenaline.co.uk, call Stena Line on 0044 8447 707070, or visit your local travel agent.
Sunday Indo Living