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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

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Earn your relaxation

The area around Loch Earn in Scotland is like the Lake District without the crowds.

It is a calm and restful destination that retains a quality sought out by people keen to get off the beaten track – as I stood on the shore of the Loch with no one else around, I felt like the first to discover this magical place.

Less than three hours from Carlisle, it is close enough for a weekend break and the journey once you turn off the busy A9, is spectacular.

We passed through quaint villages one after another as we headed to St Fillans for a two-night stay at the Achray House Hotel and Lodges by Loch Earn in Perthshire. St Fillans is a gorgeous village strung along the edge of the loch and the hotel is right in its midst.

As soon as we arrived, we were drawn to the loch and stepped onto the hotel’s own jetty to look down into its clear depths. Hotel owner Alan Gibson, who took over Achray House with wife Jane last Autumn, bounded down to meet us.

He had just rebuilt the jetty with help from a few locals in time for the annual St Fillans boat race, which traditionally stops at the hotel for a hot supper. But the loch is apparently not as benign as it first appears.

The wind that sometimes races across its surface in the winter creates a kind of tide that can raise the water level by several feet, often taking jetties with its retreat.

Our spacious room looked out over the water and after a quick change, we headed to the bar for a pre-dinner taste of the hotel’s own take on a Kir Royale – sparkling wine and locally-produced raspberry juice.

Local produce and even homegrown vegetables are sprinkled generously thoughout the menu, which is served in the restaurant looking over the loch.

The intriguingly named lovage, sorrel and Dunsyre Blue tart was light and delicious – the lovage came straight from the garden – and was served with a whisky tomato relish, new potatoes and salad. My husband’s choice of medallions of peppered venison served over haggis with a malt whisky sauce went down equally well.

The lavender-infused pannacotta served with a rhubarb compote and ginger shortbread was a cleverly thought out dessert, that challenged my tastebuds. While my husband’s chocolate pot enriched with Drambuie disappeared in a flash before I even got a taste.

This was just the start of the evening as Alan took us on a journey of malt whiskies, giving advice on how to drink them. It was the first time I’d enjoyed malt whisky and can begin to understand what everyone’s raving about.

After a breakfast of home-smoked local salmon and scrambled eggs the next morning, we pulled on our hiking boots and armed with a map and some directions from Alan, we headed for the hills.

Apart from fantastic views, all we saw once we left the village were sheep and not another soul, so we had a whole glen to ourselves for the day. We discovered lots of tracks that would be great for cycling and stumbled upon the old railway, which is eventually destined to become part of the national cycle network.

We planned to hire a boat and head out onto the loch but when we enquired at Drummond Estates, the elderly gentleman at the desk quietly shook his head and said even the fishermen were coming back early because it was too cold. His honesty saved us from several shivering hours trying to make the best of it.

Instead, we found a warm rock to lie on and watch the laser sailboats racing back and forth.

Back in the hotel lounge in front of the open fire, we relaxed with an early glass of whisky as we watched ospreys fishing in the loch before we sat down to another excellent dinner in the restaurant.

We walked it off with a moonlit stroll around the loch guided by some fishermen’s fires on the beaches.

Such peace and tranquillity isn’t easy to find on a bank holiday weekend these days. Try it before the hordes descend.

ANNA stayed for two nights in a loch view room on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. The two-night package for two people cost a total of £276. Achray House Hotel is cycle and walker friendly. Visit www.achray-house.co.uk or call 01764.

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