Arriving at Eriska, over a rickety-sounding bridge, is quite something. A narrow, single-track road winds through deserted countryside, past dilapidated farm steadings, lonely stone cottages and puddle-bathing ducks, before suddenly, you’re on the bridge, which click-clacks noisily as you drive over it and onto the Isle of Eriska.
Over the water, a drive leads you through woodland, red and gold even on a dull autumn day, which opens out to reveal a lawn, across which stands the imposing Isle of Eriska hotel. It’s a tall, grey building, Baronial in style. Inside the main entrance we pass wooden racks stacked with wellies, neat stands of umbrellas and a handy nook in which to hang your coat, before being seated in the grand drawing room – all squishy sofas, roaring fires and low coffee tables. It’s pleasantly like arriving at the home of some grand, distant relative (not that I have any relatives that live in Scottish castles, distant or otherwise).
We have a cup of tea and recover from the drive (a scenic four and half hours from Northumberland) before we’re shown to our home for the weekend – one of Eriska’s Hilltop Reserves. There are six of these secluded self-contained residences on the hill above the main hotel, a two minute drive away by track, or a five minute walk up a slightly perilous path through the damp woods.
Our Reserve is a dream in heather and grey – perfectly at ease with its picturesque surroundings – and comes complete with an extremely well-equipped kitchen, a comfortable living area, Sky TV, wifi, its own phone line, a spacious bedroom, luxurious ensuite, and a hot tub on the private deck which has views over the treetops to the sea loch, the island of Lismore and beyond. It’s quite simply stunning.
Having set off early, we’ve got all afternoon to enjoy. It’s started to drizzle a little (par for the course in Scotland in October) so we decide to start with the spa. Separate from the main hotel, the spa building contains the informal Deck Restaurant, a golf shop, a gym, swimming pool, spa rooms and treatment rooms. After a light lunch in the Deck (delicate smoked salmon for me, a steak sandwich for my partner, and a glass of white wine each), we hit the pool. Briefly. Not being big on swimming, we spend most of our time in the sauna, the steam room and the spa pool before heading back to our Reserve.
At 8pm, we present ourselves at the main hotel for dinner. Canapés arrive first (including a perfect smoked salmon fishcake), followed by bread (beer bread and porridge bread) before we get to the starters – which are outstanding. I have grouse with onion, thyme and bay purée, while my partner chooses warm smoked salmon with apple. For our main courses, we try venison with brassicas, and a pan-fried halibut dish with fennel salad, all accompanied by a bottle of the house white – a refreshing Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
All of this is marvellous – but as a committed turophile I’ve been eyeing up the cheese trolley all night as it’s made its way around the restaurant and stopped off at almost every other table.
The cheese board at Eriska is best described as majestic, a solid wooden trolley conveying more than 50 British cheeses – hard, soft, smoked, goats’, sheep and everything in between. There are also a few French ones just in case 50 isn’t enough to choose from. Among the (many) I try are Blue Murder stilton, Shropshire blue and Lancashire bomb (which looks like a cannon ball in black wax). Among my favourite new discoveries is a soft Scottish cheese which is rolled in oats and peppercorns.
It’s late by the time we leave the table, so after a drink in the bar to refresh ourselves for the walk home, we set off up the track in the rain (picking up a couple of umbrellas as we leave).
Breakfast is a grand affair at Eriska – think polished napkin rings, silver tea strainers and honey in a china pot. The morning is clearer, and freshly-baked pastries, porridge, fruit, eggs and smoked salmon set us up nicely for a day exploring the island.
It’s dry when we set off from our Hilltop Reserve. Just behind our little house, we find a cairn which offers those same spectacular views to the west, but this time we can look east too, towards Loch Creran and the mainland.
Eriska is a brilliant place for exploring. You’re free to wander as you like, so we start by following a path north through surprisingly lush woodland to the top of the island, and discover the heronry, a fabulous lookout point and a small, rocky bay with seriously good shells. Turning left, we then follow the coast as it winds past a floating pier and soon stumble across the golf course, which runs down the west side of the island. Eventually we reach the southernmost part of the island and the bridge, which we stop to examine before continuing east on our loop of Eriska.
Even having explored the whole of the island, we have plenty of the afternoon to enjoy our Hilltop Reserve – which is handy, because the sun has come out and the views from the hot tub are better than ever. I do manage to tear myself away for long enough to head down to the spa for a stupendously relaxing back, neck and shoulder massage, after which it’s time to change for dinner, and make our way back down the track to the hotel. After a swift drink (an espresso martini for me, and a gin and tonic for my partner) we’re ready to tackle Eriska’s tasting menu.
We’ve gone for the five course option, on the basis that seven really would be too many. However, having enjoyed rosemary crostini with sour cream and onion oil with our drinks, and a selection of amuse bouche (including a perfectly-peppery haggis bon bon) as we sat down at the table, then more of that moreish beer and porridge bread, we’ve somehow had three courses before the ‘first’ course even arrives.
When it does, it’s a dish which displays the true beauty of the humble potato in its various forms. In coming days my partner will insist the dish was called ‘Potato Delight’, but I’m fairly confident he’s making it up. Next up is a beef tartare with a strong, earthy base note, then it’s time for the fish course – crispy pan-fried bream – before roast breast of duck with crispy leg and onion. The final course is a coffee bomb with milk ice cream and a sugary donut. This is almost enough to finish us off, but mindful that it’s our final night, and having very much enjoyed my five (read: seven) course tasting menu – I decide to order the cheese again. Just to make sure.
Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa & Island
Near Oban, Argyll
Bed and breakfast rates in the main hotel start from £430 per night. Hilltop Reserves start from £450 per night.