Review: A Weekend in Loch Lomond
From five-star stays and award-winning dining, luxurious spas to fast-paced tours (not to mention those views) a weekend in Loch Lomond doesn’t fail to impress
Our room is a spacious double with plenty of Scottish charm – think homely tartan and a naturally-inspired palette – and equipped with everything you’d need to enjoy a stay here. From the window, there’s an open view over the neat lawns to Loch Lomond itself, which is shining in the early evening sunshine.
On check in we were given a good overview of the hotel, but encouraged to explore it for ourselves to really get the hang of the place – and once we start, we can see why. As well as three restaurants (one of which we don’t actually find until just before we leave), there are also three bars here, including the comfortable, lounge-style Lobby Bar where we stopped for a coffee.
On top of all that, there’s a large leisure club (with an 18-metre swimming pool, a family pool with a slide, a steam room, sauna, bubble pool and gym) and the hotel even has its own cinema (complete with ticket and popcorn kiosk) which we sneak into to have a peek before the next screening starts.
For dinner, we walk out of the main hotel and along the shore to The Boat House, passing lochside lodges on the way. Our table is right in the window overlooking the marina – it’s quite a spot. The menu here is varied, featuring everything from burgers and pizzas to oysters, beef fillet and grilled fish. A bottle of chilled sauvignon blanc on order we sit back to enjoy the buzzy atmosphere.
I choose a salad to start, which is packed with spiced poached pear, walnuts and croutons, and tossed in a light blue cheese dressing. My partner orders a rich dish of pigeon breast with black pudding, spinach and blackberries. To follow, I’m presented with an indulgent dish of truffle mac and cheese topped with king prawns. It’s seriously good, but the portion size soon defeats me. Luckily once my partner has polished off his dish of Scottish lamb with herb crust, potato rosti and vegetables, he selflessly helps with a bit more of the mac and cheese.
After dinner, we head to the hotel’s Great Scots bar where the walls are lined with photographs of famous Scots (several of them personally signed), there are floor-to-ceiling windows facing the loch and a vast range of whiskys behind the bar. We know nothing about whisky, but my partner certainly enjoys his traditional whisky sour made with 10-year-old Glenmorangie.
Breakfast is served in the Grill restaurant, with a large buffet selection (think fresh fruit, pastries, juices, meat, cheese, cereals) plus hot dishes to order. We devour a couple of plates of eggs Benedict and some toast for good measure, rather thinking that we’re going to need plenty of energy for this morning’s activity: a guided walk up Conic Hill, on the other side of the loch.
Our expert guide, Derek from Experience Scotland’s Wild, meets us at the hotel’s main entrance and we’re soon on our way. The walk starts from the village of Balmaha and takes us up to the summit of Conic Hill, from which there will (we are promised) be incredible views, especially given it is an unseasonably beautiful day, with clear blue skies. We’ve got to get up there first though, and while it’s not a particularly long walk (around 3.3 miles in total), and Conic Hill is not particularly high (at 361 metres), it is seriously steep, with some narrow, uneven paths.
The promised views turn out to be more than worth the effort, taking in much of the loch and more dramatic scenery beyond. Conic Hill lies on the Highland Boundary Fault Line, and from here you can really see the change in the landscape from rolling Lowlands to the south to the more rugged Highland landscape to the north. As well as pointing out interesting geological features, Derek shares the kind of information you won’t find in the guide book, from the gossip on famous local residents to which island is home to a population of wallabies (yes, really).
Even including plenty of stops to admire the view (or catch my breath, more like) we’re up and down in less than two hours, so we have plenty of time to explore Balmaha a little. We take an easy stroll along the loch side and up to a small viewpoint, before we head back into the village to The Oak Tree Inn for a well deserved pub lunch of hearty kedgeree (for the boys), a delicious caprese salad (for me) and toasted sandwiches all round. Again Derek’s local knowledge comes to the fore – without him we would never have found the little sun-trap beer garden at the rear of the pub, where we’re out of the wind and can really enjoy the hot spring sunshine.
There’s no time to linger though, as we have to get back across to Cameron House, or more accurately, the Cameron Club. This is a couple of miles up the road from the main resort, and it’s where you’ll find the golf course, club house, and the Cameron Spa. Our two-hour hydro and thermal experience passes in a flash as we explore the large hydrotherapy pool (complete with air loungers, geysers and massage jets), the tepidarium, caladarium, saunas,hammam and aromatherapy steam room. There’s also a 20-metre relaxation pool with a jacuzzi, two types of experience shower and an ice fountain. It’s all just the thing for tired legs.
Saving the best for last, we head to the rooftop infinity pool, set in the eaves of the building, with its tantalising glimpses of Ben Lomond and the loch. From here you can also see the 18th hole, and we pass an enjoyable half hour watching the golfers come and go.
For our second night we’re staying on the shores of Loch Long. A scenic 30-minute drive from Loch Lomond, Knockderry House is a traditional Scottish country house hotel with criss-cross staircases, plenty of wood panelling and bags of character. The first order of business on arrival is a drink outside the front of the hotel as the sun starts to set over the loch. Behind a huge rhododendron at the bottom of the lawn we discover a secret gate which leads us across the road to a tiny pebbled beach, strewn with rounded stones perfect for skimming. We find that our room is classically decorated, with heavy wooden furniture and more cornicing than you can shake a stick at, and a small carved wood balcony which we sneak out of the window to have a look at. Knockderry House is eccentric, endearing, and we fall for it at once.
That evening, we enjoy three courses of truly outstanding food. First up we’re presented with applewood smoked bon bons topped with crispy kale, alongside some fresh homebaked bread with beetroot butter. Next, I’ve chosen hand-dived scallops with black pudding crumble, slivers of pickled apple and parsnip purée (a triumph), while my partner waxes lyrical about his confit duck with petit pois au Francaise, smoked pancetta and a deliciously jammy duck egg yolk.
My main course is a steaming dish of West Coast mussels mariniere, served with a side of more-ish garlic and herb fries. Dotted among the mussels like jewels are pieces of chorizo and (joy of joys) plump king prawns which have been cooked with wild garlic. My partner very nearly ordered the same thing, but at the last minute was convinced instead to order tonight’s special. He’s delighted as he tucks into his plate of perfectly-pink venison, which is served with a hearty slice of haggis wellington, potato fondant, and a side of spinach and leek gratin (an excellent recommendation from our waiter). After this we take a short break to drink some wine, marvel at the flavours we’ve just enjoyed, and decide whether to have dessert.
Which of course we do, in the form of tarte citron with Chantilly cream, candied lemon, honeycomb crumble and a mini meringue for him, and a Scottish cheese board (with grapes, celery and pickle) for me. The sun has been blazing all day, and so when we head upstairs we sleep with the windows open and are disturbed by nothing more than the dawn chorus and the soft heave of the loch.
‘Sitting in the very front of the boat, skipping over the water as we accelerate, we realise that this is the best way to see Loch Lomond’
On Sunday, another scenic drive takes us back to Loch Lomond, specifically Portnellan Farm, an organic farm on the loch’s south edge. There’s plenty going on at this gloriously tucked-away spot, where you can stay in self-catering cottages or go glamping, hire a kayak or even moor your boat, but we’re here for something a little more fast-paced: a speedboat tour of the loch.
Setting off from the farm’s jetty, our personable guide, farmer-turned-speedboat driver Chris takes us on a wide sweep of the south end of the loch, showing us the local sights you can’t see from any other angle, and taking us close to several of the islands which dot this part of the loch, some inhabited, others empty but for birds and wallabies (Chris has even seen the marsupials himself on one occasion). Sitting in the very front of the boat, skipping over the water as we accelerate, we realise that this is the best way to see Loch Lomond. Before we head back to the farm, there’s time for a quick visit to the island of Inchmurrin (the largest on the loch) where there happens to be a restaurant and bar set just back from the water’s edge.
Three generations of the same family live and work on Inchmurrin which has a few houses, some self-catering accommodation and a small sheep farm, as well as the restaurant which seems to function as a pub for the locals as well as being a popular dining destination for visitors. We’ve been lucky once again with the weather, and it’s great to sit on the terrace and enjoy a coffee before our trip ends and Chris sails (drives?) us back to Portnellan Farm to pick up the car.
There’s one more thing we wanted to check out while we’re here. Loch Lomond Shores is a visitor attraction right on the edge of the loch, in the village of Balloch. As well as a shopping centre where you’ll find everything from clothing, whiskey, souvenirs and jewellery to holiday essentials, there’s also a bucketload of great family activities, including Treezone, a bird of prey centre, an aquarium, a play park and an adventure golf course. We grab a quick lunch in the friendly Café Zest in Frasers (a couple of nice toasties and a portion of fries to share), then walk along the beach (passing the kayak hire and the picnic area) to get one last look at the loch before we have to head home. It’s another glorious day, and Loch Lomond is sparkling in the spring sunshine as we reluctantly take our leave.