I have been an avid reader of the Michelin guide for many years. To me it’s as good as a Grisham or Forsyth novel with adventure and potential on every page. To some, the content may seem clunky and clumsy, but to me, it draws you in. Over the years I had noticed one gem that had particular appeal and abundant red ink (always an excellent sign with Michelin) making it stand out like a rose in full bloom amidst a clutch of other stems of a far more modest appearance. When I read more about this hotel’s unique history, its special location, its heralded food and glorious grounds I could resist no more.
One major issue to take into account when expectations are so high is that unwelcome sense of anti-climax. But I’m delighted to say that was never in evidence at this special place on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast: Glenapp Castle.
Dating from 1870, the castle is a striking and elegant example of the Scottish Baronial style. At the end of the hotel’s long and winding drive the metal gates are closed, so we press the intercom. After a brief exchange we are heading up the tree-lined, winding approach, with the glen rising on either side. At the hotel two young helpers instantly appear, eager to assist us with our bags, while a third, the assistant manager as it transpires, takes care of the paperwork. It’s a brilliantly efficient introduction to what at first glance appears to be a very special hotel.
Traditional in style, Glenapp’s oak-panelled hallway leads to cosy, well proportioned sitting rooms replete with antiques and paintings that are at ease with the grandness of the place. But it’s not austere or stiff – far from it. The sofas are comfy, the mood relaxed and the crackle of a roaring fire adds to the homely feel.
Oh and then we arrive at our bedroom, it’s superb. Vast windows look out over the manicured gardens and in the distance the mighty Ailsa Craig’s granite frame rises from the depths of the Firth of Clyde. Everything about the room is elegant and yet it still maintains a feeling of casual, informal warmth. There’s a sitting area, a vast bed and the walk-in wardrobes appear to be a room in themselves. The en-suite bathroom is also well laid out and of a generous size.
We order a well-earned cuppa and make a plan. We are staying for two nights (essential in my opinion) with a plentiful selection of things to do. This is a hotel which takes country pursuits seriously, there’s shooting and fishing, falconry displays on request, a tennis court and croquet lawn, plus golf at nearby Turnberry and Royal Troon. With only an hour or two of daylight left however, we settle on a walk in the grounds, following the hotel’s special map which highlights the various landmarks just waiting to be discovered. The Azalea Pond, the Ailsa Craig Gazebo, the Deer Park Steps, the Kilphin Burn Bridge, the Gertrude Jekyll and Robert Lorimer Gardens and The Grand Fir are just a brief selection of the 67 detailed on the map.
Needless to say I manage to get us lost on several occasions, but in so doing we discover, in a roundabout way, some of the plethora of crafted curios and nature's own offerings that make these rambling acres so appealing. It’s a glorious ensemble, enhanced further by the accompanying chorus of running water which meanders through the gaping glen. If you need a place to think, take stock and relax then this is it.
Returning to our room we have an hour or two before embarking upon another of Glenapp’s highlights; its food. The various menus thoughtfully left in our room had the tastebuds tingling in anticipation with a clever combination of seasonality and culinary expertise which clearly reflected the abundant local larder, roast loin of Galloway venison, for example. I was eager to put it to the test. The lounge area, which doubles as a perfect place for a pre-dinner aperitif, was speckled with fellow guests. We ordered a glass of fizz (well why not?) and decided what to select to maximise the scope of the menu. As ever, we chose the same things and then spent the next ten minutes debating who should get the alternative choice. I was being churlish as the menu, though far from long, offered an abundance of opportunity. Now I could give you a mouthful- by-mouthful guide to the next couple of hours but that would be a tad boring, just let me say this; if you enjoy really outstanding food then this restaurant has it in spades. It is exceptional.
However, despite this and our upbeat spirit, one bad bit of news had been delivered to us midway through dinner as I enjoyed my Atlantic halibut (excellent). My adventurous wife had read about the hotel’s boat and the possibility of a trip to Ailsa Craig, and prior to dinner had enquired about the chance (despite the stormy weather outside) of heading out the following morning. The receptionist said she would speak with the skipper but she wasn’t hopeful. Phew, I thought, without confessing as much.
Sadly, the receptionist reported, given the weather forecast that the captain had declined to sail. I was genuinely touched by the disappointment displayed by my ‘mariner maiden’ opposite and immediately cursed my wishing for the storm to stay rather than disperse…what a wimp!
After a delightful night's sleep I awoke ready for alternative adventure. I avoided any talk of the sea and instead considered the various places we might visit, Culzean Castle (Robert Adam’s 18th century masterpiece) seemed the stand-out choice, although golf at Turnberry also sounded appealing. But before that, breakfast was being served. As we headed to the dining room our phone rang. The storm had passed and with it came the news that the skipper had called and offered to take us out – it would be a bit choppy but perfectly safe. Well my wife was like a spring-heeled puppy and I (the old sea-dog) smiled (or was that a grimace?) in anticipation.
We drove twenty minutes down the coast to Girvan where the boat was moored ( a seemingly unsinkable, top of the range Redbay Stormforce II RIB) and were met by two delightful characters who entertained us with stories and kept us safe for the next five hours. It was an adventure from start to finish, and one I would happily recommend to all. Climbing a good portion of the Craig (thankfully not all 1,100 feet) tested me further, though not my redoubtable friend. I detest heights but she proved to be the consummate mountain goat. Despite a little discomfort I can not begin to explain the adventure of it all. The memories of Ailsa Craig will stay with you forever.
Returning to dry land we headed back to Glenapp, making the most of the late afternoon to explore more of its surrounding woodland and glen. We were also allowed a quick snoop at one of Glenapp’s newer highlights (and one which will be available for bookings shortly) a superb apartment which spans the upper floor of the castle. It will be a prime penthouse and perfect for small parties.
Being a hotel nerd I consider my stay here in context with other hotels. My conclusion is simple: of its type Glenapp is up there with the very best. It is not contemporary, it’s classic. It’s state of wellbeing is not found in a spa or a gym, but in the great and glorious outdoors with which the area is so blessed. It offers food produced with great flair and service that is assured but relaxed, and never overbearing. Glenapp is a very special place, but don’t just trust me or the Michelin guide – try it yourself. It’s a place to savour. It may not change your life but it will certainly enhance it.
Glenapp Castle Hotel
Ballantrae, Ayrshire KA26 0NZ