Scoot - Dunalastair Hotel, Perthshire
shines all the more through a lack of gastro-fussing
If you're going to get lost in the Highlands, don't do it in a Ford Ka. That's what I'm thinking when I notice fingers of snow reaching down from the nearby hills, as the wind buffets the car and each slash of rain sounds more like someone throwing gravel at the windows (hey, we could have stayed in Glasgow for that). We're in a tin can in a tornado. Over the strangely apposite BBC2 soundtrack of 'Welcome to the Jungle', we contemplate our fate if the Ka broke down, while some suspicious sheep watch the car pass. For some reason, the moor scene from American Werewolf in London springs to mind. Probably because we are surrounded by moor. It would only need to be amended slightly to read "New Zealand Werewolves in Pitlochry."
First rule of journalism (after "always have a pen handy"): make sure you have all the information. Not a scribbly handwritten list of directions cribbed off Google Maps that disagrees with the road atlas about where you're going.
"Where are we going?" asks the driver, AKA my increasingly disgruntled boyfriend. "The Dunalastair Hotel – the warm heart of the Highlands! It's just left after this shortcut." I'm trying to sound breezily confident here, but it turns out that it's actually right, not left, which we discover after about half an hour of passive-aggressive grumbling and driving up and down the same bit of road five times. The landscape, however, is surreal in its beauty and in some places reminiscent of the cover art for Lemon Jelly's Lost Horizons, with vivid swatches of dark red merging to bright orange, to yellow and finally to green on the edge of Loch Dunalastair.
We eventually pull over to check the map again and let the 22 SUVs who've been tailgating us for the last ten miles past, and discover that we are, in fact, parked in the Dunalastair's service entrance.
So why are we here? Well, mostly to check out the romance of the Highlands in time for the February (ie Valentine's) issue of The Skinny. "You can't read maps – you can't even read your own handwriting," hisses the boyfriend as we wait to check in. Off to a flying start, then!
Inside, there's a warm fire and an equally warm check-in process that sees us swiftly delivered to our "Deluxe Blend" room – there's a sort of whisky theme going on but it's not too overpowering. In other words, while there is a plaid carpet in our wing, the rest of the room has soothing pale green walls which tone with the carpet, white plasterwork features, dark wood, a leather armchair by the enormous fireplace and slightly Hogarthian prints on the walls: a sort of modern Victoriana, minus the chintz.
If you happen to own a dog, a large benefit of the Dunalastair is that it is mostly pet friendly – they're allowed everywhere except the dining room. At the back of the hotel, there's the Stables Bar, a traditional bothy pub with a fire which also welcomes animals – just be aware that as it's part of the Dunalastair, hotel prices reign at the bar.
The grandest feature however, is the dining room. Though billed as "baronial", the giant antler chandeliers and antler wall sconces, intricately carved oak-panelled walls and a stag's head above the fireplace give it a surreal edge that elevates it far above the usual hotel restaurant. The waiting staff are comfortable enough in their roles to turn what could be an overly genteel atmosphere into an intimate one punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter and chatter from the couples lining both sides of the room.
And the food? Well, it's mostly local Highlands stuff which shines all the more through a lack of gastro-fussing. For an entrée, we have the Wild Pigeon and Rabbit Terrine with an Apricot Coulis, which my boyfriend describes as having a surprising, consistent texture. "The pigeon had the succulent bitterness of a good cheese, balanced by the sweetness of apricot," he adds, before I start worrying he's turning into Keith Floyd and tell him to shut up. However, my Cured Gravadlax with a red onion salsa almost turns me into a poet too; the firm, unmistakably fishy salmon strips combined with dill and sharp, sweet salsa to create a memorable dish.
The main courses, Beef Fillet with Potato Fondant and Baby Vegetables, and Fillet of Haddock with Pea Puree, come out as mini-Mondrians: each element arranged geometrically on the plate. The boyfriend says the beef is divine, and then stops talking for the ten minutes it takes him to devour it. Mine is a parallelogram of seared haddock on a pedestal of peas, surrounded by four rectangular pieces of potato and four roasted plum tomatoes, floating on a sea of buttery cream sauce. It's fish and chips with mushy peas – the deluxe version! It's a great idea, and it works very well. Being close to full, we skip dessert in favour of the cheese trolley, which appears before us in a wonderful waft of aged cheddar, picking out a stilton, a classic blue, a cheddar and finally a "crazy blue" that makes your eyes water and seems to suck all moisture from your mouth – in a really good way, of course.
The driving having taken its toll (plus a pint of Tennents in the pub and a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the extensive international wine cellar with dinner) we head for bed. Not very rock 'n roll, is it? However, this is what hotels are really about for people whose furniture usually comes in an Ikea flatpack: really big beds. The bed in the Deluxe Blend room is insanely large and comes with a vast leather headboard, setting the stage – literally – for whatever comes next, whether that's dozing off in front of the telly or action of (ahem) a more athletic nature. "I'm reviewing everything," I mumble to the boyfriend, scribbling notes prior to being claimed by the feather pillows, "including your performance." Then I spill some sauvignon blanc on him and start snoring. As I said, not very rock 'n roll, but at least we made up. Well, until the drive back.
Dunalastair Hotel, The Square, Kinloch Rannoch, near Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5PW
Tel: 01882 632323, Fax: 01882 632371