Mesmerising views of snow-capped mountains, scenic walking trails and pure tranquillity – the Scottish Highlands is a truly magical place to be in the winter.
Fluffy snow and glistening frost outline the scenery, while you enjoy peaceful walks without seeing another soul. In the evenings, curl up in front of the fire with a good book, a wee dram and sublime food.
If you want to relax and unwind with a luxury winter retreat, you’ll find what you’re looking for in the Highlands.
The Whispering Pine Lodge – Loch Lochy, Spean Bridge
Our first destination in the Highlands was The Whispering Pine Lodge in Spean Bridge, approximately nine miles north of Fort William. It was a six-hour drive from where we live in South Cumbria, but no hardship thanks to the stunning landscape that’s well worth pulling into the many lay-bys to admire.
Ahead of our getaway, we’d already decided that we were neither brave nor fit enough after the decadence of December to brave Ben Nevis. Instead, we climbed to the summit of Cow Hill opposite Nevis. It’s a route that’s a little steep in some parts, but an enjoyable 12km hike in which you’re rewarded with scenic views of Fort William when you reach the top.
The first impression of The Whispering Pine Lodge set the tone for our stay. The picturesque hotel hugs the shore of Loch Lochy, illuminating itself with twinkling fairy lights that outline the silhouette of the attractive lodge-style building.
Our decadent loch-side Mary Queen of Scots suite balanced traditional Scottish interiors and hand-picked antiques with modern touches, such as the walk-in shower coupled with his and her sinks. The lavish room is complete with a four-poster bed, roaring fire and separate lounge and dining area, looking out onto stunning views of the loch.
The combination of traditional meets contemporary is no coincidence. The Black Sheep Hotels group aims to make the Highlands a destination for all seasons and for all visitors who expect high-end hospitality. The idea was borne from the hotel group owner, businessman Sanjay Narang.
While based in India, Mr Narang and his sister Rachna visited the Highlands for a hiking holiday. While they fell in love with the area, they had a less than favourable stay in their accommodation. It was from this experience that they established the Black Sheep Hotels group, investing more than £12million into three properties. In a bid to align the hotels with Scottish roots, they insisted on working with local suppliers and employing local staff, as well as flying their own team in from India to begin new lives and careers in Scotland.
It’s easy to see that every member of the team is passionate about Scottish heritage. Great care has been taken to ensure that the area’s history is represented. For example, most staff can identify the clan to which the tartan that adorns the walls belongs. The chefs have also perfected the recipes of traditional Scottish dishes (of course, you’ll find haggis, neeps and tatties on the menus).
On our first evening at The Whispering Pine Lodge, we had dinner in the impressive Loch-side Brasserie. My husband, Tom, opted for the full traditional Scottish offerings; Cullen skink for a starter, haggis, neeps and tatties for his main course and Scottish baked yoghurt for dessert. I ordered the beautifully fresh teriyaki salmon main course and the traditional Scottish bread and butter pudding for dessert, which was pure childhood nostalgia served up in a skillet. The dinner service was efficient and friendly, and the dishes fantastically cooked and presented.
In the evening, it’s too dark to appreciate the views from the restaurant. But it’s a different story in the daytime when the dining area is transformed with the panoramic views of Loch Lochy. The colours and subtle movements of the scenery change by the minute and you could comfortably sit there for most of the day, simply watching the ever-changing views. We sipped coffee and sampled the breakfast selection of hot and cold options while admiring the incredible backdrop.
The winter sky looked like it was promising rain, so after our early breakfast, we walked a lovely loop around Loch Garry. This area of the Highlands is a walker’s paradise, which meant my feet were more than ready for some TLC. After clocking up the miles in walking boots, I headed to The Whispering Pine Lodge’s in-house spa for a much-needed massage and foot scrub. At the same time, Tom enjoyed some downtime in the warm and cosy Burns Bar.
The spacious design of our suite cried out for some rest and relaxation – reading a good book in front of the roaring fire. So that was exactly what we did before a refreshing afternoon tea in the suite’s dining area. The staff and kitchen went above and beyond to cater to Tom’s egg allergy. Instead of removing the egg elements completely, they either replicated the dish without the egg or offered a different egg-free alternative.
At first glance, our dinner plans that second evening seemed a little unusual. The Highlands might not be the first place that springs to mind when it comes to authentic Indian fare. However, Emily’s Byre restaurant (which is located in nearby sister Black Sheep Hotels venue, Rokeby Manor) is undoubtedly putting the area on the map for a phenomenal curry.
Every element was exceptional – from the vegetarian options of the North Indian slow-roasted black lentil dahl and roasted cauliflower with potato biryani to Tom’s choices of the classic butter chicken and Hyderabadi lamb shank. The standout surprise was the dessert – ‘kulfi’ (traditional Indian ice cream). The exact recipe is a closely guarded secret, but the dish is a beautiful assortment of perfectly-balanced nutty, delicate and fragrant flavours.
The Cluanie Inn – Glenmoriston, Inverness
Our next stop, The Cluanie Inn, was another scenic drive. It’s a route full of picture-perfect settings which means the journey takes twice as long because you want to pull into every lay-by to capture the moment and soak in the scenery.
The Cluanie Inn boasts a unique remote location in the picturesque Glen Shiel, on the way to the Isle of Skye. The inn is the epitome of laidback luxury. It is unpretentious, yet affords its guests an air of rustic, casual chic in every aspect of its offering. Our room, the Highlands Suite, presented amazing views of the snow-capped mountains outside each of the windows. The interiors were just as impressive as the exteriors, with a luxurious four-poster bed and fabulous jacuzzi bath.
As the sun began to set, we were lucky to catch an up-close sight of a deer herd immediately outside our window. It seemed clear they were also enjoying the laidback Highlands life that we had become accustomed to throughout the weekend.
The food at The Cluanie Inn matches the rustic ambience. The menu is inspired by mountain cuisine, with hearty classics such as burgers, ribs and steaks. There’s something for everyone, but the standout dish is the special Cluanie Fish ‘n Chips, which is their creative take on fish and chips (think crispy chunks of beer-battered cod, sole, prawns and calamari. It was so divine that I ate it twice while we were there!) Be sure to also sample the outstanding hot chocolate – it’s the perfect post-walk treat.
That evening, the snow began as a delicate icing sugar frosting at the peaks of the surrounding Munros, but later developed into a thick blanket up to your knees. However, if you’re going to be snowed in anywhere, there’s nowhere better than The Cluanie Inn. Sit yourself down in front of the crackling fires, cosy up with a good book, pick up a board game or simply savour the quality time with your guest.
Whatever you end up doing, the almost dream-like views of the spectacular surrounding scenery might prove distracting. It was those experiences that became the theme of our luxury getaway – enjoying incredible view after incredible view, with exceptional hospitality to match.
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