Sitting on the shores of Loch Gairloch, the beauty of this quiet enclave in the north west Highlands of Scotland has made it a favourite destination for both pop stars and the Royal Family alike. coast editor-in-chief Alex Fisher reveals its secret appeal
The leaves are just beginning to turn golden, peppering the dense, green backdrop to our journey with gold and bright yellow. As the hour- and-a-half drive from Inverness Airport takes us through the rolling valleys, past lochs and mountains, city life falls away and nature takes over. After following the winding river, we swing a right and find ourselves outside an elegant Victorian building overlooking Shieldaig Bay on Loch Gairloch, which stretches out to the ocean.
This is a place where the forest meets the sea – there are no towering buildings or busy roads spoiling my view. Later the same day, I see seals frolicking in the bay on my left, while a peregrine falcon soars over branches to my right. This is the kind of welcome visitors have come to expect on the lawns of Shieldaig Lodge Hotel, the recently refurbished Victorian hunting lodge where I am lucky enough to be staying for the weekend.
Not many hotels can boast grounds of 26,000 acres; with eight hill lochs and the Badachro River, there are countless opportunities to experience nature by foot, bike, horse, boat or canoe from the lodge. The wildlife that resides here is phenomenal. If you are lucky, you might even spot golden eagles in the forest. Out at sea, dolphins, seals and porpoises are common, but there are also sightings of orca, minke and humpback whales, along with basking sharks and sunfish.
The hotel itself offers falconry and fishing, as well as a sublime Scottish menu of truly locally sourced ingredients, featuring langoustines and scallops, trout and venison, accompanied by the widest selection of whiskies and gins I have ever seen, along with Badachro Gin, hand-distilled in the village. Travelling just a few miles around the coast, you’ll find vast expanses of sandy beaches, unspoilt by developments or traffic, still wild and as they have been for hundreds of years. Such is the beauty of this remote region, it was one of the more private locations frequented by the Royal Yacht Britannia, with Far Away Beach, in particular, said to be well-loved by the Queen, a passion shared by the lead singer of Jamiroquai, Jay Kay, who bought a home nearby.
6PM WHISKY-BLENDING CLASS
Like Marmite, whisky tends to be either loved or hated, but Shieldaig Lodge says, if you don’t like it, you just haven’t tried the right one for you yet. With a comprehensive collection of more than 250, they are probably right. With a dram from every distillery in Scotland, along with what they believe is the best whisky from every country that produces the drink, they are experts in the field here. Flavours can vary from dark and peaty to golden and floral, and such are the variations they also offer a whisky flight, as well as a wine flight, with some of their dinners. If you still feel you want to experiment further, you can book into your own whisky-blending class at the hotel. This is an opportunity to learn the difference between a grain and a malt, the effect of ageing in wooden barrels and the fascinating history of the tipple. The class looks like a complex science experiment, with glass test-tubes, pipettes and an array of golden to chocolate-coloured whiskies laid out on the table. If you decide that you love your blend, they will even make a bottle up for you to take home.
Classes cost £80 per person, and a bottle of your blend may range from £40 to £100, depending on your choices. Book the class through Shieldaig Lodge Hotel on 01445 741333 or visit shieldaiglodge.com.
7PM WELCOME DINNER
Many hotels these days will strive to source their food locally, but head chef at Shieldaig, Jerome Prodanu, is really spoilt for choice. Tonight’s supper focuses on local meat and game, and includes Highland cattle beef, rare breed lamb, Ardgay Estate pheasant and venison from the lodge’s own herd of deer. A three-course meal costs £39, book on 01445 741333 or visit shieldaiglodge.com.
10AM OWLS and RAPTORS
After a splendid Scottish breakfast featuring the creamiest porridge possible, we head out onto the lawn to fly owls and raptors with Falconry Scotland, which has a base within the hotel grounds (closed during winter months). The passion shared by the falconers for these often-rescued birds, sometimes originally bought as pets (particularly owls after the popularity of Harry Potter) is infectious, and it’s thrilling to have a huge bird of prey fly towards you and eat from your gloved hand. Prices start at £45 per person for an hour-long session. To book, call 01445 741738 or email [email protected].
2PM THE KINGDOM OF ISLONIA
Today I was delighted to receive a new passport, a passport to a truly magical island. The constitution of the Kingdom of Islonia is stated on the document and reads: All visitors must smile. All children must obey their parents… Sole residents of this four-acre realm, which can be accessed via a narrow bridge or boat, Ian and Jess McWhinney and their two children, declared themselves independent in 2010 and, although not yet officially recognised, it’s true to say the land certainly has its own unique culture and history. Ian’s family have lived and fished here for generations and he will take you on a personal tour, telling stories handed down through his family about how life has been here over the centuries. It’s also possible to book a trip on his creel fishing boat, where you can help bring in the day’s catch, for £25 per person. For more information, call 01445 741263 or go to visitislonia.com.
7PM SHELLFISH DINNER
Tonight, Shieldaig Lodge is showcasing local shellfish. Crab, lobster, oysters, scallops and langoustines are caught right in front of the hotel, much of which is frozen and sent to London. However, the hotel is able to buy fresh seafood direct from the local fishermen, meaning it goes from sea to plate in a matter of hours. We start with an amuse-bouche of Cullen Skink and crab soup, followed by seared Shetland scallops and Shieldaig Bay lobster tails. The mouth-watering platter retains the delicate flavours of the sea and couldn’t be fresher. Flavoured with herbs from the kitchen garden and with the addition of locally smoked salmon, it’s a feast to be slowly savoured. As mentioned previously, visitors can book onto a fishing trip with the Islonia creel boat through the hotel, and combine a historic tour with bringing in the day’s catch and have that catch cooked into a gastro feast back at the hotel (in addition to the boat trip fee of £25, this costs £75 per adult for a full seafood gastro feast, £15 per child, and £20 per adult for fish. Prior booking at the hotel is essential).
10AM PONY TREKKING
There’s nothing quite like riding a horse across a sandy beach, and many people don’t realise how easy this is to do without leaving the country. We drive just a couple of miles to the Gairloch Trekking Centre at Redpoint. Here, hardy native ponies take us through the dunes onto the deserted, sandy beach, where we trot in the shallows and wade through pools. What a heavenly way to spend a morning. The ponies have a weight limit of 15 stone. Book on 01445 741743 or visit gairlochtrekkingcentre.co.uk.
1PM LOCAL TALES
After our pony ride, we drop into the Badachro Inn on the way back to the hotel. This welcoming pub has fantastic views overlooking the bay, and you can sit outside on the veranda and watch the boats bobbing in the water. There are plenty of local stories to be heard as you sample excellent Scottish seafood or traditional haggis, neeps and tatties with onion gravy. Most people who live around here have a tale to tell about some encounter with various friendly members of the Royal Family, who used to frequent the village when travelling on the Royal Yacht Britannia, and these make for an entertaining lunch (01445 741255, badachroinn.com).
2PM HIGHLAND WALK
Surrounded by such a stunning landscape, it would be a crime not to explore this further during a visit to the region. You can walk directly from the hotel – no car needed to venture into the Highlands – and there are a multitude of short or long treks into the hills. Popular locations are the Fairy Lochs, where there are still the remains of the WWII Liberator aircraft, which tragically crashed into the loch. You can also head to the Flowerdale Glen waterfalls. Wherever you go in Gairloch, you’ll find views across lochs and out to sea that are truly breathtaking.
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at Shieldaig Lodge, a stunning, recently refurbished 12-bedroom hotel overlooking Shieldaig Bay. Rooms here range from £200 to £375 in the summer, and £160 to £250 in the winter. Christmas packages are three nights DB&B from £1,100. To book, call 01445 741333 or visit shieldaiglodge.com.
Kayaking trips can be arranged by Ewe Canoe; seals will often accompany you on these trips! Call 07980 588467 or go to ewecanoe.co.uk.
Badachro Gin is made in small batches locally. Find our more at badachrodistillery.com.
How to get there
The nearest airport is Inverness, and the lodge can arrange pick-up from there, or a car can be hired. The journey from the airport takes approximately one and a half hours.