When Storm Desmond sweeps in from the north Atlantic and you’re holidaying on the remote Isle of Skye, there’s little to do but stay indoors with some good food and drink. And if you’re Estella Shardlow, an historic hunting lodge with a Michelin-starred restaurant isn’t a bad place to weather the storm…
It begins with an evening departure from Euston on the Caledonian Sleeper. Please dispel romantic images of the Orient Express now; though overnight sleeper services have been running between London and Scotland for 140 years, today’s cramped berths decked out in garish purple carpeting hardly scream ‘golden age of travel’. Still, there’s something exciting about falling asleep on your bunk bed in England (drinks in the lounge car help on that front; earplugs and eye masks are thoughtfully provided too) and waking up in a different country, even when you’re greeted with a lashing of icy rain when you stumble groggily out onto the platform. From Inverness, it’s a little over two hours to Skye on a second train, a route that winds through incredible scenery – forests of snow-powdered fir trees and craggy valleys, purple moorland blurring into bruised-looking skies, and sudden silvery expanses of loch. Kyle of Lochalsh is the end of the line, and from there it was a quick taxi ride across the Skye Bridge to our hotel on the southeastern side of the island.
The Caledonian Sleeper does just that, offering overnight travel between London and Scotland. For more information, visit www.sleeper.scot.
The tide is out as we approach Kinloch Lodge and the large white 18th century building – a former hunting lodge – is reflected in the sea-loch’s wet sand, a backdrop of purplish-red woodland behind. Still a little bleary from the overnight journey, we’re ushered into a snug reception room, sink onto the sofa beside the, scones log fire, and are swiftly presented with a tray of homemade shortbread and a pot of tea. Everything is homely and unequivocally Scottish – the rooms are swathed in tartan and plaids, with family photographs on the antique tables, vintage books and oil paintings of ancestors on the walls. Even the colour scheme seems to reflect the Highland scenery – rich umber, moss green and peat grey. Alongside the main lodge there is a smaller second house containing a spa treatment room (site of the best back massage I’ve ever had – therapist Anita Myatt really knows her stuff), a lounge and honesty bar, and bedrooms, one with a balcony overlooking the loch.
For all Kinloch Lodge’s cosiness and friendliness, dining here is a serious affair. This is a place with serious foodie pedigree, with award-winning cook and food writer Lady Claire MacDonald OBE at the helm and Head Chef Marcello Tully winning the restaurant three AA rosettes and a Michelin star. First, a trio of amuse bouche – perhaps Stornoway black pudding and rice crispies with a cherry in the middle – is served in the drawing room, before proceeding to the dining room for a five-course dinner, or seven-course tasting menu, finished off with petit fours and coffee by the fireside. Brazilian-born Tully, who trained with the Roux Brothers, hails Skye as a “chef’s paradise” and he makes these ingredients heroes of highly original, beautifully presented dishes; Seared West Coast Scallop with a rich stay-like peanut sauce and Black Isle lamb with dauphinoise potatoes were particular favourites.
You leave for bed wondering if you’ll ever be hungry again – but you’d better, as breakfast brings a parade of hearty Scottish specialities, including South Uist hot-smoked salmon kedgeree, Mallaig kippers with lemon and parsley butter and creamy pinhead oatmeal porridge laced with cinnamon and nutmeg (a line-up that won Kinloch ‘Best Breakfast’at the Scottish hotel Awards). A wee packing tip: bring clothes with elasticated waistbands.
For more information about Kinloch Lodge, including details of cookery courses, visit www.kinloch-lodge.co.uk.
Like many things in life, whisky, for me, is about context: in the same way that I only like beer when it comes in the form of a chilled bottle on the beach or at a summer barbecue (never a pub pint), I can get on board with whisky when it’s a fine Single Malt with a couple of drops of water served beside a log fire on a cold winter’s night.
The only distillery on Skye, Talisker looks out over the steely waters of Loch Harport and, as if bottling this stark, moody maritime setting, the whiskies made here are distinctively smoky, briny, peppery and powerful. Underground springs on nearby Hawk Hill (the same that pour from Carbost Burn waterfall at Talisker Bay) feed the distillery with soft peaty water. Gallons of the stuff is combined with ground malted barley to make whisky – but while the ingredients are simple and few, the process that creates its Single Malts is far from it. A guided tour takes us through a series of cavernous rooms where the magic happens, from a series of yeasty-smelling wooden worm tubs in which sugary wort is fermenting, to distillation in the wash stills – huge U-shaped copper structures resembling upside-down trumpets, carefully recreated after a fire stuck the distillery back in 1960 fire – and finally a chilly dark cellar filled with row upon row of oak casks.
After tasting a few drams we leave with a bottle of Talisker Storm, a 2013 release blending a few different ages of whisky for an even more intense hit of that signature sweet warmth and briny, peppery finish. As souvenirs go, it’s a lot better than a fridge magnet.
For more information about Talker whisky, including details of its new expression Talisker Skye, and even an atmospheric video of the island, visit www.skye.taliskerwhisky.com.
Talisker may be Skye’s most famous export, but The Three Chimneys is its biggest foodie attraction. If you mention you’re visiting the island to anyone with a remote interest in gastronomy, invariably the name of this Michelin starred restaurant with rooms will come up. The fact people are prepared to venture not only to this remote island, but its furthest northwesterly corner, to dine there is testament to Head Chef Scott Davies’ talents.
A runner-up on Professional Masterchef 2013 and holding three AA Red Rosettes, his menu conjures the best seasonal produce home-grown on the island into sublime dishes such as Seared Sconser Scallop, Confit Duck, Squash & Pumpkin Seeds and Roasted Lobster Tail, Langoustine, Crab, Pearl Barley, Mull Cheddar & Mussels. Seafood is a particular specialty and from the house you can watch fishermen out in Loch Dunvegan catching the very langoustine or crab that will be on your plate a few hours later. The restaurant’s setting is equally memorable: an original island croft house, dating back over 100 years, with candlelight flickering off the stone walls.
Many making a foodie pilgrimage here also choose to spend a night or two in The House Over-by. Completely refurbished in 2014, its six suites all have a seaview and French windows giving direct access to the garden and the shore, with views across to the Outer Hebrides.
For more information about The Three Chimneys, and details of rooms at The House Over-by, visit www.threechimneys.co.uk.
The Oyster Shed
It’s not all fine dining on Skye, though. The Oyster Shed offers the same super-fresh seafood but in a far more rough and ready setting a few minutes up this road from the Talisker Distillery. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have gone into the no-frills green shack, taking it for a garage or barn perhaps, if it hadn’t been for a tip-off from someone at Kinloch Lodge. What a mistake that would have been; Oysters harvested daily from Loch Harport, seafood Platters starting from just £4, crab, lobster, langoustines…and served by a lad still wearing his overalls from the fishing boat.
We tucked into seared scallops and mussels with chips in the car (in December, the shed was teeth-chatteringly cold and it wasn’t a day for picnicking), before braving a trip down to the windswept mottled black and gold sands of Talisker Bay.
The sun may not always shine on Skye, but that doesn’t put a dampener on its craggy natural beauty – nor on my appetite.
For more information about Skye, recently voted the World’s 4th Best Island by National Geographic, visit the official website, www.skye.co.uk.