How can a landscape break your heart?Whenever I visit a certain corner of northwestern Scotland, I am filled with a melancholy that seems too personal to have been caused by some mere fluke of climate and geography. Up here, north of the heathered hills of the central Highlands, north even of the well-traveled roads of Wester Ross, there is a region of desolate beauty before the British Isles dissolve into tiny islands scattered in the North Sea. Here mountains press with rough impatience against the sea.
Civilization has left a light footprint in these parts. The hills are treeless, covered instead with coarse heather; they have the lumpy topography of moss-covered stones.The peaty soil is too acidic for crop farming; the villagers make their living from the sea. Castle ruins and abandoned cottages are monuments to those who tried to make a go of it in ages past.
But one hallmark of civilization is flowering spectacularly in this region. All over Britain, the food has been improving for a decade. And this corner of the world seems to have undergone a renaissance all its own: within a 40-mile radius of one another are three hotel restaurants whose chefs have mature and self-confident palates. At the Albannach, the Altnaharrie Inn, and the Summer Isles Hotel, my husband and I ate meals that stood up to some of the best we've ever had in London and New York.
All three hotels serve set menus. When you reserve, you'll be asked whether you have any eating restrictions-and don't feel shy if you do; the hosts are accustomed to all manner of lacto-ovo-macro-vegetarians. Once dinner is prepared, however, there are no substitutions. Not that there's cause for complaint: the seafood is fresh and sweet. In fact, the Albannach and the Altnaharrie actually have "corrals" in the bays out front where live crabs and lobsters are stored underwater. We also dined on venison, roe deer, and lamb that tasted wild but were meltingly tender. The cheese courses were meals in themselves.
As for when is the best time to go, it depends on your temperament. Spring and early summer are seasons of lovely, endless light; in June the sun sets at close to midnight. In fall the days are short and cool, but the colors are marvelous. The hills turn russet and gold, and purple with heather. The sunlight piercing through the silver-edged clouds is even more beautiful than usual. And the fire, the whisky, and the meal that await you are perfect ways to heal the sweet heartache of a Scottish day.
Lochinver is a gloomy, working-class fishing village, but on the edge of town is one of my favorite hotels in the whole world. After just a few hours there, Peter and I wished we had planned our vacation around its vacancies instead of booking our flights first.
The Albannach is an old stone house that has been entirely renovated by Colin Craig, who with his partner, Lesley Crosfield, runs the place like a wacky boardinghouse. "Don't mind the noise," said Lesley when I called one afternoon and heard bangs and shrieks in the background. "It's just dinner trying to escape." The meal in question was langoustines, freshly pulled from the ocean. The food is first-rate; each course is composed with delightful precision. An opener of crab tart might be followed by a beetroot and orange soup, then venison with fresh juniper sauce, and finally cheese and dessert. On our second night we were served beautiful, milk-white cod with fresh herbs; red pepper soup; and lamb with celeriac tartlets.
The dining room seats only 17. People talk and interact with other guests as at a wonderful dinner party. If you've dined out much in the British countryside, you know how rare this is; too many restaurants have a whispery, nervous quality. The spirited Albannach couldn't be more different: Peter and I retired to the parlor after dinner and had a hilarious conversation with a group of motorcyclists. In Britain, even the bikers are witty.
The Albannach, Baddidarroch, Lochinver; 44-1571/844-497, fax 44-1571/844-285; doubles from $217, including breakfast and dinner.
So remote is this hotel that you must travel there by boat. Leaving your car in Ullapool, you board a private launch that putters through the sloshing waves of Loch Broom to deposit you on the far shore, where Fred Brown, the proprietor, greets you. The hotel itself, a 17th-century drovers' inn, is covered in roses, and its little swath of lawn is bounded by flowering shrubs and hedges. Guests-no more than 16 at a time-stay in the main building or in one of three cottages. A stream runs through the property and spills out onto the beach.
The Altnaharrie is already famous enough to have generated its own backlash, and both the fame and the backlash are deserved. This is, after all, the only place in Scotland to have earned two Michelin stars for its "perfect" food. The meals are prepared by Gunn Eriksen, Brown's wife, and are so dauntingly good, so loaded with impressive ingredients, that you feel almost bullied into admiring them. When you're presented with white truffles, caviar, lobster, and champagne sauce all on one plate-and it's only the second course out of six-you begin to suspect that you're in the hands of a madwoman. One meal began with smoked salmon accompanied by a creamy avocado mousse and salmon roe, and then a layered soup: two different creams of morel over pieces of langoustine. That was followed by calf flambed in Armagnac with a side of caramelized parsnips, wild mushrooms, mashed potatoes with truffles, and a slab of foie gras with even more truffles on top. Then the cheese course was served, and chocolate mousse for dessert.
To dine there, you must stay overnight. I'd recommend you take two nights if you can swing it, even though you will be so full by dawn of the second day that you'll actually dread breakfast (which is also delicious). If you stay just one night, you're liable to suffer from traveler's panic: the sense that you must stay alert to enjoy every nibble, every sight, every sip. It's antithetical to relaxing. If there's one thing worth bringing to the too-perfect Altnaharrie, it's a sense of calm.
Altnaharrie Inn, Ullapool, Wester Ross; 44-1854/633-230; doubles from $500, including breakfast and dinner.
SUMMER ISLES HOTEL
The little town in which you'll find the Summer Isles Hotel is hardly more than a cluster of houses on either side of a single-lane road. This comfortable, pleasant hotel, owned by Mark and Geraldine Irvine, has been altered to make the most of poetic water views-bay windows push out from the front walls-but sadly, the parking lot stands between the hotel and the sea, so that all the views take in the cars. You can walk out the door and up the lane to have your fill of mountains and sea. Not far away from the Summer Isles is an eyesore that's worth a visit. From the outside the Hydroponicum looks like a bulky, dirty greenhouse, but it is an Eden within: heavy grapes hang from a tangle of vines; strawberries, red as rubies, pop from rows of pots. There are figs and carrots and currants and kale and bananas. One of the world's first hydroponic farms (where crops are grown in a synthetic medium and fed with nutrient-rich water), the Hydroponicum was created in the mid-eighties by Mark Irvine's father to compensate for the hotel's lousy soil, as well as to provide guests with fresh produce.
Despite this unique resource, the menu at the Summer Isles is less surprising than at the other two hotels. But meals are just as satisfying: we dined on spiny lobster tails in phyllo dough, followed by a delicious, airy Stilton soufflé, then sweet, fresh halibut with julienned leeks. After the plates have been cleared, the staff rolls out the cheese and dessert trolleys-a magnificent sight, even to the sated.
Summer Isles Hotel, Achiltibuie; 44-1854/622-282, fax 44-1854/622-251; doubles from $148, including breakfast.