Northern Ireland Travel News’ Editor KIRSTY JOHNSTON headed to Scotland for a short, but luxurious, five-star break…
It was a bright and sunny Friday morning when the husband and I headed off to catch our 11.30am Stena Line sailing from Belfast to Cairnryan. It’s a trip we have made many times before – being firm fans of spending a long weekend rambling through the wilds of Scotland with the dogs in tow – but this time it was a little different. For one, we weren’t going very far, and second we were sans dogs – how romantic! Now it’s not that where we were going wasn’t dog friendly, because it most definitely is, it’s just that it’s rare that we find somewhere where we want to go without them…. you know, all romantic and stuff. The husband and I have visited our fair share of Scottish Castles – being our preferred accommodation of choice during our Scottish escapes – but we usually have to drive for hours to reach them. However Glenapp is only a 15 minute drive from the Stena Line terminal at Cairnryan.
Prior to our trip the hotel sent across an email with directions, recommending that we follow them instead of the sat nav as that particular piece of technology was likely to take us to the old gate, which is closed. We duly tucked the instructions the glove compartment for use once we arrived on Scottish soil. As the date of our trip had approached I was delightfully surprised to receive a courtesy call from the hotel to check that they had all our dietary requirements correct and to check which sailing we would be taking so that they could get an expected time of arrival – it will become apparent why out ETA was so important to the hotel later…!
We passed through check-in at Belfast port fairly quickly and were directed to ‘Lane 8’ for boarding. I admired the Stena Line port official in his florescent jacket and headset loading us all into the belly of the the ship like we were gemstone pieces in a giant game of tetris. We opted to upgrade to the Stena Plus Lounge, well worth the £16 per person fee in my opinion. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and wine are all available complimentary in the Lounge as well as crisps, tray bakes, muffins, cakes and fruit.
The Lounge also boasts reclining egg-shaped seats, faux fireplaces, a wall of magazines and newspapers (which are free to read) and table service – no queuing for hot food here! Off-limits to children under the age of eight, the Lounge is quiet, comfortable and relaxing. It is a fantastic way to start your trip and one I would thoroughly recommend you take advantage of. Being the designated driver for the trip, I started out with some coffee and crisps before moving on to the harder stuff… the Diet Pepsi, which I drank with my trio of vegan pulled jackfruit tacos – a fantastic addition to the Lounge’s menu. Delicious! Stena Line are bringing out a whole range of new vegan items across all their on board restaurants, but until I’ve sampled them all, I can only vouch for the jackfruit tacos.
Departing the ship in Cairnryan the drive to Glenapp was exceedingly beautiful and delightfully short. Driving up the hill out of Cairnryan always evokes a real sense of peace. We retrieved the printed directions from the glove compartment and in no time at all found ourselves pressing the button to request entry to Glenapp Castle. Admitted to this private oasis we swept up the mile-long tree-lined drive seeking out the ‘monkey-tree’ at which we were to make two left turns. We were informed, that “someone will be there to greet you in the courtyard”. Someone indeed was there to greet us in the courtyard. Two staff members promptly glided down the little steps enveloping us in warm greetings and asking how our journey had been. “It was lovely,” we replied not used to such luxurious service.
Our keys were retrieved and our bags swiftly removed from the boot and carried up the stone steps. Now in Northern Ireland if someone takes your keys and your bag you’ve been mugged. But at Glenapp, you’ve just been given the five-red-star treatment. It was slightly disconcerting, but in the best way possible. We quickly learned that guests are not excepted to lift a finger at Glenapp – and that includes to move your own seat, place your own napkin on your lap or even pour your own wine, as my husband would later learn when he played a fantastic game of ‘race the waitress to the seat’ in order to see if he could beat her to it and place his own napkin.
Oh how little amuses… and all that! Glenapp Castle is one of a kind in more ways than one. There is no check-in desk in Glenapp. Here guests simply sign the guest book – how very civilised! After we had left our own mark in the leather-bound tome we were met by General Manager John Orr, a fellow Northern Ireland-er! John took up the position of Castle Manager at Glennapp in 2002 after working at the Cally Palace Hotel in the Gatehouse of Fleet for seven years. He was promoted to the position of Hotel General Manager (and later a Director) in 2015. John gave us a brief tour of the castle, noting all the important bits we would need to immediately know the locations of, such as the Drawing Room, the Dining Rooms (there are two) and the Library, before showing us to our suite.
We were staying in the delightful Countess of Inchcape suite which boasted magnificent views out across the gardens – the Italian Gardens at Glenapp peaking a particular interest in my husband. Looking out to the iconic Ailsa Craig, the beautiful, secluded and peaceful 36 acres of castle grounds, carefully tended lawns and curated gardens are the perfect place to relax and recharge. The stunning Italian Garden (which so took my husbands fancy) was designed by renowned 20th century garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. Gertrude was great friends with Robert Louis Stevenson (author of ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ for those who aren’t familiar) and some speculate that the character of Dr Jekyll was named for her. Wellington boots, padded coats and mountain bikes are free for all guests to make use of, so with the promise of some illusive Sequoia trees, we borrowed some wellies from the boot room, grabbed a map of the estate, and ventured out for an afternoon of adventure.
One wedding cake tree, five sequoia, a near-swim in the river and a monkey tree later it was time to head back to the castle and get ready for dinner. With a table reserved in the restaurant for 6.30pm, there was just enough time for a quick tipple in the Drawing Room. A waiter (they seem to appear from and disappear in to the walls) took our wine order as we enjoyed a delicate trio of canapés. The wine list *ahem… book* was extensive. The husband opted for an Australian Chardonnay, to keep things simple, and I plumped for an Amaretto (because it sounded trés posh). After polishing off the canapés (I may have ate some of the husbands too) we were led into the cosy dining room for our six-course gastronomic adventure. To start we feasted on heirloom tomato salad and fresh-baked bread before tucking into a second course of gilled watermelon. Up next was a beetroot risotto with vegan ricotta (one of my favourite dishes of the evening) then onto the mains… we were presented with a choice of two – I opted for the roasted red onion tart and the husband went for the cauliflower steak. Both were absolutely amazing. I had to remind the husband that we were in a five-star establishment and licking ones plate was not the done thing. We were offered a choice of dessert – panna cotta or a cheeseboard. Of course we both plumped for the cheeseboard. By this stage in the game we were both absolutely punctured, yet when coffee and petit fours were suggested we somehow managed to find a small gap for them.
We retreated to the sofas in the Drawing Room with our coffee, petit fours and a game of scrabble. Our idea of a wild Friday evening. As a writer I hate to admit this… but I lost the scrabble battle, however I did put up a very brave fight. The husband was delighted with himself. The following morning, after a wonderfully luxurious night’s sleep and a long lie-in we floated down the grand staircase in search of yet more food. There is no hot or cold buffet in Glenapp, instead we were presented with an extensive breakfast menu which included everything from fresh fruit and parfait to buttery pastries, porridge, avocado on toast and a full Scottish breakfast. The husband opted for the cooked breakfast (they had prepared a vegan version inclusive of vegan-friendly sausages) and I decided on the avocado on toast with a vegan sausage on the side, sure why not. We also requested coffee and toast. To be honest, after the previous nights food consumption I was still feeling pretty full, otherwise I would have indulged much more.
The only thing the husband missed from his breakfast was some haggis (Hall’s do a great vegan-friendly version). There was a wedding scheduled to take place in the hotel that afternoon and we overheard (because we are nosey like that) one of the wedding guests who had stayed the previous evening request his cooked breakfast sans black pudding, tattie scone and haggis… so a Scottish breakfast without the Scottish? A crime indeed! A new secret project is underway at Glenapp. The whole upstairs floor of the castle, which was home to the previous owners, is being renovated into a stunning four-bedroom Scottish retreat.
The apartment will span the entire upper floor of the castle and include luxury touches such as a private spa treatment room, sauna, roof top terrace (nestled in on of the castles turrets overlooking Ailsa Craig and the stunning Scottish countryside), games room, kitchen with dining room (where a chef will prepare private meals for guests of the apartment) and four bedrooms. The apartment, which is about four times the size of the average house, is designed as a five-star private retreat for longer stays and I would guess it will be particularly popular with American guests who are staying for longer periods of time and guests seeking complete privacy during their downtime. It is something very special indeed! After checking out (it’s a simple fond farewell and key left with a staff member, no desk involved) we drove back down the long driveway knowing that this first visit to Glenapp would not be our last. Indeed, myself and my colleague Gemma have already booked to return with our mothers for afternoon tea and the husband and I will be returning for a longer stay in the new year!
If this has whet your whistle for a taste of Glennapp then check out some of their fantastic offers:
Two Nights for the Price of One – Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, travel to Glenapp to find an oasis of calm. Enjoy two nights for the price of one this winter, explore the beauty of the Castle and the surrounding area, and discover why Glenapp wins to many accolades for its cuisine! This special offer includes ferry travel to and from Scotland, overnight accommodation in one of the magnificent castle bedroom Suites for two nights, full table served Scottish breakfast each morning and a three course gourmet dinner on our first evening. The second night’s bed and breakfast are complimentary. Festive Afternoon Tea For the festive Afternoon Tea, Glenapp run a lovely promotion in conjunction with Stena Line. You can enjoy Afternoon tea (inclusive of ferry travel to and from Glenapp and transfers for £40 per person Monday to Friday and £43 per person Saturday to Sunday! Myself and my colleague Gemma have already taken advantage of this delicious offer!
Exclusive Use of Glenapp – Glenapp is available for hire on a totally private and exclusive use basis. This could be for a wedding, a birthday or anniversary celebration, a corporate event, it has so many possibilities! With the addition of their newly refurbished Moncur & McKenzie Victorian Glasshouse, this also adds another dimension to the exclusive use element! Christmas & New Year at Glenapp Glenapp are already fully booked for this year’s festive celebrations, but they already taking bookings for next year!
Check out glenappcastle.com for more details and the T&C’s for these offers. Glenapp Castle is a member of the Relais & Château group – an exclusive collection of 480 of the finest hotels and gourmet restaurants in 58 countries across the world. Each of the member hotels has had to demonstrate the highest levels of service, exceptional cuisine, and offer a unique, luxurious setting to be accepted into the group.