The drive to Skye was a carnival of colour, a cavalcade of burnished gold and blazing russet as Scotland’s forests got changed for autumn.
Well, it almost certainly would have been, if we could have seen the trees for the rain. Let’s just say the weather was mixed as we headed north, a mixture of teeming and torrential.
As we squinted through the frenzied windscreen wipers, we were trying to aim for Dunvegan in the island’s far north west, to the Three Chimneys, a restaurant with rooms, as remote as it is renowned.
Aquaplaning across the bridge and up the island before surfing down a single-track road, we were attempting to follow foodies from around the world, drawn by a reputation for fabulous cooking and the warmest welcome.
There may be new owners – earlier this year, the restaurant and its six guest rooms changed hands to become part of the newly-minted Wee Hotel Company – but happily the food remains just as excellent and the hospitality unwavering in its commitment to quality.
As we arrived, dripping and softly steaming, we were welcomed with a delicious, warming mug of mulled cider and that simple gesture, perfectly timed and executed, set the tone for our overnight stay in one of the bright, comfortable, modern rooms in The House Over-By, a few yards across the courtyard from the restaurant.
Our food that night was as good as everyone says, although chatting to award-winning chef Scott Davies the next morning, he admits the reputation and location of the restaurant can be a double-edged sword. While those travelling so far for a wonderful meal are rarely disappointed, their Skye-high hopes can sometimes be impossible to surpass.
“Their expectations could not be higher and that means there is a pressure on all of us to get it right every time. We need to be on point every day.”
The Welshman with a special affinity for Scotland’s larder has led the kitchen for five years and says he has learned one lesson above all. “When I was younger it was all about awards and reviews but now, for me? A full restaurant is the only award that matters.”
Well it was certainly full on the night we stayed and is pretty much booked solid, with fans returning year after year, from around Britain and across the world.
The food was amazing, the room was terrific, the staff, from the Finnish general manager Petri Pentikainen down, could not have been nicer and then, in the morning, the sun came out.
Enjoying breakfast, the blue sky and the panoramic views across Loch Dunvegan, the enduring allure of the Three Chimneys, and its reputation, at home and abroad, could not be easier to understand. After a short but memorable stay on Skye we were heading down to the Three Chimneys’ now sister hotel in Port Appin, Argyll, 20 miles north of Oban.
It is a part of Argyll easy to miss as you head south. It demands a zig at Ballachulish where most drivers zag down the A82 towards Loch Lomond but the road less travelled is well worth taking.
In Port Appin, The Pierhouse has joined the Three Chimneys to become part of the Wee Hotel Company, led by international hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, with the emphasis on authenticity and simplicity, from the menus to the hospitality. There are similarities between the two, both are destination hotels, for example, The Pierhouse is literally at the end of the road, and both are located in stunning country, one amid the splendour of Argyll’s lochs and mountains, the other in the harsher beauty of Skye. However, they remain distinct with their own strengths.
The views from The Pierhouse, for example, across the loch to the island of Lismore and Mull’s mountains beyond are sensational.
The menu is, of course, dominated by seafood, much of it pulled from Loch Linnhe, a stone’s throw away and while the kitchen cannot compete with the Three Chimneys – not many can – the restaurant staff could not be more professional and pleasant.
Not far from the front door, at the end of the eponymous pier, is where the tiny passenger ferry to Lismore comes and goes.
Lismore – great garden in the Gaelic still spoken by a third of the 180 people living there – is idyllic, an island that time may not have forgotten but one where it seems not to have checked in for a while.
Our guide Robert Smith, who runs Explore Lismore, is born and bred and knows every inch of the 10 or so square miles of Lismore and every story worth telling.
Incomers and returners, now able to work online, have refreshed the island and visitors lucky enough to take one of Robert’s Land Rover tours are also in line for superb refreshments, with the delicious bonus of his partner Iris Piers’s cakes.
She is the marvel behind the island’s Dutch Bakery and if there is a better baker in Argyll, there cannot be many. An old red telephone box at the pier where some of her cakes are stashed along with an honesty box is a culinary treasure to rival the Three Chimneys.
Our two-stop road trip over the bridge to Skye and back again, was a delight, a reminder of the scenery, food and hospitality that encourages so many to travel so far to visit Scotland but which many Scots can easily forget.
Certainly, the two hotels so far collected by Gordon Campbell Gray, a global expert in the hospitality business, for his fledgling company might be wee but they certainly work.
The number of tourists heading to Skye is still putting strain on roads around the island’s landmarks. The single track road running past the Three Chimneys to Neis Point Lighthouse, for example, saw 400,000 vehicles this summer and visitors are being urged to “stay longer, see less and experience more”.