By Elizabeth McQuillan
Flying has never been a problem to me, but on approaching the seaplane and considering its conservative proportions, I’ll confess to a twinge of anxiety. Not wanting to appear unaccustomed to boarding privately chartered planes, it seemed politic to act nonchalant and unconcerned as the pilot secured what looked to be a Pac-a-Mac around my waist in case of an emergency.
With the luxury of private air travel one is no longer required to grapple under the seat to find the life-vest, as you get to carry one – complete with whistle and top-up-air thingy – about your person. The safety chat from our friendly pilot was humorous and short since the whereabouts of the exits needed little explanation, and illuminated signs and floor lights superfluous given the door handle sits in a similar proximity to the door handle in my car.
Loch Lomond Seaplanes offer a variety of services from a quick whistle-stop tour of the surrounding countryside to a private charter to take you just about anywhere in Scotland, with most venues being reached within 60 minutes’ flying time. Considering there are over 560 major lochs in Scotland, many with mountains towering down the reaches of the loch, in combination with the fact that we are entirely enveloped by a watery coastline, a seaplane is actually a most effective way to get around.
The real beauty of the seaplane is that it can take you practically anywhere you want to go. Propose to a sweetheart by the side of a remote loch inaccessible by road? Dine and have an overnight stay at the Three Chimneys, Skye? Play a round of golf with some chums at a couple of the most renowned Scottish courses in one day? Everything and anything can be tailored to your requirements for a fee provided the plane is able to access a suitable body of water or terra firma runway.
As a treat to celebrate a 40th birthday, we went as a family threesome and opted for a chartered flight that whisks the passengers for lunch at the Ardeonaig Hotel and Restaurant on the south shore of Loch Tay. The take-off from the water at Luss, Loch Lomond, initially felt like freewheeling down a cobbled street, then we were up and away.
Our pilot, David, was cheerful and knowledgeable and able to point out all the notable landmarks as well as fly the plane over any areas we were particularly interested in seeing en route. Wearing our headsets, we were all able to communicate with one another over the noise of the aircraft and marvel at the spectacle below. Persuading my daughter that just looking at the sights below was preferable to a game of I Spy proved to be the only incidence of turbulence for the entire return journey.
How amazing to see tops of the mountains and the undulation of the land, and notice how the colour of the ground alters between the boundary fences on the hills, presumably due to differing land management. Small lochans sit like puddles on hilltops and rocky formations appear as though thrust from the earth, while endless foaming waterfalls cascade down the side of the mountains. It’s very different from anything you will see travelling by road.
From up high, you can see that the few roads running north must circumnavigate the colossus that is the Scottish landscape and it is evident why journey time by car is long. For our part, an enjoyable 20 minutes spent sitting ogling out of the window of the seaplane, and we were gliding onto Loch Tay before gently being manoeuvred to the jetty next to the Ardeonaig Hotel.
Our host, and owners of the hotel, Sarah and Pete Gottgens were waiting on the jetty with a table covered in white linen and a chilled bottle of champagne. Shades on, we sipped our drinks (juice thoughtfully provided for the little person) and drank in the beauty of Loch Tay and the view to the summit of Ben Lawers.
The hotel itself is an absolute retreat and a gem hidden on the back road along the loch, a few miles from Killin. Pete and Sarah took over the a hotel eight years ago and there have been many improvements since my last visit. Pete himself is the chef and, with 25 years as a chef and restaurateur as well as having an acclaimed restaurant in Chiswick, he takes his food very seriously. Not standing on ceremony, the atmosphere in the hotel is incredibly relaxed, with the service comfortably attentive and accommodating (they set up a table next to the fire in the ‘snug’ because my daughter was cold).
The food itself exceeded all expectations, and I can wholly recommend the imaginative inclusion of dishes that reflect Pete’s South African roots. A sample of the delights we enjoyed included: Traditional-style Cape Malay Bobotie springrolls with sambals, monkfish cheeks with a crisp tempura batter and sweet chilli dipping sauce, local roe deer venison with crisp potato cake and wild mushrooms, and I have to sing the absolute praises of the pineapple and banana crumble with pouring cream that I so want to be able to replicate at home! The menu is wide and varied and starts at around £30 for a two-course meal and extends to £50+ for a six-course gourmet extravaganza.
With a fat belly and some reluctance it was time to head back to the jetty to board our flight. At no time did we feel we were keeping to a schedule and the pilot appeared to be in no hurry. We had been given plenty of licence with the amount of time we spent in and around the hotel (it’s set in 10 acres reaching down to the loch) so started our journey back some three hours after arrival. The return journey seemed even more wonderful and I felt quite euphoric, the life preserver around my waist forgotten about, but that may have been in part due to the consumption of some very quaffable South African wine with lunch.
Ardeonaig Hotel & Restaurant: Telephone 01567 820400
Loch Lomond Seaplanes: Telephone 0870 2421457