Some Highland hotels can be dire: we all know the sort, the ones where the owners still think a half of grapefruit or a glass of fruit juice is acceptable as a starter for dinner, or where the evening meal is served between 6.30pm and 7.45pm with not even a sandwich available for anyone turning up a minute after that time.
But over the last decade or so, a new breed of Highland hotel has started to take over. These are establishments which actually do hark back to the fabled days of Highland hospitality – when nothing was too much trouble – rather than just claiming they do.
Instead of operating in their own insular world, cut off from improvements and advances in the hospitality industry – which some Scottish hotels have done for years – there is a new generation of hoteliers who know they have to compete with the best that the country has to offer.
If they are to receive guests from Dorset or Kent or Cheshire, they have to be of a similar standard to the best in those areas – or suffer accordingly.
TripAdvisor and other online ratings sites have made everyone a critic – and, as hoteliers all over the world have found, it is far easier to lose a reputation (whether deservedly or not) than it is to build one.
The Creggans Inn in Argyll is one of this new breed. Tucked out of the way in Strachur, it is not on one of the main routes through Argyll. Most of the traffic goes down the opposite side of Loch Fyne, through Inveraray, rather than down the Cowal peninsula.
As a result, the Creggans Inn needed something to attract visitors as a destination in its own right – and it found it: food. Quite simply, its food is excellent. Indeed, it is well worth heading off the main routes and into Cowal to find.
The inn doesn’t have a huge menu. It seems as if the owners of the Creggans have decided to take three or four dishes per course per night and do those well. That means the choice is limited, but you know the dishes have all been prepared just for dinner and have not been dug out of a freezer somewhere.
For example, when I went at the end of last week, there were three starters – scallops on risotto, guinea fowl roulade and a butternut squash tart. Each was excellent, with the roulade particularly good.
It was much the same with the mains: lamp chump, sirloin of beef or halibut. There wasn’t a lot of choice but the quality was excellent. As in most services, the quality really stands out on the detail. At the Creggans, guests are served with delightful canapés before the meal and a velouté for a small soup course in between starters and mains.
The desserts were up to the same standard, with a chocolate panna cotta the standout choice there, and with a selection of Scottish cheeses also on the menu. The wine list was, like the food menu, restricted but impressive. They don’t do a lot at the Creggans Inn, but what they do, they do well.
Having stayed at numerous hotels, chain and otherwise, all over Scotland, I have long come to the conclusion that the best way to judge a hotel is on its breakfast. Rooms should be clean and comfortable, but it is only at breakfast that you get an impression of whether the hotel staff really care. Do they prepare your breakfast individually? Or are you forced to cut a slab of scrambled egg from a floating mattress of the stuff in a big steel server?
With the Creggans Inn having set such high standards at dinner, I was expecting great things at breakfast. Foodwise, it didn’t disappoint. There was a good choice – smoked haddock and poached egg, Loch Fyne kipper, porridge with cream (and a dram if you wanted one).
But while the breakfast food was excellent, there was an issue with the service. For the first time, the service was slow and unreliable. This was more of a surprise because it had been so good throughout – and although one of the waiters looked as though he hadn’t been to bed before starting on breakfast, I was reassured that this was a one-off and not a regular occurrence at the Creggans.
Given the excellent standards elsewhere, I believed it.
This is an excellent establishment with real quality local food prepared well and imaginatively cooked.
The view from my room, over Loch Fyne to Inveraray, was fabulous and the whole place had the welcoming, family-run feel that is so good to find.
So, all in all, a Fyne view, Fyne food – a very fine hotel worth going out of your way for.