Scotland’s Isle of Eriska

 - February 6, 2007, 5:14 AM

You’d have to drive three hours from Glasgow to reach Eriska, a 121-year-old mansion turned hotel and spa that occupies its own 300-acre island on Scotland’s western shore. If you have access to a private jet, though, Eriska’s considerable pleasures are more accessible. You can simply fly into Connel Airfield near Oban, then drive four miles past some of the country’s finest scenery. That will take you to Eriska–a food-lover’s haven, a sports buff’s paradise and a great destination for anyone who simply wants to escape the noise, crowds and cares of the “real” world.

As Eriska’s staff whisks your baggage away, you’ll begin to notice the atmosphere that helps to make this place special. The mansion’s portico replicates century-old country houses with its racks of Wellington boots, walking sticks and giant umbrellas. Logs burn in the main hall’s fireplace almost every day. Three sitting rooms, a library-bar and a dining room on the ground floor feature tall windows that overlook verdant lawns and trees. Upstairs, the rooms are grand, yet cozy, with overstuffed chairs.

A one-to-one guest-to-staff ratio is part of the magic mix that can give you the feeling of owning the place. It’s overseen by Beppo Buchanan-Smith, a bright young Scotsman who inherited the property from his father. “Family run” in the description of a resort property can be a sign of amateurism. That’s not at all the case here.

Lord of the Manor
Playing your part as lord of the manor comes easily, with the staff always on hand to book a massage or fishing mission or let the kitchen know you’d like Yorkshire pudding with the beef tonight. Service is always available, but never intrusive. This is de-institutionalized luxury, not Ritz-Carlton formality.

With just 40 guests maximum, the Eriska is anything but crowded. An impromptu set of tennis or a few puffs of steam at the spa will not require planning. Other on-site activities include swimming, croquet, clay-pigeon shooting, fishing, hiking, birding, hot-stone massages and dips in the 17-meter pool.

Another attraction is Eriska’s private, shoreline six-hole golf course, which is right on the hotel’s doorstep. Players frequently stop to admire the surrounding seascapes, billowing skies and green hills. Well-known course designer Howard Swans is in the midst of transforming the course and expanding it to nine holes. Until then, it may not be ready for prime-time, but it’s a great place for duffers to share the sport with family or friends in an unpressured atmosphere.

As evening approaches, the walk to the cairn at the highest point on Eriska is a marvelous way to catch the majesty of the location. Though only 155 feet above sea level, it offers a 360-degree vista of islands and mountains that has a calmative effect you won’t soon forget. The experience is enhanced by the prospect of a hot bath in a huge tub and an elegant dinner.

Venturing Beyond Eriska
Off the island, you’ll find much more to do. You can tour historic castles and distilleries, islands and lochs. Seal-watching boats leave from the port of Oban, 30 minutes south–or from Eriska’s pier, if you want to charter. In addition, the hotel can arrange fishing excursions as well as helicopter, floatplane and steam-ferry trips to the island of Mull, which is a couple of hours from Oban’s ferry pier. The ancestral home of the clan Maclean on Mull is worth the trip.

The port of Oban is the gateway to the Hebrides islands, which you can reach via car-and-passenger ferryboat services and explore by car. A small cruise ship with cheerful tartan décor also makes luxury trips from Oban to the western islands in summertime, frequently including the storied Isle of Skye, which is only about two hours’ drive north along the coastal road.

The picturesque lanes on the mainland near Eriska encourage a spin farther up and down the craggy coast to ancient castles that are in various states of ruin or preservation. Take your pick of Gylen Castle, the 13th century Dunstaffnage Castle and Barcaldine Castle, all of which are within a few miles of the hotel and laden with tales of a turbulent saber-swinging past. A classic of the romantic-ruin category is Castle Stalker, which occupies its own island 10 miles north of Eriska.

Oban’s eponymous whiskey distillery is but one of six such nearby facilities that invite guests for a tour and a taste. Glengoyne is handy–and tasty–if you want to take a longer drive around Loch Lomond. Other scenic but undemanding drives include ones to the handsome Castle at Inveraray and the wondrous Fort William, in the shadow of Scotland’s highest mountain. If you leave Eriska after breakfast, you can make any of these trips and still be back on the island in time for late afternoon tea.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations (A-): Eriska features 17 comfy rooms with big bathrooms and bucolic views, plus a two-bedroom cottage. In addition, three spa suites in the garden wing offer private terraces and drive-up front doors. The hotel does lack an elevator, so no-stairs travelers should request ground-floor lodging. Meeting rooms can accommodate 40 people.

Food (A): The dining room’s evening menu offers a generously varied selection and features many ingredients that were growing, swimming or mooing in the
recent past. Chef Noel Breaks presents lamb, fish and game with an imaginative, slightly Continental flair, and dishes up Scottish beef Victorian style. Though somewhat less grand, the restaurants of the nearby town and countryside have refined their cuisine to a remarkably high level.

Activities (B): Your to-do list can include anything from walks around the island to golf, tennis, swimming or croquet. Eriska’s pool is indoors, so grey skies won’t interfere. A wide variety of long and short scenery-rich driving excursions can take you to everything from castles to whiskey distilleries. Scotland pushes no fake-folkloric nonsense, and no merry peasant tableaux. It’s a hospitable country–with good roads and no crowds–that enjoys being, well, Scottish. The climate may be a bit off-putting to some. But if you accept the premise that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, you won’t be disappointed.

Quietude (A+): Here is quiet you can shout about. At Eriska, you leave noise, crowds and traffic far behind in the “real” world.

Traveler Fast Facts

What it is: A grand 121-year-old country home that has been transformed into
a luxurious hotel on its own five-square-mile (when the tide is in) island in western Scotland.

What it costs: Rooms for two persons run the equivalent of $500 to $685 per night, including a hearty breakfast. Fixed-price gourmet dinners are $73.

How to get there: Only four miles from Eriska is Oban’s loch-side airfield with 4,000 feet of paved runway and jet-A fuel. The VFR operation is attentive and airport chief Paul Keegan can make customs and immigration arrangements for overseas flights with 12 hours’ notice. New York is 3,430 miles away and Glasgow only 80 miles. A pier for floatplanes and a helipad provide interesting alternatives for access to the hotel. The airport operator will make car arrangements.

Climate: The Scottish climate is no place for sun worshippers, but it’s ideal for those who like cool air, changing light and dazzling displays of weather variation. Almost never hot and rarely bitterly cold, Eriska has swirling clouds and an ever-present likelihood of showers. Summertime highs are in the 70s (Fahrenheit) and wintertime lows are in the 30s. A breezy cruise down a shiny loch would call for a woolen sweater even in summer. Fine dry days, which can occur anytime, are a magnificent payoff for enduring a changeable climate. Bring layers of clothing and extra socks to wear with the Wellington boots that the hotel provides.

History: Built in 1884 by Hippolyte Blanc, a leading Scottish architect, the hotel’s so-called Big House was for many years a private mansion. The Buchanan-Smith family purchased the island in the early 1970s and began the refurbishing and expansion that have produced today’s five-star resort.

More information: Eriska’s Web site,, includes information about activities on and off the island. You can phone the hotel at +44 (0) 1631 720371 or send an e-mail to

In Scotland? Don’t Skip the Scotch

The port town of Oban is notable for several things: a bizarre coliseum-shaped “tower” built in the late 19th century by an eccentric banker called McCaig, now known as McCaig’s Folly; a Normanesque cathedral called St. Columba’s; and the Oban Distillery, which opened in 1794. Owned today by Dewar’s, it produces, exclusively, 14-year-old Oban single-malt whiskey.

Among aficionados of Scotch, single-malt whiskey can inspire cultic affection and insufferable snobbery. Its distinction is that it comes from a single distillery, unlike most whiskies, which are blended from various sources to provide a consistency of taste and color, like Dewar’s. The critical cognoscenti sniff, sip and characterize the stuff: “A compromise between the power of Islay malts and the elegance of Speyside, with dryness and smokiness along with flowery, herbal tastes and a strong finish,” noted one critic after tossing back a little Oban. It retails for about $80 a bottle.

In Oban, you can get it wholesale, along with a tour of the ancient distillery, a gloomy Dickensian building a few yards from water’s edge, regrettably half-effaced by a Bauhaus impertinence full of flashy retail shops. Tour hours vary, for some reason, and the place closes during December. Phone is 163-572004. The expedition takes an hour and costs £3.50, which can go toward  the purchase of a bottle of Oban’s celebrated single-malt Scotch. –Robert J. Hoffman

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