Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th September 2010.
It might not be perfect, and you might be flabbergasted by the bill, but to me Eriska has everything I look for in a hotel, with none of the smooth, soulless pretentiousness of similar establishments that have spa, leisure centre and golf on offer.
It is also magical: an entire island where peace wraps around you like a warm tartan blanket.
A wonderfully rumbly old bridge connects the mainland to the Isle of Eriska, which was bought in 1973 by Robin and Sheena Buchanan-Smith. They set about turning the neglected Big House, built in Scottish Baronial style in 1884, into an idiosyncratic country house hotel. Robin, until then a Church of Scotland minister, was the characterful host; Sheena manned the kitchen, aided by a stream of Cordon Bleu girls. Between them, Robin and Sheena created that hard-to-find but happy balance of genuine warmth, informality and high standards.
But Eriska needed to adapt to modern times and, if it were to survive, needed to remain open for 11 rather than six months a year. Beppo, the Buchanan-Smiths' delightful son, saw to all that when he took over the running of the hotel 10 years ago.
If the Big House, with the Saltire flying proudly from the turret, is a reminder of a more expansive and confident era, the experience of staying here is very much like being in a grand old-fashioned private house, with its panelled great hall and big, roaring log fires.
In the library-cum-bar you can browse through the books with a malt whisky in hand; or you can play the piano: this is the first hotel where I have ever dared to do such a thing, so relaxed and at home did I feel. The actress Judy Dench is a regular guest: I bet she feels at home here, too.
Dinner (the menu at Eriska changes daily) is served in the recently redecorated dining room and adjoining conservatory. The sweet waitress who described to us the farmhouse cheeses on the trolley (and knew her stuff) was busy making the beds the following morning – it's clearly all hands to the pump here.
After dinner we gathered for an Eriska exclusive: badgers feeding on brown bread and skimmed milk right in front of us on the terrace.
Beppo is just the man for the job of running this hotel. "Should I go to hotel school?" he once asked the general manager of Claridge's in London. "Heavens, no," came the answer. "Eriska is far too idiosyncratic for that. Just go around other hotels, pinch ideas and meld them into what you do." And that's what Beppo does, looking forward, but never forgetting his legacy.
The bedrooms at Eriska have been redecorated in a successful and smart, if slightly formulaic, mix of contemporary and traditional.
There's a nine-hole, professionally designed golf course and a leisure centre, which is anything but pretentious, for rainy days (and they get a few of them here). There's an indoor sports building on the way, for the same reason. But above all, there's the island with its seals and otters and its dream-like views.
As I say: anything but soulless.
- Ledaig, by Oban (01631 720371; www.eriska-hotel.co.uk) Doubles from £325 per night, including breakfast; dinner, b & b from £340. Access possible for guests with disabilities. To reach Eriska and to make the most of the area, you will need a car. If you don't fancy driving all the way to Oban, break your journey in Edinburgh and drive from there. Europcar (08713 849847; www.europcar.co.uk) offers two days' car hire from about £80.
WHAT TO DO
You could go to Glencoe, less than an hour away, but I’d rather just stay on Eriska and enjoy being on one’s own island. Or visit another island: Kerrera, just six and a half miles long, Mull (if you want to be more active) or tiny Staffa. The hotel can arrange boats from its pier, weather allowing.
WHERE TO EAT
Try the Waypoint Bar and Grill at Oban Marina (01631 565333;www.obanmarina.com; closes September 30 for the season) on Kerrera: it’s quirky, fun and very inexpensive; dishes include excellent Kerrera oysters and island-reared beef and lamb. For fish and seafood in Oban, try the stylish Ee-Usk (01631 565666; www.eeusk.com) on the North Pier, or the Waterfront (01631 563110; www.waterfrontoban.co.uk) at 1 Railway Pier.
THE BEST WALKS
Take the ferry to Lismore (www.isleoflismore.com) or Kerrera (see above) for island walks. On the latter, follow the popular six-mile circular route via the Kerrera Bunkhouse and Tea Gardens (01631 570223) at Lower Gylen. On the mainland, the Caledonian Forest Park Reserve has several way-marked trails. For further information, see www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/port-ramsay.shtmland www.kerrerabunkhouse.co.uk.