Great Places to Stay
- Balcary Bay Country House Hotel, Near Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway
Dumfries and Galloway is regarded as one of the forgotten corners of Scotland, as visitors speed north via the M74 motorway to the central belt, to Edinburgh and Glasgow and beyond. Travel writer Vivien Devlin and her partner Ken have had the opportunity to sample the delights of the area and the Balcary Bay Hotel near Castle Douglas. Here is what she found.
Scotland in Microcosm
This beautiful unspoilt region could be described as Scotland in microcosm with the landscape changing around every corner from rolling dairy pasture land to thick forests, moors, lochs, rivers and high mountain ranges. And water, water everywhere between the series of shapely undulating peninsula, as you wind your way further west towards the Irish Sea. It's a vast expanse of countryside and coastal fishing villages stretching more than 75 miles from Dumfries to Stranraer, each area distinctive by its landscape, history and culture - the Rhins and Machars, the Galloway Heartland, Nithsdale and the Solway Coast. Perhaps due to its specific geographical sweep indented by wide bays and sea-lochs, the quality of light here is phenomenal. Due to the Gulf Stream the climate is warmer, dryer and milder than other parts of Scotland. No wonder so many painters migrated here to capture the landscape on canvas, with an important artists` colony developing around the turn of the 20th century in Kirkcudbright.
So come to Dumfries and Galloway and pause awhile. It's a perfect region to tour around and an ideal place to stay is Balcary Bay Country House Hotel. On the road between Dalbeattie and Kirkcudbright, this is just outside the tiny village of Auchencairn, on an isolated spot right down on the shoreline of Balcary Bay. It's a charming and very attractive white-washed 17th century country-house, (built 1625) with contrasting Wedgewood blue window-frames. A long sandy beach stretches right in front of the hotel and around the far side of the bay.
A Warm Welcome
My partner and I arrived around 8pm on a Friday night, after a fascinating yet rather tiring three hour drive from Edinburgh. Dinner was already in progress but a young receptionist/waitress could not have been more helpful, taking us to our room and offering to bring us a drink from the bar. This was most thoughtful and as we quickly showered and changed, we were able to sip a glass of wine and relax for a few minutes looking out over the bay.
The views are stunningly majestic as you look out across the Solway coastline, dotted with boats and beyond the tiny Heston Island, at one time a smuggler`s hideout. In fact the house itself was owned by a shipping company and used to harbour illegal goods, which were hidden in underground cellars. And on a clear day you can see right across the Firth to the Lake District of Cumbria. Our room was simply spectacular in terms of space, (there was an additional single room adjoining the master bedroom), comfortable furnishings and French windows leading directly outside onto our own private patio.
This is part of a new extension of three superior rooms on the ground floor, especially adapted for wheelchair users. Balcary Bay was highly commended as one of the top ten UK hotels for the recent AA Accessible Hotel of the Year award. For this initiative they are to be warmly congratulated and I hope other hotels will follow suit.
There are seventeen double bedrooms and three single all with en-suite bathrooms. The usual facilities are provided including colour TV, radio, direct dial telephone, and tea and coffee tray. However there was no visible socket for the kettle which after much searching had to be plugged in using the bedside lamp socket on the other side of the room. Homely touches include bathrobes and a cuddly teddy bear. While I did not view other rooms during my stay - the hotel was full I am delighted to report - I understand that some rooms are rather 'small and cosy' and those on the top attic floor are reached by a steep staircase - but of course the views from here would be terrific.
The public rooms, cocktail bar and residents` lounges are all very comfortable full of original features, wood paneling and fireplaces. There's also a delightful conservatory overlooking the beach, perfect for a morning coffee, afternoon tea or a leisurely lunch - whatever the weather outside. Again, the shimmering light over the huge expanse of sky across the bay is spectacular, reflecting on the golden sands and pure whiteness of the house.
The outstanding cuisine at Balcary Bay ensures that guests return time and time again. Good food can certainly turn a short weekend break into a memorable holiday. The restaurant is a member of the prestigious Taste of Scotland and Chef Charles Kelly specialises in fresh local produce, Galloway beef, lamb, seafood, local cheeses and Balcary Bay salmon with a table d`hote four course dinner menu which changes daily- ideal if you are staying here for a few days.
There's a choice of three starters including such delicacies as Tian of Avocado and Smoked Chicken with Waldorf salad, or Rillette of 'hot' Smoked Salmon (a delicious speciality of the region) with crème fraiche and avruga caviar. Next comes the soup course, a smoothly blended Carrot and Coriander perhaps or Pea and Mint Veloute. A perfect warming appetiser before the main course. Select from Roast Breast of Barbary Duck with sweet pickled red cabbage and pomme salardaise; Fillet of Monkfish, wrapped in Cumbrian air-dried ham and carved on to a roast pepper pasta with tomato nage; Mushroom stroganoff with basmati rice or, as I experienced, Grilled Fillet of Halibut on Smoked Haddock brandade, with soft poached egg and grain mustard sabayon. Simply fabulous.
From these poetic descriptions you can appreciate how much Charles Kelly is enjoying himself, creating imaginative dishes in the kitchen. And that passion for food is also represented in the presentation and service of each course. The small team of waiting staff are young but friendly and enthusiastic. Finish with a selection of home-made desserts, ice-cream or biscuits and cheese, followed by coffee served with fudge and chocolates.
And so time for bed. As another guest commented "You can`t get much closer to the water. At high tide you can hear the waves lapping as you go to sleep. The quality of evening light is breathtaking".
Utterly peaceful it certainly is and a wonderful place for the 'getting away from it all' feeling.
A Memorable Breakfast!
I always enjoy breakfast when staying in a hotel and at Balcary Bay this was even more memorable. Waking early with the soft morning light shining through the curtains, we sat in bathrobes on our private patio, drinking in the fresh seaweed-flavoured air and absorbing the landscape and silence - apart from colourful bird-song all around. This would be a magical place for a keen ornithologist. After this inspiring start to the day and a walk down to the beach, we went along to the dining room for a breakfast feast - everything you could possibly want; cereals, fruit and yoghurt, freshly prepared fresh-farm eggs, bacon, mushrooms - the works.
Around Balcary Bay
After breakfast the sun was shining brightly without a breath of wind. We set off for a wonderful beach-combing trek right along the shoreline as it was at low tide, with a few stranded boats lying like beached whales on the sand. Good to know that the hotel claims that this beach offers 'safe bathing'.
Around Balcary Bay is walkers' paradise with sign-posted rambling coastal trails starting just down the road from the hotel, which we spotted on our return from the beach. Unless we missed seeing any brochures or local maps at reception, more information for guests on these walks, bird-life, flora and fauna and what to see and do in the immediate vicinity would be welcome at the hotel.
If you can summon up the energy and wish to leave this idyllic spot, then as I explained at the start of this piece, there's a treasure trove of places to visit, historic sights, forest walks, gardens, Kirkcudbright art galleries and Wigtown - with its maze of second hand bookshops - all within an hour's drive from here.
That's why Balcary Bay Hotel is highly recommended as a small, secluded, comfortable country inn, offering fabulous food and a superb romantic location if you wish to spend a few relaxing days touring Dumfries and Galloway.
For more information and to make reservations, see the hotel Web Site.
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