Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Intimate Baronial manor becomes hotel getaway

Scottish Highlands reveal stark beauty

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GLENSHEE, Scotland -- On our second night, after dinner, a few of us went outside for a breath of fresh air. Darkness had fallen, and the rain that was an intermittent feature of the day had softened to a fine, almost imperceptible mist -- fine fall weather in the Scottish Highlands.

Suddenly, the quiet was broken by a long, low bellow off in the distance. Half-grunt, half-insistent bray, the call echoed off the nearby mountains and down the glen.

We looked at each other in puzzlement for a moment, until a Scottish friend confirmed our suspicions: It was the call of a rutting stag.

A second bellow soon answered the first. And then came another. And another. Until it seemed that the hills around us must be full of lovesick deer. We retreated back inside for a wee dram, marvelling at the closeness of nature and our luck at being here in rutting season.

We were staying, with Scottish friends, at a hotel called Dalmunzie Castle. Located in the Highlands about two hours north of Edinburgh, it is so far off the beaten track we could, in daylight, see few other buildings around us in any direction.

Built in the 1920s as a residence for the laird of a 6,500-acre estate, the castle -- a baronial manor, really -- is now an intimate, well-appointed hotel with 17 rooms, a fine restaurant and a friendly, attentive staff.

All that, plus the decor (upscale hunting lodge, with lots of dark wood) and the hotel's relative isolation in a dramatic Highlands setting, conspire to create the illusion that one is really a guest at a posh country house -- think Gosford Park, without the intrigue.

The Scottish Highlands are a place of stark beauty -- dramatic valleys, steep mountains and rushing streams, all set off by changeable, often bleak weather. One minute it's dark and raining, the next the sun has become strong enough to turn the clouds to glowing golden pillows. There are some forests, but for the most part the mountains I saw were treeless. The whole place kind of reminds me of the Canadian Arctic.

It doesn't get anywhere near as cold as the Arctic, but it does get cold in winter: Dalmunzie is a 15-minute drive from Glenshee, one of Scotland's five ski centres and the largest ski area in the U.K.

When I was there, in the fall, before the snow, the hotel's golf course was an attraction, as were the many walks in the surrounding hills and glens. A guidebook in the room offered a choice of several hikes, from easy to demanding, all leaving from the hotel. (The estate backs onto one of the largest wilderness areas in Scotland.)

If you want to hike, a word of caution: Bring sturdy boots. We discovered the ground can be very wet, and where there aren't deer, there are (or have recently been) sheep. The only paved walk is along the road that leads to the nearest hamlet, the Spittal of Glenshee, 20 minutes or so on foot.

Guests can also rent mountain bikes or arrange to go fishing.

Of course if the weather is really too foul, you can just remain inside. Many of the rooms offer four-poster beds and ours came with a complimentary decanter of sherry, as well as shortbread cookies and facilities for making tea and coffee.

Our room was large and comfortable, though the plumbing "gurgled" a bit -- it's not a modern building, after all, though it has been thoroughly renovated and everything worked just fine.

There's a library where people of Scottish ancestry can do genealogical research -- Dalmunzie calls itself the U.K.'s first "genealogy hotel" -- and you can take tea by one of several fireplaces.

There's even a wireless Internet hub in the hotel, though the building's thick stone walls mean the hub is constrained to a small public area near the library.

In the evening, after you've enjoyed a meal from a changing menu featuring local products, you may retire to a small bar. With its selection of single malts and a dart board, it is a great place for socializing with other guests and with the hill walkers who come in for a drink after a day on the trails.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 D5

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