After a winding, tree-canopied drive through the Scottish countryside, we passed through the ornate iron gates at the entrance to Glenapp Castle. A retinue of staffers smartly attired in black and white was lined up at the front door to greet us, and a bagpiper played a lilting tune.
That enthusiastic welcome was only the beginning of the gracious and generous hospitality we would encounter in the days to come. Little wonder we felt like queens and kings!
Glenapp Castle is a privately owned luxury hotel in southwestern Scotland outside the coastal village of Ballantrae in Ayrshire County. It was built in 1870 in the Scots Baronial style, which draws upon Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements like turrets, towers, and crenellations. The interiors, painstakingly restored and renovated in the late 1990s, are lavished with Austrian oak paneling, rich brocade and botanical textiles, and dazzling chandeliers. The hotel is a member of the prestigious international Relais & Châteaux hospitality group.
The closest international airports are in Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you prefer to fly your own plane, the private Castle Kennedy airstrip is 16 miles south of the castle. Ground transportation will be provided.
Read on to learn about some of the ways you’ll feel like royalty during your stay at Glenapp Castle.
Hobnob With History
Glenapp Castle’s reign is steeped in momentous history. During the 1920s, it was the country home of London shipping magnate James Lyle Mackay, also known as the first Earl of Inchcape, and his adventurous daughter, Elsie Mackay. Elsie dreamed of becoming the first female pilot to fly over the Atlantic Ocean on the arduous east-to-west route. Sadly, in March of 1928, she disappeared into the skies during her attempt. (A year earlier, American Charles Lindbergh had successfully completed the west-to-east route from New York City to Paris.)
Depending on whom you ask, Elsie’s ghost may or may not reside at the hotel.
The castle was also a meeting point for Allied leadership during World War II. In 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Lord Inchcape to discuss strategy for the D-Day landings. Churchill’s portrait hangs prominently in the library.
The castle fell into serious disrepair after the war years, as did great numbers of country estates when the owners could no longer afford the taxes and their offspring moved to the cities. Sadly, many were demolished, although a few became tourist attractions. The regal Glenapp Castle is fortunate to have found new life in this way.
Rule Your Days And Nights
Design your own daytime and nighttime itineraries from more than 65 different activities and excursions, each one reflective of the grand country lifestyle. Among the options are beekeeping, forest bathing, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, salmon or trout fishing, and spa treatments. Some activities take place on the 110-acre grounds and neighboring woodlands, while others are off-site. Transportation is provided.
Our customized itinerary included stargazing beneath a midnight sky with a local astronomer and his sophisticated telescopes. Yummy hot chocolate was brought out to us while we studied the constellations.
We also spent an afternoon with an expert falconer, who shared the thrill of handling and flying birds of prey. Under her guidance, we took turns donning the heavy glove (which she primed with carnivorous morsels) and holding out our arm until the kestrel, hawk, or other raptor landed in our hand with a soft thud.
Stroll The Exquisite Gardens And Glen
The outdoor environment is a mix of formal gardens and dense woodlands dotted with exotic specimens from around the world. A circuit of nurtured pathways winds through arboreal abundance.
Our leisurely ramble through the forested Kilphin Glen, for example, started at the exotic Chilean monkey puzzle tree. From there, we followed the path along the narrow River Smyrton, crossed a couple of wooden bridges, passed the red-squirrel play area, and found our way back to the start.
Directly behind the castle is the Gertrude Jekyll Garden, a formal Italian garden created in 1902. A neatly manicured lawn bordered by stone walls and sculpted hedges is interspersed with statuary and symmetrical flower beds.
The Walled Victorian Garden is a massive green space anchored by a stunning 150-foot-long glasshouse. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other kitchen ingredients are cultivated here, as are flowers for decorative displays throughout the hotel.
The Azalea Pond, bordered by azaleas, Chilean fire bushes, devil’s walking sticks, and other rare flora, promises stunning color most of the year. Wander to the north side of the pond for photogenic views of the castle.
Cruise The Hebrides
Hop aboard the castle’s eight-passenger motorized boat at Girvan Harbour and head for the Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. The natural environment is breathtaking, and the skies are big. Marine creatures and bird life are bountiful. You may spot sea lions, dolphins, minke whales, eagles, puffins, gannets, and guillemots on your way to touring a distillery on the Isle of Islay or playing a round of golf on the Isle of Arran. The boat’s knowledgeable two-person crew is happy to make recommendations.
Our half-day excursion took us to Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited and towering dome-shaped island a 30-minute ride from the harbor, for a hike and picnic. The island, mostly a ginormous granite rock, is a sanctuary for tens of thousands of seabirds teeming above sheer cliffs. The landscape is a bit rugged, but our luncheon of soup, entree, and dessert was served with select wines at perfectly arranged tables.
The Hebridean Sea Safari is a luxury glamping experience, Glenapp-style. While you leisurely cruise and take in the seascapes, the concierge team travels ahead to a remote beach or sheltered inlet to set up your overnight accommodations. They pitch tents, lay rugs and lamps, make comfy beds, and construct hot-water showers, so everything is ready when you arrive. Lush cashmere blankets by Begg x Co are provided to ward off any chill. Dinner and breakfast are expertly prepared by your chef, and tables are dressed with linens, china, and glassware. You can choose your own daytime adventures.
Sleep Like A Princess
The 21 spacious guest rooms and suites at Glenapp Castle are individually and exquisitely styled with period furnishings, luxe textiles, and precious antiques. Many are appointed with fireplaces and canopy beds. Window views vary from garden to woodland to sea, but all are magnificent.
Guest rooms are appointed with loads of extras, like crisply ironed sheets and Penhaligon’s of London toiletries in the en-suite baths. It wasn’t until my second night that I figured out the satin pull-cord above my king-size bed turned out the chandelier light fixtures. A three-course Scottish breakfast is included in your night’s stay.
If you are traveling with companions, The Endeavour is a new 4,500-square-foot penthouse retreat with four bed-and-bath suites and a dining room that seats up to 16 guests. The apartment, which is accessed via private elevator, also has a full kitchen, media room, library, lounge, and spa treatment room. Your personal chef and butler are discreetly on hand to meet your desires.
Canine companions are welcome in four dog-friendly guest rooms designed with outdoor entrances. Your pooch will be greeted upon arrival with his own amenity package of tasty treats and essential poo bags. Dogsitting can be arranged, too.
Enjoy Haute Cuisine
Mealtimes at Glenapp Castle are grand affairs, where even breakfast is presented with silver service hospitality. The menu selections are impressive, with an emphasis on ingredients sourced from nearby farms, estates, and waters as well as the hotel gardens.
Most exclusive is the Six Course Gourmet Dinner, which begins with canapés, ends with petit fours, and features creative seasonal fare in between. Another treat is the Champagne Afternoon Tea, an indulgence featuring artfully crafted sandwiches, cream cakes, scones with clotted cream and homemade jam, and a bottle of bubbly.
In addition to the award-winning main dining room, two less formal venues overlook the Walled Victorian Garden. The cheery, light-infused Azalea Glasshouse Restaurant is inside the glasshouse, and the lace-curtained Victorian Tea Room is a renovated gardener’s cottage tucked along the garden’s perimeter. In winter, the tea room converts into a “snug,” or a cozy place to drink whisky (the Scottish spelling) or other spirits.
Pro Tip: Many guests dress up for dinner, which can cause a packing dilemma when traveling light. My solution was a slinky black midcalf skirt that folded smaller than a dish towel (without wrinkling), a couple of knit sparkly tops, and a few rhinestones. A tiara isn’t necessary, but if you wish to wear one, you won’t feel out of place.