Paralysed by indecision, I wonder which will set me up best for the day: a hearty bowl of Scottish oats and honey, or a plate of local smoked salmon and locally-laid eggs? It’s a tough call, not only because of how fresh the ingredients are at the barn-style restaurant of Newhall Mains, but also because I have a big day ahead: there’s much to discover on the Black Isle.
Sandwiched between Inverness and Invergordon, this bewitching Scottish peninsula often acts as a bookend – those travelling the NC500 might start or finish their trip here. But many simply pass straight through, sparing little time to see what the Isle has to offer. The stretch of land is soulful and brimming with nature: waterfalls, wildflowers and wooded glens are only the start. Many of the draws of the NC500 can be found here, too: iconic castles, rugged beaches, renowned golf courses and 18th-century harbour towns. And all just 30 minutes north of Inverness airport.
I’d travelled to needle-in-a-haystack-hotel Newhall Mains on a balmy September afternoon – anticipation rising as the city streets gave way to bucolic beauty. Post check-in, the hotel courtyard caught my eye: I’m easily won over by flaming fire pits, invitingly-low tables and an array of board games. After perusing the extensive drinks menu, I eventually asked Marco, the bartender, to pick for me. Minutes later, I had a stirred-not-shaken Negroni in hand. As if in competition, the sky turned a roaring shade of furnace-red (shepherds delight, is it?), and I averted my gaze only to enjoy my plate of asado grilled meats and seasonal vegetables. For a short while, the rest of the world seemed muted – as if someone had simply turned a dial anticlockwise.
Well fed and watered (unlike my house plants), I ambled back to my cottage; berating myself for being too tired to make use of the stand-alone bed-side bath tub under the star-filled skylight. Next time.
Everything here is preened and polished. But despite its potential for over-perfection, the mains is a reassuringly down to earth stay. Gothic iron gates and individually-styled cottages belie the spotless sandstone walls and manicured courtyard. And there’s great merit in exploring your surroundings, too.
Take, for example, the Cinderella-style Dunrobin castle (below), a short drive up the east coast; or the chance to see pods of bottlenose dolphins breaching the waters by Chanonry Point, accompanied by an artisan brew from Slaughterhouse Coffee. Hardy hikers can fill their lungs with fresh air while walking the craggy coast, or climbing Ben Wyvis. Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the UK – is reachable by private plane from the hotel’s airfield: the sense of accomplishment will balance out the sore calves, promise.
Predictably, there are plenty of opportunities to sample some single malt. Whisky (without the e, thank you very much) is as synonymous with Scotland as haggis and the Highlands. A tasting at a nearby distillery should always be on a Scottish agenda – Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Balblair are well worth your while. But if you don’t give a damn about a dram, then beer is a big deal here, too – and Black Isle Brewery is one of Britain’s best artisan beer makers, just across the peninsular from your base at the mains.
In short: the Black Isle gives you the hearty Highland experience, without the Google maps meltdowns. There’s that only-in-the-countryside silence and a real sense of removal. Everyday stressors evaporate like the morning mist over the bay. And yet, within half an hour you can be back at the airport, where the shelves of the tiny WH Smith are barren from the hordes of other Highland travellers – a sure sign that the NC500 marketing team have met their KPIs.
In the end, I went for both the salmon and the porridge. Breakfast at Newhall Mains is multi-course and multi-coffee, and anyway, you’re not you when you’re hungry.
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Images four and five: © VisitScotland / Paul Tomkins