The Isle of Eriska is a 300-acre private island at the mouth of Loch Creran in Benderloch, West Argyll. It's tethered to the mainland by a tidal causeway and a bridge that rumbles your arrival when crossed. The access road ebbs and flows through a woodland colored by giant rhododendrons, before arriving at the Big House, a magical 19th-century Scottish Baronial mansion that's now a five-star, Relais & Chateaux-member, family-run hotel.
While some exclusive hotels are undeniably stuffy, the Isle of Eriska is warm and welcoming, with a genteel ease that matches the soft patina of age. It's the kind of retreat where well known British actresses can escape, and other guests will pretend not to recognize them; the kind of place where a slew of Wellington boots is available at the door for guests to borrow while walking the island's trails. While staying here admittedly is a splurge (from $536 per room in summer, including breakfast and afternoon tea; check for specials), it's possible to experience the island without booking a room. Many of the hotel's amenities are open to the public, allowing anyone a peek at this magical property, with its expansive views over Loch Linnhe and the Morvern Mountains.
The Big House is everything you'd expect, grand in stature, expansive, and country-house elegant. Wood-burning fireplaces warm the public rooms: cozy nooks and grand salons, a piano room, paneled hall, book-packed library lounge, and glass-in conservatory, and a fine dining restaurant. A former stable has been converted to a spa, with an indoor swimming pool, and a restaurant serving lunch. Another outbuilding houses an indoor putting green, full-size tennis court, three badminton courts, and facilities for other sports. Outside are gardens and woodlands, with nature trails dipsy-doodling around and across the island. Sightings of deer, seals, and even otter aren't uncommon. And everywhere are jaw-dropping views of mountains and sea.
Non-guests may have lunch in the casual Veranda Restaurant, with its dream views; enjoy a spa treatment; or play a round on the recently refurbished nine-hole golf course, on which nearly every hole has a water view. Of note: A special golf academy, Sept. 7-9, will include indoor and outdoor group lessons with a PGA professional, lunches, and mini competitions.
Also open to the public for dinner is the hotel's main dining room, named Hotel Restaurant of the Year in the 2011 Scottish Restaurant Awards. Chef Simon McKenzie's menu emphasizes locally sourced foods and changes daily. A four-course gourmet meal with tea or coffee is $73, and that includes the farmhouse cheese trolley, with about 40 cheeses sourced from Britain and beyond. Afterward dinner, retire to the lounge for the nightly entertainment: A family of badgers arrives at the conservatory door for their 10 p.m. milk and bread.
While you can easily drive to the Isle of Eriska, I recommend the West Highland Line train to Oban, a spectacularly scenic route that edges the River Clyde and Loch Lomand, passes through glens and villages and by castle ruins. It eases you into the Scottish Highlands and sets the stage for arrival at the Isle of Eriska. Passage is included on BritRail passes, but due to the train's popularity, it's wise to reserve a seat.