Shona Craven: A haven in the heart of the Highlands

·6-min read
Ness Walk Hotel
Ness Walk Hotel

THE line between town and country feels blurred as the electric gates to Ness Walk swing open. The multimillion-pound hotel is only a short, scenic walk from the city centre and minutes from cultural hub Eden Court, yet on arrival the feeling of “getting away from it all” is unmistakable.

It helps that the attentive staff provide a glass of champagne and a comfy seat in the plush lounge while the business of check-in is taken care of, but the chilled, rural vibe also extends to the quiet river-front road (also Ness Walk), where “hellos” are exchanged by those taking an evening stroll and breathing in the clean Highland air.

Ness Walk opened in June 2019 following a major redevelopment of the site, which includes a B-listed building that has been “sensitively enhanced” to create the foyer, lounge, bar and restaurant then seamlessly linked to a modern wing to create a 47-bedroom hotel. The merging of old and new is a triumph, and no corners have been cut when it comes to luxury details, from lamps and sinks to curtain and carpets (these are bespoke, “designed to reflect the eddies of the river Ness” and transform the bed into an island of calm).

Our room's floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the landscaped courtyard garden, where in the summer months those staying on the ground floor can fling open their patio doors to sit on patio chairs in the morning sun. There are three different designs of room – Oak, Cedar and Laurel – and as the names suggest each is influenced by the natural landscape, with huge brown leather headboards, marble-topped bedside tables and buttoned velvet armchairs in neutral tones.

On the ground floor, the ingenious use of wooden dividers with decorative glass panels allows light to filter through the restaurant, bar and hallway leading towards the bedrooms, creating a feeling of open space while retaining an intimate atmosphere and sufficient privacy for those dining and drinking.

The Torrish restaurant, at the front of the building in what was originally the drawing room, takes its local sourcing seriously; the chef works with a local forager and snips ingredients from the venue's own herb garden. Our starters and main courses (venison and duck respectively, both excellent) were almost too beautiful to eat, decorated as they were with a riot of delicate flowers. I'm quite sure taking photographs of your dinner is not the done thing in five-star establishments, but it seemed a crime to demolish these mini works of art without first taking a surreptitious snap.

When we first arrived I assumed the presence of an elaborate marquee on the lawn – edged with hay bales, festooned with string lights and filled with paper lanterns and vases of fashionable foliage – indicated that a wedding was taking place. But the Bruach Bistro, originally set up due to Covid-19 restrictions on indoor hospitality, has been left in place and is open to all residents, with both food and cocktails served by a dedicated waiter. All the convenience of eating and drinking at the hotel, but with the feeling of having been “out” to a fashionable hot spot (quite literally, as patio heaters are provided).

There are plenty of other options for drinking and dining in the immediate vicinity, with cafes and restaurants dotted along either side of the river. Sights to admire en route include Inverness Castle, Inverness Cathedral and what felt like an endless supply of impressive churches.

The Gothic-style Inverness Town House is a must-see, ably guarded by a pair of impressive stone wolves that were specially built by masonry sculptors as part of a refurbishment that was completed in 2018, to replace stone dogs that had gone missing. Just as the refurbishment was nearing completion the missing dogs were discovered in a council depot, and if you cross to the other side of the road you'll be able to see them acting as watchdogs from high above the building’s entrance.

When it comes to exploring further afield, a few options allow you to leave your car at home. The hotel has a fleet of luxury vehicles in which they can whisk you to nearby attractions, or they can book you onto a tour. We opted to spend a morning exploring the Black Isle (confusingly neither an isle nor particularly black) followed by an afternoon delving into the mysteries of the Bronze Age Clava Cairns and visiting Culloden.

While luxuriating awhile in very comfortable beds would have been an entirely legitimate choice, we had an early start to meet Gavin Nicholson of Invergordon Tours, who bounded into the foyer to meet us – a towering presence with a beaming smile, customised “BIG GAV” number plate and infectious enthusiasm for the Highlands. He started his business eight years ago by simply standing at the port in Invergordon – in shirt, tie and kilt – and offering his services as a local with a car, and now manages a team offering everything from small private excursions to group tours in 52-seater buses.

Highlights of our bespoke jaunt around the Black Isle included the beautiful coastal villages of Cromarty and Rosemarkie (Chanonry Point is one of the best dolphin viewing points in Scotland), a peaceful waterfall wander through the Fairy Glen and a visit to the Clootie Well at Munlochy, where the ancient healing tradition of tying cloots to branches continues. It's said that as the fabric offerings disintegrate, ailments will heal. I suspect some of the more modern scraps won't be disintegrating any time this century, but it's a fascinating – and satisfyingly spooky – place to visit.

The next day, to finish our trip we were whisked to Dochgarroch Lock, a 10-minute drive from the hotel, for a cruise on the Jacobite catamaran. I thought I knew a thing or two about Loch Ness, but to be precise I knew two things about it – that it contains more water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined (thank you, lockdown Zoom quizzes) and, um, that there's a monster in it.

Two hours later I'd heard at least 100 more facts about the loch's incredible history – surprisingly few of which were monster-related – as we followed the journey Queen Victoria took on her steamship in 1873 (our journey was arguably more pleasant, as she complained about rude locals peering in through the windows while she was dining).

Certainly we were treated like VIPs, if not quite royalty, during our stay and nothing was too much trouble for the hotel staff, who are doubtless very keen to show guests what it has to offer after the painful experience of having to close due to lockdown less than a year after opening. For a luxurious staycation combining history, nature and fine dining, Ness Walk is an ideal base from which to explore. Or if you simply want to recharge your batteries in sumptuous surroundings, the hotel and its immediate surroundings are an ideal place to do so.


Travel facts:

Prices start at £152 for bed and breakfast in a Laurel room for double occupancy or £132 for single occupancy.

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