Remember when booking a ‘luxury’ hotel meant staying at the likes of the Hilton or Marriott? Hotels where you could predict the colour scheme, the breakfast and the layout of each eerily identical room.
Remember that? Vaguely.
Over the last five years, the mega-chain hotels have been competing with a new disrupter, one that offers a tempting mix of exclusivity, individuality and experientialism: the boutique hotel.
With Instagram feeds to fill, who wants to post a picture of a beige hotel room or vacant hotel lobby? Generation Instagram expect great design, bespoke toiletries and the odd vintage lightbulb to photograph. Standardised hotels have no place in our carefully curated feeds.
Where we stay is now as important as what we wear in terms of making us feel good.
Unsurprisingly, companies specialising in boutique hotels are thriving, not least Mr and Mrs Smith. A favourite of ours, we regularly use The Smiths to find beautiful accommodation. Once we discovered that we would be visiting the highlands for a long weekend, we therefore immediately checked out what was on offer in the area; unsure of what to expect.
What we discovered was one lone hotel, sitting proudly on the shores of Loch Ewe, in a remote part of north-west Scotland: The Pool House. Described as ‘eccentric, dramatic and cosy’, the hotel sounded just the sort of place we were hoping to stay whilst in the equally dramatic highlands.
We thought little more of it before arriving on a wet Friday afternoon. The drive to the hotel had been a dramatic one; driving past mist-covered mountains and the long, dark waters of Loch Maree. Eventually, we arrived in Poolewe, home of The Pool House. Dragging our suitcases across the carpark in the wind and rain, Loch Ewe stretched out far to our right: home to navy submarines and a family of otters. Yet as we pushed open the door – the wind blowing and our hair flying around – we were met by complete calm.
Ahead of us flickered a brightly burning wood-burner, filling the room with a cosy heat. Two large armchairs faced the burning fire, with a book and pair of reading glasses lying carefully on the table in front. A beautiful grey dog (Jake the Weimaraner) was asleep on the rug, looking up sleepily as we walked in. Immediately, it was obvious that this was not a hotel but a home: and home to the Harrison family.
Peter Harrison (the nicest man you’ll ever meet), greeted us immediately, inviting us to sit down in front of the fire whilst we waited to meet Liz and Mhairi, his two daughters. Completing the family was Peter’s wife Margaret, who with Peter, has been lovingly restoring and running the Pool House for the last two decades.
Having travelled the globe, the Pool House is now the family’s home: filled with eclectic, beautiful and curious objects from all over the world. As Liz gave us the grand tour of this 17th century home, it became clear just how much the family have collected over the years. Each room had a different theme, crammed full of ornate decorations, careful details and sumptuous furniture. From the astrology inspired dining room, to the large ‘Rowellan Room’ (complete with full-size pool table and over 300 malts), the Pool House is as far removed from a generic, commercial hotel as you can get.
I was beginning to realise why this hotel was one of the first signings to Mr and Mrs Smith.
We were shown to our suite, known as the ‘Ashanti Suite’ (exotic). Based on an oriental theme, the suite was larger than my own flat at home. Featuring an enormous Chinese Marriage Bed (complete with front porch, for breakfasting married couples); a balcony overlooking the loch; a huge bathroom complete with Victorian canopied bath; a sitting room with Chinese Day Bed (those Chinese liked to recline in style) and endless jewel-coloured decorations, this was easily the most luxurious suite I’ve stayed in. And to top it off? A pack of Scotland’s best: Tunnock’s caramel wafers in the mini bar. Yes.
After a quick shower in a bath tub twice my size, it was time to be welcomed by Peter to canapes and pre-dinner drinks in the drawing room. As there are only five suites in the hotel, this felt more like a small friendly dinner party rather than an awkward networking event. Peter and the family played no small part in this. This is a family who understand the meaning of hospitality, making each and every guest feel like old friends; something I’ve rarely experienced in hotels.
With the sun setting over the loch, bouncing pinks and blues across the sky, it was time for a five course meal, as delivered by Peter. With plenty of fresh seafood, an amazing dessert and a board of cheese, it was fresh food at its best, delivered alongside little nuggets of history on the region. Peter is a man who knows his stuff; recalling stories of Poolewe during WW2 and folklore tales of Wester Ross.
After dinner, Peter invited us to share a night cap with him: homemade blackberry vodka. After a tour of his 300 hundred strong whisky collection and the worst game of pool I’ve ever played, we headed up to bed; creeping up the wide, softly carpeted stair case, to our oriental bolthole.
The next morning, we were greeted again by the ever-friendly Peter, just in time for breakfast. First thing’s first: here you can order a starter with your breakfast. With a choice of traditional Hebridean porridge (the creamiest you’ll ever try); grilled grapefruit; a full Scottish cooked breakfast; kippers; eggs and soldiers; sausage on toast; mackerel; French toast and pancakes, we were in our element. Even better, this is all part of the bed and breakfast rate at The Pool House – a testament to the level of service offered by the Harrison family. There is no breakfast buffet or sad fruit salad in sight at this hotel.
After filling our bellies, we had just enough time to explore the rest of the hotel, as Liz showed us the self-catered accommodation also offered at The Pool House. We’ll definitely be coming back to stay here. Offering a beautiful gypsy caravan, complete with miniature kitchen; a boat house, with an enormous bathroom and wood burner; and a hot tub overlooking the loch, this is the perfect little getaway.
As we walked back through the hotel, I spotted a Mr and Mrs Smith hotel book. I had a quick look through, browsing all the new, cool boutique hotels that were opening across the world. With oil-rubbed bronze lighting; metro-tiled wet rooms; vintage radiators and industrial style bedrooms, each suddenly seemed the same as the next. A case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, maybe.
Looking around The Pool House, with its eclectic mix of antiques, its distinctive décor and very own resident family, I realised that this was what a boutique hotel was all about. Forget carefully filtered images of sparkling chrome taps, a boutique hotel should be truly individual: unphased by the latest trends in Farrow and Ball paints. It should be a place that makes you feel special, welcomed and ultimately relaxed. The Pool House did all of this.
We caught Peter clearing away the breakfast things just before we left, humming quietly to himself. I asked him if it was a lot of work, running the hotel. He nodded, remarking that as he has got older, it had got harder. But then he looked up, out over the big blue loch in front of us, and said smiling: ‘but it’s worth it. I love this place’.
I challenge you not to love it too.
Thank you so much to the lovely Harrison family for welcoming us at The Pool House and for allowing us to stay. We had the best time!