Set the scene
If nothing else, Glenapp proves that this criminally overlooked corner of Ayrshire does grand baronial-style architecture, moody coastline, rolling moorland, picturesque livestock and eccentric aristocrats just as well as anywhere else in the land. The castle is approached by means of a lovely mile-long drive that winds its way up through a densely forested gorge so wildly luxuriant, so thick with ferns, firs, rhododendrons and redwoods as to seem almost otherworldly, or at least faintly un-Scottish. This pleasantly disorientating sensation is, however, dispelled as you at last emerge at the threshold of the castle itself, a textbook affair of towers, turrets and battlements, all reassuringly familiar and comme il faut. From one side, you look onto an immaculately ordered walled garden by Gertrude Jekyll; from the other, across the turquoise waters of the Irish Sea towards Ailsa Craig, the Mull of Kintyre and the Isle of Arran.
What’s the backstory
Colourful. The castle was built in 1870 for one Scottish industrialist, James Hunter, and sold in 1917 to another, James Mackay, later Lord Inchcape and chairman of P&O. Inchcape’s favourite daughter, Elsie, was an actress, who performed under the stage name Poppy Wyndham, and an aviatrix, who in 1928 became the first woman to attempt to fly across the Atlantic. She enjoyed greater success in the former pursuit than the latter, disappearing shortly after taking off on her maiden transatlantic flight, never to be seen again. Glenapp remained in the family until 1988, when it was sold to a Japanese buyer or buyers. It subsequently became part of a bizarre lawsuit – ‘a global soap opera’ as The Wall Street Journal described it – involving Hideki Yokoi, an ageing real-estate tycoon not unacquainted with controversy, and one of his illegitimate daughters, whom Yokoi alleged had ‘stolen’ numerous properties belonging to him, including Glenapp, several French châteaux and, astonishingly, the Empire State Building.
In 1994 Glenapp became part of the McMillan Hotels portfolio. After six years of restoration, it opened in 2000, quickly gaining an excellent reputation, particularly for its Michelin-starred restaurant, and a loyal clientele. In 2015 it was sold yet again, to Paul Szkiler, a London-based fund manager, and his wife, coincidentally also named Poppy. Almost immediately, the Szkilers signalled the seriousness of their commitment to the property with an ambitious programme of improvements and fresh initiatives. Its post-lockdown reopening in May 2021 saw the unveiling of a fantastic new penthouse suite, The Endeavour – named after Elsie Mackay’s plane – which occupies the entire attic floor.
What can we expect from the rooms?
The inside is very much as you might imagine it to be from the outside. Lord Inchcape himself, and even the more modern-minded Elsie, would probably approve. Victorian seemliness, combined with up-to-date good sense, prevails throughout. Since the Szkilers took over, 11 of the 17 existing rooms have been refreshed to great effect. There are no duds among them – the basis of choice comes down to budget or availability. But the big news here is The Endeavour, which, though billed as a suite, is really more like a rambling apartment, with four bedrooms, multiple bathrooms (disproportionately large and lovely), kitchen (brilliantly equipped), dining room (stately, seating 16), lounge, library and TV room. And a treatment room, about which more later.
The main bedroom is reached by two staircases, one spiralled, one straight. If you follow the straight one further than you think you should, you will get to yet another spiral staircase, which takes you onto the roof of the castle. The views in all directions are hypnotically beautiful – gardens, treetops, coastline, sea, islands. Chances are, even on a fair day, it will be too breezy up here among the stony crenellations and roof slates for you to want to stay for very long; but it is worth the climb and you will not forget it, even if you are obliged to beat a hasty, windswept retreat.
How about the food and drink?
The present reviewer’s visit coincided with a perfect storm of staff turnover, pandemic-related disruption and behind-the-scenes turmoil for which the management could not be held responsible. On that basis, he would prefer to reserve judgement and say only that the last time he visited, in 2015, the food and drink side of things was outstanding, and that he has every expectation it will be so again.
What about the spa?
High up in the eaves, among its endless nooks and crannies, The Endeavour, or penthouse suite, contains a treatment room of unique charm. Apparently, Lord Inchcape liked to play billiards and smoke cigars up here once upon a time – perhaps he kept spare cues and chalk and a supply of stogies in this cupboard-sized space. Yet, small as it is, it may have realised its true destiny at last, for it seems as entirely spa-like and fit for purpose as any subterranean space-age temperature-controlled wellness chamber in the great metropolitan capitals of the world. Plans are afoot to convert the old Glenapp stables to a full-scale spa. Meanwhile, those who are not staying in The Endeavour and, for whatever reason, cannot live for a minute longer without a treatment will be conveyed post-haste to a facility in nearby Lendalfoot, which, though unseen by the present reviewer, will apparently do at a pinch.
What’s the the neighbourhood scene like?
Within striking distance of Glenapp are Culzean Castle, Dumfries House, Lochnaw Castle, Lochinch and Robert Burns’s birthplace. More than enough for high-minded heritage buffs and poetic souls to feast on. So too, for those of a more outdoorsy disposition, is Turnberry golf course. Though the Inchcapes sold the castle, they kept a substantial estate around it, which remains highly regarded by huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ types. Guests at the castle who wish to indulge their bloodthirsty impulses may do so there. Those of more pacific, nocturnal habits may enjoy the castle’s proximity to Britain’s first Dark Sky Park, which is just half an hour from Glenapp; though, in fact, there is no need to budge – you can enjoy first-class stargazing from the comfort of a deckchair on the castle’s croquet lawn, warmed by a woolly blanket, with a cup of hot chocolate or a dram of good whisky in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other.
Anything to say about the service?
Unfailingly warm, generous, enthusiastic and good-humoured.
Is it suitable for families?
Simply superb. There are activities in abundance, diverse, delightful and suitable for guests of all ages. A partial list might include beekeeping, tennis, croquet, quoits, boules, walking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, coasteering, archery, axe throwing (oh, yes), yoga, foraging, forest bathing, Scottish fiddle, stargazing, painting, photography, pheasant and partridge shooting, deerstalking, curling, cooking lessons and tank driving (honestly). The Endeavour is more or less intended for families (library with loads of books and board games for children; media room with 65-inch TV, Xbox Series S and Oculus Quest 2 for ‘virtual-reality fun’, whatever that is). Elsewhere in the castle are two Junior Suites with sofa beds in separate living areas and three Master Suites with ample space for two extra beds. A children’s menu is available for all meals; an earlier children’s dinner service can be arranged. There is babysitting for wee tots.
How’s its eco effort?
Meat, fish, poultry and game are locally (often very locally) sourced, and an ever-increasing supply of fruit, vegetables and herbs comes from the castle’s own chemical-free gardens. Most of the flowers guests enjoy throughout the castle come from those same gardens. Partnerships with local suppliers are based in part on their implementing compatible policies. There are Tesla and Universal Type 2 chargers for hungry cars. Water consumption and recycling are also closely monitored.
What’s the accessibility for those with mobility impairments like?
Somewhat limited, though this is largely due to the nature of the building and grounds. A ramp can provide access directly into the ground floor of the castle; there are several rooms with walk-in showers and others with grab rails in baths; and there are toilet facilities for mobility-impaired guests. There is also lift access to the first and second stories, and indeed to the third, where you will find The Endeavour – though, once you exit the lift, a labyrinth of steps, stairs and doors remains to thwart further progress.
Anything left to mention?
Glenapp’s Hebridean Sea Safari. For guests with an adventurous spirit and a curiosity about the landscapes and seascapes visible from the castle, the opportunity to spend several nights touring the neighbouring islands with an experienced RNLI skipper and a marine biologist, glamping in fancy tents on remote shores (including the one on Jura where George Orwell wrote 1984) and catered to by a private chef, is not to be missed. These trips were introduced by the Szkilers, who are justifiably proud of the way they draw guests out of the Glenapp cocoon and into the great world around them – a truly enlightened and commendable attitude.
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