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Cromlix House: Wimbledon Champ Andy Murray Rejuvenates Scottish Country Hotel

Cromlix House
Cromlix House

By Ian Keown

When I dined at Cromlix House Hotel back in early June, one month after the new owner, Andy Murray of tennis fame, had reopened its doors, my waiter served my afternoon scone without its clotted cream.
In Scotland, a shortcoming of this ilk is almost a misdemeanor but what made the incident more ironic than usual was the fact that the official Scottish tourism authorities had just named the reinvented Cromlix “Hotel of the Year” — just one month after it opened. Sure, the staff was attentive, eager, friendly and obliging — but polished? Not yet. The award didn’t do Cromlix any favors because, unlike so many other amateur innkeepers who acquire trophy hotels but haven’t a clue how to make them work, Team Murray has got several things right.

Guestroom at Cromlix House.
Guestroom at Cromlix House.

The grey-stone manor itself, a braw if slightly dour pile, was built in the late 19th-century by a descendant of the family that had owned and lived on the wooded estate for umpteen generations. Set on a rise just three miles from Murray’s hometown, Dunblane in Perthshire, it’s surrounded by spacious gardens and bosky pathways leading off into 36 acres of private woodlands that guarantee seclusion and tranquility. Cromlix was first converted into a country house hotel back in 1986, which was when I first checked it out while researching a guidebook showcasing Europe’s finest small, romantic hotels. With the apse of its private chapel jutting into the driveway and the rooftop sprouting a score of decorative chimneys it had a certain Auld Scotland charm but lacked the spark to make it a standout. Now Murray and his team have aced it.
One smart move Murray made was bringing in experts with proven track records, in this case Inverlochy Castle Management International (ICMI), the guiding hand behind some of the most highly regarded hotels and restaurants in Scotland, including the eponymous Inverlochy, which first wowed me back in the Seventies. ICMI seems to have guided Murray (and his mother, Judy, who seems to have been a savvy intermediary between her touring son and all his teams of advisers) to an instant level of competence that so many innkeepers, even the pros, find elusive. General Manager Graeme Green, ICMI’s point man, is briskly moving his team to the kind of polish that merits annual awards – in good time.

The main lodge at Cromlix House.
The main lodge at Cromlix House.

Sumptuous Suites, Whisky Room, TVs Disguised as Mirrors
Having grown up in Scotland where drizzles and downpours reduced countless childhood holidays to hours of lying on lumpy beds re-reading “Treasure Island” for the umpteenth time, one of the essentials I look for in country house hotels is a variety of places to hang out indoors. On this score, Cromlix is a dream: nine working fireplaces, Drawing Room, Library, Billiard Room with a playing table that flips over to a dining table for 20 and a Whisky Room where vitrines sparkle with 50 bottles of single malts, mostly from the Balvenie Distillery (but look carefully and you’ll find a 25-year-old Talisker on an upper shelf).

Bathroom at Cromlix House.
Bathroom at Cromlix House.

And then, of course, the rooms and suites themselves are sumptuous spots to while away a rainy afternoon. Boutique Trendy is definitely not the goal at Cromlix but the overall theme — soothing moor-and-mountain colors, sturdy Scottish antiques, freestanding retro bathtubs finished in copper, gold or silver – is updated with 36-inch tellies disguised as mirrors and various modern amenities. Each of the 10 rooms and five suites is styled differently and is named for Murray’s favorite Scots (William Wallace, Conan Doyle, Sean Connery, Alex Ferguson, et al) and come in assorted shapes and sizes (the Carnegie Suite checks in at a 764 square feet).

Chez Roux at Cromlix
Chez Roux at Cromlix

Barley Risotto, Andy’s Tennis Courts, Woodland Walks
My other prerequisite for a country retreat is that guests should be able to walk downstairs to a leisurely dinner then, after a glass or two of wine, and maybe one of those Balvenies, walk to bed without having to drive along wiggly backroads, on the “wrong” side, in the dark. Again, Cromlix nails it, offering serious dining but with options in both menus and venues. A key member of ICMI happens to be the first chef in Britain to have earned three Michelin stars, Albert Roux. Chez Roux at Cromlix is a contemporary take on a conservatory, but geometric rather than curvaceously Victorian, with a long open kitchen supervised by Darin Campbell from the legendary Gleneagles Resort, just up the road. His menu is an inviting Continental/Scottish fusion (barley risotto with Scottish honey and whisky roast vegetables; Cairnhill Farm pork belly and fillet with apple and cabbage). The dishes seem priced to appeal to neighborhood Scots as much as free-spending tourists; the lunch/afternoon tea menu in the Art Deco-inspired lounge is likely to lure visitors who want a taste of luxury with more modest prices – especially when the weather is mild and sunny for dining on the terrace beside the croquet lawn.

The front desk will supply the mallets and balls for croquet and, of course, racquets and balls for guests looking to play a set on “Andy’s tennis courts” or just warming up in the practice lane. More audacious souls eager to explore the woodland paths and the trout pond can be kitted out with wellington boots and backpacks stuffed with goodies from Darin Campbell’s kitchen. The surrounding hills and dales are heaven for sightseers and golfers, with courses to match talents all the way up the leader board to the championship layouts at nearby Gleneagles, site of the 2014 Ryder Cup.

But back to the main talking point around the Grand Opening. When the worthies of the Scottish Tourist Board jumped the gun with their award other hoteliers were aghast and the media filled the airwaves with scorn. Cromlix would have been better served by picking up the award this year, when the initial excitement is over, the inn needs a second act – and waiters remember to serve the clotted cream with the outstandingly delicious scones.

Rates at Cromlix begin at $400 a night for two with a full Scottish breakfast that might include porridge brulee with whisky cream. The chapel and pipe organ can be rented for weddings up to 30 guests. Reservations at 01786 822 125. Full details of rooms, menus, directions, surroundings at www.cromlix.com.

Ian Keown is a freelance writer based in New York City. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Caribbean Travel & Life (contributing writer),  Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”).   He is the recipient of the  Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.
Ian Keown is a freelance writer based in New York City. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Caribbean Travel & Life (contributing writer), Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”). He is the recipient of the Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.
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