By Elly Welch
I worry about the homogenization of our hospitality industry - the box ticking, star-ratings-led craze is knocking the quirky corners off everything. Of course, standards should be good but the creeping absence of difference is cutting out the chance of happy surprises.
Praise be, then, for Scarista House, sweet hotel and welcomer of souls. There’s not a beige carpet, spa-bath or scatter pillow in sight at this Georgian Manse turned island-getaway in windswept west Harris. The wifi is come and go, there’s no TV in the bedrooms and chips aren’t on the menu. What there is, though, is unforgettable charm and personality.
I get a skip of excitement approaching its steep, whitewashed walls set proud between the green Harris hills and the golden arc of Scarista beach.
I‘m dragging a tired daughter along today. What a treat – she’s primed for a moan.
“This place is very old,” she remarks with that ten-year-old superiority which means “if it’s not a Premier Inn, forget it.”
“You’ll love it,” I chime, pushing on into a welly-lined, sun-filled front porch.
Her mood evaporates a few seconds later, for first to greet us today is four-legged maître d', Maud the Pug, whose stately waddle brings a vision of Maggie Smith, in the style of Downton Abbey.
Patricia Martin, who co-owns and chefs with husband Tim, is close behind, smiling and floury handed. Tim is away tonight, mountain rescue training, so she’s juggling. “Have a wander round and I’ll catch up!” she urges, “I’ll just rescue the bread from the oven.”
Happily, nothing much has changed since I last visited in 2003. There have been some tweaks, fresh wallpaper and new bathrooms, but its idiosyncrasies remain.
Though not in the budget bracket, Scarista has no airs and graces. Rescued from dereliction in the 1970s, this grand old manse has grown into the Harris community like an elegant and eclectic old dame. Polished oak and book-lined walls sit side-by-side with painted floorboards and deep old sofas. Bedrooms are sumptuous but unselfconscious.
“Come to the kitchen, we’ll chat while I prep,” says Patricia, clearing space for me between fresh herbs and soufflé rings. Cheerful, local staff swirl about us as we talk, serving aperitifs to a full house of 14 dinner guests.
Patricia, a violinist by training, and Tim, a former recording studio manager, spotted an advert for Scarista in a glossy magazine 17-years ago. They seized the chance to quit London and follow their dream of cooking together professionally.
“Running a hotel with a young family wasn’t easy,” Patricia admits, pressing fennel into a Sablé biscuit. “The kids would come downstairs and try to place orders – but we trained them out of that!” She agrees that the family home feel has become part of the Scarista experience.
Whether you’re a foodie or not, eating here is truly something to savour. Evening meals, which you needn’t be a staying guest to enjoy (but you’ll need to book), take the form of set three or four course menus based around fresh local produce from sea, croft and their own kitchen garden too. Meals are by candlelight, and lingering, and, at around £40 - £45 a head, are not far off mainstream restaurant prices. If you don’t want an evening meal you could always book one of their delicious afternoon teas, served overlooking the Atlantic.
I head off to change for dinner – blue cheese soufflé tonight followed by Stornoway baked cod and Tarte Tatin. I consider asking my daughter to brush her hair, but she’s ensconced in the library, entertaining Maud on a Zimmerman piano.
It is after midnight when I go to bed, sidetracked by the drawing room fire, eking out my Scarista time. My room-mate, in her brass bedstead, never even asked about TV. In fact, the only moaning I registered was a southwest wind climbing under old eaves, and a knocked-back request for a pug, and a house like this.