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Ardeonaig: South Africa in Scotland
Tucked away in Loch Tay is Scotland's best-kept secret. Ardeonaig brings a touch of South Africa to the simultaneously rough and enchanting countryside, fusing two cultures that one would not expect to see interwoven. The resort offers only a couple dozen rooms, most of which are freestanding thatch-roofed cottages scattered across the property. Each is quite large, accommodating two with plenty of space, and the small accompanying patios give you a chance to soak in the crisp local air.
Every inch of Ardeonaig offers a glimpse into the life of owner and executive chef Pete Gottgens. The rooms are named for friends and family members, a nice alternative to the room numbers that we've come to expect. In the main building, large photographs from Gottgens' childhood line the walls, along with original paintings by his sister. Several living room-style lounges are offered, where you can relax with an espresso or glass of wine. It's about as far as you can get from traditional hotel chains.
To understand the essence of Ardeonaig, you have to look past the guestrooms and lounges and sit for a meal. Seating is available in two rooms, which are served by the same kitchen. Don't look for a static menu: the contents change daily. Gottgens serves what is fresh, so he is constrained by availability – though when you see what he creates, it's hard to imagine limits. Carefully planned meals reflect an expertise honed over decades. The lessons began when Gottgens was a teenager, leaving South Africa to wash dishes in Switzerland. He later left for London, where he refined his culinary skills and ultimately opened a series of restaurants – catching the attention of Nelson Mandela along the way. In fact, "chef," as he is called, became the civil rights leader's preferred chef in London and engaged him to prepare meals for various official events.
Gallery: Ardeonaig, Loch Tay, Scotland
Gottgens, while in London, would disappear to Perthshire, when possible, to fish in the quiet surroundings afforded by the Scottish countryside. One day, he flipped through real estate listings – with no particular plans to act – and saw an ad for a vacant hotel. On a whim, he decided to take a look ... and fell in love. Another bidder beat him for the property, but it only took three months for the buyer to become seller. Chef scrounged the down payment, hoping to satisfy the difference through operations (which, fortunately, he was able to do).
While every aspect of the guest experience is a priority, the kitchen is understandably Gottgens' domain. He appears in alleys in the dark hours of the morning to meet fishermen and their latest catches. What they bring to tk is what comprises the menu. A local hunter who carries hares to the back door defines the evening meal.
The one constant at Ardeonaig is the wine. Lifelong relationships give Gottgens access to small batch wines that are hard to come by. Because of this, pairing is difficult. Unlike most chefs, he's happy to alter his style to match the wine, "respecting the effort" that has already been bottled. The wine is already there, he says, so it only makes sense for him to consider it when he sets to work.
For at least one meal, dine at the chef's table, situated in the immaculate kitchen. Gottgens is more than happy to showcase his team's work as it occurs and hides nothing. The secret ingredients are the vast knowledge and profound energy that he brings to his craft. Neither can be replicated.
The kitchen closes when the last guest arrives, a rule that tk has imposed and by which he abides. From a hospitality perspective, Gottgens doesn't want guests to arrive and go to bed hungry. He concedes, however, that there's an economic reason, as well. "If you're going to eat somewhere else or eat here, we'd rather have you eat here."
When you've finished your evening meal – whatever the hour – you can walk to your cottage or be driven by a golf cart. Sensors turn the exterior lights on as you approach. Climb into your large, warm, soft, bed, and start to dream about what Gottgens will serve for breakfast.
[Photos thanks to Ardeonaig]