Nothing signals the arrival of winter in Scotland more than the snow gates closing on the Cock Bridge to Tomintoul road. This year it arrived while the trees were still resplendent in their autumnal robes. It was way too early, but the scenic route in the Cairngorms National Park had closed, so it was time to dig out the winter woolies.
With a nip in the air I found myself craving a ‘coorie’ escape (Scotland’s answer to hygge). As luck would have it, the cold snap coincided with an invitation to stay at Saplinbrae Hotel & Lodges in Aberdeenshire. Fluffy socks and fleecy PJs packed, we journeyed north to coorie in a cosy cabin.
A visit to Newburgh Beach seal colony
After a 2 1/2 hour drive we stopped at Newburgh Beach to stretch our legs.
Decked out in fleece and down, we braved a bracing wind whipping in off the North Sea. It was teeth-chatteringly cold, but umpteen layers and a brisk pace kept us toasty.
Newburgh Beach is heaven for wildlife lovers as it’s home to a large colony of grey seals. It’s a lovely beach with high-backed dunes and a long stretch of golden sand.
We walked along the sand, following the course of the River Ythan to where it flows into the North Sea. The seals were lolling, idly on the opposite side of the river. There were dozens of them, in all shapes, sizes and shades of grey.
One energetic little fella, slipped into the water and swam over to check us out. He watched us with interest, and we stared right back.
Broody clouds told us rain was coming, so we headed towards Saplinbrae Hotel & Lodges to see if we could do some exploring on the doorstep before the heavens opened.
Deer Abbey – history and hailstones
Deer Abbey seemed like a good place to start.
The abbey was founded by William Comyn, Earl of Buchan in 1219. He’s buried in the grounds, but the location of his grave has long been forgotten.
The abbey is best known for its links to the Book of Deer. The 10th century illuminated manuscript contains the earliest surviving example of Scots Gaelic written in Scotland. Although the book wasn’t written at the abbey, it’s known to have been housed there. It’s now owned by Cambridge University, so sadly it’s not on display in Scotland.
The abbey was disestablished after the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Today, it’s little more than a shell, but it’s an interesting site to visit.
A heavy hail shower started as we were looking around. We took shelter under an arched doorway, Mr G complaining that the hail had hurt his nose, me stifling laughter, and the boy barking angrily at the hail.
The weather was telling us it was time to coorie.
Saplinbrae Hotel & Lodges
Saplinbrae is located in a quiet, rural spot just outside the village of Mintlaw. Built in 1756, it started life a coaching inn. Its use changed a number of times over the years, but it reverted back to its original purpose in the 20th century – providing travellers with a warm bed and a hearty meal.
Inside, the style was a mix of traditional inn and country house. It had a lovely welcoming feel, and I immediately felt at home.
Self-catering without the cooking
Our lodge was located in a quiet, leafy spot behind the hotel. It offered us the best of both worlds – the space, flexibility and privacy of self-catering, and the tasty, home-cooked meals of a hotel.
It was homely and comfortable inside, with an open plan living area consisting of lounge, dining room and kitchen. A wood burning stove, large comfy sofa, games and DVDs added the necessary ingredients for a wee coorie.
With a double, twin and single bedroom the lodge was perfectly suited for a romantic escape or family break. Colourful throws, warm wood tones and ambient lighting gave the bedrooms a rustic, cosy feel.
I was delighted to discover toiletries from Ness Soaps in the bathroom. Ness Soaps are a social enterprise company based in the Highlands. Their quality products are handmade using natural ingredients. All profit from sales go toward helping young people with housing, training and employment.
After unpacking, we spent a couple of hours lazing by the fire with a cold wine and beer. The boy donned his robe and joined in too – minus the alcoholic beverage.
Good food and local produce
Food finally lured us away from the fireside. Ditching our fleecy PJs for more formal attire, we headed to the hotel for dinner.
We were seated at a table by the window in the restaurant/bar area. Background music, the quiet hum of conversation, and an inviting fire gave the place a really nice vibe.
We ordered a bottle of fizz, then perused the menu. There was a heavy emphasis on using local produce and suppliers which I loved. Aberdeenshire has a rich natural larder which should be celebrated.
For starter I opted for something different for me – fish. Ugie salmon, crispy noodles, sesame and chill dressing to be precise. It was good, and the fish was just the right texture. Moist and bursting with flavour.
As delicious as my starter was I had instant starter envy when I tried Mr G’s, three cheese soufflé, with red onion marmalade and candied walnuts. It was fluffy, light and tasted divine.
The spice is nice
For main I had the special – Cajun chicken with jewelled rice and seasonal vegetables. I’m a spice fiend so can never resist dishes with a kick. The Cajun seasoning was subtle enough so as not to overpower the dish. It contrasted nicely with the sweet, crunchy pomegranate seeds in the jewelled rice.
Fish loving Mr G, having forgone a fishy starter chose baked North Sea cod, sun-dried tomato, parmesan cauliflower cous cous and mango salsa. It disappeared from his plate in a flash.
For dessert I couldn’t resist the Castleton berry Pavlova with Chantilly cream. I’ve loved meringue for as long as I can remember, and this was way up there with the best. Crunchy, but not too crumbly, and ever so slightly chewy – perfect.
Mr G acted all grown up and had the cheese board.
Let it hail on our hygge haven!
Dinner eaten and fizz finished, we headed back to the lodge to slip into our PJs and seats by the fire.
Hail battered down on our wee wooden lodge that night, but we stayed toasty and warm inside. I love listening to wild weather when I’m snuggled up indoors.
Hail hammering on the roof didn’t prevent us from sleeping. We were out like lights as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
After a rare long lie thanks to the clocks going back, we headed over to the hotel for breakfast. Thankfully, the hail had stopped and it was a clear, crisp morning.
Breakfast hit the spot nicely – a big pot of fresh coffee, orange juice and toast, plus a tasty cooked breakfast for me, and a hearty portion of Ugie smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for Mr G.
Our stay at Saplinbrae Hotel & Lodges had been lovely. It was the perfect place to coorie by the fire and enjoy good food and fine wine.
Sunshine and showers at Pitfour Lake
Keen to see more of the area, we decided to stick around to explore for a while before heading home.
Our first stop was Pitfour Lake, which is a short, scenic walk from the hotel. Like Saplinbrae, the lake was once part of the Pitfour Estate. Although it looks natural, it’s man-made and was added to the estate at the beginning of the 19th century.
We stopped by the water’s edge to watch a family of swans. The boy kept his distance, as he’s never quite got over being hissed at as a puppy.
Once we were a good distance away from any shelter, the heavens opened and the hail returned.
The boy set the pace, and we sprinted back towards the car, a dripping wet, power walking posse.
By the time we reached the car the hail had stopped and the sun was shining – good old Scottish weather.
Aikey Brae Stone Circle
As you know, I’m a sucker for standing stones. I can’t resist them.
Aberdeenshire has some incredible stones, and as luck would have it there was a well-preserved stone circle a short distance from Saplinbrae.
Aikey Brae Stone Circle is located on Parkhouse Hill, midway between the villages of Old Deer and Maud. I appreciate that sentence sounds like a mix between a country and western song and two old ladies.
The stones are reached via a narrow path that leads uphill toward a wooded area. The landscape surrounding us was stunning, and exactly what I picture when I think of Aberdeenshire. The sun had come out too, which sure beat being pelted by evil little balls of ice.
When we reached the woods, we followed a faint path into the trees. The light was magical, so we stopped to enjoy the moment and laugh at The Wee White Dug’s ears which were glowing.
We emerged from the trees and stumbled into the 4,000-year-old stone circle. It was of a type unique to the North East of Scotland, with the focal point being a huge recumbent stone. When I say huge, I mean HUGE, as in 21.5 tonnes of solid rock.
After pacing round, and admiring the stones for a ridiculously long time I tore myself away, and back through the glowing trees we went.
Drinnie’s Wood Observatory
After my Neolithic stone fix, it was only fair that Mr G got to choose our next mini hike.
We drove back towards Saplinbrae to visit the observatory in Drinnie’s Wood. Parking the car, we set off along a path flanked by tall trees.
After a short distance we turned right and headed up a dark path. The observatory, was in a small clearing surrounding by towering trees.
It creeped me out a bit, as it seemed really out of place, hidden in the woods.
Mr G on the other hand shot inside, and seconds later he was waving from the top like a man possessed.
The boy seemed to share my unease, at he refused to set foot inside.
Once Mr G descended and took charge of the boy, I braved it up the tower. There was only a view of treetops from the top (when the tower was built by the fifth laird of Pitfour in 1845 the trees didn’t exist), but I’m glad I ventured up the creepy observatory.
Aden Country Park
Our final stop of the day was chosen with the boy in mind. Aden Country Park is a gorgeous green space located on the outskirts of Mintlaw. There’s lots to see and do in the 230 acre park, but it was the dog agility course that lured us in.
The boy seemed to know it was a doggy play area, as he charged around like a toddler high on E numbers. He had mixed success on the agility front, but we had lots of fun laughing at his corner cutting and mad running. I laughed some more when Mr G nearly lost a finger trying to coax the boy over a see-saw using a treat.
Agility “training” done, we enjoyed a nice stroll in the park.
We stopped to explore the ruins of Aden House which sit in the centre of the park. The house was built in the early 19th century and fell into disrepair after World War II. Even in its ruinous state you can tell it was beautiful in its heyday.
After a morning spent sightseeing, it felt like we’d earned a coffee and cake. We popped into The Cafe at Aden, which is run by the team at Saplinbrae. If you ever find yourself in the neighbourhood – do not, I repeat do not, leave without trying their rocky road – D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S!
We left Aberdeenshire with the sun shining and the trees glowing gold – maybe autumn wasn’t over quite yet.
Thanks to Saplinbrae Hotel & Lodges for inviting us to stay. Although our food and accommodation were provided on a complimentary basis, all opinions are my own.
Until next time…….