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(Above) Once the family seat of the Earl of Inchcape, now a luxury hotel, Glenapp Castle in southwest Scotland. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

You’ll live like a countess at Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire County.

27-Mar-24 – Following a serpentine tree-canopied drive through the picturesque Scottish countryside, we arrived at ornate iron gates marking the entrance to Glenapp Castle. A team of staff, impeccably dressed in black and white, awaited us outside the front door. Their greeting was accompanied by a bagpiper’s lilting tune.

This warm reception was a mere glimpse into the exceptional hospitality during our stay, leaving us feeling nothing short of regal. Surely, our experience brought to mind the Downton Abbey way of life.

For the uninitiated, Downton Abbey is a critically acclaimed period drama shown on American public television for six seasons starting in 2011 and in two films. The storyline traces the lives of the fictional aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early 20th century. “Downton Abbey” is the name of their vast estate in the British countryside.

Luxurious Glenapp Castle is situated on 110 acres in the scenic southwest of Scotland, just outside the coastal village of Ballantrae in Ayrshire County. Built in 1870 in the grand Scots Baronial style with a fusion of Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements, the facade is marked with turrets, towers, and crenellations. The interiors exude a sense of grandeur, lavished with Austrian oak paneling, crystal chandeliers, and sumptuous brocade and botanical textiles.

Glenapp Castle

Edinburgh and Glasgow are the nearest international gateways. The hotel can arrange transportation to and from the airport.

(Left) Drawing room at Glenapp Castle. Photo provided by Glenapp Castle.

A historic tapestry

The legacy of Glenapp Castle is intertwined with significant historical moments and VIP guests, just like Downton Abbey. In the 1920s, the castle served as the country residence of James Lyle Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, a prominent London shipping magnate, and his dauntless daughter, Elsie Mackay.

Elsie harbored the dream of becoming the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean from east to west – a more arduous route than west to east. She embarked on that flight in her single engine monoplane in March 1928, only to vanish into the skies. While her fate remains a mystery, her ghost is rumored to linger within the castle walls.

During World War II, Glenapp Castle played a pivotal role as a meeting place for Allied leaders. In 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower convened with Sir Mackay to strategize D-Day landings. Churchill’s portrait hanging in the castle library serves as a reminder of this historic alliance.

After the war, the castle fell into disrepair – as did great numbers of country estates when owners could no longer afford the taxes – and their offspring moved to the cities. (The Crawleys fretted about this happening to their beloved Downton Abbey as well.) Sadly, many were demolished, and some became tourist attractions. Only a few, like Glenapp Castle, were painstakingly restored and found new lives as prestigious hotels.

You rule at Glenapp Castle

“What is a weekend?” mused Downton Abbey’s formidable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham and a high-ranking member of the leisure class. At Glenapp Castle, you design your itinerary, with 70-plus activities and excursions from which to choose. Among them are forest bathing, stargazing, archery, fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, yoga sessions, and spa treatments.

We spent an afternoon with an expert falconer who instructed us in the lives, behaviors, and handling of birds of prey.

She guided us in donning the thick leather glove, primed with carnivorous bits, and holding out our arm until the airborne hawk, kestrel, or other raptor flew into our hand. Even though I knew what to expect, I was still startled when it landed with a thump.

(Right) The author with a bird of prey.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Arboreal abundance

Wander the outdoor beauty of Glenapp Castle, which is surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens and sprawling woodlands, and dotted with specimens from around the world. A circuit of cultivated pathways winds through them all. Start at the exotic monkey puzzle tree for a ramble through the forested Kilphin Glen. Then follow the path along the narrow River Smyrton, cross the wooden bridges, pass the red-squirrel playground, and you’re soon back where you started.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Directly behind the castle is the Gertrude Jekyll Garden (left), a formal Italian garden created in 1902. An immaculate lawn is bordered by stone walls and sculpted hedges, and interspersed with statuary and lush flowerbeds.

The serene Azalea Pond is lined with native and rare flora providing brilliant color most of the year. From the north side of the pond, you can capture memorable photos of the castle’s rear elevation.

Sojourn to the Hebrides

Climb aboard the castle’s motorized vessel at nearby Girvan Harbour and set sail for the enchanting Hebrides islands. Marine creatures and bird life are abundant in these parts. Watch for sea lions, dolphins, eagles, puffins, gannets, and guillemots.

We chose a half-day excursion to Ailsa Craig, a dome-shaped island about a 30-minute cruise from the harbor, for a hike and picnic. Uninhabited, the island is an avian sanctuary of sorts, attracting tens of seabirds teeming above sheer cliff faces. The landscape is severe, save for a working lighthouse, but our luncheon of hot soup, quiche, and dessert was served with select wines at a graciously arranged table. (On a clear day, you can view the distant Ailsa Craig from the windows of the castle’s main dining room.)

Another option is the Hebridean Sea Safari, a luxury glamping experience. While you unhurriedly cruise and take in the seascapes, the concierge team travels ahead to a remote beach or sheltered inlet to set up your overnight accommodations. Deluxe tents are furnished with fine rugs and lighting, cashmere blankets, and hot-water showers. Meals are expertly prepared by a chef, and tabletops are dressed with candelabrum.

Slumber in splendor

Glenapp Castle’s 21 spacious guest rooms and suites are individually and exquisitely styled with period furnishings, premium textiles, precious antiques, and en suite baths. Many are appointed with fireplaces and canopy beds.

Guest rooms are loaded with extras like crisply ironed sheets and bedside pull-cords that turn the chandeliers on and off.

(Right) Arran Suite. Photo provided by Glenapp Castle.

Glenapp Castle

A new retreat, for those who are traveling with companions, is The Endeavor Penthouse Suite, designed with four bedrooms with baths, lounge area, dining room, and rooftop terrace. The penthouse is accessed by a private elevator and serviced by a personal chef and butler.

Delectable dining

Savor a culinary journey fit for royalty at two esteemed dining venues. From the multi-course dinners in the castle dining rooms to afternoon tea in the light-infused Azalea Brasserie in the onsite greenhouse, each meal is presented with exquisite flavors and impeccable service. Even breakfast is a three-course affair conducted with silver-service hospitality. Menu selections emphasize ingredients sourced from local farms, waters, and hotel gardens.

Most guests dress up for dinner, which only adds to the elegance of the occasion. A tiara isn’t necessary, but if you wish to don one, you won’t be out of place.

Glenapp Castle

Surely, the Dowager Countess of Grantham would approve.

Photo provided by Glenapp Castle.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.