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Previous Pint Pleasures -February 10, 2006

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The Kames Hotel, Kames by Tighnabruaich, Argyll, Scotland

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The Shinty Bar, Royal Hotel, Tighnabruaich, Argyll, Scotland

I must admit I never expected to find myself visiting the Kyles of Butes. This is not because I was averse to the idea, or because I considered this an unachievable dream, but simply because I -- like the vast majority of people in the world who don't live close to the Kyles of Bute -- had no idea that a place called the Kyles of Bute even existed.

I can say the same for the village of Tighnabruaich as well, even though I still have difficulty pronouncing it.

The reason we found ourselves up in this remote part of western Scotland is because we were visiting Pat Jenner and Shelley Theaker, who used to run the excellent Cobden View in Sheffield. In December they moved up here with their partner, Philippa Elliott, to take over the Kames Hotel.

Kames and nearby Tighnabruaich are situated on the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll. Both villages lie on the western shore of the Kyles of Bute, which are the narrow straits at the south end of Loch Riddon that separate the Cowal from the Isle of Bute. If you're looking at a map of Scotland, the Cowal Peninsula is in a very loopy, watery part of the country, with Loch Fyne to the west, the Isle of Arran directly south, and Glasgow about a two-hour drive to the east. Even with these cues it's still difficult to find, so I'll try to give detailed driving directions in a bit.

The Kames Hotel features ten ensuite bedrooms, most which have loch views, with the few that don't offering pleasant garden and village views. Outside the hotel are 15 free moorings for visitors arriving by boat. On the ground floor of the hotel is a restaurant as well as a pub which consists of 4 rooms: a public bar with pool table and fire, a popular centre bar, a lounge and Malt Bar (with a deliciously impressive selection of single malts), and a private lounge -- and every room has a loch view. The overall feeling is very nice and warm, with carved dark wood everywhere and tasteful stained glass details. The bar stools are very comfortable as well. There are dozens of photos on the walls, mostly maritime in nature and featuring lots of old ships and old sailors, and a couple of John Brown, Queen Victoria's faithful servant. A poster advertising an upcoming Quiz Night for the Shinty Team was posted behind the bar, and a chalkboard announces daily specials from the restaurant.

We arrived on a Friday evening which is traditionally quiet at the Kames, especially during the Happy Hour down at the Royal Hotel in Tighnabruaich -- although it didn't seem very quiet to us, as most of the revellers return to the Kames when the Happy Hour ends. After having a wee dram to calm our night-driving nerves we settled into a pint of Highlander (4.8%, Fyne Ales, Cairndow, Loch Fyne, Argyll, Scotland). For a brew with that strong maltier taste that the Scots prefer, this is a nice pint. It is excellently kept as well, which isn't surprising because it's been obvious from our Cobden View experiences that Pat knows how to keep his ales. Due to the remoteness of the hotel and the local demand he's planning to have only one cask ale on in the winter, but there will be two available in the popular summer season. Because the tradition of the hotel is to buy local (eg. their meat comes from an award-winning butcher on Bute) they plan to stick with local breweries as much as possible.

During our Saturday lunchtime visit a small group of locals were congregated in the pub, including the obligatory dog. The day was bright and sunny and the loch was smooth as glass. As we watched a fishing boat sail across the water a couple of the locals chatted to the fisherman via the ship-to-shore radio behind the bar. By Saturday night the pub was packed; because the Highlander had run out we settled for pints of McEwen's 70/ on CO2, an appropriately cold and dark beer for a Scottish winter night. We chatted with various locals, including a young resident who volunteers on the Lifeboat. We learned that most of the residents volunteer their free time as Lifeboat rescuers and firemen to help support the community. At one point in the evening a couple of men left the pub suddenly: they had rushed out to answer a fire alarm, but it turned out to be a false alarm. As the evening progressed a never-ending progression of pool matches were played, songs were sung, and pints of beer, glasses of wine, and doubles of whisky were consumed. Near closing time a group of locals of all ages, including the local constable, were standing in a circle singing everything from "Flower of Scotland" to Beatles tunes to "Angels" by Robbie Williams. Now, that's what I call a proper Scottish pub.

The food is great as well. On the evening we arrived we had a light meal of perfectly cooked tagliatelle with ricotta and tomato sauce and a lovely feta and olive salad. For our Saturday tea I started with a delicious mushroom and brie tartlet with black currant sauce, while Andrew had an excellent French onion soup. My main course was a perfectly cooked salmon fillet roasted in honey with a wonderfully light shred of vegetables and mash, and Andrew's lamb was superb. Chef Kim really knows what she's doing.

The bedrooms are very nice as well. If sleeping with the curtains open doesn't bother you, definitely do so, because the view that greets you when you awake in the morning is indescribably breathtaking. I couldn't help thinking what a perfect writer's or artist's retreat this location would be. At the very least, it's an ideal place to de-stress, especially considering the fact that we found ourselves blissfully out of mobile phone contact during our stay. (Vodaphone is currently the only mobile signal available in the area.) Pat, Shelley, and Philippa have plans to upgrade all the rooms including new windows and shower attachments. By summertime there will be a beer garden, and hopefully by March, when the new no-smoking law goes into affect, there will be plenty of seating outside for smoking breaks.

Although the pub at the Kames Hotel isn't exactly convenient for most residents of the UK, it's definitely worth a visit, so if you're planning on popping up for a pint you should book a room for a night -- or two or three. If you're driving I would advise doing it in the daylight, as our nighttime drive was just a little bit terrifying -- and since the ferries weren't running because of gales, the route we took was quite a bit longer and more complicated (i.e. crossing the River Clyde in Glasgow, turning left onto the A82, then left at Loch Lomond onto the A83, then left onto the A815, then left onto the A886, then right onto the A8003). But the drive in the daylight is very scenic and pleasant. Leaving Kames we took the A8003 up to the A886, turned right and then left onto the B836, then right onto the A885 to Dunoon, where we caught the ferry across the Firth of Clyde to Gourock just west of Glasgow. (To get there just reverse the directions, including all those rights and lefts. But I wouldn't advise driving in reverse or it'll take you forever.) On Shelley's suggestion we bought our ferry tickets a few miles north of Dunoon at the Sand Bank Post Office where they were half what you would pay if you bought them at the Dunoon ferry. (Please note the Post Office sells return tickets only.) And if you don't have a car, you can always take a train to Glasgow, catch another one to Gourock, take the passenger ferry to Dunoon, and then catch the 193 bus from Dunoon to Tighnabruaich.

I know I normally don't give such detailed directions to pubs -- but to find the Kames Hotel you really need some guidance. So consider yourself guided and make your plans.

Seeing as how we were spending so much time at the Kames Hotel, we decided to take a break and check out the Shinty Bar at the Royal Hotel, where all the locals go for the regular Happy Hours. Although the hotel itself seems very posh and lush, the Shinty Bar feels very, The bar is named after one of the oldest sports in the world, the Scottish game of shinty, which is similar to hockey and lacrosse and has connections with golf and ice hockey. While we contemplated the sport of shinty we had half pints of Highlander, which I'm afraid just weren't as good as Pat's, possibly because they were a bit on the warm side. But it was an interesting change of environment. The walls are covered with photos of shinty teams, and in a prominent spot is a large painting of a suited man standing behind large trophies, undoubtedly shinty trophies. This is a very very blue bar -- in fact it almost glows like an aquarium. There are lots of trophies along the shelves as well, also probably shinty trophies. Shinty and blue, shinty and blue...I don't know what it means but it's true...