Virtually every hotel, mansion and country house claims to be a fabulous venue these days. But what does it take to be the best? Stevie King visits Achnagairn Estate voted ‘top wedding venue’ by Harper’s Bazaar, to find out precisely that

Few would disagree that competition among top notch venues these days is fierce which makes scooping the title of ‘top wedding venue in the UK’ by Harper’s Bazaar magazine quite some accolade. It’s one currently held by the prestigious 5* Achnagairn Estate near Inverness in the Highlands.

An invite to the property this May certainly sparked my curiosity. What precisely had the estate done to merit such an award? Was it the quality of accommodation, or perhaps the range of five-star amenities? Maybe a beyond the call of duty level of personalised service? A popular and established venue for weddings, I was also keen to discover if the estate was equally geared up to catering to social and corporate groups for private functions and events.

A direct flight from Gatwick to Inverness airport in May and my fact-finding visit had begun. A warm welcome from Achnagairn’s charismatic owner, Gillian Lacey-Solymar who met us at the airport set the ‘personal touch’ tone, with just a short transfer drive to the estate. First impressions - the property took my breath away – a reaction that didn’t entirely come as a surprise to Gillian. “Our motto is Escape the Ordinary: exceptional service in an exceptional place,” she explains. “Delivering the wow factor is what we excel at – in fact, it’s not unusual for guests to fall in love with the property at first sight. It’s quite a scene stealer.”

Escape the Ordinary is clearly a hospitality ethos adopted by the entire estate team – a glance in the guestbook and the reams of praise about staff “going the extra mile” is enough to convince me of that. Steeped in history and charm, the property certainly packs a punch for understated sophistication, not in the least ostentatious, with quirky elements woven in that pay tribute to the castle’s vintage roots.

As to the accommodation offering, rooms are exquisitely decorated; a tasteful mix of muted shades and bright palettes – such as the statement feature sofas which work well against the striking dark wood wall panelling. Bedrooms are generously proportioned, many sporting four-poster beds, original fireplaces, with sweeping countryside views to enjoy. Bathrooms are equally sumptuous with Italian marble, Arabian mosaics, and hand-painted murals. One has ‘his and hers’ bathtubs, several have over-sized baths large enough to accommodate several plus ones (!), with one shaped like a sailing-boat.

The property’s standout feature however has to be the grand ballroom; a fairy tale setting for weddings, but equally suited to private parties, even product launches. Built in 1912 for the owner’s daughter, this vast, vaulted room, complete with stone fireplace and minstrel’s gallery is almost regal in its splendour. Accommodating larger groups isn’t a problem for Achnagairn either – a rare find venue these days combining character with a high head count guest capacity. The estate sleeps up to 125 people (24 bedrooms in the castle and 7 luxury mini-manors in the grounds) complete with a 5* exclusive use rating.

“The castle is always exclusively yours on a private hire basis,” confirms Gillian. “This guarantees complete privacy. We can’t name names of course, but this is a crucial consideration for the many celebrities who choose to come and stay. It’s all part of the bespoke service we offer to clients.”

Before we leave, and there’s one final treat in store - the opportunity to dine at the estate’s new gourmet restaurant, Table Manors. The locally sourced food is exquisite – not surprising given the award-winning chefs. As for future plans for the estate – work will soon start work on a Signature spa; an “exciting addition” to the amenities on offer, adds Gillian. Clearly every touch point detail at Achnagairn has been thought of. Which leads me to my final parting thought – just how do I find a legitimate reason to return again and soon?

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