It’s been a “fairytale” year for the team at Glenapp Castle Hotel in Ballantrae, after a star feature on BBC’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby led to a huge influx in bookings.

With a quick rewatch of the September episode, a glowing review from presenter Rob Rinder, who described the Scottish Baronial style building as ‘Disney meets kilts’, seems spot on. 

But, after a journey along the Ayrshire coast to discover just what makes the five-star hotel one of the finest in the country, I can’t help but feel sorry for the TV crews. 

They might have thought their Autumn visit was special, but it was nothing compared to Glenapp at Christmas. 

The Herald: Pictured: Glenapp Castle in BallantraePictured: Glenapp Castle in Ballantrae (Image: newsquest)

Fairy lights twinkle, tinsel glistens and an open fire crackles and pops as we meet with managing director Jill Chalmers for our own exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the hotel.

Life beyond the lobby has never been busier, she tells us, while the team readies themselves for a festive season that offers guests everything from archery lessons to falconry displays as they toast the end of another year. 

The Herald: Pictured: Jill Chalmers, managing directorPictured: Jill Chalmers, managing director (Image: newsquest)

And there’s one special booking that is sure to have a very merry Christmas indeed, having secured their stay at the jewel in Glenapp’s crown, the Endeavour Suite. 

Spanning an incredible 4500 square feet, this opulent penthouse offers breathtaking views towards Ailsa Craig, Arran and the Mull of Kintyre. 

The Herald: Pictured: The master bedroom at the Endeavour SuitePictured: The master bedroom at the Endeavour Suite (Image: newsquest)

Guests have exclusive access to the entire top floor of the building, including a sauna and wellness room, media room, a fully kitted-out kitchen, four bedrooms and five bathrooms, all with characterful low ceilings and doors that curve to the shape of a tall turret.

“Gordon Ramsay once stayed here,” Ms Chalmers says, “and he’s a tall man, so we did have to warn him to watch his head.” 

The Herald: Pictured: The suite spans the entire top floor of the hotelPictured: The suite spans the entire top floor of the hotel (Image: newsquest)

The suite is pure luxury, harking back to a bygone era with thick white carpets, heavy curtains and a spiral staircase that leads to a master bedroom, complete with a skylight that allows you to sleep under the stars. 

Priced nearly £5000 a night,  it’s natural to wonder which other high-profile guests have stayed here, and what special requests they may have made.

The Herald: Pictured: A distinctive curved wall in one of the suite's bathroomsPictured: A distinctive curved wall in one of the suite's bathrooms (Image: newsquest)

“We don’t like to say no”, Ms Chalmers says, “and if we can achieve it, then we’ll do it. 

“The Endeavour suite comes with a private chef and personal concierge, and a while back we had a married couple staying with their young child. 

“They were planning to eat downstairs but asked if the private chef would cook for them. 

“When we asked why that was, they said they would like him to make a pizza for their two-year-old.” 

The Herald: Pictured: A family kitchen comes with the option of a private chefPictured: A family kitchen comes with the option of a private chef (Image: Pictured: A family kitchen comes with the option of a private chef)

Although the private concierge and chef services are available exclusively as part of the Endeavour experience, the same level of attention to detail is continued throughout the 17-room hotel. 

The Herald: Pictured: The hotel looks out towards Ailsa CraigPictured: The hotel looks out towards Ailsa Craig (Image: newsquest)

There is no bar at Glenapp, and instead sharply dressed staff are at hand to cater to the whims of guests as and when they are needed. 

Back in the drawing room, it’s fascinating to watch the team at work. 

Communicating through secret-service-style earpieces, they are well-trained in the art of creating an atmosphere of calm and control all while ensuring the highest levels of service are maintained. 

Almost like the proverbial swan sitting serenely on the water while its legs kick furiously beneath the surface. 

The Herald:

A flick through a drinks list that’s been placed discreetly on a side table reveals an impressive selection of wines, cocktails and single malts, with the most expensive dram, a 21-year-old Macallan, priced at £150 a pop. 

Just as I’m wondering how far that chunk of change would stretch at a bar back in Glasgow, executive chef Peter Howarth arrives and greets us warmly, even though we’re distracting him from a lunch service prep. 

Asked what first attracted him to Glenapp he said: “Somebody put me in touch with Paul Szkiler, the owner, and he suggested that I come down to look around. 

“As soon as I walked through the doors, that was it. I fell in love.” 

The Herald: Pictured: Executive chef Peter Howarth creates a new menu every day at GlenappPictured: Executive chef Peter Howarth creates a new menu every day at Glenapp (Image: newsquest)

Having experienced the same first impression just hours before, I can appreciate how Howarth fell so quickly under Glenapp’s spell. 

But for a chef who thrives on the challenge of creating a new menu daily with seasonal ingredients, the draw goes far beyond an intoxicating air of luxury. 

“I’ve worked all over the UK and always found myself using a lot of produce from Scotland

“But it tastes completely different here. 

“I spent time in Jersey and thought they were the best potatoes you could get, but the ones we grow are so much better. 

“About 60% of our ingredients come from the gardens, and we’ll use any extra for staff meals so that there’s as little waste as possible.” 

A strong link between the garden team and the kitchen at Glenapp is perhaps one of their greatest assets and makes for a truly special dining experience at either the main hotel or at the Azalea Glasshouse restaurant. 

The Herald: Pictured: The Azalea Glasshouse restaurantPictured: The Azalea Glasshouse restaurant (Image: newsquest)

I’m told that once, a chef requested beetroot that was grown to no bigger than a fifty pence piece so that it would sit daintily on a plate. 

The skilled gardeners achieved just that. 

Aside from vegetable whispering, the small but mighty team of four cares for 110 acres of private estate which is home to exotic plants that have been collected since the Victorian days, as well as an Italian Garden designed by the famous Gertrude Jekyll. 

Knowing more about this than most is consultant gardener Ann-Maree Mitchell whose journey with Glenapp began almost three decades ago in 1995.

The Herald: Pictured: Consultant gardener Ann-Maree MitchellPictured: Consultant gardener Ann-Maree Mitchell (Image: newsquest)

“My mum saw an article in the paper saying that the building had new owners.

 “She remembered going to see the gardens in the early 60s or 70s when they had been open to the public and said that I should write to them and ask about a job, so I took a chance. 

“They thanked me but said they already had a head gardener. 

“A few months later, my mother-in-law answered a call, and said: ‘Ann-Maree, there’s someone from a castle on the phone and they want to speak to you.” 

The Herald: Pictured: The private estate spans 110 acresPictured: The private estate spans 110 acres (Image: newsquest)

Although the gardens were far from their current glory, Ms Mitchell tells a familiar tale of love at first sight upon discovering the castle for herself. 

“At the time the restoration had only just started so there were brambles everywhere and garden gates hanging off, but I was so enchanted by it all. 

“I could see interesting plants coming through the debris, and a monkey puzzle tree out front that that would have been planted around 1880 making it one of the earliest in the country. 

“My friends and family thought I was completely mad, but years later there’s yet to be a boring day at work. 

“When we take guests who care about gardening for a tour of the grounds, I could talk all day.” 

The Herald: Pictured: One of two dining rooms at Glenapp CastlePictured: One of two dining rooms at Glenapp Castle (Image: newsquest)

Earlier, when I had asked Ms Chalmers where in the world most of these guests travel from, she told me that it’s a multi-national affair with UK staycationers just as likely to make a booking as people from far-off lands who are looking for a truly Scottish experience, tartan, haggis and all. 

Lunchtime in one of the two stately dining rooms proves her right. 

There are local accents at one table, where a couple enjoy a festive lunch of turkey and chat about stopping at Aldi for stocking fillers on their way home. 

Later two American women take their seats for an afternoon tea, taking their time to peruse a menu of light bites before a staff member approaches their table with a half bottle of champagne, wishing one of them a happy birthday and reminding them that massages are booked in an hour. 

Quite the way to mark an occasion. 

My own solo meal comes from yet another different menu, with dishes like poached rabbit loin with toasted oats, celeriac and tarragon or West Coast rock bass and homegrown kohlrabi putting the kitchen’s commitment to local produce into action. 

The delicate, flourless chocolate cake spray painted gold with the lightest of touches to finish is a confident demonstration of star power from their pastry chef, who this year appeared on Bake Off: The Professionals. 

The Herald: Pictured: Staff member Lana McLorey tends to one of the hotel's many Christmas treesPictured: Staff member Lana McLorey tends to one of the hotel's many Christmas trees (Image: newsquest)

As the precious December sunlight begins to fade, the hotel's roaring fireplace is all the more irresistible.

It's small wonder that guests have now begun to mingle, talking in hushed conversations as they sink further into plumped sofa cushions. 

But all good things must come to an end, and I’m not convinced that my Herald colleagues would condone an overnight stay in the name of research. 

Instead, in one last flourish of utmost care and professionalism, I’m offered a lift in one of the hotel’s sleek black cars to the main road in Ballantrae, where a comparatively humble Stagecoach will begin the long journey back to Glasgow. 

My driver is relatively new to the role, having previously worked in numerous luxury venues across the globe. 

Glenapp Castle, he says, is different. 

“In anywhere I’ve worked before, people take the job thinking of all the ways that they can change a hotel for the better. 

“But I’ve found that Glenapp changes you.  

“It’s unlike anywhere else in the world.” 

The Herald: Pictured: Glenapp Castle was built in 1870 by renowned Victorian architect, David Bryce.Pictured: Glenapp Castle was built in 1870 by renowned Victorian architect, David Bryce. (Image: newsquest)

It's the third time I’ve heard these sentiments echoed by a staff member today, and it strikes me that only somewhere truly special could attract a team that seems to care so deeply about providing an unforgettable experience for their guests.

Back on the other side of the gates, I feel a little like Alice returning from Wonderland as the bus rattles to a stop and leave fully understanding the storybook appeal of this magic castle.

For more information on Glenapp Castle Hotel, visit their website here.