Travel

Discover Scotland’s Hidden Haven

John O’Groats is almost as far as you can go North in Britain, but, as Stylist’s Anna Hart discovers, a stylish new inn makes it well worth the trip.

I can never resist visiting a place that captured my imagination as a child. I still have a list I made, aged eight, marking the places I’d love to visit including the Jordanian city of Petra (thanks to Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom), Salzburg (ditto The Sound Of Music) and both John O’Groats and Land’s End,which every child assumes to bethe top and the toe of Great Britain(although Dunnet Head is officiallymainland Britain’s northernmostpoint). I imagined them to be grand ports, teeming with exotic travellers. In fact, both are tiny, remote settlements, Land’s End in western Cornwall, and John O’Groats, 876 miles away on thenortheastern tip of Scotland. And until recently both were considered famous by accident and entirely underwhelming for travellers.

John O’Groats had a lovely19th-Century hotel but it fell derelict in the Nineties and Lonely Planet labelled the area ‘a seedy tourist trap’ but happily this has now changed,thanks to the stylish makeover of The Inn at John O’Groats by travel company Natural Retreats.

When I arrive (via Inverness Airport and a two-and-a-half-hour drive) it’s a bleak, windy day, but the sight of the hotel is unmistakably cheery with its row of red, blue, yellowand green ‘tufts’ or Scandinavian-style fisherman huts, hugging the side of the gabled, whitewashed original inn. John O’Groats has done well; rather than conventional hotel rooms, The Inn offers 16 open-plan apartments, with between one and four bedrooms, in addition to 23 three-bedroom eco-lodges.

John O’Groats is a prime spot to glimpse the northern lights and see killer whales

Interiors throughout are Scandi-influenced– think copper pendant lights, Scottish Larch timber and neat, Ercol-style sofas topped with cosy tartan rugs and chic cushions. The idea behind the development isthat visitors will be tempted to lingerin John O’Groats longer than the time it takes to Instagram themselves next to the famous signpost.

And there are some truly spectacular sights. John O’Groats is a prime spot to glimpse the northern lights and see killer whales in their natural habitat. So on our firstmorning, after a breakfast of fresh eggs on toast courtesy of our welcome hamper, we clamber into a 12-seater inflatable rib for a sea safari. The sun is shining and we’re soon photographing seals basking in thewarmth, before we speed past uninhabited islands and rugged cliffs. When we slow down to snap the ‘The Stacks’, three towering rock formations at Duncansby Head, they’re so breathtaking no filter is required.

For lunch, we head to The Storehouse, The Inn’s inviting cafe-bar serving locally-brewed beer, organic wines and a well-judged menu of sandwiches and platters (I went for the local speciality Caithness Salmon Taster Plate). The one snag is the 8pm closingtime, but the Seaview Hotel halfa mile up the road has a whiskyshelf that’s worth the walk.

I made my trip to John O’Groats over a weekend, but given the journey time from London next time I’ll makeit part of a dream Scottish road tripfrom Inverness to Orkney. Crossing Land’s End off my list of travels might have to wait.

A one-bedroom apartment at The Inn at John O’Groats costs from £90 per night, naturalretreats.co.uk. Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Inverness from £60 return; visitscotland.com

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