Cigar Aficionado

The Turnberry Hotel, Ayrshire, Scotland

It seems hard to imagine now, but the Turnberry Hotel was once owned by the forerunner to British Rail. Nowadays, no greater disparity could exist than that which contrasts the splendor of life at the Turnberry with the misery of a journey on a British train. The great golfing hotel lies on the coast of Scotland some 60 miles south of Glasgow. It needs little in the way of an introduction for golfing enthusiasts: it is currently rated as the third-best course in the British Isles. And it is one of the great hotel resorts in the country.

For the past few years it has been the property of a Japanese company, which has lavished some £30 million (about $46 million) on refurbishing it and more than £6 million (about $9.1 million) was spent on a new spa complex complete with healthy-eating restaurant. This, the owners hope, will provide an alternative to golf, especially at those gloomier times in the Scottish year when only a time-transported Spartan would venture out onto the green.

The site is lovely, with views over the two 18-hole courses: Ailsa and Arran. The former is named after the Ailsa Craig, a rock that lies a few miles out to sea and looks a little like a lopsided Christmas cake. The latter is a tribute to the south Hebridean island of Arran.

The bedrooms have been revamped, too; in this case by Jenny Maclean, a niece of the diplomat and writer, Sir Fitzroy Maclean. Fabrics by Colefax and Fowler, Osborne and Little and Coles have been introduced; most bathrooms have separate baths and shower cubicles, and the grander suites have whirlpool baths. Emphasis is placed on privacy. Hotel staffers will not enter the rooms unless it is clear that they have been invited.

There are three restaurants: the main hotel dining room with its profusion of Ionic columns; the Bay, with its emphasis on healthy food (no red meat or fat); and the Clubhouse, where guests can eat very simply or opt for a roast should they wish. The kitchens come under the overall control of Stewart Cameron, a member of the Academie Culinaire de France, who has been with British Transport Hotels or their successors throughout his career.

Cameron is a wise, level-headed chef of the old school. He respects local ingredients and regrets the disappearance of many specialties he enjoyed as a child in a farming family. He hangs his Ayrshire beef for three weeks and his lamb for 12 days. The fish is chiefly brought from Girvan harbor nearby, but if he needs something special he has no trouble getting it from Edinburgh, London or Paris. Cheese is a passion. He favors buying a limited number of excellent local cheeses such as Lanark, Dunsyre and Biggar Blues as well as fine Dunlop from Mull. He likes to balance these with an English Stilton or Cheddar or a Reblochon from France.

The style in the main dining room with its Edwardian grandeur is traditional. Meat is carved at your table; there is game in season, plentiful smoked salmon and other dishes you would expect from a hotel of this sort. To these Cameron's head chef adds the odd touch of fantasy on the à la carte menu: some modern dishes. The style is very modern in the Bay restaurant, where I had lunch. A finnan haddock risotto with plenty of saffron and Parmesan had a decent, firm texture. This I followed with some rare lamb's liver flanked by a dariole of lentils and haricot beans (a little dry) with glazed shallots all served on a puddle of juice. Three, little quark cheesecakes were the dessert. I felt quite full after lunch; clearly they aren't willing to take healthy eating so far that it will spoil your holiday.

Many people at the Turnberry are regulars who sometimes stay for two weeks. Cameron mentioned one old German nobleman who likes to order a simple roast chicken. "These people have done everything and been everywhere. They are not looking for us to impress them. We try to give them exactly what they want," he says.

The wine list is predictable: it is strong on claret, even mature claret (1970s), but weak on Burgundy and the Rhône. There are all the top Champagnes and some good Ports (Dow 1963 at about $153) and the rare indulgence of a good Swiss wine from Dézaley. There are also as many as 150 malt whiskies.

In the humidor there are Partagas, Series D; Punch Petit Corona, Petit Punch; Bolivar: Petit Corona and Bonita; Villiger: Half Corona and Export. And, of course, smoking is allowed throughout the hotel and grounds.

-- Giles MacDonogh writes about spirits for the Financial Times.

The Turnberry Hotel
Ayrshire, Scotland
Phone: (65) 531000
Room rates: $200 to $340