When planning our trip to this part of Scotland, all we knew was that we wanted to stay somewhere close to some great highland walks, it had comfortable accommodation, good food, not be too touristy, and had to be beautiful. The small village of Balmaha on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond fitted all of our criteria, and our final choice in accommodation, The Oak Tree Inn, exceeded our expectations.
The Oak Tree Inn is a family owned and run pub and group of cottages. In 1997 Sandy and Lucy Fraser built the pub from local slate, and with their family of seven (now grown) children they have worked together in various roles to build this intimate pub into a unique and idyllic holiday destination.
Upon our arrival we were checked into room 71 in Aber Cottage, just down the road from the original pub. Aber Cottage is in a cluster of similar buildings and was only opened in April 2016, and the carpets and furnishings still have that ‘new’ smell to them. To assist in the ‘unpacking’ we grabbed a couple of local beers from the Balmaha Brewing Co. and accompanied by a packet of crisps, we ‘swigged’ and ‘crunched’ as we sat on the balcony of our cottage watching the boats on the loch across the way.
The bed is comfortable, and there is enough room to spread out a bit and enjoy time on the lounge with views of the loch. There is a wardrobe and drawers if you want to unpack – depends how long you are lucky enough to stay! The proximity to Glasgow makes this a very popular weekend spot, but if you were lucky enough to have several nights here, there is room to make yourself feel right at home.
The insulation is fantastic, and you can imagine that it would be very cosy in winter. There are two modern radiators in the room, as well as the heating in the bathroom, but during our stay in autumn, we didn’t have to use them – mainly because the sun coming in the loch facing windows during the day heated the room nicely for the evening. If you prefer things cooler, there is a lovely cross breeze when opening the front windows and back doors onto the balcony. Excellent design, and eco-friendly.
The restaurant at the Inn has a good range of fresh, quality food, including several vegetarian options (the butternut squash and goats cheese lasagne was a big winner for me), and they have an Oak Tree special of oven baked whole Arctic Charr that receives well-deserved praise. The bar is atmospheric with all manner of old pub paraphernalia lining the walls – stuffed animals, grandfather clocks, fish mounted on boards, a pair of skis (!!) All staffers are friendly and local and are proud of their little part of the world – rightly so, it’s breathtakingly beautiful here (so glad we chose to stay on the eastern side of the loch).
There is wifi in the rooms, but not in the pub or restaurant, which is how it should be in a place like this where the atmosphere feeds the social vibe and conversations are struck up with strangers over a pint, or a romantic meal is being had between couples in love, young and old alike.
Hospitality is not the only thing they do well at Oak Tree, as the village shop is also part of their business, and stocks most things you would need, and plenty that you simply desire – such as the Loch Lomond ice cream and chocolate (the single origin was the winner for me!). John was enamoured with the Balmaha whisky that Mariech (our barman) poured him one evening. This whisky was commissioned by ‘the boss’, Sandy Fraser, from master blender, Ian MacMillan, whose lifetime in the business brings gravitas to his claim that it is “the best he has ever tasted”. It is a 57.1% cask strength whisky and there were only 270 bottles made (which can only be bought at the Oak Tree Inn or the village shop). Unfortunately, we did not add one to our purchases, and we had to make do with the Loch Lomond chocolate!
A wonderful night’s sleep was good prep for our one full day in Balmaha. Much walking was on the agenda, and the traditional, solid buffet breakfast was the perfect fuel. I had baked beans, tomatoes and mushrooms on toast (two helpings, at least!), which provided the energy I needed.
We set out after breakfast at about 9:15am to climb Conic Hill, very happy with our timing as there were not many people about. Conic Hill was raw and exhilarating. The views, vast and changing, facing the loch or facing the highlands provided variety, as did the sheep! At the summit we stayed a while, struck up conversation with other hikers, and quickly reapplied the extra warmth we had discarded on our walk up the hill.
It was a bit of a work out picking our way down the hill, as we were a little adventurous and ended up descending a precipitous stretch that took much concentration and careful placement of feet. The final part of our descent saw a big increase of traffic, including a large school group who already were asking each other if they thought that bit ahead was the top (it wasn’t, and I told them so, for which they were not at all thankful!). But we were certainly glad that just as so many were setting out, we were returning to the Oak Tree for lunch. It was a magical and exhilarating way to spend two and a half hours.
There is much diversion to be had if you have more time to spend in this gorgeous part of the world. In the afternoon, we ran into a couple we met at the summit of Conic Hill who had just returned from a short boat journey across to the nearest island, where they climbed another hill. They said it was a ‘must see’, but they were also much more familiar with this level of exertion, and we were running out of light, so we gazetted it into the ‘next visit’ column. A leisurely walk north along the banks of the loch was enough to finish off the day.
After breakfast the next morning as we were checking out we got to chat to a few of the clan who own and run the Oak Tree Inn. Stewart, surrounded by some of the much younger members of the family, talked about the history of the place and their plans for the future. Abi, his aunt, is the warm, friendly and efficient reservations manager who I first ‘met’ via the promptly answered emails I sent when arranging our visit. It seems that all on staff are locals, and they are great advocates for this part of Scotland. Family and community is a strong and binding force at the Oak Tree Inn, and they should all be proud of what they have achieved here. I look forward to the next time when I can once again indulge in the restorative influences of the east side of Loch Lomond.
Accommodation: The Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha, Loch Lomond