Into the Wild: Alladale Wilderness Retreat

“This isn’t an estate. I despise the word ‘estate’. This is a wilderness reserve”. 

Paul Lister, the rather eccentric and very present custodian of Alladale Wilderness Reserve – a vast stretch of flawless heathery glen in the Scottish Highlands – defines much of Alladale and his place in it through what it and he is not. It isn’t a traditional Highlands retreat, as there is no deer stalking, grouse shooting, salmon fishing or hunting of any kind. He most certainly is not an entrepreneur, as he often tells me, but rather a passionate conservationist and ‘something of a tree hugger’. The reserve doesn’t feel the need to set strict – or even particularly loose – itineraries for its exclusive reserves, preferring to go with the flow of its guests’ whims and desires. It also isn’t a la carte in a gastronomic sense, either. Want chicken, beef, pork, turkey, duck or lamb for dinner? Tough. The only meat on offer is wild venison. 

The list could go on.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that for all that it isn’t, Alladale Wilderness Reserve is defiantly carving itself a fascinating niche in its own breathtaking surroundings. 

At first glance, it’s exactly what you’d expect of a high-end Highlands retreat. The Victorian greystone hunting lodge (the largest and most communal of five beautiful accommodation options on site) is suitably grandiose; my vast bedroom sweeps its way past teak writing desks, wingback armchairs and claw-footed bathtubs to imposing windows overlooking the kind of view that sets a certain type of Scotsman’s kilted legs a-tremble. Rushing rivers, teeming with silver-sleek leaping salmon? Check. Purple-capped mountains and deep valleys, over which soar golden eagles? Check. Honest-to-goodness Monarch of the Glen-style red deer stags leisurely strutting across the lawn? You get the gist, I’m sure. As far as retreats in the northernmost tip of Great Britain go, Alladale packs a remarkable punch, looking for all the world as though you’ve stepped into the watercolour image on a pricey tin of shortbread. 

A second, third and fourth glance – as well as the inevitability of being drawn into conversation with Paul over a glass of wine during your stay – will reveal the many, many facets and complexities that make Alladale Wilderness Reserve such a remarkable endeavour, and one well worth heading north to experience. 

Most obviously, there’s the fact that – as already firmly established – this isn’t a hunting or fishing estate. That in itself, considering where Alladale is located, marks it as something of a true original. The reserve is an ecotourism venture in a corner of the country where such concepts aren’t exactly de rigeur, but where one suspects approaches such as rewilding, unique approaches to deer management, peatland restoration and carbon offsetting may become nothing short of essential to ensure their survival. 

There’s also the fact that Alladale wholeheartedly embraces the notion of the retreat as an honourable pursuit for invigoration, education and self-realisation, with plenty of room for the luxurious flourishes one might expect. A new yoga centre has just been unveiled, and an early-morning session of flow yoga and somatic breathing exercises kick-started each day with other guests eager to make the most of even the earliest hours. 

After an hour of guided stretching, horizontal nervous system discombobulation (yes, really) and various joint-clicking vinyasas, a communal breakfast immediately follows in the spacious dining room. Here, the guests sit around a huge round table and take our fill of fresh fruits, vibrant juices, home-baked bread and beautifully lean and soft venison sausages, the picturesquely-antlered denizens having been expertly butchered on site and prepared by Natasha, the in-house chef. Other mealtimes (heralded by Paul crashing at a mighty gong, in yet another splash of the eccentric) follow an identical communal style and feature astonishingly hearty, warming and comforting dishes crafted from the estate’s gardens, foraged from the forests, and hunted by the groundskeeper who must – as part of restoring the natural balance of the glen’s ecosystem – ensure the deer population is carefully managed for its own health and success. 

Once fully fed and with various chakras opened and spinning happily, if you’re so inclined to believe, it’s time to head out onto the reserve. 

Alladale offers an impressive range of day trips and activities for its guests, each tailored to present the various attractions inherent to the landscape and location. There are birdwatching retreats, where avid twitchers can gaze upon golden eagles and hen harriers, as well as the iconic grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie game birds found in the area. There are stays built around various wellness practices and yogic disciplines, and educational visits based on Paul’s impassioned projects involving rewilding and the concept of reintroducing apex predators (Paul Lister is the very man behind the ongoing discussions involving bringing wolves back to the Scottish Highlands). 

Day trips to other Highland locations and hotspots can be arranged with the reserve’s fleet of Range Rovers, and specialised retreats for photographers, stargazers, foraging gastronomes and even music enthusiasts are on the cards. Indeed, the week following my stay, Paul was inviting Hungarian piano superstar Balazs Havasi to Alladale, where the composer would spend time with fans and guests, providing entertainment on the baby grand in the drawing room. The week prior, a Leica photography retreat, which captured some of the best images of the Aurora Borealis I’d ever seen, was held for the first time. 

They’re the kind of bespoke and exclusive experiences the lodge – which cossets its inhabitants in timeless comfort far from the bright lights and fast pace of the city – does so very, very well. 

My day out in Alladale was a fascinating tour of the reserve itself, hosted by Ryan – a local lad packed to the hilt with in-depth knowledge and insight – which took in the most impressive views of the glen and snow-capped mountains, as well as some visits to many of the projects currently underway. Our small group saw where Paul’s team was reforesting areas of the glen which centuries ago would have been covered with a dense and varied array of trees, but which were left bare during the Highland Clearances of the 18th century. It’s an impressive endeavour which looks not to the next decade of sustainability, but to at least a century into the future.

We were taken to the river, currently being replanted to ensure the survival of the wild salmon populations which are at critically low numbers due to rising water temperatures, and then onto the Scottish wildcat breeding programme underway deep in the valley. Alladale has an affinity with indigenous predators, and while Paul no longer holds much hope of seeing wolves return to his property, improving the gene pool of the critically endangered wildcats is very much a recent success story. The felines themselves are bred in a large enclosure (to stop them breeding with domestic cats – a leading cause of their decline) before being released into their natural habitat. It’s a thrilling encounter, and a remarkable passion project to witness first-hand. 

We bundle off-road further through the wilderness, stopping to pose with a small herd of Highland Cattle – surely the world’s most photogenic and thus photographed bovines – before heading into a small fisherman’s hide. There, we’re surprised by the hospitality team, who have prepared a cosy and candlelit stop in which to warm ourselves with pots of tea, homemade cakes and, of course, a dram of locally-distilled single malt. It’s a lovely flourish, and one which highlights the attention to detail that goes into ensuring a memorable stay. 

Upon returning to the lodge, the gong sounds and reverberates through the building. Dinner (a venison curry, complete with trimmings of homemade samosa and greens from the garden) comes with a choice of excellent wines and spirits, more anecdotes and plans for ambitious projects in Transylvania, Belize and Chile, and a chance for the guests to exchange stories and experiences. A film about bears living on the outskirts of Rome, produced by Paul Lister during one of his partnership trips to Abruzzo, is shown in the small cinema, and the remainder of the day is spent at will. 

Once the final credits of the bear documentary rolled, I poured myself another single malt,  luxuriated in the bath, doused myself in locally-crafted heather and wild nettle toiletries, and headed out for another walk. The first snows of the year fell, another stag languorously crossed my path, and the air – so crisp, clean and soul-affirming – provided a lasting reminder as to why the Scottish Highlands remain an unmissable and perennially popular escape from the city. 

Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris

As The Review’s Lifestyle Editor, Benjamin Norris takes the matter of his lifestyle both immensely seriously and perilously lightly, often in the same afternoon. A seasoned wine writer and specialist in perfumery, luxury hospitality, horology, gastronomy and more, he is an unwavering devotee to life’s finer things. Often found in Baltic capitals, Eastern European vineyards, dive bars and fine dining establishments alike, all while working as a copywriter for several of the world’s leading luxury brands, Norris brings a distinctive global swagger to luxury journalism.

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