Gina Baksa heads to Edinburgh and a weekend stay at The Balmoral, a Rocco Forte hotel.
“We have more than 500 different malts and singles to try – you may want to delay your trip home!” Senior whisky ambassador, Cameron Ewen, at The Balmoral’s SCOTCH bar is guiding me through the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Islands and Speyside on a whisky journey par excellence. Eschewing the very peaty Laphroaig, I opt for a superb 15-year-old port-cask Tomatin single malt from the Highlands.
I’m not a whisky connoisseur and this is my first fire water for about 5 years. A warm and welcome shock to the system as I relax on the tweed sofas and enjoy the accompanying Swiss chocolate and smoked almonds. The perfect start to my long weekend at the luxurious Balmoral Hotel on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.
Located next to Waverley station and only a 5-minute walk to the National Gallery, The Balmoral is Edinburgh’s first grand dame railway hotel, opened in 1902 as the North British Station Hotel. I arrive by tram (an easy 30-minute ride from Edinburgh Airport) and as I walk the few metres into Princes Street, I’m struck by The Balmoral’s commanding Scottish Baronial architecture. The building is magnificent. Its buttresses and chimneys gleaming in the afternoon winter sun. The clock tower especially intriguing. If walls could talk
Under the talented direction of designer Olga Polizzi (Rocco Forte’s sister), the 20 suites and 168 rooms have been completely refurbished. Imagine grand staircases with bustle landings, grand white columns and decorative plasterwork, and a touch of the Twenties in the divine Palm Court restaurant – obligatory afternoon tea heaven – replete with a resident harpist.
Relieved of my luggage by the very efficient concierge, I take the wooden-lined vintage lift to the third floor. My beautiful suite faces west along Princes Street with views of Edinburgh Castle atop its rocky crag. Despite being in the middle of it all, the double-glazing blanks out all street noise and the interiors feel calm and from another more genteel age. High ceilings, warm and cosy with superb aircon.
The lounge area opens up into a large dressing room, then the bedroom, all with a similar green leaf motif, dark green sofa – beautiful fabrics and plant prints. The effect brings nature inside and is very calming and soothing. And the supremely comfortable king-size bed has beautiful cushions and throws.
There’s also a well-lit writing desk – lots of lamps here – and a chaise longue in the bedroom. The large dressing room has ample storage for longer-stay guests.
I make a Nespresso and devour some of the home-made biscuits and chocolate thoughtfully provided. Water is complimentary too. Such a joy to switch off from everyday life in complete luxury.
The Balmoral Restaurants
The Balmoral has two restaurants: the Michelin-starred Number One helmed by Mark Donald – with an entrance in the hotel and at street level. And Brasserie Prince by Alain Roux, where I take a seat at one of the banquette tables for lunch (chunky, succulent hake – divine). The service here is superb: efficient and friendly. They take time to explain the menu and there’s a great wine list.
The Brasserie Prince was once separate from the adjoining bar (loved my Bloody Mary here) now it’s one area. Helmed by Alain Roux, two great hospitality dynasties are thus joined, and it’s a great marriage. Once side of the Brasserie and Bar has large windows facing a side street so it’s a light-filled space all day.
There’s a lot to see and do in Edinburgh, and because it’s so compact all sights are easy to reach. The Balmoral is ideally located and you can cover a lot of ground in 48 hours. Walking is best, but if you’re short of time jump into a taxi up to Edinburgh Castle. The views from here are superb – right across to the Firth of Forth. From the Castle, I walk down the Royal Mile to Holyrood House Palace – the Queen’s residence in Scotland. It’s a gentle downhill stroll passing through Old Edinburgh. Maybe have lunch at The Witchery By The Castle, buy a tartan scarf and sample fine single malts at The Scotch Whisky Experience.