Arguably, one of the most beautiful regions in the Scottish Highlands is The Royal Deeside, where the Queen’s 50,000-acre estate and summer residence, Balmoral Castle, commands a major chunk of the local real estate. I love how the Scottish Tourist Office describes the area as a “blend of moody mountains, lofty crags, tumbling rivers, moors, and forests with neat chocolate box towns and villages, like Ballater and Braemar.”
Queen Victoria was so captivated by the wild territory that her husband, Prince Albert, purchased Balmoral for her in 1852, and the area remains to this day a page right out of a Victorian travelogue. Fans of the popular Outlander series will find themselves right in the middle of the majestic scenery, which drastically increased Scotland’s visitor count by a whopping 67% in the past 5 years.
In January 2019, two of the world’s most powerful art dealers, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, opened the doors (along with special guest Prince Charles) to show off their spectacular renovation of a Victorian coaching inn that has been the focal point of historic Braemar for over 150 years – The Fife Arms.
Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the owners of Fife Arms.
Partnering with an extraordinary team of local craftspeople and visionary contemporary artists, the diverse and remarkably eclectic interior design of this hotel is unlike anything you have ever seen before! If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, you must count on a two-night stay at this gem in the Cairngorm mountains and experience the visual extravaganza inside this sensational hotel. To paint a picture, the Drawing Room has rich tartan on the walls, a roaring fire, an original Picasso over one of the huge overstuffed sofas, and to top it all off, a ceiling created by a Chinese artist which appeared to be a fascinating psychedelic version of the Scottish landscape. And I tell you, I think it all worked incredibly well!
The interiors are a visual kaleidoscopic mix of ornately carved massive Baronial furniture and amazing modern artwork with a healthy dose of Victorian taxidermy to jazz things up. And everywhere was that hallmark of Scottish wall embellishment – as Gaston said in Beauty and The Beast, “I use antlers in all of my decorating.”
The bar at Fife Arms.
Hallway at Fife Arms.
Each of the 46 guest rooms, appropriately called Scottish Culture Rooms, has an individual theme carried out through the decorations. My husband and I stayed in (appropriately enough) the Travel Literature room dedicated to Travel Writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. The bed headboard was a beautiful church pew, and we took at least 30 minutes just discovering all of the extraordinary pieces on display in the room, such as an exquisite antique silver ink well and a folding wooden travel correspondence desk. Even the hotel’s stationery, thoughtfully provided for guest use, is a replica of the vintage letterhead first in use when the hotel opened.
Keeping a keen sense of local community as a critical component throughout the four-year renovation, the Wirths have been commendably sensitive to the town residents, wanting them to feel a part of the massive undertaking. The hotel’s lively and atmospheric tavern, The Flying Stag, displays wonderful framed sketches of Braemar’s current residents, and guest brush shoulders with locals sharing a “wee dram.”
During my stay in 2019, a local fiddler was in to entertain guests who were a wide mix of nationalities, along with many local residents. Having gone without lunch on this day, we tucked into an excellent spread which featured fresh vegetables from the garden and wonderfully prepared salmon.
If you are interested in planning your stay, I recommend that you visit before July 31st or after October 1st when the Queen is not in residence, to permit a tour of Balmoral Castle, which can also include an expansive Jeep tour of the vast grounds. Or, plan your stay over the first Saturday in September to view the largest of the Highland Games, held at Braemar and of course, attended by the Royal Family. This experience features Highland dancing competitions and Tossing of the Caber, plus tons of kilts and bagpipes awhailing! However, Braemar itself is charming to visit at any time of year, with delightful small shops, nearby distilleries, and amazing hiking possible right at the village’s door.
Tim and Jill Jergel in front of Outlanders’ Castle Leoch, which is actually Doune Castle.
As a 40 year veteran in the travel industry, I don’t remember being so excited about a new hotel! Staying in Braemar grants visitors an opportunity that was previously unavailable – to stay in a majestic and charming location in the Cairngorm mountains that is of impressive, exceptional, and most interesting quality!