Cool, sleek and not a hint of tartan in sight – Rocco Forte’s luxury Edinburgh outpost is quite an achievement
We emerge into Edinburgh’s Princes Street from the bowels of the earth – otherwise known as Waverley railway station – and discover that the gloom of London has been replaced by the pale blue skies and the rocky, muscular landscape of that Rio de Janeiro of the British Isles, Auld Reekie.
It’s about six paces from the top of the station’s steps to the front door of our hotel, the Balmoral – and turning back, you get a sensational view along Edinburgh’s most famous thoroughfare, past the Scott Monument, and to the distant hills beyond.
The Balmoral, of course, is an Edinburgh landmark in its own right, and its iconic clock has been three minutes fast since 1902 in order to prevent guests missing their trains. It’s still fast today even though most of the trains are delayed.
Back then it was the North British Station Hotel, but all that changed in 1991, when the actor Sir Sean Connery officially reopened the hotel after a vast refit. A few years later it became the first in hotelier Sir Rocco Forte’s new luxury hotels group.
We are welcomed in, relieved of our burdensome luggage and take coffee in the mezzanine Gallery lounge, serenaded by a musician playing a seven-foot tall harp, while enjoying the view of the busy lobby. The lounge has a relaxed vibe, with a mixed group – family get-togethers or outings, dates, and business meetings, making more than a match for my two young children who begin their charm offensive on staff and fellow guests alike.
Shown to our room, we are in the Bowes-Lyon suite, a magnificent first-floor slice of Edinburgh real estate overlooking Princes Street, that boasts a stunningly stylish salon the size of a London studio flat (covering 66 square metres no less), and a bedroom of proportions and aesthetic personality to match. No review could fail to mention the wallpaper in the bedroom – a muted green, botanical pattern – repeated on the curtains of the bright salon, which made me think of my long departed maiden aunts, but was somehow sharply contemporary and really rather cool at the same time.
Connery himself makes a shirtless appearance, too, in the en suite bathroom. Here, among the refinements one would hope from a hotel such as this (including Asprey toiletries), there’s a six foot tall, framed black and white photograph of the actor holding the feet of a bikini-clad Ursula Andress who is doing a handstand on beach. It was taken during the filming of Dr No in 1962 and is precisely the image to warm the cockles on a cold day in Edinburgh.
So is the hotel’s rather super pool, hammam and spa, where the offerings include products from the Irene Forte Skincare range and which is altogether perfect after a day sightseeing.
There is plenty else to enjoy in the hotel, too, not least Scotch, the whisky bar which comes loaded with 500 whiskies, and the Brasserie Prince, which hosted the Marsh family for excellent breakfasts and an evening meal that remains memorable, even though I concluded it with the sort of zingingly zesty vodka martini that would put hairs on the chest of even 007.
I expect it was the Connery poster getting to me. Highlights of the dinner included the six burgundy snails starter – supple and savoury and delicious, salty and garlicky, they were bathed in boiling oil, and they could have been a prawn or crustacean. I could have eaten a dozen. My wife’s Dunbar smoked salmon was rustic and serious. The Haggis came wheeled in on a tray before being bisected like William Wallace at the Tower of London. Smooth and peppery, it was packed with a buttery finish and set a new bar for haggis.
If only we had had time for tea in the hotel’s Palm Court, which I regret we did not. The food looked delicious – as was the accompaniment from the harpist. (I should add that the hotel’s Michelin starred Number One was closed during our visit, otherwise we would have tried that.)
As you would hope, the service was on point: friendly, efficient and warm, which, alas, you can’t always expect in even the grandest of luxury hotels.
Finally, for a hotel that is undeniably Caledonian, its interior was blissfully free of tartan. Personally, I love the stuff, but it can irk the eye when supplied in quantity. Yet while the Balmoral is as Scottish as Robert the Bruce reciting Irvine Welsh on Burn’s night, there’s not a scrap of the stuff to be seen. Quite an achievement. Just like the hotel itself.
Alec Marsh is editor-at-large of Spear’s