Anyone who’s watched The Crown or knows royal history has heard the name “Balmoral.” And while the 5-star luxury hotel in the heart of Edinburgh isn’t any relation to the Queen’s Balmoral estate, it certainly lives up to such a royal name.
I hope that opening line does The Balmoral justice. It has its own iconic history of celebrity and royal clientele, not to mention its clocktower being a historical Edinburgh landmark.
The hotel was originally owned by the North British Railway Company. It was pronounced as one of the great railway hotels after it opened in 1902, as the North British Station Hotel, after a competition in 1895 led to winners W. Hamilton Beattie and A.R. Scott designing it. The famous clocktower still runs three minutes fast today, except for on New Year’s Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). There’s so much history in this place, it could be an entire post in itself.
In the 1960s and ’70s, faces like Elizabeth Taylor and Paul McCartney graced The Balmoral. The Queen Mother was a regular guest. In 1991, after several changes of hands and a major refurbishment, the hotel reopened as The Balmoral. In 1997, Sir Rocco Forte bought The Balmoral as the first hotel within his new Rocco Forte Collection. In 2007, J.K. Rowling finished writing the final installment of her Harry Potter books at the hotel (there’s even a suite named after her). More refurbishments have brought the hotel to its present day grandeur. Believe me, that is the extreme Cliff’s Notes version of the impressive history here.
But, instead, let’s back up to a more personal note.
In the fall of 2016, my better half TJ and I took the train from London to Edinburgh. It was our first trip to Scotland. It was an odd rush of emotions seeing the gothic spire of the Scott Monument for the first time and Edinburgh Castle overlooking the rain-drenched stone facades of Old Town.
Somehow that train had surely transported us to some far away fictional fairy tale city. After 8 trips to Edinburgh, and staying in new nooks of the city each time, it never ceases to excite me walking its streets and wandering down a now familiar close (a gated alleyway, essentially). And yet, Edinburgh feels very much like home, and I attribute that largely to its people.
The Balmoral has been on my list of dream places to stay since seeing its clocktower during that first 2016 trip. To be honest, its word of mouth was so strong, I was intimidated to the point of thinking non-guests probably weren’t even allowed inside. We certainly could not be posh enough. After we’d been to Scotland a few times, TJ assured me it was completely fine to go inside and ask if we could look around. I was mortified thinking about it. But, obviously, this isn’t actually a big deal whatsoever. The Concierge team members were all incredibly welcoming and sweet, and assured us it was fine to walk about Palm Court at our leisure. This was pre-Covid, of course, so keep that in mind.
Anyway, fast forward to sending my media kit to The Balmoral to see if they’d be interested in photo assets. And they were! Then Covid hit. Our trip was postponed twice.
Third time was a charm. We were able to make the vaccinated, super-tested trip over to Scotland in Fall 2021. Five weeks into the trip, our much anticipated stay at The Balmoral had finally arrived. Would it live up to the hype?
This was our first trip back to Scotland since Hogmanay 2020, right before the world turned upside down. But as we experienced, a pandemic didn’t change one ounce of Scottish charm and hospitality.
Our first welcome comes very quickly via a lovely and kilted gentleman named Mark. He’s seen us unloading our rental car in the valet area, and comes to help us. He escorts us inside to the Concierge desk, gets us sorted with our luggage being delivered up to our room, and introduces us to the front desk. Another gentleman named Greg checks us in and escorts us to our room.
Which one had they chosen for us? Hmmm, it’s always a fun surprise.
Greg stops in front of #320. The golden plaque on the door reads: BOTHWELL SUITE.
Fun fact before we enter: Bothwell Castle is located south east of Glasgow. It was built in 1242 by Walter of Moray. Each signature suite at The Balmoral is named after a similar icon or landmark of Scotland.
We enter into a sunny, bright suite, and what immediately fills the senses is being surrounded, quite literally, by Edinburgh, in every direction. Scott Monument is looming brilliantly from every easterly window. Princes Street and its famous shops are right below as well. And of course: Edinburgh Castle is slightly in the distance, just on the other side of Waverley Station and the Princes Street gardens (it is a castle view suite, after all). If that wasn’t enough, beautiful medieval Old Town herself is on either side of the stone fireplace. You can even see Arthur’s Seat. The Balmoral is the only hotel in Edinburgh where you get a clear view of it.
There are hand-picked Aberdeenshire strawberries waiting for us. The Balmoral also truly knows the way to my heart: Scottish gin. There are two prepared cocktail glasses along with Balmoral’s own gin: Baile Mhoireil. The label explains things pretty well:
Pronounced ‘Bal-eh Vo-Rel’ – Gaelic ” Majestic Dwelling” – Anglicised to ‘Balmoral’
I’ll admit that we decide to have a very quiet, non-social stay at the Balmoral. We don’t check out the spa, or the pool, or the bars (SCOTCH was closed that night anyway). A spot on the waitlist opens up at The Balmoral’s fine dining restuarant Number One, and we probably should have experienced this because I’ve heard it is absolutely delicious and one of a kind. But, we decide to decline and offer the spot to the next person on the waitlist. Instead, we really just want to enjoy the room. The views. We want to relax and unwind. It’s nearly time for us to fly back to California, and we’re already exhausted thinking about it. TJ has an ear-ache, so the most we do is wander down to Waverley Station to get some Advil. This isn’t the bustling review of all available activities that you thought it would be, is it? No, but it is reality. And yet: it’s perfect.
We call in-room dining and order french onion soup, salmon, and steak. We’ve had some disappointing room service in our time (looking at you, California). This is NOT one of those cases. It’s not your average in-room dining menu. It may not be a 7-course fine-dining experience, but it’s every bit as lovely as sitting down for a fab meal at a classy restaurant.
After dinner, we decide we have room for dessert. We order Profiteroles and Gateau (you betcha we had to google both, even with my super amazing 2-years of high school French). And, there’s a fireplace, so that sounds lovely, right? It’s the very last days of September, so it’s just starting to turn crisp outside. The gas hasn’t been turned on yet for the season, but we call down to see if someone can help us, and another gentleman comes up straight away to assist.
Shortly after we’ve got our fireplace going, dessert arrives via a sincerely sweet younger gentleman who TJ strikes up a conversation with about the Malcolm Campbell artwork in the room. Here’s another reason why the room is so well suited for us. It’s a print called Bluebird at Bonneville, by Jack Vettriano, and it hangs in both rooms of the Bothwell suite. It may seem like an odd choice for anyone who doesn’t know the Scottish heritage of this land-speed racing legend or his son (I didn’t). TJ’s background is in racing (on the fabrication side). He’s been to the Bonneville Salt Flats and El Mirage numerous times. So, seeing this little bit of familiarity is super fun for him. It seems so out of place, it feels like it’s there just for him.
But, that’s what is really lovely about all the rooms at The Balmoral. The designer Olga Polizzi, Director of Building & Design at Rocco Forte Hotels, didn’t want to fall into the usual cliches of Scottish decor. She’s designed the rooms in earthy color palettes inspired by the heather, moss, and misty landscapes of Scotland. She’s paired antique furniture with contemporary art, and vice versa. She uses natural fabrics: linens, silks, leather, and wool.
Back to our stay: we finish dessert, and head to bed. It’s been a perfectly calming, delicious evening, with a gorgeous sunset included.
The next morning, my alarm goes off at sunrise, just incase there’s a photo op. But, we wake to rain. So, I go back to sleep and enjoy the early morning off from taking images. We finally roll out of the bed in time for our room-service to arrive with breakfast. This time, we take up the offer to leave the heating cart in the room with us. Ah-ha! Success. We are finally getting a handle on the full in-room dining experience so that we have time to eat our appetizers and still have a hot main course. It’s not amateur hour any longer! We’re clearly pleased as punch with ourselves.
Unlike many other gifted stays, I didn’t have to wake up early to go “on assignment.” It was really lovely to relax in the morning, eat breakfast, get ready, and have everything packed up and ready to go before we meet with my point of contact Katherine. She’s offered to give us a tour of the hotel and a few of the unoccupied rooms. It’s also a great opportunity to take some quick shots of each area she shows us, like Palm Court, where I had hoped to experience Afternoon Tea. It was booked up, though, so do get your reservations in early.
Here are some highlights from our tour:
Our last bit of The Balmoral is lunch at Brasserie Prince. I could eat here every single day. We’re helped primarily by the charming Restaurant Manager Pierre, who is an expert at everything we should try and what wine we should pair it with. He is a gem. I love how he says things like, “Do you want to try a red wine with that? Yes, you want a red wine with that. This is what you want.” And he’s not wrong. He’s absolutely not wrong. Everything is a dream to eat. It’s French cooking at its finest: I’d like to think that’s because of Brasserie’s use of the very best Scottish produce. Brasserie Prince is overlooked by executive chef Gary Robinson, and beautifully designed yet again by Olga Polizzi.
Pierre starts us out with champagne, a Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve.
Steak tartare: divine. The scrumptious little black dabs of goodness really tie the dish together. Paired with the red wine of Pierre’s suggestion: Vignobles Gonnet, Cotes du Rhône, France 2018.
Ratte Potatoes with sour cream and chives: divine. Pierre orders these for us. I’ve never had better potatoes. So simple, yet so extraordinary.
The dessert: divine. We have Crème Brûlée (it really does have a satisfying crack as advertised) and Raspberry Beignets (“not to be shared” they say, and they would be correct). Paired with lattes.
With bellies full and grinning faces, we say our goodbyes, do one final round of images in the 1st floor gallery, and even catch a performance from one of the harpists overlooking Palm Court.
Thank you to Katherine and the entire team at The Balmoral. We’re already looking forward to our next stay. We certainly do understand why The Balmoral is so incredibly royal in its own right.
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