History galore

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DESIGNED BY ARCHITECT William Playfair in 1821, the Georgian boulevard that is Edinburgh's Royal Terrace was finally completed four decades later, in 1860.

During the terrace's first century of existence, numbers 16 to 22 were seven separate family residences, housing such colourful characters as John Crabbie (of the eponymous ginger wine) and a gaggle of whisky merchants. "Whisky Row" was an ideal location to spot their ships, laden with cargoes of amber nectar, docking safely at the Port of Leith.

For the last 70 years this section of the street has been the Royal Terrace Hotel. With such a history it would be no surprise if this listed building was haunted, but it was never the spirits that needed exorcising. Over the last decade it's been the acres of chintz, tired furnishings and, the horror - pink marble bathrooms that have been sending shivers down the spine.

Thankfully, since February the hotel has been undergoing an extensive 5.2 million update courtesy of owners, Prima Hotels. General manager Keith Masters says: "The first 1.5 million went on floors, windows and the water system. Then, there was 500,000 which had to be spent on repairing the roof - which we were told wouldn't have seen us through another two winters."

Once the structure was improved, Prima Hotels brought in architects and designers The Miller Partnership. Their brief says Masters, was "to keep the main structure's character but to modernise and let as much light as they could into the building". Sarah Finlay, the hotel's business development manager, adds: "The Miller Partnership worked with Historic Scotland to make sure we kept lots of original features. For example, restoration of cornicing and wood-panelling was part of the project. We uncovered bits of ornate ceiling we didn't even know existed."

One of the most ambitious parts of the job was the opening out of the reception area, which runs into the lounge and cocktail bar. This space had been gloomy and, Masters says, "you could see the original divisions between what had previously been the terraced houses". To rectify this, a metre-thick wall needed to be knocked through which, because of the necessary negotiations with Historic Scotland, slowed the project by six months. But the delay was worth it, with the creation of a bright, unified, open-plan area for the reception, lounge and modern bar.

Finlay says: "When updating old buildings it's so important to bring light in. We wanted to use lighting in a similar way as Tigerlily on George Street."

In the restaurant space, the original structure of the building has remained, but an illusion of light has been conjured with a change of colour scheme, from royal blue and red to white and bright, with accents of green and brown, creating a simple and modern space for residents to eat in.

It was important for the restaurant's interior to work as it leads out to the hotel's unique selling point - a beautiful landscaped garden ascending to Calton Hill. "We've invested in teak furniture, heat lamps and canopies to encourage guests to eat outdoors," Masters says. "We hold weddings out there, and one of our suites will even have its own private garden."

The room with a garden will be one of the 13 Ambassador Suites, the most expensive of the 107 bedrooms. Two of these bedrooms feature glass vitrines in the middle of the room, with a roll-top bath, making bathing a theatrical experience. "It's a great twist for honeymooning couples or those on romantic breaks," says Finlay.

The other bathrooms have had those old pink marble suites stripped out and replaced with slate tiles, white suites and smart chrome fittings.

For these standard rooms with their redesigned en suites, work is just nearing completion. "We've used Scottish suppliers for our interior products, furniture from Tangram, curtains from Campbell group and burnt orange throws made on the Isle of Bute," says Janet Fraser of The Miller Partnership, the interior designer on the project.

Masters adds: "As every piece of furniture is bespoke it takes up to nine weeks to make each piece, but they have definitely been worth the wait."

Moving into the techno age has also been a priority, with internet access and flat screen TVs now in most rooms.

So the hotel has at last ditched the chintz, taken a giant step out of the past and into a more comfortable, elegant future. But it's nice to know that some traditions can be cherished and with suite names such as Glenlivet, Glemorangie, Balvenie and Aberlour remaining, there will always be the distinct essence of Whisky Row.

• The Royal Terrace Hotel, 18 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh, tel: 0870 850 2608, www.primahotels.co.uk/royal-terrace.html