The romance of Deeside is intrinsically tied up with royalty. Queen Victoria put it firmly on the map and today the Royal Family are a big draw for tourists: witness the German tour bus which parks up at Crathie in time for the Queen’s arrival at church on an autumn Sunday. When she’s not in residence the tourists’ substitute is a tour of Balmoral Castle.
It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the romance of the Highlands. After all, the road leaving the lush glens of Angus and climbing towards Glenshee warns you that you are about to experience something special.
As a small child I loved the thrill of the Devil’s Elbow – that hairpin climb which marked the “nearly there” point on our long journey north. Our family destination was usually Braemar or Ballater and over the years we returned – not often, but enough to see changes.
My last visit, a decade or so ago, left me disheartened; a little out of love with these faded tourist spots.
Clocks forward and, as I pull up in Braemar, there is an energy about the village – busy people, attractive shops and the dilemma of finding a parking space.
Any lingering doubts are banished as I step into the Fife Arms. The once-tired coach trip hotel is transformed and welcomes me into its luxurious embrace.
Braemar is obviously a place to linger for several days and I am determined to see how upper Deeside has fared, particularly since its annus horribilis in 2015 when fire and flood left their mark.
I head east and, as it’s Sunday morning, I am in time to wait with a hundred or so other people to see the royal cars drive across the river from Balmoral to Crathie Kirk. I do see the Queen, but totally miss the fact that Prince William is also in the car. Some royal rituals never change.
Next stop is Ballater and its charming railway station. This is a good example of how the area is now prospering. When the historic station building was destroyed by fire and then homes and dozens of businesses devastated in floods delivered by Storm Frank, it seemed a hammer blow to the village.
However, the community – including one of its most famous neighbours, Prince Charles – has rallied round. It was the prince’s idea to open a Highgrove restaurant in the former Co-op. The Rothesay Rooms is now a gourmet destination and the beautifully rebuilt station has a Duchy Original shop. The royal romance is a two-way street.
Another way the Deeside community helps itself is illustrated at Braemar Castle. Peeling back the layers of history and learning about castle defences and clan feuds is fascinating enough, but seeing how the castle could be lived in as a 20th century home is as much of an eye-opener.
It is obvious that it was not the most conventional of homes, particularly as the flamboyant Francis Farquharson had a penchant for shocking pink.
The custodian of the castle now is the community of Braemar. It is looking after the castle’s future and in the past decade has made it watertight and repaired chimneys; next up is the harling and a visitor centre.
In the village the Fife Arms is at the heart of it all. The hotel has been put on the map since its multi-million-pound four-year refurbishment by a stream of high-profile visitors, especially after being named Scotland’s “hottest hotel” by the Financial Times.
It is unashamedly arty – afternoon tea beneath a Picasso, breakfast across from a Bruegel, but also quirky – kitchen utensils in a bespoke chandelier and a giant spider in the garden.
Most dramatic is the hotel bar where its namesake Flying Stag is a deer with swan’s wings stuffed and suspended from the ceiling.
The art is thanks to the owners being international art dealers – Iwan and Manuela Wirth – and although it’s a talking point, it’s actually the friendly service and the sheer comfort that make this an ideal Highland retreat.
Add to that top notch food – both in the bar and the stunning Clunie dining room, which is named after the river which tumbles past its windows. The Sunday Feast is well named and my choice of char grilled broccoli with an anchovy, basil and smoked pine nut cream from the hors d’oeuvres counter was a stand-out plate from the chef. But the roast and fish selections from this Sunday treat were stunning too.
While relishing the comforts of the Fife Arms and sorely tempted to give in to them and stay put, the rich lands of the Dee valley are a siren call.
There are walks for all levels: from the gentle path to the Linn of Dee to an adventurous three-Munro route which takes in the picture-perfect Loch Callater, just south of the village.
Royal Lochnagar on the Balmoral estate is a charming little distillery and different enough to make it a thoroughly enjoyable tour. The hotel, however, has its own take on local drinks. A mixology masterclass with Marco Fante in Elsa’s bar introduces us to the fascinating world of cocktails. The bar’s menu features drinks designed by Marco using ingredients foraged in the area. So the John Brown has a hawthorn elixir and a beer and heather glaze in a vodka-based homage to Queen Victoria’s Balmoral favourite.
The hotel’s foraging expert is Natasha Lloyd of Gathering Nature and she amazes me with what is on our doorstep. Within five minutes on a foraging walk around the village, we find juniper and see a red squirrel.
As we spot them in the hedgerows, I learn about the folklore and natural remedies of hawthorn and elderflower – and much more. It is a lovely way to look at the countryside with new eyes.
However, in what was possibly this year’s travel highlight, Steve Rennie was to show me the splendour of the hills on a Highland Safari.
A photographer and stalker, Steve knows where to go for the best views but that is too simplistic to describe a day out with him. He understands the way man and nature interact and has the context of having travelled widely to explain it all to a confirmed townie.
I learned about managing the moor, the habits of stags, the estates, rivers and so much more. We stood beside the Police Scotland telecoms mast on the crest of Morrone, its predecessor built by Braemar Mountain Rescue Association in memory of Brian M Goring, who died of exposure in the Cairngorms in April 1967, and part of a vital telecoms network for emergency services.
What better place to survey the majesty of the Highlands and appreciate those who keep us safe and able to enjoy them?
Rooms at the Fife Arms, Mar Road, Braemar (thefifearms.com), are priced from £250 a night (including VAT and breakfast) and suites are from £795. The Sunday Highland Feast is £28 (for two courses) or £35 (three courses); Cocktail Masterclass, £40 per person; Foraging Workshops, £35 per person, and a Highland Safari with Steve Rennie, £120 for a half day.
Braemar Castle opens again on 1 April adult £8, child £4, senior £7,
Tours of Royal Lochnagar Distillery start from £8.50 (www.royallochnagar.com)