A traditional Victorian coaching house undergoes a transformation that is a work of art
For many years, The Fife Arms was a down-at-heel Victorian coaching hotel serving budget-conscious travellers. Although grand, it was large, draughty and instantly forgettable.
The hotel is not in Fife but in Braemar on Royal Deeside, named after the Duke of Fife.
It was bought in December 2014 by art A-listers Iwan and Manuela Wirth – owners of the renowned gallery Hauser and Wirth – and closed for four years for renovation. It’s been worth the wait.
The hotel re-opened last month and 80 rooms have been compressed down to 46 as part of a spectacular interior transformation. A spa has been added as well as a library, a playroom, a new garden and a refurbished village bar. But that’s only part of the story.
This is contemporary art, dark tartan walls, Victorian taxidermy and local colour all fused together in a bizarre, mesmeric concoction that just works. Put simply, this is a no-expense-spared style transformation and a must-visit for anyone coming to the area. The Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla have already had the tour.
Budget or boutique?
This is not an “art hotel” where works are added for effect, the hotel is the art.
The wow factor starts in the reception area, which features a Picasso (Mousquetaire et nu assis), a Lucian Freud (Child Portrait – Annie), a Mark Bradford Steinway piano and a mahogany Robert Burns fireplace. Old Masters are peppered throughout the floors.
But while the hotel is first class, it is anything but stuffy. Manager Federica Bertolini is aiming for “unbuttoned luxury”. “We want it to be open to everyone,” she says. Even dogs are allowed. The service is excellent but the staff – many of them locals – are open and chatty.
It feels like the kind of place where celebrities and hill-walkers can happily coincide. In the quieter months the Croft Rooms will start from an affordable £130 a night.
More than 12,000 works of art, antiques, and objets have been integrated into every room, corridor and corner.
The bedrooms are the same. They are the opposite of minimalist – with busy walls, all individually designed, each holding a story and paying homage to a tale, character, happening or place linked to Braemar. There are 15 suites including four Royal suites. Ask for a room overlooking the Clunie Water.
Dogs are not only welcome but encouraged (Iwan and Manuela are “dog-obsessed”) and there are seven rooms on the first floor bookable with dogs. We stayed with our spaniel Jed, who was treated like a king and was quite grumpy about leaving.
Wining and dining
Pre-dinner drinks are at Elsa’s, a petite 1920s cocktail bar which honours the fashion designer and regular Braemar visitor Elsa Schiaparelli. Whisky and local gins contribute to the backdrop of intense conversation.
Elsa’s leads through to the main Clunie Dining Room and its full-size stuffed stag. It is a spectacular space and another canvas for great art, the walls hand-painted by Guillermo Kuitca. Here executive chef Robert Cameron and his team work on a menu inspired by Scottish classics, if you can keep your mind on the food.
Worth getting out of bed for
Braemar is a picturesque village – set in Cairngorms National Park – famous for its Highland Gathering (first Saturday in September).
There are great options for local walking and snow sports with Glenshee ski centre just nine miles south on the A93. Braemar Castle, Balmoral Castle and Crathie Kirk are just a few miles north while scenic Ballater is 16 miles away.
A reimagining of the original village pub is named The Flying Stag after an enormous stuffed stag with swan’s wings leaping over the bar counter. It has a wonderful menu, or just opt for a pie and a pint.
Over to my wife. “We’ve been lucky to stay in a lot of great hotels,” she says. “This is my favourite.” Hang on, better than...? “Yes, better than them all.” OK then.
Prices start at £130 off peak for a Croft Room. Guestrooms are £250 and suites £795. The entire hotel is available for hire. The Fife Arms, Braemar, Aberdeenshire AB35 5YN (01339 720200, www.thefifearms.com)