Nestled at the foothills of the Scottish Highlands' Cairngorms National Park, the historic village of Braemar has long lured explorers, novelists, and most notably—the British Royal Family. Famous for hosting the largest gathering of the Scottish Highland Games (which Queen Elizabeth attends each year from her porch at the royals' nearby Balmoral Palace), there’s a new reason for savvy travelers to know this storybook village. Following a three-year overhaul, contemporary art gallerists and husband-and-wife team Iwan and Manuela Wirth have transformed the village’s grand Victorian centerpiece, The Fife Arms, into a wildly brilliant hotel like no other five-star lodging.
Featuring over 12,000 works of art (including a watercolor by Queen Victoria herself) and 46 guest rooms each individually designed in tribute to a famous visitor, the distinguishable alchemy of design and experience at The Fife Arms boils down to story-telling. Tapping interior designer Russell Sage and working with historians from the community, there isn't a square inch of The Fife Arms that hasn't considered the traditions and customs of the Scottish Highlands. Even Alba, the heavenly woody scent adrift the hotel's corridors, is the result of months of research into local plants and flowers.
The Fife Arms marks Iwan and Manuela's second foray into hospitality, having created Durslade Farmhouse, a six-bedroom guesthouse adjacent to Hauser & Wirth Somerset back in 2012. Longtime homeowners in nearby Ballater, the Wirths decided to purchase The Fife Arms in 2014 when the property was on the brink of dilapidation after years of scant repairs. Once a coaching estate owned and operated by Lord Fife in the 1850s, the Wirths were moved to restore the property to its former glory.
Three years of renovations later, The Fife Arms is a hotel-gallery hybrid, tantalizing your senses from the moment you walk in. In just the lobby alone, there's an autonomously playing Steinway piano that artist Mark Bradford has treated with bleach (as to resemble topographic maps) placed footsteps away from a chimney piece that depicts the stories of Robert Burns. Deeper into the room, a grand Richard Jackson sculpture made of neon letters interwoven with deer antlers hangs over the concierge desk. A portrait by Lucien Freud has also been nonchalantly—and brilliantly—perched above a plushy couch.
Wondering through the hotel's ground floor leads you to a reading room that's art tome heaven, a drying room where rain boots and windbreakers are available for guests to borrow, a fitness room, and a drawing room that could make even the least interested in art and design swoon.
The property also houses two restaurants, a bar, and a spa. The decor in both restaurants is divine—a wraparound mural installation by Guillermo Kuitca graces the more formal Clunie Dining Room; a series of black and white portraits of local Braemar residents by Gideon Summerfield are on display in the warm and cozy Flying Stag pub.
Fashion lovers can expect to lose it over Elsa's, the Elsa Schiaparelli-themed bar featuring a massive art deco disco ball and posh trappings, like a casual series of Man Ray photographs. (Schiaparelli used to visit Braemar with Frances Farquharson, her close friend and the former editor of Harper's Bazaar, who married into Braemar's Farquharson clan.)
Topping the list of qualities distinguishing the Fife Arms from other five-star countryside estates are the guest rooms. Ranging from grand Victoriana suites to smaller 'croft rooms' (where Russell Sage's genius of handcrafted boxed beds make rooms that would otherwise feel tight feel delightfully cozy), each room is an experience adorned in historically accurate touches and objects. Expect to sleep like royalty—literally. The mattresses at the hotel are fashioned by Glencraft, who has been making mattresses for the royal family for decades.
What to Do in Braemar
First and foremost, if you visit The Fife Arms before July 31st, a visit to nearby Ballater's Balmoral Castle is obligatory. Described by Princess Eugenie as "the most beautiful place in the world," the castle has a fascinating history tracing back to Queen Victoria. This summer's visitor season will be a particularly special time to visit, as the estate is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth through various exhibits and events.
Avid royal followers will already know that Princess Diana came to Balmoral Castle on her honeymoon with Prince Charles, but the fascinating history here goes back much further. Only audio tours of the property are available to the public during visitor season, but the guides do a fabulous job at explaining the history of Balmoral and bringing to life key details one would otherwise miss.
Just a mile away from Balmoral sits the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Scotland is famous for its whiskey production, and this distillery happens to produce Prince Charles' favorite single malt. The site offers six different types of tours—and each has a whiskey sampling included.
Beginning this Spring, guests at the Fife Arms will be offered a chance to work with designer Araminta Campbell on designing (and officially registering) their own custom bespoke tartan. Available by booking the package in advance when making reservations, the experience includes personal touches along the way, such as a consultation with Araminta at the Fife Arms and for those making a stop in Edinburgh, a visit and tea at her studio.
The nature surrounding The Fife Arms in Cairngorms National Park offers endless ways to live out all of the Outlander fantasies a person could ever have. In the winter, the Glenshee Ski Center, Scotland's largest ski resort, is only a twenty minute drive away. Hiking and golfing are year-round options, and even if you aren't a golfer, the drive through Braemar's 18-hole course at sunset is wildly beautiful. During the summer, when it stays light outside until 10:30 p.m., visitors can arrange to fish for salmon (Scotland follows a catch and release policy), practice yoga on Fridays at 8 a.m., or immerse in walks and workshops with local artists.
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