The Balmoral and More in Edinburgh:
While I’ll admit to 50% or so Scottish blood, I’ve lived most of my adult life in London. There’s probably only one other city in the UK where I’d be happy to move…and that’s Edinburgh. With both my brothers now living in Scotland I have a family connection there. But, more than that, Edinburgh is the kind of place where I feel at home. And, The Balmoral is the kind of place I’d LIKE to have as my home. I’m not alone there, J K Rowling took up residence during the working day in one of the suites to write the last Harry Potter book. You can even stay there now – they’ve renamed the suite after her!
Perhaps it’s not surprising…the City has pretty much everything you’ll find in London, just on a slightly smaller scale. It really is somewhere you can walk around rather than use public transport if you choose, though you should be warned that the Old Town side of Edinburgh is somewhat hilly. That neatly introduces one of the features of Edinburgh I love the most.
The Old Town is built on a steep volcanic rock looking down over a deep gorge. As I learnt when I first visited with a guide, Edinburgh claims to have the oldest skyscrapers in the world – many of the multi-storey buildings balancing precariously on the rock face are medieval. As the city ran out of space, the inhabitants did just as many city dwellers do today and built upward.
Eventually, there was really no space left and the City decided to hold a competition for plans to be drawn up to expand across into the other side of the gorge. The winner was twenty-six year old James Craig, and it was his plan for what is still called Edinburgh New Town, that was executed in stages between 1767 and around 1850. Much of the UNESCO listed New Town remains as it was originally built and there are plenty of quirky shops and restaurants alongside the department stores and chains.
I love both sides of the City and I’m always excited when I’m able to go back. On this occasion, I was invited to book a trip to a popular destination in the UK by Expedia – making use of their online service which allows you to compare and book travel by hire car, train or plane and pick and reserve hotel or self-catering accommodation all on the same platform. While I enjoy flying to Edinburgh for the speed, at this time of year it can be a little unreliable. But, book enough in advance and for about the same price you can travel first class by train along a route which is charming and picturesque. From York to Edinburgh you travel along the heritage East Coast, past Holy Island and Berwick on Tweed. So, take a service during daylight hours!
This time I was able to take advantage of Expedia booking service to reserve myself a real treat in terms of accommodation. Many years ago, I went to a wedding in Edinburgh with the reception held at The Balmoral Hotel. It was, as is often the case in Scotland, a ceilidh with a full band, men in kilts and much merriment. I had no need for hotel accommodation in Edinburgh on that occasion, but I remember resolving that should I marry, I’d have the same wedding plan – and I’d not only have my reception at The Balmoral, but I’d also spend my wedding night there. Mr Right has never materialised, but if there are any interested parties reading this post, that plan still stands.
That said, as time goes on, the chances of that wedding ceilidh become increasingly remote. Cutting my losses and booking myself a room with a castle view seems a reasonable consolation prize in the circumstances.
And, at The Balmoral, my superior room with view turned out to be exactly what I had in mind. A large space, beautifully and not entirely conventionally decorated, with a turret of its own and a stunning castle view I could have happily just stayed in bed with the curtains open. The hotel helpfully provides binoculars too, so that you can really make the most of your stay.
What else did I like? Well, it may sound strange, but I loved the fact that the room slippers came in small and large. And, that the bathrobe felt substantial. The bed itself was wonderfully comfy and the bed linen was pristine white cotton. There was fresh milk in the minibar fridge. And a Nespresso machine to complement the kettle. The toiletries were more than adequate though not the best I’ve found in a five-star signature hotel like The Balmoral. And the turndown service was beautifully done, though lacked that little bit of chocolate you get on your pillow sometimes. The bath was so big I could have floated away in it. That turned out to be both a bonus and a disadvantage as I had to stand up to reach the taps. And, the bathroom was full of pictures of Sean Connery in his prime?.
My brothers and sister in law had turned out in force to show me around the Christmas Markets. Edinburgh is a Party City in a way which works well for me. As you wander around the stalls for the market, you’ll find plenty of Gluhwein, Beer and even Whisky on sale, but there are signs as you leave the Market area reminding you not to take your drinks on the street. At 10 pm there was much celebrating within the Christmas Market itself, but the street was clear.
There was a mixture of local crafts and the usual Christmas Market goodies. And, a whole range of Christmas themed fairground activities suitable for all ages – including a tiny steam train and a Christmas tree maze. Ice skating at a different location was almost closed when I made my way up there. And, apparently, had I been willing to spend half an hour going round an exhibition at -10c, there were some stunning ice sculptures. I passed on that the next day and spent my time at the National Gallery instead.
While the Market was busy, it wasn’t so packed that it felt uncomfortable. I loved the eclectic mix of things for sale and thought the fairground activities would have helped anyone with easily bored small children. Edinburgh as a whole always seems to have a sense of decorum to me – despite being something of a Party town.
For dinner on the first night, we went to Elements, a cosy and friendly restaurant in the heart of the New Town on Rose Street. I’m not planning to write a full review but we managed to enjoy three courses each, a bottle of wine and a few soft drinks for around £140 for four.
My whisky cured salmon was delicious and the venison casserole was beautifully tender, full of flavour and served on a good portion of fluffy mashed potato. I was intrigued by an order of a beefburger with haggis – apparently delicious!
The menu for me was let down by the yule log which looked stunning – but which was just a little on the chewy side. The rest of the table indulged in a mixture of ginger and Christmas pudding ice-cream which seemed like a better idea altogether.
The next day I’d intended to skip breakfast and wander into town. But, of course, I was easily led astray by the offering – one of the most comprehensive buffet-style breakfasts I’ve experienced in the UK. Another time I’ll bring my swimsuit and spend an hour or so in the spa and pool at The Balmoral before breakfast so that I can make sure I’ve worked up an appetite. There’s a full cooked breakfast option complete with haggis and black pudding and there’s an exceptionally well stocked cold buffet, with meats, cheeses, cured and smoked fish and with a whole range of pastries, cakes, cereals and yoghurts. And of course, there’s porridge!
I ended up having a full British breakfast (minus the eggs). And, I can honestly say that haggis is one of the best additions to breakfast I’ve come across yet and The Balmoral cooked breakfast is definitely worth the indulgence though you might not want to eat again that day.
Then, just a stroll around Edinburgh New Town, the Princes Street Christmas Market and the Picture Gallery. I was impressed in particular by the Picture Gallery which, like many galleries in London, is free of charge (though donations are welcome!). It’s a small but really rather beautiful collection of art including the stunning Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow’ and a few pictures I remember from my mother’s art book collection. I was particularly impressed with the layout of the gallery and the fact that unlike London’s equivalent it wasn’t packed! But that might just have been timing – 11.00 am on a Wednesday morning probably isn’t peak gallery viewing time?
Finally, back on the train to London with Virgin East Coast, who provide food and hot and cold drinks free of charge if you are in their first-class carriages.
Apart from my own inefficiency when I couldn’t remember which credit card I’d used to book the train and couldn’t collect my ticket at the railway station, I found the entire experience with Expedia really easy. I got a useful itinerary to print out and I discovered I could check details online at any time too. And, I’ve joined the Expedia club so I earn points every time I do book through them.
If you are booking a flight, Expedia will prompt you to book a hotel at the same time. You can use the search tools to find a specific hotel, to look for an offer or to find a hotel with a particular feature (pool, parking or gym for instance). Then add the hotel to your flight booking and pay for the entire trip at once. At the moment the train booking service isn’t quite as streamline with the hotel booking as the flight section, but I am sure that is something which will develop with time.
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Disclosure: I received a fee from Expedia to cover my expenses for this trip. All content is editorially given.