This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111
This former Victorian inn enters a new art-driven era after a three-year renovation.
In the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, a stretch of rugged mountains, rivers and picturesque villages in north-east Scotland, a spectacularly renovated hotel will leave your curiosity piqued at every turn. The Fife Arms, formerly a Victorian coaching inn in the historic town of Braemar, is the project of famed Swiss art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth. In enlisting a little black book of renowned architects, designers and artists to restore the property to its former glory, they’ve created a work of art in itself.
From the moment you enter, there’s an acute sense of the area’s ongoing ties to the British royal family. A welcoming plaque commemorates the official reopening in January 2019, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay (perhaps better known as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). It’s just one of the property’s regal attributes; others include a watercolour painting by Queen Victoria, who began the area’s longstanding royal affiliation following her purchase of Balmoral Castle (which is 15 minutes down the road).
The Fife Arms easily lends itself to wandering and its near-impossible to not be caught up in perusing some of the 12,000 impressive artefacts collected over the course of the three-year renovation. The interiors, led by designer Russell Sage, manage to achieve a synergy between sharing the narratives of Braemar, while injecting the hotel with a modern and eclectic flair.
The Wirths’ admiration for contemporary art and their strong ties to the art world are evident in the numerous collectables. A portrait by Lucian Freud and a Steinway piano stained with bleach by American artist, Mark Bradford, welcome guests in the lobby; and in the Drawing Room, a Picasso hangs on a tartan-covered wall. The bespoke tartan design was created by textile designer, Araminta Campbell; while a Flying Stag coat of arms above the open fireplace was designed for the hotel by artist and naturalist, James Prosek.
The 46 guestrooms are themed around a different cultural icon of the area. The Zoology room, where I happily spent my time at the Fife Arms, was inspired by Scottish naturalist and ornithologist, William MacGillivray. Colourful animal-themed wallpaper is the backdrop for various framed birds (Victorian taxidermy is a strong design element throughout the hotel), and the room features ornate antiques and restored furnishings.
The local narrative also weaves its way into the hotel’s food and beverage offering. Signature pre-dinner cocktails served at the charming 1920s-style Elsa’s are named for the various characters that have frequented Braemar; including the bar’s namesake, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Dinner, served in the hotel’s magnificent Clunie Dining Room, gives a sense of Braemar’s strong gaming heritage, with red deer a prominent ingredient on the menu (and a rather large stag overseeing the tables). The luscious breakfast buffet teems with Scottish salmon and locally produced pastries, breads, cheeses and preserves.
Excursions are typically outdoor-oriented and the hotel ghillie (concierge) can organise private tours of Braemar Castle, day hikes around the Cairngorms and whisky tastings, among other activities. The hotel has a boot room with Wellies and waterproof coats for those who may have not anticipated wilder weather.
There’s also the option of tucking away in the hotel library with a book (alongside a replica of Queen Victoria) and embracing the serenity in this most special part of Scotland.
Rates start from £329.22 (about A$611) per night.
Find out more: thefifearms.com