First impression Art-loving Highland pile with its own stag.
Staff Loving those tweeds.
Food and drinks Game, smoked trout and porridge.
Bed and bath Those in the Duke of Fife Suite would make the Duke of Fife jealous.
The crowd Blown away, even the jaded ones who have seen it all.
In a nutshell Not so much a hotel as a kind of chemistry experiment, in which art, landscape, history, culture, fine art and a wild, occasionally surreal sense of humour are thrown together, with explosive results.
Set the scene
From a distance, a classic Highland hunting lodge-turned-hostelry, solid and stony, in a similarly solid and stony little riverside village, the sort of place to which Robert Louis Stevenson might have retreated to dash off a masterpiece like Treasure Island. Which, in fact, he did.
What’s the story?
Swiss gallerists Manuela and Iwan Wirth are the first to admit they know nothing about running hotels. But they know all there is to know about running the world’s most successful and influential contemporary-art dealership. After which, how hard can hotels be? Not very, it seems, if the success of their previous property, Durslade Farm in Somerset, and the rapt response to the new Fife Arms are anything to go by. It was originally built as a hunting lodge and was for many years a successful if undistinguished B&B; it has lately emerged from a money-no-object restoration as a hotel of rare if not entirely unique charm, wit and substance.
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What can we expect in our room?
If you go for the Duke of Fife Suite, a socking great corner room overlooking the fast-flowing Clunie Water, then full-on, swagtastic, no-tassels-barred Victoriana enlivened with some faintly surreal touches, such as a tidy, almost taxonomic display of 150-year-old baby shoes.
But there is not a bad room in the joint. If you had enough time and money, you would want to try them all.
How about the food and drink?
The Fife Arms has long been the social heart of the village of Braemar. So it remains. There is a pub, a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor, all open to the public as well as guests, and each of which is utterly mad and wonderful. The pub, the Flying Stag, actually features a flying stag – a taxidermied one with massive swan’s wings – preserved in mid-leap across the counter. The bar, Elsa’s, is dedicated to Elsa Schiapparelli, who, believe it or not, used to come here (by no means the only or even the greatest surprise you are in for). And the restaurant, the Clunie, does superior Scottish comfort food in a dining room that might be mistaken for an art installation – which, in a sense, it is.
Anything to say about the service?
Faultless. It all flows from the manager, Federica Bertolini, who is Italian warmth personified. And beyond that, from the Wirths themselves, whose love for the people of the Highlands as well as the place itself is everywhere apparent.
Who comes here?
Pilgrims with Porsches. This is the sort of place where anyone might turn up. Anyone, honestly. The local gravedigger. The queen. Tilda Swinton and Tacita Dean. Art lovers with an adventurous streak. Come to think of it, neither the local gravedigger nor the queen would stay the night – they have their own places to go to just round the corner. But the others would.
What’s the surrounding area like?
Durslade Farm transformed the village of Bruton in Somerset. The Fife Arms looks set to do the same for Braemar. This is serious hunting-shooting-fishing territory, near the point where the Invercauld and Balmoral Estates meet, but the Fife Arms gives those of more pacific temperament something to get equally excited about.
Anything else we should know?
This place is like the V&A. You are bound to miss something. Do not fret. You will just have to go back.
And anything you’d change?
Get rid of the Picasso, the Freud and the Richter and replace them with some nice Jack Vettriano prints. Just kidding.
Is it worth it – why?
Pure pleasure. A reminder that hotels can be magnificent showcases for ideas and history and strong feelings as well as places to water the horses and bunk down for a night.
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Address: The Fife Arms, Mar Road, Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN, Scotland
Telephone: +44 1339 720200
Price: Doubles from £250
This hotel is one of our favourite new hotels in the world, and included in our Hot List 2019. Discover more of the best new hotels in the world 2019 now.
The best new hotels in the world: the Hot List 2019