The Fife Arms – a gloriously decadent hotel in the Scottish highlands – is a magnificent cornucopia of art, taxidermy and fieldsports, finds Paula Lester.
The imposing Fife Arms, a handsome Victorian hotel on the banks of Clunie Water in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, was originally built as a 19th century coaching inn by the Duke of Fife. Now, it has reopened to great acclaim following an impeccably sympathetic refurbishment by Iwan and Manuela Wirth, co-founders of the Hauser + Wirth art gallery.
With 46 individually designed rooms and suites – in which Russell Sage has lavishly blended old and new with muted heritage paint colours, sumptuous fabrics and tweed-patterned luxuriant carpets – the five-star retreat is further enhanced by the clever placement of modern art (there’s a Lucian Freud in the lounge and a Picasso in the drawing room) and 14,000 other curios.
Our supremely comfortable room – inspired by the writer Nan Shepherd, who features on the back of a Scottish £5 note – offered glorious views of the surrounding heather-clad hills, a Queen-size bed (with a sleep-inducing mattress hewn by Glencraft, which also makes them for Her Majesty) and a wooden bedstead carved to reflect the curves of the local landscape.
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Style and substance
As soon as you step over the threshold of this historic, category B listed building, it’s impossible not to notice the great care – and flair – that an army of local artisans, craftspeople, painters, handymen, stone masons and carpenters have poured into each carefully recreated or revamped detail.
From the 19th century mahogany Robert Burns-themed walnut chimney piece that’s been so expertly sourced, restored and fitted in the lobby it looks as though it’s been there forever to the original, refurbished weathervane atop the scalloped eaves, the hotel is a triumph of great skill and imagination.
The Fife is also a model of sustainability and responsible recycling in that every piece of its eclectic furniture is antique and overtly Victorian. The huge, reupholstered wing-backed armchairs and sofas have to be seen, and sat on, to be believed, as do the completely over the top but rather wonderful padded house tartan-clad walls designed by Araminta Campbell.
Eat, drink and be merry
The Wirth’s desire to celebrate everything Scottish continues in the Clunie Dining Room, where we dine on dishes from the Cairngorm’s natural larder.
Under the steady gaze of enormous red stag, we began with Orkney scallops and heather-smoked blue mussels (my husband, Simon) and Scottish girolles (me). For the main courses, Simon’s choice of Isle of Gigha halibut in a tomato, chilli and oregano sauce proved more flavoursome than mine the birch smoked Highland beef fillet was velvety soft and tender, but it didn’t work with the accompanying charred trevise and coco blanc beans.
Nevertheless, it was so spoiling to relax and enjoy the finest of ingredients in such a vast and theatrical room, where the cubist mural on the walls (by Argentinian artist, Guillermo Kuitca) quirkily contrasts wonderfully with an entertaining Brueghel). Our bottle of Fleurie was a delight and we rounded off a lovely evening with house ice cream and Scottish raspberries.
The restaurant is complemented by the adjacent bijou, 1920s-style Elsa’s cocktail bar, along with an opulent drawing room with dark tartan walls, another impressive chimney piece, brocaded sofas and a swirling, mesmerising painted ceiling by Chinese artist Zhang Enli.
Make mine a pint
Although this is an extensive establishment, with several eclectic private dining and meeting rooms, it also sports a convivial pub in The Flying Stag.
Beloved of locals, the pub offers a simple, pared back menu (we loved the fish and chips and the classic haggis, neeps and tatties) and yet more entrancing taxidermy and Thorburn sporting prints. The piece de resistance, however, is another majestic red stag, complete with ptarmigan’s wings – this time leaping out of the ceiling above the well-stocked, antler-bedecked public bar.
The Fife is more than happy to organise anything you wish to do, from skiing in Glenshee to castle and whisky distillery tours. Situated as it is, however, smack in the middle of a sporting utopia, the hotel’s resident gillie, Ros Evans, is kept busy arranging shooting, stalking and fishing.
As our visit coincided with my husband Simon’s birthday, the hotel kindly arranged a day’s fishing on the nearby River Dee. And so, after a hearty breakfast of kippers – when Simon quipped it might be the only fish he landed all day – cooked on the wood-fired stove, we set off to meet local fishing guru, Ian Murray, in Ballater at 10am and followed him to the river.
As soon as we pulled up at the fishing hut, Ian made us feel very welcome. Simon had all his own gear, which was duly disinfected to prevent any nasties getting into the crystal clear water, and, as they walked to the pool, Simon confessed that, although he’s done a fair bit of double-handed rod salmon fishing, he’d never fished off the left bank of a river.
‘No problem, we’ll soon get you going,’ Ian calmly replied. And, sure enough after a short tutorial, Simon was away.
By the time Simon had fished the pool down, we were ready to sit out in the autumnal sunshine to enjoy the tasty picnic lunch provided by the hotel.
After a pleasant afternoon, when he saw three rises but failed to catch a fish, Simon emerged from the river and declared the day to be a perfect present.
Our labrador, Nimrod, had a brilliant time, too – and could not have been made more welcome in the hotel, where he was fussed by staff and provided with his own bed and bowl.
In short, The Fife isn’t just a hotel; it’s a destination in its own right. So, if you want to experience the best of everything Scotland has to offer, I cannot think of anywhere better to stay.
Rooms from £250 per night. Visit www.fifearms.com for more information.
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