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Culture, scenery, pampering and fine food: Pitlochry's wonderful life

The applause rattled the rafters, and all was well with the world.

The Atholl Palace Hotel began life as a Victorian health resort and boasts a 21st-century spa to pamper guests
The Atholl Palace Hotel began life as a Victorian health resort and boasts a 21st-century spa to pamper guests

George Bailey had been welcomed back into the bosom of his family, Zuzu's petals were in the proper pocket, and Clarence had got his wings. It was, indeed, a wonderful life.

OK, that may be taking things too far, but our evening at the theatre was an uplifting way to round off a satisfying day.

One of the big growth areas in the travel industry has been the growing popularity of the theatre break. As "staycations" become the order of the day for many, the chance to combine a short break with a slice of culture has proved enticing.

But London and its West End is not to everyone's taste - a weekend away there is too often marred by the oppressive crush, the noise, and some eye-watering prices.

It is, however, possible to enjoy a theatre break and recharge the batteries in beautiful and relaxing surroundings, less than two hours from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. It would be a bit of a stretch to talk of exchanging Pottersville for Bedford Falls, but we decided to swap red mist for red squirrels, and let Pitlochry and its Festival Theatre take a bow.

We headed for the heart of Highland Perthshire for a spot of pre-Christmas rest and relaxation, taking in the Scottish premiere of the musical version of Frank Capra's classic festive film It's A Wonderful Life.

We stayed at the impressive Atholl Palace Hotel, which began life as a Victorian health resort (it now boasts a 21st-century spa). It commands an imposing view of a town which has much to offer the visitor. Walkers and climbers will delight in the surrounding countryside, though the weather was a bit nippy for anything more than a brief perambulation of the High Street for this city-dwelling softie.

You can, though, if you are so inclined, easily slake thirsts for things other than culture - without too much effort you can visit a distillery (Edradour, on the town's doorstep, or the Blair Athol Distillery) or a micro-brewery at the Moulin Inn.

With an evening trip to the theatre in mind, however, I was persuaded that our first day should be of a more abstemious nature.

Having unpacked in the comfort of a well-appointed double room, which afforded a fine view of the hotel's impressive grounds, I headed for a quick dip in the pool, moving on to test the Jacuzzi, the plunge pool, steam room and sauna - it's what Scottish winters are for.

My other half savoured the hotel's Lavender Spa. Its flagship treatment, the Lavender Lullaby, combines a Thai massage with a body exfoliation.

Like many a Scottish male of a certain vintage, I have never been into spa treatments, so I was a tad envious. However, Debbie Ovens, the Lavender's manager, says there are plans to introduce a relaxing wet shave and other grooming experiences for the less pampered half of the species.

All of this put us in fine fettle for a spot of pre-theatre dinner. The exfoliated member of the duo had a chicken pate with a plum and apple chutney, braised Aberdeenshire beefsteak with leek mash, and raspberry and whisky cream roulette.

As a veggie, I was pleased to be given appetising choices for starter and main courses (even in this day and age, a depressingly rare occurrence). I chose a roast parsnip, apple and cider soup followed by asparagus, broad bean and garlic risotto, then a white chocolate tartlet.

Thanks to the hotel's theatre package, we were able to relax and enjoy dinner without worrying about missing the opening curtain - the hotel provides transport to and from the show.

Pitlochry Festival Theatre is one of the country's unsung gems, but don't take my word for it. The Sunday Herald's theatre critic, Mark Brown, says: "This is an extraordinary institution. Few British theatres, if any, play such a crucial role in the economic as well as the cultural life of their town. Audiences come back to the theatre time after time, because they can be sure of the professionalism and the high production values of the shows." We can heartily endorse that view.

On the second day of our visit, a pleasant stroll took us to the dam and salmon ladder (and provided a welcome respite from the dangerously tempting array of shops). Just slightly further afield is the dramatic Pass of Killiecrankie, with a visitor centre operated by the National Trust for Scotland, and the breathtaking beauty of the Queen's View, unforgettable on a crisp winter's day.

We will certainly be back. And not just for the theatre. Encore, Pitlochry.

Drew Allan was a guest of the Atholl Palace Hotel, Pitlochry, www athollpalace.com, tel 01796 472400, B&B £99-£199 per room per night. Theatre packages from £90 per person include pre-theatre dinner, tickets and transport to and from the theatre.

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