By Mr and Mrs Smith

Are Scotland's most renowned hotels really the best places to stay?

In the first of a new series of undercover hotel visits, we visit Scotland's most luxurious four and five-star establishments to find out if they are worth the money – or if they are living on past glories. 

The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh

(roccofortehotels.com/the-balmoral-hotel, 0131 556 2414)

With its grand clock tower and kilted doormen, the Balmoral has been an Edinburgh landmark since opening its doors in 1902. While porters apparently used to meet guests off the train at Waverley before ushering them into a lift from the station hall straight to reception, our arrival was slightly less romantic: battling through hordes of tourists up Waverley steps past the broken escalators and into a biting east-coast wind. But minutes from the train station, the location of this five-star hotel – which is part of the Rocco Forte group – is a major plus.

An easy-to-navigate website made booking straightforward, although essential information such as check-in time would have been more useful than knowing the Queen Mother’s favourite lunch choice (plain roast lamb, incidentally). We opted for the classic room with breakfast on the flexible rate of £239, which allowed free cancellation two days prior to booking. Just for a nanosecond we were tempted by the Scone and Crombie suite which came in at – gulp – £1,515 per night on the flexible rate to find out exactly what a “pillow and linen” menu comprises.

When we arrive, it’s a pleasant surprise to find at reception we have been upgraded to an executive room. We follow the usual hotel rituals: straight to the mini-bar to check out the offerings – a tad pricey at £2.25 for Coke and £7.25 for a miniature of gin.

There is free sparkling and still water, a selection of teas and a Nespresso machine. In the bathroom there are plenty of nice shampoos and soaps together with the holy grail of hotel luxury – fluffy bath robes and slippers. Overall, it’s nicely decorated with a queen-size bed, two spacious wardrobes and free wi-fi, but perhaps a little smaller than you would expect to find in a modern hotel.

Following a fraught stroll round the crowded Christmas market in Princes St Gardens, we decide to relax with a visit to the leisure facilities. Located in the lower floor of the hotel, there is a 15-metre pool with a proper deep end, a sauna, a steam room and a gym with a variety of machines and weights. It’s a very tranquil atmosphere – most people appear to be doing nothing more energetic than lounging about. Disappointingly there is no Jacuzzi pool and the changing rooms are on the small side, feeling crowded with just three other people in it.

HeraldScotland:

We opt for dinner at the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant, where executive chef Jeff Bland specialises in blending Scottish and French flavours. It’s pretty booked out even for a Sunday evening and you'd be well advised to make a reservation far in advance. At £70 for the three-course menu the experience isn’t cheap but we have a full two hours of attentive service and delicious courses interspersed with various canapes, amuse-bouches and pre-desserts.

However, the atmosphere is slightly too hushed for my liking, with fellow diners – mainly the young and affluent of Edinburgh and a handful of tourists – reverentially eating their dinner. We still feel pretty full in the morning but manage to sample some of the extensive breakfast offerings, from bacon and eggs to fruit, yogurt, croissants and gluten-free breads.

Staying at the Balmoral is a pricey experience, but the hotel is manned by extremely attentive and helpful staff and there are some nice touches – such as leaving a note with the next day’s weather forecast in the room. When it’s time to check out, there is a sense of disappointment at having to step back into reality and leave the cosseted world of the Balmoral behind. 

Atmosphere

The Balmoral has old world charm but while some Victorian hotels can feel dated it does belong in the 21st century. On a scale of one to The Shining, it manages contemporary rather than spooky. 4/5

Food

Extensive breakfast options, a Michelin-starred dinner experience plus cool touches such as homemade fudge at reception and a guacamole snack served with post-dinner drinks in the Balmoral Bar. 5/5

Value

It’s not cheap, but it is a hotel in an excellent location that offers something above the ordinary. However, charging £3 for a tub of Pringles from the minibar is just taking advantage of jetlagged travellers. A pint in the Balmoral Bar costs around £6 and a glass of wine around £12 for a large glass. 3/5

Room

Well-equipped with spacious wardrobes, TV, and tea and coffee making facilities. However not as big as you might expect and while generally quiet, some blaring telly noise from next door did interrupt our peace in the early evening. 4/5

Facilities

Edinburgh city centre is on the doorstep, but there’s also plenty to do in the hotel, with five restaurants and bars, a fitness centre and a spa where you can pay for treatments. 4/5

Total: 20/25

Prices

Room with breakfast and dinner for two with drinks (three-course menu plus one bottle of beer and one glass of wine): £400

Double room with breakfast: £239

Three-course meal for two excluding drinks: £140