Francesca Street

The Fife Arms makes quite a first impression: sprawling stone, multi-gabled, simultaneously grand and imposing, warm and welcoming. We arrive after hours spent zigzagging through the Cairngorms National Park, dark shadows of trees whooshing past the window, the occasional village lit up for a moment and then disappearing in the rear-view mirror. Finally the sight of illuminated Braemar Castle, a turreted relic from a past era, signals we’ve arrived in this Aberdeenshire village, best known as the coldest place in Britain and for its close proximity to Balmoral.

Now, the newly renovated Fife Arms is putting Braemar on the map for none-weather, none-royal reasons. This former Victorian coaching inn has been transformed into a destination hotel ready to charm the jet set and locals alike, bringing together Scottish heritage, European art, Instagrammable suites, artful touches, fine dining, hearty pub grub and a chic cocktail bar.

The boutique, quirky vibe seeps through the centuries-old walls, think four-poster beds, walls decked out in rich tartan, taxidermy and roll-top bath tubs – and, yes, that is a cardboard cut out of Queen Victoria lurking in the corner. If that’s not your jam, there are more traditional room options, at a variety of prices: we’re in the comparatively chilled-out “Bridges” room – named for the military viaducts scattered around the region and decked out in William Morris wallpaper. I immediately fall in love with the rich terracotta hue of the bathroom and the little touches are welcome. There’s an old school phone, tweed water bottle, logoed writing paper for composing your Sherlock-Holmes-esque letter home, books on the Cairngorms by local authors and treat-yourself natural shower products.

We’re less convinced by the old-fashioned radiator, the dial’s behind a table and a thick curtain, so it’s hard to access and we’re, surprisingly for Braemar, often too warm. But the snug, cosy vibe is welcome after a day travelling, and so is our evening meal at the Flying Stag, the hotel’s adjoining pub, so-named for the soaring deer, positioned above the bar.

We tuck into fish and chips and rice pudding; my childhood dream meal and the very definition of comfort food. All the staff are keen to stress that the hotel, the pub especially, is aimed at locals as much as visitors. Certainly it’s bustling on this Friday evening, family groups, gangs of friends and couples tucking into generous helpings of posh pub grub made with local produce. There’s even a ceilidh band on the go, and while there’s no dancing, the atmosphere is such that I feel myself readying for a Gay Gordon.

The Fife Arms is the passion project of Swiss gallerists Ivan and Manuela Wirth, co-owners of Hauser and Wirth, who’ve combined their knowledge for contemporary art and love of Braemar – they've been visiting the area for many years – to create something unusual. Whether the décor, courtesy of designer Russell Sage, is always to your taste might depend on your propensity for taxidermy. Still, the level of detail is incredible and the space avoids chocolate box territory thanks to the Wirths’ deft, often unexpected artistic eye. We’re living in an era where minimalist design reigns supreme, but there’s not much hint of it here. In the Flying Stag, classical art is intermixed with portraits of Braemar residents by photographer Steven Rennie.

There’s a spa that’s in its own Scandi-chic separate building, a heaving library that’s a dream for bookworms and a bright-coloured children’s playroom.

If you didn’t bring the right footwear, the hotel will lend you wellies and later, post-hike, you can drop them off in the bootroom. In a courtyard that’ll likely be seized upon by wedding guests come summer, there’s a – slightly scary – Louise Bourgeois “Spider” sculpture.

The main entry hall has a dark wooden staircase punctuated by a deconstructed neon chandelier and the lobby’s got a Lucien Freud painting. Still, perhaps the most spectacular room is a drawing room where guests can take afternoon tea in front of Picasso’s Mousquetaire Assis, which pops under Chinese artist’s Zhang Enli’s psychedelic ceiling. Such a heady combination shouldn’t work, but in person it’s pretty arresting.

Saturday morning, we tuck into a hearty Scottish breakfast in the Clunie Dining Room, named for the waterway that runs through the centre of Braemar. It’s got its own striking walls, resembling the quartz found in the Cairngorms, and a hearty breakfast spread featuring all the classics. Our only quibble? The soundtrack of 1980s power ballads doesn’t seem totally in fitting with the vibe, it feels like The Fife’s attention to detail should extend to the music.

We stock up, as we’re heading on an off-road driving tour of the Cairngorms with photographer and tour guide Steven Rennie – whose photographs line the walls of The Flying Stag. We meander up the mountain roads of the Invercauld Estate, taking stock of the panoramic views back to the village and beyond and really enjoy the experience. Rennie tell us about the local wildlife – the area’s renowned for its red grouse, mountain hare and red deer. He also speaks about what the opening of the Fife Arms might do for Braemar; Rennie notes the hotel’s been championing the arts and providing opportunities for musicians and other creatives to showcase their craft.

You can’t argue with that, nor can you falter the surrounding, jaw-dropping scenery. Channelling our inner adventurers, we drive through Loch Callater in Rennie’s sturdy 4x4 and arrive in a spectacular clearing, where we stop to take-in our surroundings, enjoying a dram of whisky and nibble on a slice or two of delicious cranberry cheese on crumbling oatcakes.

Back at the Fife Arms, we warm ourselves by the Robert Burns-themed mahogany fireplace in the lobby and tuck into an afternoon tea that’s pleasant – albeit nothing to write home about. Dining in the Clunie that evening, we love the wood-fire, baked cauliflower starter and we’re impressed by the wine selection, but the subsequent 40-minute wait for our main courses is disappointing.

By far our favourite of the hotel’s food and drinks spots is the charming Elsa’s cocktail bar, an Art Deco-themed establishment that easily holds its own against the drinking hotspots of London and Edinburgh. Elsa’s is named for fashion designer Elsa Sciaparelli, who championed “shocking pink”, the super bright hue that took the world by storm in the 1950s. Apparently, she had a link with Braemar, which we find out more about during our whistlestop tour of crumbling Braemar Castle. The current laird of Invercauld was married to American, Frances Farquharson, a former New York fashion journalist, and Elsa was one of her high-fashion pals, who travelled over from the US and brought the latest fashions with her. Castle tour guide Simon Blackett also tells us of one Louisa, a London visitor, who was a well-to-do heiress and used to visit Braemar complete with lots of luggage and many hat boxes in tow.

Both Louisa and Elsa would pretty enamoured with the Fife Arms, I think, and I would bet their modern-day counterparts will be arriving shortly by the bucket load. You’d do well to join them.

Francesca Street was a guest of The Fife Arms. Rooms from £250 . Visit for more information. Steven Rennie provides bespoke guided 4x4 tours and photographic guidance on the Invercauld Estate. Visit Simon Blackett runs Yellow Welly Tours in Deeside. Visit