When Hollywood goes on strike, TV writer and longtime Fathom contributor Deborah Schoeneman heads to Scotland for a road trip from Edinburgh to Braemar. And everything goes right.
A few months after my fellow television writers went on strike, I was feeling pretty desperate to escape Hollywood’s increasingly heated climate — both professionally and atmospherically. Fortunately, my family got invited to a friend’s daughter’s bat-mitzvah in late August in London. My kids would be with their grandparents before that, and Laura, my best friend from camp, wanted to meet me for an adventure after sending her family home from their trip in Portugal. This was our first chance in decades for a proper trip together. What should we do?
A yoga retreat in Formentera? Cooking classes in Tuscany? Wine tasting in Provence? Sure, all seemed amazing, but what we really wanted was to hike the Scottish Highlands. A nice walk and talk somewhere neither of us had ever been. This is also a trip that our husbands would hate, therefore zero relationship FOMO to face upon our return.
Now, Laura lives in Marin County and is very sporty. (She actually runs marathons.) She wanted to hike from inn to inn with our stuff on our backs. Perhaps even jog. However, I’m more inclined for a mellow morning hike around the Hollywood Hills. (I do not run marathons.) My goals were more oriented towards staying somewhere with a great spa and restaurant.
We started researching and canvassing friends about Scotland. From the internet, I learned that the Isle of Man and the Isle of Skye are very different places, and only one is a tax haven for sketchy billionaires. Both look dreamy, but also hard to book cool hotels during peak season. So we moved on to the mainland. My first stop IRL was my friend Zoe, who’s recently become a travel advisor after planning extraordinary trips for her family and friends for fun. She was emphatic that I stay at The Fife Arms, a hotel she’s obsessed with enough to have its coffee table book displayed in her well-curated living room. After a few other friends in the know suggested the same place, we decided to go for it.
I arrived in Edinburgh a day before Laura and felt very safe wandering around the city alone — after I learned how to pronounce Edinburgh. There are a few ways, but all of them involve a silent G.
I was immediately dazzled by the city’s majestic beauty, towering spires juxtaposed against modern shops and restaurants. The whole city gives major Harry Potter vibes, which tracks because JK Rowling wrote the first chapter of the series in a coffee shop and the last chapter in a suite at the stately Balmoral Hotel (whose elegant tea in the Palm Court is worth booking in advance).
After checking into The Roseate, a cute boutique hotel, I headed to Edinburgh Castle, one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, perched high on a hill above the city. Soon after meeting up with a group tour, I remembered that I’m not a group tour fan. (However, I recommend splurging for a private Context Travel tour if you’re going to book one; they have the best guides.)
On my own, I learned about Scottish history by reading materials posted on the walls and deep Googling Mary Queen of Scots. (She comes up a lot.) This is when I realized I should have re-watched Braveheart before traveling to Scotland.
I walked the Royal Mile, a cobblestone street stretching a mile down the hill to the The Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, where King Charles stays when he’s in town. More interesting to me: In the middle of this mile I found White Horse, the perfect place to stop for oysters and white wine.
When Laura arrived, we headed to the spa at Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh - The Caledonian to decompress in the sauna and steam room before hitting a tourist destination recommended by local friends: The Real Mary’s King Close. Another group tour, it was more like performance art, with guides dressed as historical figures. (We got poet Robert Burns.) While cramming 400 years of Scottish history into a lively hour, they take visitors underground to see old apartments, shops, and streets. It’s a fun, interactive experience, if a tad claustrophobic. Still, worth doing, particularly with kids.
Rewarding ourselves for doing something cultural (besides drinking whisky and gin), we tucked into a decadent meal at Spence, the new upscale restaurant at Gleneagles Townhouse, a recently renovated luxury hotel in a former bank (and one of Fathom’s Best New Hotels for 2022). The space features a stunning cupola over the bar that allows natural light to flood in, stately granite columns, and comfy velvet banquettes. (This is the sister property to the prestigious Gleneagles resort, famous for its golf course.)
The menu is modern Scottish-inspired which means plenty of great seafood and light and frothy dishes, as well as dessert and cheese trolleys. Our Baked Alaska was torched tableside, which was appealing enough for the French couple next to us to order it for their dessert.
The next morning, we had planned to hike Arthur’s Seat, a popular trail above an extinct volcano with city views. But the rain forced a rethink, so we opted to head north in our rented Mini Cooper instead. We almost died only once before Laura got the hang of the driving on the left side of the road. I was too scared to try.
About an hour in, we stopped in the small town of Perth for traditional tea at Effie’s, an old-school place with finger sandwiches and scones. It felt very legit. Back on the road, we passed Braemar Castle. It’s surprisingly tall and narrow and also, unoccupied. Locals told us the town had raised money to restore it, but the entire staff had suddenly quit at the start of summer, so it remained closed to visitors. An unsolved mystery! One of many castles we passed, it seemed great to rent for a big party where I’d like to be invited. I got the impression this is the main way aristo owners can afford to keep castles in their families for centuries.
While its castle may be closed, the town of Braemar has been revitalized since the re-opening of The Fife Arms in 2019. Particularly worth visiting are Braemar Chocolate Shop for amazing artisanal treats and Braemar Mountain Sports to gear and book adventure trips.
Life at Fife
But the best reason to visit Braemar is The Fife Arms. From the moment I walked into the hotel, I was blown away by the unique décor: It feels authentic to its Highlands history as well as modern, artsy, and welcoming. I saw an insane amount of taxidermy, tartan, and tweed, all mixed with trippy neon lights and wacky details like a cabinet filled with precious stones and fossils.
The hotel was first opened in 1856 to capitalize on the influx of British tourists after Prince Albert bought nearby Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria as the Royal Family’s summer residence, which it remains. The hotel eventually fell into disrepair and bankruptcy before being rescued in 2015 by groovy Swiss gallerists and budding hoteliers Iowan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth fame. They hired a team, including designer Russell Sage, to bring the hotel back to a better life than it had ever lived with an aesthetic I like to call “eccentric historic.”
The rooms range from pricey suites to more affordable cozy rooms, which perhaps accounts for the eclectic range of guests from all over the world. I had a small but ample room with a raised bed with curtains that made me feel like I was sleeping on a ship.
The lobby — with a piano that plays itself, roaring fireplaces, and antler-adorned nooks — is the kind of place where you want to read and people-watch. I had to resist getting so comfortable I would forget to check out activities like horseback riding, clay pigeon shooting, and foraging. The excellent concierge was eager to help us plan our hikes and even organized lunches that came in cute backpacks, complete with a thermos of tea. That may have been our peak mom vacation moment.
Instead of picking one of the many major hikes, we opted for shorter day ones through Cairngorms, the United Kingdom’s largest national park, close to the hotel. With more high-level mountain ground than anywhere else in the UK, the park features rare mountain plants and the largest Caledonian forests in the world. It’s also where tons of cute sheep and cows graze along streams and over rolling hills that look downright electric green, a real and welcome contrast to the dust bowl of Los Angeles.
Either Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy also spends time hiking around the Cairngorms, or his admirers have built homages to him with structures built of stones and sticks. Little huts on the paths provided shelter from the frequent rain. The King’s Picnic Hunt, to name but one, is where the Royal Family picnics while hunting and hiking at Balmoral.
We visited Balmoral (it’s only open when the royals are away) and were struck by its sheer scale. Sprawling gardens, staggeringly tall towers. It totally tracks that this is where Queen Elizabeth was happiest and chose to spend her final days.
Back at Fife Arms, Laura and I stretched out in the massive and beautiful sauna decorated with pretty stained glass, with cold rain showers outside the door. It was open to everyone and free, but it was always empty. We found more people at Bertie’s, the whisky bar named for Queen Victoria’s oldest son, King Edward VII. (The Brits love their nicknames.) Some 400 bottles of whisky are displayed on the walls, like books at a library. You can learn about most of them by taking the hotel’s excellent whisky tasting class, which will get you pretty drunk.
We also tried the hotel’s casual and fancy restaurants and liked both a lot, but our favorite meal was at The Fish Shop nearby, a spot the hotel opened in time for King Charles’ coronation. While the name may evoke a place to buy salmon, it turned out to be a beautifully designed restaurant with a spectacular menu highlighting local seafood.
By the time we got to dessert, I realized that I had put my diamond necklace in my robe pocket to go into the sauna. Then I left the robe in my room. No problem, it would be there when we returned, right?
Wrong. The service at the hotel is too good! They had whisked the robe away during turndown. Panicking, I called the front desk to try to track it down. Only ten minutes later — seriously! — someone knocked on my door to return the necklace.
That’s hardly my best example of exemplary service.
Hello Again, Edinburgh
The next morning, after dropping Laura and the rental car at the airport, I checked into a different Edinburgh hotel, Kimpton Charlotte Square. I loved this hotel, too, and found it well located on Georges Street, a fun stretch to explore, with boutiques, bars, and restaurants. (It felt particularly lively, as it was the start of the annual Fringe Festival.) The hotel had an indoor pool where I swam laps, a sauna, and a steam room. The rooms are spacious and pretty, the restaurant is welcoming, and the service is stellar. A total win at a reasonable price, and an ideal place to stay for a business trip.
As I unpacked in Edinburgh, I realized I had left a pair of jeans in Braemar. When I went to email the Fife Arms concierge, I realized they had already called me to let me know they had my jeans — along with two shirts and a dress! In my jetlagged, Ambien haze, I had forgotten to pack up a whole drawer.
Even better, they offered to mail it all to me (free of charge!) at my next stop in London, where I was headed on the train, already plotting my return to The Fife Arms.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
My Main Takeaways
Scotland is a small, safe, and beautiful country to navigate. The main thing to know before you go is to make reservations for hotels and restaurants in advance, as options are limited during peak times. Tea times and dinners at top-tier places book up the fastest, and most have flexible cancellation policies. Also be aware of festivals as there’s tons in the summer, and that means less availability and also potential traffic from road closures.
Fly to Edinburgh, which may involve stopping somewhere else along the way. It’s an easy train from London.
When to Go
There’s a reason why August is the most popular month: It’s most likely to be sunny, warm, and dry. However, the tourist crowds hardly compare to those in European cities like London and Paris. July and September are great options, too. Avoid winter, when it’s too cold and wet to enjoy the outdoors.
If you’re brave enough to drive on the left side of the road, rent a car. It’s by far the best option for getting around. It’s about two-and-a-half hours from Edinburgh to Braemar, though leave time for a food stop along the way in Perth which has lots of great offerings. Because the roads can be windy and narrow, you may want to avoid driving at night or in the rain. It’s easy to get a taxi or ride share in Edinburgh, but harder to navigate the Highlands without your own car. The trains are also great and affordable options for getting around the country.
What to Pack
It’s often rainy and cool, even in the summer. Pack a raincoat appropriate for hiking and maybe a trench coat for city hanging. I used both. Most trails were well groomed and hiking sneakers with tread work fine; no need to lug hiking boots. Stuff a puffy jacket in your bag and buy a cute plaid scarf upon arrival.