Reading about the recent death of Sean Connery, the Scottish actor who helped launch his ‘James Bond 007 MI6 secret agent’ character to such worldwide popularity, I’m reminded of a sudden surprise that awaited me at The Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh.
I and my companion had just entered our fourth-floor room, designated ‘Deluxe Castle View,’ in this grande dame of city hotels when I noticed a peculiar black and white photograph that adorned most of the bathroom’s back wall.
It depicted a handsome Connery, clothed only in a pair of tight trousers, delicately holding the legs of a pretty lady in a white bikini whom he is helping perform a handstand on a beach. The lady turned out to be none other than Swiss actress, Ursula Andress, and the photo was taken during filming of the 1962 Bond movie, ‘Dr. No.’
So why was it there, so eye-catchingly in our bathroom?
Well, when this historic, century-old hotel re-opened after a major renovation almost 30 years ago, Connery, being a native of Edinburgh, agreed to be host of the much-publicised, all-star, ribbon-cutting ceremony.
All these years later, The Balmoral, a member of the Rocco Forte Hotels group, still retains its distinction in the annals of hospitality in Scotland and beyond, attracting guests from far and wide.
Established in 1902 as a railway hotel, the Edinburgh-to-Waverley station being located right beside it, this five-floor 167-room, 20-suite hotel is a prominent landmark of the architectural cityscape, plum on the capital city’s busy downtown Princes Street. Its iconic Clock Tour is known to many and the hotel prides itself on its singularly prestigious address – No. 1.
Having undergone more recent renovations since the Connery event, including work just three years ago, The Balmoral offers a classic Old World ambience, a Victorian take on Renaissance architecture including a sweeping staircase with stain-glass windows (popular for wedding photos), classical columns and royal icing plasterwork, with a modern twist reflected in designer Olga Polizzi’s contemporary interiors.
Aside from being spacious with all the mod cons one could ever require, our room also presented us with a picturesque window view up Castle Rock, formed by an erupting volcano, atop which perched the indomitable, millennium-old Edinburgh Castle. Gazing at its austere facade was a thrill, like observing centuries of history from a distance. A marble and ceramic bathroom with Rocco Forte Hotels’ own brand of natural toiletries from the Irene Forte Skincare line added to our overall sense of well-being.
Breakfast and dinner are served in Brasserie Prince, with its gleaming mirrored and brass accents, stained oak panelled walls, buttery soft leather banquettes and broad windows gazing out on to the hubbub of Princes Street.
The morning ritual is not to be hurried. Table service is friendly and attentive without being annoyingly fussy, and there is generous range of choice, including what is termed health ‘booster shots’ such as a combination of matcha and pear or coconut and ginger and tumeric, all presented in shot glasses. Don’t miss the tasty homemade granola with coconut yoghurt or the traditional porridge with honey and seeds. The eggs Royale were superbly made with local salmon, and there is also the Florentine version with spinach. My espresso was simply extraordinary, down to the very last drop.
Dining at The Balmoral gives you the chance to enjoy the impressive French-Scottish combo menu created by executive chef, Guy Robinson, as well as taste the hotel’s very own liquor, gin baile mhoireil. Our evening consisted of starters of Italian burrata with local tomatoes, wild garlic pesto and crispy sourdough and onion soup with Scottish cider. Being blustery weather outside, we opted for the same mains, succulent rib eye steaks. For those in an even more upscale mood, try the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Number One.
Also, well worth highlighting is the dome-ceilinged ‘Palm Court’ and the hotel’s intimate whisky bar, aptly named ‘Scotch.’ Afternoon tea is served in the former, a serene atmosphere replete with varnished wood floors, hand-painted murals of Edinburgh adorning the walls, real palm trees and relaxing music from a talented harpist playing on a nearby balcony. The whisky bar lives up to its name, displaying more than 500 brands. Due to ongoing coronavirus restrictions, the hotel has organised in-room virtual whisky tours by its expert ambassadors.
The hotel also comprises 12 event suites, all named after Scottish rivers, which can accommodate parties of between 15 and 450 guests.
Being centrally located, The Balmoral is a convenient place from which to explore by foot many of Edinburgh’s top attractions. For example, it’s only a five-minute walk to the National Gallery and 10-minutes to the Hollyrood area at the foot of the Royal Mile in Old Town, site of the Holyrood Palace, official Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, the Scottish Parliament Buildings and Edinburgh Castle.
The hotel, finely organised by GM, Richard Cooke, is also well placed for transport beyond the capital, with bus, tram and rail links immediately outside. Ask one of the hotel’s kilted doormen for directions to destinations, they’re more than willing to help and may even pose with you for a traditional Scottish photo to show the folks back home.