Belgrave Hotel, British Isles, distillery tour, Dufftown, Edinburgh, England, Great Britain, Highland Spirit Bed and Breakfast, hotel, London, Queens Guest House, Royal British Hotel, Scotland, Speyside, Thistle Bloomsbury Park, United Kingdom, whisky
I’m back from a lovely 10-day vacation in the United Kingdom/Great Britain/British Isles/England and Scotland. One trip, so many possible ways to describe where I was!
The next two or three weeks will be all about our trip. I thought I would start with hotels. We stayed in two different hotels in London, two in Edinburgh, and one bed and breakfast in Dufftown. Most people know where London is, and possibly even Edinburgh, but I’d wager that few are familiar with Dufftown. Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to create this handy map so you can see the relative position of the three cities.
Dufftown is a small town in Speyside in northern Scotland. It’s the unofficial whisky capital of Scotland, with seven operating distilleries in the neighborhood. We wanted to incorporate some whisky tasting into our trip to the UK, so after four nights in London, we took a train from King’s Cross Station (home of Platform 9 3/4 for all you Harry Potter fans) to Waverly Station in Edinburgh. It takes about 4 1/2 hours to travel from London to Edinburgh by train. We spent one night in Edinburgh, then rented a car and drove about 3 1/2 hours north to Dufftown. After a mere one night in Dufftown, we drove back to Edinburgh for one night, then took the train back to London for two nights before heading home to the States. Thus, five hotels in all.
I booked all of our hotels through Orbitz, except for the Dufftown B&B, which I found through the official Dufftown website. There’s lots of useful information there if you’re going to be in the area.
Our favorite lodging of the entire trip was the Highland Spirit Bed & Breakfast in Dufftown. The proprietors, Karen and Alistair, are exactly the kind of people who should be running a B&B. They know the area remarkably well, including a ton of history dating back hundreds of years, and they have plenty of recommendations for what to see and where to eat and drink.
The B&B is extremely charming and quaint. Their garden looks like a postcard, and the c. 1830 house has been lovingly restored. They have a photo album with some “before” photos, and it is remarkable what they did with the place. The B&B has three bedrooms; we stayed in the Exciseman, which was very spacious and comfortable. The en suite bathroom was equally spacious, with plenty of counterspace. (If you’ve ever traveled with me, you know that I bring about nine billion toiletries. They have to go somewhere!) I especially loved the stained glass window of a whisky still that was in the bathroom.
Upon our arrival, Karen offered us tea and some snacks (shortbread included, of course). We mentioned that we were in town to do some whisky touring and that we had already been to The Glenlivet and planned to go to Glenfiddich, but would like to go somewhere we’d never heard of. They recommended Glenfarclas, which indeed, we had never head of. They even had a book about Glenfarclas that they lent us overnight to peruse. (I’ll do a separate post about our distillery tours.)
Our breakfast the next morning was delightful. In addition to shortbread, Scotland is also known for its smoked salmon. I had salmon and scrambled eggs, while my husband opted for whisky porridge, which is basically oatmeal, but served with dried fruit and nuts and (most importantly) a dram of whisky. In this case, it was Monkey Shoulder. You really do just pour whisky right into the oatmeal. I have to say, it’s pretty awesome.
Highland Spirit’s location is fantastic. It’s a short walk into the town square, where the shops and restaurants are. (It’s a very small town, and a very small town square.)
It is also walking distance to Glenfiddich and The Balvenie distilleries, as well as Balvenie Castle. To get to the distilleries, you can either walk through town or hike up through the Wyd (Wood), which is what we did. The scenery in the area is stunning, and the wildlife is unusual.
We saw some very shaggy beasts on our hike that we later learned were Highland Cows. And there are sheep – lots and lots and lots of sheep.
I wish we could have stayed longer in Dufftown and at Highland Spirit. If we ever go back to that area of Scotland, I would stay there in a heartbeat. I cannot recommend it enough if you’re going to Speyside.
Because we were only going to be in Edinburgh for a short time, I wanted our hotels to be reasonably close to the train station. Our first hotel was about .6 miles away, and our second hotel was directly across the street. Unfortunately, that second hotel was the absolute worst hotel of our entire trip.
When we arrived in Edinburgh it was gray, quite chilly, and lightly raining with heavy fog rolling in. In other words, perfect Scottish weather. Schlepping our luggage .6 miles in the drizzle wasn’t awesome, but Edinburgh is fairly easy to get around in (especially with Google Maps navigating for you). The staff at the Queens Guest House were very friendly and welcoming. We were shown to our room right away, which thankfully did not involve going up any stairs.
The room was small and a bit difficult to navigate because the bed took up the majority of it, but there was still space on the floor for our suitcases. The bathroom was also somewhat small, but felt spacious after our London hotel (more on that later). The floors are hardwood throughout, which makes the space feel a bit spartan. But at least we weren’t tracking in rain all over a carpet.
We slept comfortably and had breakfast at the hotel the next day, which was included in our room rate, even though it’s not really a B&B in the traditional sense. We both decided to order the “full Scottish breakfast,” figuring we should have it at least once while in Scotland. Not being an adventurous eater, I declined the “haggis or black pudding” option. My husband got the black pudding, which he said was like scrapple, only drier. It looked like a thin hockey puck, and probably tasted about as good. The breakfast also included eggs, toast, baked beans, half a roasted tomato, sautéed mushrooms, sausage, another meat, and a weird potato pancake-type thing. It’s a lot of food.
For some reason, no one in the UK toasts bread correctly. Every place I had toast, it was just lightly (one could say barely) toasted, with hardly any color to it. I wasn’t terribly impressed with this breakfast, but it was acceptable. If we had been staying a second night, I definitely would have ordered something different. They offer a Continental or American breakfast in addition to the Scottish.
Given the location, price, comfort, and cleanliness, I would stay here again if I were in Edinburgh. (But on any subsequent visit, I would hope that no one would be watching TV very loudly from their room, because the sound does carry due to all the hardwood.)
I would absolutely NOT stay at the Royal British Hotel. Never, ever, ever. It was a total dump. The hallways smelled weird and were cramped and tiny. The bedspreads were dingy and looked to be about 40 years old. The bed creaked and was supremely uncomfortable. The bathroom was ugly and there were spots in the sink. The whole place creeped me out. We spent the absolute bare minimum amount of time in the room. I wouldn’t recommend this place to my worst enemy. (Also, apparently they are very stupid. I just noticed that their website says they are “adjacent” to Waverly Station. Hey dummies, you can’t be “adjacent” to something if you’re across the street from it.) This was the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
Our first London hotel was the Thistle Bloomsbury Park. It’s located near Russell Square (the park and the Underground station), in Bloomsbury, which is north of Covent Garden and south of King’s Cross Station. It’s a nice location if you want to be close to the action but don’t want to spend big dollars on a hotel in Soho or Covent Garden. (Not that the Thistle was inexpensive–it was quite overpriced in my opinion. But London hotels are stupidly expensive, so comparatively speaking, I guess it was acceptable.)
The room was small, but not cramped. My biggest problem with this hotel was the bathroom. It was minuscule, and the shower was about as big as a Kleenex box. I’m a petite woman, but even I barely had room to shampoo my hair. And don’t even attempt to shave your legs in the shower unless you’re a contortionist. I had to open the bathroom door before I could fully towel off, that’s how small the space was. And speaking of the towels, the day we arrived there was one nice, fluffy towel and one older, thinner towel. After housekeeping came by the next morning, there were two old, thin towels. This despite the fact that I hung up the original towels for re-use. That’s a dick move, Thistle.
There’s a bar/restaurant onsite, but we did not eat there. It seemed quite overpriced. Their tea was definitely overpriced. We got two hot teas to-go (or “take away” as they call it there) and it was £6 (or about $10). Tea! It’s a tea bag, some hot water, and a cheap paper cup.
One downside to the Thistle’s location is that it’s on a heavily trafficked street. We couldn’t leave our window open at night because there was too much noise. We were directly across from a bus stop, and there was a crosswalk there as well. The crosswalks beep and talk a lot in England.
Honestly, the Thistle wasn’t terrible, but I wouldn’t stay there again because of the price and the teeny-tiny shower and bathroom. I’m sure you could do a lot worse in London though.
Our second London hotel was the Belgrave Hotel. We spent our last two nights in the UK there, and it was a nice note to go out on. The Belgrave is in Pimlico, just south of Westminster and not far from Victoria Station. It’s on Belgrave Road, which is a large street lined with dozens of hotels. We actually went to the wrong hotel at first, the Belgrave House Hotel. I was so happy when I realized that we were at the wrong hotel, because Belgrave House Hotel is a total dive. We only made it as far as the lobby, but it smelled terrible. It may have been worse than the Royal British Hotel.
The Belgrave Hotel, however, is lovely. They have a spacious, comfortable lobby, and it has a bit of a hip Virgin airlines feel to it. (If you’ve ever flown Virgin Airlines, you’ll know what I mean.) Again, our room was on the small side, but the bathroom was a delight. There was counterspace, floor space, and a spacious shower. It was quite a relief after our first London hotel experience.
The bedroom lacked a closet or wardrobe, which was a bit odd. There was an arm protruding from the top of the full-length mirror with a few hangers. (But then, once you hung anything up, you couldn’t actually use the mirror.)
Given how busy Belgrave Road is during the day, it was surprisingly quiet at night. We were able to sleep with our window open with minimal disruption. The bed was comfortable, and the towels were nice. The toiletries were also quite nice, and they even provided a separate shampoo and conditioner, which is rare these days.
The Belgrave is walking distance from Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. It’s also close to Pimlico Underground station and several bus stops. It’s a really good location for exploring the southwestern portion of the city. The rate was similar to what we paid at the Thistle, but I felt better about the expense. The Belgrave felt more “worth it” to me. I would recommend it, and I would stay there again.
Stay tuned for future posts about where to eat and drink, what to see and do, our distillery tours, and my top 10 tips for visiting the UK.