Edinburgh fling

Author: peter thomson
Photography: JULIAN KINGMA

Sean Connery. The Military Tattoo. The International Festival. The Castle. AA Gill. Many good things have been born in Edinburgh. Putting these well-known aspects of the Scottish capital aside, we found plenty of other reasons to visit: 15 to be precise.

Edinburgh has long celebrated architecture, art, design, literature, medicine and philosophy - so much so that, in Georgian times, it was dubbed the 'Athens of the North'. In addition, the Edinburgh International Festival, begun in 1947, has served as an inspiration for countless city festivals around the globe. Running alongside the 'high arts' of the festival is the Fringe. According to Guinness World Records, the Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. The National Gallery of Scotland also takes centre stage in Edinburgh. Lauded as one of the world's finest art galleries for its size, it contains a fabulous gathering of works by the European masters - from Rembrandt and Rubens to Gauguin and Van Gogh. Underneath the neoclassic lines of the gallery and the adjoining Royal Scottish Academy is the recently constructed Weston Link, with its print rooms, lecture theatres and IT galleries. 'The Link' is also an excellent venue for eating, drinking and resting between bouts of art appreciation. Once suitably caffeinated, take a taxi to the Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery to see one of the world's best collections of surrealist art including works by Dalí.

Edinburgh's legendary pubs are flourishing. Gourmet columnist AA Gill says the city is one of the few places in Britain where the pubs are still lively and fun. These days, Edinburgh's fashionable George Street 'style bars' are in vogue but, if you like conversation with your drinking, the pubs are far preferable. The elegant Café Royal Oyster Bar, in West Register Street, is a good place to start, with a dozen freshly shucked oysters and a pint of McEwan's. Then there are all the pubs of Rose Street to take in, a tad touristy nowadays but, across The Mound up the steps of Fleshmarket Close, the Halfway House is the real thing. A tiny free house in the shadows of Old Town, the Halfway House won the Campaign for Real Ale Scottish Pub of the Year 2005 and is a good place to fill up on haggis, neeps and tatties, with a pint of real ale on the side.

A black Range Rover conveys guests on the 15-minute trip from Edinburgh's Waverley Station to Prestonfield. The driver, like the rest of the hotel staff, is dressed in black - including his kilt - "a 21st-century tartan," he calls it. It's been said that if Oscar Wilde was still alive today, he'd stay at Prestonfield. It has 22 utterly decadent rooms and suites. Owner James Thomson is well known in Scotland for The Witchery by the Castle hotel and restaurant that he established near the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. Prestonfield was originally built in 1687 as the Baroque home of Scotland's Lord Provost, and Thomson has refurbished it with a sense of flamboyant indulgence redolent of the romantic parade of luminaries who've frequented its rooms over the years. Diners at Prestonfield's grand Regency-inspired restaurant, Rhubarb, can view Highland cattle and peacocks roaming the surrounding parkland while enjoying a sumptuous meal.

Gordon Ramsay described Martin Wishart, in The Times, as "Scotland's next big thing, no question". Wishart won his first Michelin star in 2001 and was named Scottish Chef of the Year in 2006. His restaurant is located on the quay at Leith, Edinburgh's port. Wishart told us that he worked for a spell at The Menzies hotel in Sydney in 1989 and that, as a result, he regularly employs Australians in his Leith restaurant. His parents are both from the Shetland Islands - a heritage that comes through in his use of salmon from Ronas Voe in the Shetlands and lamb from the small, hardy sheep of the islands. Though his technique is modern French, Wishart champions fresh Scottish produce, including finely cured Orkney meats and organic supplies of vegetables and berries. 

Long before The Da Vinci Code made it famous, Rosslyn Chapel, about a half-hour drive south of Edinburgh, was already a centre of myth and folklore. The 15th-century building was designed by William St Clair who, legend has it, had connections to the Knight Templars and the Freemasons. The Queen Regent of Scotland once wrote of a "great secret within Rosslyn", and the chapel's intricately carved interior is believed to contain a code that will crack it. Some say the hidden treasure is Scotland's long-lost holy relic, the Holy Rood, a piece of Christ's cross; others that it is the Ark of the Covenant, taken by crusaders from Herod's temple in Jerusalem. But most of all, it is believed to be the secret resting place of the Holy Grail.

Five minutes stroll from Princes Street is the venerable façade of the Lady Glenorchy church. Behind the façade you'll find the clean, modern lines of The Glasshouse. This cool Edinburgh hotel sits in the lee of Calton Hill, its roof garden almost touching the birdsong-filled wood of the hillside. The Glasshouse suites face the other way, overlooking New Town, with the land falling gently away to the Firth of Forth. If you like your sheets crisp, baths made for long, deep soaks, rooms that are spacious and well thought-out, and room service which is faultless, then The Glasshouse is for you.

Okay, so not technically part of Edinburgh, the granite seaside town of St Andrews lies about an hour's drive from the city. It is the home of Scotland's oldest university (where Prince William met girlfriend Kate) and if the view of the long, windswept beach looks familiar, it's because the running-in-the-tide scene of Chariots of Fire was shot here. But St Andrews is most famous for being the home of golf - the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the Old Course are two of the game's great icons. There are still half a dozen courses open to the public today - to book, go to www.standrews.org.uk. Fortuitously, The Seafood Restaurant, situated on the St Andrews waterfront, is just a step or two away from the world's number-one 18th hole.

Whenever I go to Scotland, I have what I hold to be the perfect breakfast - grilled kippers with buttered toast and tea. If a kipper is grilled to perfection and if it's a particularly fine one out of Loch Fyne, it has a sublime complexity of flavours that puts all other morning cares aside. The crisp, bland toast is essentially there to prepare the palate for the next mouthful of heavenly herring. Piping hot tea is the final cleanser - tea always tastes better in Scotland, thanks to the country's superb water sources. My pick for the best kippers? Breakfast at The Glasshouse.

Edinburgh is small enough to navigate on foot. Take a walk around New Town, a designated World Heritage site, to observe Britain's finest preservation of Georgian architecture. To get a bird's-eye view, climb Calton Hill, topped by Nelson's telescope-like monument and the Acropolis-inspired structure known as 'Edinburgh's Folly'. Cross over to Old Town (also a World Heritage site) and walk the Royal Mile between the castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland. The cobbled Royal Mile takes you through Scotland's turbulent history, with many an irresistible diversion between the cloisters of the side-street 'closes'. In one of the latter, you'll find The Writers' Museum celebrating the works of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.

This television star was the youngest chef in Scotland to win a Michelin star and is one of the most exciting local-born cooking talents (and a great media talent to boot). While his restaurant, Braeval, is no longer, fans can visit his cooking school nearby in the picturesque Trossachs, less than an hour's drive from Edinburgh. The Nick Nairn Cook School is ruled by quality fresh produce and its courses are designed for every level of enthusiast, "from toast burners to soufflé kings".

The days when the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed the South Pacific bearing Her Majesty to far-flung dominions have been relegated to history's pages. Since her decommissioning in 1997, the Britannia has found her dockside retirement home at Edinburgh's historic port of Leith and is now one of Scotland's leading visitor-friendly attractions. You can take an audio tour across the five decks and get an intimate feel for what life was like at sea for the royals, their staff and the crew on the 968 voyages the ship made over a span of 44 years. The State Dining Room is particularly impressive, considering its maritime function, and should you wish to host the ultimate dinner party for up to 96 guests, this venue can be yours for the night.

If you've already climbed the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, there's another pile of historic masonry still to conquer - the Scott Monument. Why? Well, you could take your cue from George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said, "Because it's there." This blackened sandstone, multi-spired structure is a tribute, funded by public subscription, to the great Edinburgh writer Sir Walter Scott. It rises 200 feet above Princes Street like a Victorian precursor to the spaceship designs favoured by the creators of Star Wars. There is no elevator to the top; you must enter a small door at its base and corkscrew your way up a narrowing passage, step by step, contemplating as you go why Scott, once one of the world's most popular novelists, is so little read today. From the uppermost tier your efforts are rewarded by as fine a view as you might wish for of 'the heart of Midlothian'.

Tigerlily opened in June 2006 to much acclaim. This cool hotel is a real scene and on the night we stayed there, Tigerlily's two style bars were packed with the hot young things of Edinburgh. Tucked away under the hotel is Lulu, the "comfortably exclusive but ever so slightly saucy" nightspot "where Georgian elegance meets 21st century opulence". The converted Georgian townhouse is a decorator's dream, with a stunning pink, rose and white stairwell that leads to 33 individually designed rooms. The hotel picked up Best Interior Design at the 2007 Scottish Design Awards.

And now for the dog-lover's corner. Visit Greyfriars Presbyterian Church to see the statue of Bobby, the ever-faithful Skye terrier. At the corner of Candlemaker Row and the George IV Bridge, a bronzed Bobby patiently awaits his master's return. In real life, he was the devoted companion of night watchman John Gray. When Gray died of tuberculosis in 1858, Bobby allegedly spent the rest of his life, 14 years in all, guarding his master's grave at Greyfriars.

A short walk from Greyfriars, at 30A Victoria Street in Grassmarket, is one of the best cheese shops in Britain - IJ Mellis. Scottish cheeses are acclaimed in Britain for their range and taste. Often unpasteurised and organic, they range from traditional crowdie and caboc to the award-winning St Andrews. A walk down the hill to IJ Mellis's cheese shop is also rewarded by the Grassmarket's wide range of cafés and pubs.

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