For me, a short break should have an element of escapism, a sprinkle of culture, and enough sunshine to allow you to explore your surroundings with ease. Add to this a fairy tale-like setting, a royal connection and lashings of great food and drink and you have Dalhousie Castle.
The magnificent, 13th century fortress on the banks of the river Esk offers everything you’d ever want from a few days away. Situated in some of the Britian’s most peaceful countryside, it’s ironic that for over 500 years it provided the setting for fiercely contested, and very bloody battles; between the Scottish and the English. The castle itself gave shelter to many royals and dignitaries during the conflicts, including Edward I in 1296 before he went on to Falkirk to defeat William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots in 1563 and became the lowland headquarters of Oliver Cromwell when he captured the castle in 1648.
Thankfully, the last 400 years have seen the Scots become a lot more tolerant of the English and we were warmly welcomed on arrival at this fascinating castle hotel.
Staying in one of the hotel’s themed bedrooms, it’s easy to see the care and attention to detail put into the restoration and decor. Magnificent four poster beds are complemented by beautiful, intricately patterned bed lined, corridors are lined with striking historical family portraits and huge arch-shaped windows flood the rooms with light. The ancient barrel-vaulted dungeons have also been immaculately and sympathetically restored and dinner — which we enjoyed here on our first night — is an experience in itself.
After choosing the blue cheese and red pepper soufflé, and the rabbit with pistachio and carrot purée to start, we were presented with a delicate amuse-bouche; a mouth-sized portion of halibut with a fat, crispy chip. I then tucked into turbot with mussels, cockles and squid egg risotto and my partner the veal with mushrooms and potatoes. A toffee cheesecake pre-dessert was next, followed by a interesting selection of Scottish and European cheeses for dessert. Warm, cosy, yet buzzing with chatter, the dungeon dining room is the kind of restaurant you don’t want to leave, and we could have easily stayed there until the early hours of the morning, had I not planned the next day’s itinerary to start at 8am.
Polishing off (well almost) a traditional Scottish breakfast with all the trimmings certainly prepared us for our trip to Scotland’s capital city, which just nine miles away. A self-proclaimed royalist intrigued by anything to do with our monarchy, the Royal Yacht Britannia was top of my must-see list. Berthed in Leith it gives a fascinating insight into the former floating royal residence, telling the story behind the roles of the hundreds of staff and the adventures the royal family had on Britannia, which sailed over 1,000,000 miles around the world in over 40 years. The self-guided tour takes about one and a half hours and costs £12 per person.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, alive with shoppers and tourists, but despite the magnificent and typically British architecture, the many cosmopolitan, cool and quirky cafés and bars that spill their tables, chairs and enticing cocktail menus onto the pavements give the city a very relaxed, almost European feel.
Late afternoon saw us return to our castle for an indulgent couple of hours in the spa, which boasts a hydro-pool, ottoman and tropical rain/cold fog shower. A back and shoulder massage completed our spa experience and should be on the agenda of any guest at Dalhousie.
If you’re lucky enough to stay at the castle for two nights, ensure that one of your meals (it has both light bites through the day and a dinner menu) is in The Orangery. Looking over the river and nearby woodland it has a very relaxed atmosphere that transforms from a very refreshing, light and airy space in the daytime, to a beautiful, romantic restaurant in the evening. The menu is simple but satisfies all tastes — from fillet steak and fish and chips to wholesome pastas and salads. It takes a very different approach to that of the Dungeon Restaurant, but the result is equally as impressive.
If — like us — you are fascinated by wildlife do not leave Dalhousie without visiting the Falconry Mews. Located in the castle’s grounds and run by an exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate mother and daughter team it gives you a wonderful insight into some of the most beautiful birds of prey. Before handling, flying and feeding Bendy the Harris’ Hawk and Duke the Turkmenian Eagle Owl, we were introduced to all of the birds in the mews. Many had fascinating stories; some rescued from the wild, others bred specifically for falconry and a couple are even famous, having appeared in numerous television shows and films. We learnt the science behind the birds, including why they will only fly at certain weights, what and how they eat and digest, and what goes into training these creatures, some of which, we discovered, are much more intelligent than others. Flying the birds was an exhilarating experience topped off by Duke choosing my head as a landing area, something he’s apparently only ever done to his master.
Goodbyes are never easy, and on leaving the castle I had a pang of sadness. Our escape had ended but on reflection we were satisfied that we’d made the most of our short break. We’d had sunshine, dabbled in Scottish culture, enjoyed fabulous food and drink, and even embarked on our own royal adventure that thankfully involved no bloody battles. From the castle’s controversial history full of conflict, to its secluded and almost secret location, Dalhousie is a truly magical place and it’s easy to see why it has captivated and captured the imagination of the Scottish and the English for over 800 years.