The Small Pleasures of Edinburgh
Written by Mary Jane Grant
If your quest is to seek the small pleasures, you could not choose a more perfect place than Edinburgh. This compact, historic city is itself a small pleasure, crammed with innovative shops and restaurants, in a setting that is breathtaking for its ancient and natural beauty.
A Small Inn That Feels Like Home
The Bonham Inn is situated among private homes, elegant offices and small embassies on a semi-circular street facing Drumsheugh Garden in the quiet West End of town. Built by amalgamating three adjacent townhouses, the hotel gives the sense of a rambling, elegant home. From the spacious front foyer, a wide staircase leads with a gentle rise to the floors above.
To the right of the foyer is the guest lounge and reception, and further along is the small bar, with a dozen comfy tub chairs clustered around low tables, none too far from the cheerful fireplace. Upon arrival, we enjoyed a particularly good lunch in the hotel’s dining room. With refreshing bubbly in hand, we perused the menu. I started with the pumpkin soup garnished with amaretto croutons. The combination of flavors was surprisingly tasty!
My son started with a cool poached salmon complemented with a cucumber puree, melons, apples and grapes. For the main course, I had plump Scottish cod known as covey, served with bourgignon style sauce, and my son had pheasant on a chiffonade of sautéed kale. Both mains were perfectly prepared and presented. Through the next three days, breakfast in the hotel was consistently good with generous quantities of well-prepared food, setting you up perfectly for your Edinburgh adventures.
During our stay, we found equal enjoyment in the private comfort of the guest rooms and the welcoming atmosphere of the communal areas of the hotel. Staff and guests alike were relaxed and friendly, and we were easily engaged in conversation about local goods, culture and attractions. We received many ‘insider’ tips that greatly enhanced our stay, from casual conversations that flowed so easily in this warm and affable establishment.
Edinburgh’s Oldest (and Tiniest) Building
There is nothing more imposing or monumental than Edinburgh Castle, looming over the city from the high cliff known as Castle Rock. For more than 1,000 years, warriors, royalty, poets and saints have lived, fought, died, ruled and celebrated on this site. The castle has been home to royalty, including Mary Queen of Scots, who gave birth to James VI in the castle in 1566. In 1996, the Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish kings were enthroned for centuries, was moved from Westminster Abbey and returned to Edinburgh castle where it is displayed in the Crown Room.
Within the walls of Edinburgh Castle, the diminutive St. Margaret’s Chapel will satisfy your quest for small pleasures. It is remarkable for its stark and ancient simplicity, standing as the oldest surviving building in all of Edinburgh. This serene chapel was built by King David I of Scotland around 1130 and dedicated to his saintly mother, Queen Margaret.
The irregular stone building has an internal width of only 10 feet, and a total length of about 20 feet. There are five small stained glass windows, 10 bench seats, an alms chest and a flower stand. There are always fresh flowers in the chapel. These are provided by the St. Margaret’s Chapel Guild, which was founded in 1942 under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. In fact, all the members of the guild are called Margaret. It is written into the objects of the Guild that, “ those with the name of Margaret shall supply and place flowers in the Chapel of St. Margaret at Edinburgh Castle each week of every year.”
Down the Stairs and Through the Bookcase…
When you are traveling off the beaten path, it is valuable to follow tips from locals. This is how we learned about Panda and Sons, a hidden speakeasy in Edinburgh’s West End. From the street, Panda and Sons looks like a barbershop, with a staircase to a lower level. You follow down the stairs to a bookcase, which is actually a false door. Open the door and enter the world of the old-fashioned speakeasy.
Iain McPherson is the founder, proprietor and head bartender at Panda and Sons. He’s a tall, handsome young man of South Korean and Scottish descent. The night we met, he was wearing dark plaid ‘trews’ or trousers, a traditional and more wearable alternative to the kilt.
“Why Panda and Sons?” I asked.
“Panda’s been my nickname for years,” Iain said. “And when I thought of using the panda as a symbol for the bar, I really liked the idea. The ‘and sons’ part suggests a family enterprise. Our team does feel like a family, and we want our guests to feel that too.”
On McPherson’s recommendation, we ordered The Birdcage, perhaps the most distinctive of their many unusual cocktails. The drink is comprised of Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve whisky, a rhubarb and lemongrass shrub (a premise-made infusion), aperol (an Italian orange-based aperitif), and angostura bitters. After a few minutes, McPherson appeared with a beautiful long-stemmed glass on a silver tray under a large bell jar filled with smoke. He placed the tray on the table and with a proud flourish, lifted the bell jar. The visual impact of the smoke swirling above the drink and wafting across the old-fashioned speakeasy was evocative of a nostalgic past. The aroma of smoke, cinnamon and clove was beautiful. And then, for the taste: “It’s the best cocktail I’ve ever had,” I told him truthfully, as I savored the unbelievable combination of deep whisky, and sweet/bitter citrus, with a spicy smoky foundation. “It engages every taste bud at once, not to mention the scent and the visual impact. It’s remarkable.”
“That’s what we were going for!” McPherson said, his excitement showing. “We want our cocktails and our environment to snag all of your senses, along with your imagination and your memory. If we can do that, we believe we will create a meaningful experience – one you want to come back for, and share with your friends.”
McPherson is a talented mixologist, and an enthusiastic and gifted entrepreneur. With Panda and Sons, he may have found his recipe for sustained and well-earned success.
Small Spaces in Grand Places
On our last day in Edinburgh, we moved from the quiet West End of Edinburgh into the heart of the city to the grand Balmoral Hotel.
In this beautiful establishment, I wondered where one might find a quiet corner or a warm refuge. Small, hidden pleasures are actually easy to find at the Balmoral.
The first place to find cozy comfort is in the guest room itself. The typical room is more like a small suite, and the décor envelops you in the rich, traditional colors of Scotland itself. Cream for the barley, pale purple for the heather, green for the hills and brown for the soil. The furnishings, fixtures and fabrics in the guest room tempt you to sink into this environment of sumptuous luxury, and why not? You’ll stay even longer when you see the bathroom, with its deep tub for long soaks and its rain shower for languorous showers. I succumbed to the call of the room, while my son went out into the hotel, book under his arm, in search of a place to read with a pleasant hubbub as backdrop.
He found what he wanted and much more, in the newly opened Scotch Bar. Under the expert guidance of head whisky ambassador Michal Cybulski, this recent addition to the hotel offers exclusive access to some of the rarest whiskies in Scotland and therefore in the world.
Some aficionados make the pilgrimage to the Balmoral primarily to visit the Scotch Bar and take advantage of the opportunity to sample from their collection of approximately 400 small batch whiskies. In several instances, the Scotch Bar gets just a few bottles from an independent producer whose product will never see the light of day in a retail store or bar. Riley was given a tour of the Scotch cabinet, and had a ‘wee dram’ of a few exceptional Highland scotches. To complement the palate, specifically for whisky tasting, the bar presents a trio of flavors on a small wooden platter – smoked almonds to deepen the peaty aspect of the scotch; wild boar sausage whose fatty and gamey flavor stands in contrast to the smooth, deep scotch; and dark chocolate to cleanse the palate between sips or as you move from one scotch to the next. I joined Riley and sampled one wee dram myself – asking for something light, I was offered a 12-year old Speyside single malt from Strathisla, the oldest distillery in the Highlands. I took a tiny sip of the undiluted scotch, and loved the warm, deep taste. Then I added a few drops of water, as recommended, which further released the flavor.
Sipping away, I appreciated the ambiance of this small room, sitting slightly below street level behind green shrubs. The room is perfectly decorated in warm shades of gold, brown and grey and soft textures such as leather, velvet and wool tartan. The Scotch Bar is a true haven.
As a city, the center of Edinburgh is a beautiful and compact small pleasure, made only better by the many varied and delightful small pleasures it contains.
Find these small pleasures in Edinburgh:
The Bonham Inn
Covet Leather Good and Accessories
The Bon Vivant Companion
The Red Door Gallery
The Edinburgh Larder
Panda and Sons
The Balmoral hotel