Creative power couple Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the pair behind the Hauser & Wirth mega galleries, have transformed a lethargic and uninspiring coaching inn into somewhere unique and vibrant. Teaming with artworks by everyone from Picasso to Prince Charles, they – along with interior designer and antique-hunter supremo Russell Sage – have expertly mixed old and new, traditional and surreal, to create a brilliantly bonkers yet utterly luxurious hotel.
Where is it?
With the brown peaty Clunie river thundering past, the Fife Arms sits proudly front and centre in the village of Braemar within the wild and beautiful Cairngorms National Park. Just a few miles down the road from Balmoral Castle, Braemar hosts the Highland Games final each year at which the Queen is a regular star guest. Aberdeen is 90 minutes away.
A four-year passion project by the art world’s most famous couple, Hauser & Wirth, the Fife Arms was always going to include, well, loads of art, but what the couple have created is truly exceptional. Part gallery, part trippy country house, the Fife Arms is a maximalist treasure trove of 16,000 antiques, artworks, collectables and curios. What at first appears ramshackle is actually a painstakingly curated homage to Scottish history blended deftly with contemporary pieces for which two full time art historians were enlisted.
In the cosy entrance hall a pencil sketch of a stag drawn in 1874 by Queen Victoria sits across from Lucian Freud’s oil portrait of his daughter Annie; chic black and white Man Ray photographs of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (a regular visitor of the area) can be found just round the corner from a three-metre canvas by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Many other works were commissioned especially for the hotel – highlights include the unmissable handblown neon glass deer chandelier by Los Angeles-based artist Richard Jackson hanging over the reception desk and Zhang Enli’s multicoloured handpainted ceiling in the drawing room where the Picasso also hangs proudly.
The Fife Arms is posh bric-a-brac meets over-the-top eccentric; it shouldn’t work, but it does. Each and every nook and cranny is a delight, filled with secrets and hidden stories. There are far too many to describe in the word count of this review, so book yourself onto the hotel’s art tour when you visit, which you should.
Being in the heart of the UK’s largest national park, the Cairngorms, there really is only one thing for it: walking. The hotel will supply you with a foolproof guide of twenty walks, hikes and cycle routes in the area. Should you exhaust that, the hotel’s team of friendly Ghillies will be happy to suggest alternatives, as well as pack you a hearty picnic.
To go further afield, local husband and wife duo Julian and Kate provide guided walking tours and off road safaris with their Braemar Highland Experiences. Ask them to throw in an al fresco whisky tasting too. Nine miles down the road is the Queen’s holiday residence, Balmoral Castle. Book ahead for a tour or simply stroll around the estate and see how much of its exquisite 50,000 acres you can manage.
Back at the hotel, book a massage or make use of the sauna looking out over the landscaped gardens designed by RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal-winner Jinny Blom.
Food & Drink
The Flying Stag is the village pub enjoyed by guests and locals alike serving up hearty grub and excellent Sunday roasts. Not in the mood for food? Sample one of the bar’s 180 whiskeys and curl up by the fire in the tartan-walled snug. In non-covid times, there’s live entertainment.
The Clunie Dining Room, named after the river which roars past the restaurant’s windows, is the formal restaurant showcasing the art of wood-fire cooking with a creative menu cooked up by Executive Chef Tim Kensett. Pick from spelt, black cabbage and pork or birch cooked sea trout served with marinated courgette, rosemary and anchovy. Pudding could be a Braemar rhubarb sorbet drizzled with Perthshire raspberries or a steamingly warm orange marmalade sponge.
Elsa is the spot for pre and post dinner cocktails. Named after the late Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the walls are covered in fashion photographs by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton while a 6ft antique mirror ball hands from the ceiling. Our visit coincided with tightened covid restrictions in Scotland which meant no alcohol was allowed indoors. Instead, staff created a cosy courtyard with heaters, fire pits and blankets for us to sip on whiskey under the stars – all overseen by Louise Bourgeois’s large-scale menacing Spider sculpture.
Each of the 46 rooms are different and run along three themes: Scottish Culture (showcasing notable Scots), Nature and Poetry Rooms (lots of heather, horn and tweed) and Croft Rooms (inspired by traditional Scottish crofts with a cosy cabin bed). If you can, book one of the suites which are luxurious mish-mashes of comfort (freestanding roll top baths and rain showers) and old world touches (velvet chaise lounges and walnut wood four poster beds).
Couples, or families with older children. Or really anyone who wants to witness the pure joy and theatre of what Hauser & Wirth have achieved.
Stays at The Fife Arms start from £230 per night in a Croft Room, including breakfast. For more information or to book, please visit thefifearms.com.