Balbirnie House Hotel, Fife – Review
Balbirnie House Hotel, Fife
by Roger Crow
Some posh houses take your breath away, and Balbirnie House Hotel, Fife certainly looks impressive when we arrive one autumnal Sunday afternoon. It’s nestled within 400 acres of beautiful parkland in the heart of Fife. The Grade A listed Georgian mansion is near the village of Markinch, between Edinburgh and St Andrews. So no shortage of attractions on the doorstep.
There’s the remains of a wedding fair on, so we navigate around the assorted bride and groom ephemera as that winds down. Check-in proves surprisingly easy, which is just as well considering we’ve had a whirlwind 24-plus hours, having driven up from East Yorkshire the day before.
After an engaging stay in Dundee, we’ve travelled around 45 miles south for what looks like the highlight of our long weekend to Scotland. After navigating round the winding corridors, we find our room, and it’s breathtaking. It’s also huge, with a large bed, high ceiling and impressive bathroom. The bedside cabinets are terrific, as is the wardrobe and full-length mirror.
Yet there’s something not right about the peripheral touches. The room might be the epitome of opulence, but the TV is relatively tiny compared to the standard giant flat screens my wife and I have marvelled over at previous hotels. Thankfully there’s a sofa at the end of the bed, so I get to watch Doctor Who (with the aid of my specs). The cheap plastic kettle also feels out of place, like it’s arrived via a budget motorway hotel.
At least there’s plenty of UHT milk, coffee and tea sachets to keep us going. However, in order to make a cuppa, we have to put the kettle on the floor by the bathroom as fiddling around at the back of the TV for a plug socket sets personal alarm bells ringing. There’s no chance of fitting the kettle under the bathroom tap, and there’s no carafe to act as a go-between, so just filling it proves more laborious than it should be.
The quality of the well-worn hotel info in the obligatory room pack looks like a photocopy of a photocopy from 1984. It’s all a bit shabby, and yet so easy to do well. A room this gorgeous deserves to be well represented in its literature.
Tea made, we decide to have a wander around the grounds before it gets dark to witness what the place has to offer.
The beautifully mown lawn we can see from our window promises much, so we have a potter up the adjoining path, and up steps to a larger, more unkempt lawn. It’s attractive enough, but in the words of Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, “There’s nothing to see here”. No water feature, no hidden attractions. It’s all just a bit of a let down. Having done a circuit of the grounds, we go back to our room and chill out before dinner.
As it goes dark, one thing becomes very clear: the room doesn’t have enough lights. There are assorted lamps, all seemingly powered by dim bulbs, but no main overhead light, so it’s a struggle to read or do anything without straining our eyes. As mentioned, the bathroom is terrific with twin sinks, a beautiful bath (with shower attachment) and spotless tiling.
During one of our wanders round the hotel, it looks like we have better bathroom than the ostentatious bridal suite, so we can’t complain. But again a cheap plastic rubbish bin in ours lets the side down.
We head to dinner in a large, chilly dining room and I put my starter on hold after sampling a slate of assorted treats, including haggis bon bon and mini quiche.
My main, sautéed chicken breast with vegetables and braised potato, glazed turnip and grain mustard sauce is a big success. I devour every mouthful, but Rachel fares less well. She’s unimpressed with the vegan menu, and having eventually decided on the veggie ’burger’, when it turns up she’s far from happy. It’s not actually a burger but layers of veggies, including mushroom, peppers and cheese on a soggy bun. It all feels underwhelming, and the chips and side of onion rings are so greasy, she leaves half of everything.
The dessert menu fails to float our boats, and as we’re the last occupants in that chilly dining room, and a bunch of spotlights have just fizzled out, we decide to take cappuccinos in one of the empty lounge areas. The muzak, which started off hilariously bad, has now turned into the equivalent of nails down a blackboard.
‘Glamour Girl’ by Louie Austen is one of those songs Graham Norton plays on his ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better’ slots On Radio Two. We sit through it for what seems like an age, and a few minutes later it starts again. I do something I’ve never done in years of hotel reviews and BEG the staff to turn it off. We’re the only ones there, so it’s not like we’re depriving anyone else. Thankfully they comply, and suddenly the hotel seems so much better. I relax and enjoy my coffee while surveying the surroundings. The furniture, like the wallpaper, is scuffed in places and the paintings are all a bit randomly hung. A shame as it’s a beautiful room with a gorgeous carved coffee table.
We have an early start in the morning and have requested an early breakfast, so we retire for the night and pack up. The room temperature is too hot, so some essential radiator control is called for, and the pillows are too hard, so sleep is fitful, though the bed itself is terrific.
When our alarms go off at the crack of dawn, we look out for our breakfast outside the door, but there’s no sign. By the time we leave, still nothing, and there’s nobody on front desk, so we leave the keys and head off.
There’s a lot right with Balbirnie House Hotel, but better lighting; a bigger TV; posher kettle and bathroom bin, and coffee table by the sofa would make a good stay great, especially as the room is so opulent. A carafe to help fill the kettle would be a massive bonus.
A decent water feature outside, and some elegant exterior lighting would help show off the place a treat. It’s been around since 1777 and certainly deserves it. And while music taste is obviously subjective, better to stick to classical or nothing at all than annoying muzak that outstays its welcome.
Balbirnie House, Balbirnie Park, Markinch Village by Glenrothes, Fife, KY7 6NE
Rooms are priced from £99 on a bed and breakfast basis