Edinburgh By Sea: Leith, Fingal & Malmaison – Travel Review
By Clare Jenkins, April 2023
Who would have guessed that HM the Queen had such suburban tastes? Floral bedroom curtains, pretty eiderdowns, chintzy sofas and armchairs with properly plumped cushions… Perfectly standard standard lamps, a William Morris textile here, the odd game of Cluedo and Scrabble over there… You could be in a Ladybird Book red-brick-and-gable house in Amersham or Aylesbury – if it weren’t for the shark’s teeth ceremonial sword from the Solomon Islands, the Malaysian carved ivory crocodile, or the fan made from the head and tail feathers of a New Guinea bird of Paradise…
For this is the Royal Yacht Britannia, whose interior furnishings must have seemed disappointingly homespun to some of the other heads of state entertained here over 40-odd years – US Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, for instance, or Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. But as Sir Hugh Casson, the architect and designer of the State apartments, explained, “Simplicity was the key. The overall idea was to give the impression of a country house at sea.”–
During its 44 years of active service, the Britannia travelled 1,087,623 miles around the world – ‘the equivalent of once round the world for each year of its working life’, according to the handy onboard audio guide. Decommissioned in 1997 much against the late Queen’s wishes, the following year the ship was permanently berthed in Edinburgh’s historic port of Leith and opened to the public. Which is why I was there with my husband, as part of a four-day, two-centre (by-the-sea and heart-of-the-city) visit to Edinburgh.
“Iconic mode of transport”
We’d travelled north from Sheffield with Cross Country Trains on one of Britain’s great train journeys. The East Coast Main Line from York to Edinburgh in particular is a train lover’s delight. First: York Minster, the city’s magnificent station and Railway Museum (where you can see the Flying Scotsman up to 23rd April). Then the equally grand station at Darlington – ‘Discover something breath-taking’ as one poster has it. Durham, with its soaring view of the cathedral and castle high above the town. Sculptor Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North at Gateshead, bronze wings outstretched in welcome. Crossing the Tyne into Newcastle, with half-a-dozen bridges to tick off, together with Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Then the railway line hugs the coast, passing the pretty coastal village of Alnmouth, with its candy-coloured cottages, boats and dogs playing on the beach. If you can drag your eyes away from your phone or laptop screen (which not all passengers can), you can spot the holy island of Lindisfarne across its long causeway, and then the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its swirling viaduct and the huddle of roofs down below. Onwards past golf courses, startled deer, bursts of bright yellow gorse, beaches and sheer cliffs until the landscape subtly changes, dark red sandstone manses start to appear, and the cliffs give way to equally vertiginous tenements. Finally the great mass of Castle Rock looms as the train approaches bustling Waverley Station and journey’s end.
Swapping one iconic mode of transport for another: we’d been given tickets to the Britannia by its sister ship, the award-winning Fingal, a short walk away. A former Northern Lighthouse Board tender that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, Fingal serviced lighthouses all around Scotland, spending 30 years in Oban, then six based in Stromness, Orkney. After retiring from service in 2000, it was re-sold and transported to Cornwall. Some years later, it returned to Scotland where, following a £5 million refurb, it opened at Alexandra Dock in 2019 as the country’s first five-star luxury floating hotel. Just last year, it was named one of the top five-star hotels and restaurants in the UK by the AA.
All 23 guest cabins (including the Skerryvore presidential suite) are named after Stevenson lighthouses, the effervescent manager Mari-Nel Scorer told us. So we could have stayed in North Ronaldsay or The Rinns of Islay or Tarbat Ness (photographer Ian Cowe’s images of all the lighthouses line the walls throughout). Instead, we were allocated the less easily pronounceable, but immensely comfortable Dubh Artach.
Without feeling remotely cramped, the cabin managed to encompass a large, high bed with padded headboard and built-in side tables, storm lantern-style bedside lights, a desk with swivel chair, leather armchair, wardrobe and attached corner unit – both soft sea-green-coloured, the latter concealing fridge, tea and coffee-making facilities, wine glasses, the lot.
Along with the compass design in the ceiling, there were stylish nautical touches in the bathroom, such as copper taps shaped like ships’ wheels and an anchor-design towel hook. Plus Noble Isles toiletries from all over the UK – ‘Yorkshire Triangle Rhubarb’, ‘Gloucestershire Perry Pear’, ‘Lavenham Willow Song’.
“Prisms of light”
Throughout, the ship is elegant and cleverly designed, recreating the atmosphere and glamour of life on the ocean wave, without the heave-ho’ing. The curved glass-sided lift resembles a lighthouse light, there are ship’s rope banisters, cork walls, golden wood throughout, diamond-designed carpets referencing prisms of light, and a 60-person ballroom with sweeping glass-and-gold porthole-design staircase and shimmering ceiling.
Back on the Britannia, the introductory exhibition includes nuggets of information like ‘For a state visit, some five tonnes of luggage including everything from the Queen’s jewels to the famous bottles of Malvern Water for Her Majesty’s tea, was brought on board and stowed in the ship’s hold…’ How on earth did my husband and I manage with just two small suitcases? But then, how do we survive without a maid to check that our bath water is at exactly the right temperature?
The toy corgis might know. They lurk everywhere – in the Admiral’s cabin, the his-n-her regal bedrooms, the Charles and Diana honeymoon suite, even in the humble seamen’s bunk quarters below deck. In the dining-room, there’s a yellowing copy of The Guardian (shum mishtake, shurely?) next to a plate of full English breakfast.
“Back to Earth”
They don’t do breakfasts in the Royal Deck Tea Room, but you can enjoy a £60 champagne cream tea special for two, or a bottle of bubbly ranging from £75 to £125 for the Moet Vintage. We satisfied ourselves with two £4 cappuccinos, a sailing-boat design etched in the froth.
We resisted the urge to buy a King Charles Coronation pen (good for throwing at staff?), Her Majesty’s Top Trumps game, Royal Monopoly, a Princess Diana brooch or coronet earrings. We also refrained from doing a Noel Coward and playing the baby grand piano in the royal sitting-room – a piano also played by Princess Diana, though she presumably didn’t sing The Stately Homes of England.
Coming back to earth both physically and metaphorically, we disembarked and found ourselves in The Wee Museum of Memory, tucked away in the Ocean Terminal shopping centre. This small but very worthwhile museum, run by the Living Memory Association, is packed higgledy-piggledy with everyday 20th Century memorabilia – tea caddies, a sewing machine, old lamps and radios and telephones, Be-Ro cookbooks, children’s games, 1950s crockery, Cliff Richard LPs…
“We’re here to promote reminiscence among older people,” said project co-ordinator Naomi Lawson, “and to record their memories.” At the far end of the room, her colleague Russell Clegg was encouraging a group of older residents to discuss how their shopping habits had changed over the years. I doubt that Harrods was much mentioned.
Back on Fingal, we had dinner in the Lighthouse restaurant, all Art Deco bronze and gold, candlelight, white crockery, gleaming cutlery and friendly waitresses. The AA two-star menu was small but discerning. Starters included Scottish salmon and Orkney scallop but, being vegetarians, we went for beetroot and mozzarella with pine nuts, and creamy mushroom tart, both served with excellent home-made bread rolls. For mains, we turned a blind eye to the roe deer and duck breast, choosing instead the delicious Harisa roast celeriac, served with roast cabbage, with side dishes of purple sprouting broccoli and roast Royal Jersey potatoes. To finish: fresh fruit salad, all accompanied by a bottle of Spanish alberinas wine, recommended by the very knowledgeable sommelier Matt Tomaszewski – one of a team of impeccably helpful and enthusiastic staff.
Leith itself was not, perhaps, seen at its best during our stay, what with the seemingly perpetual building works (the much anticipated tram link should open next month), the grey skies blending into grey tenement blocks, and the looming black box design of the soon-to-open Port of Leith Distillery. However, those who know the area better love it.
“It’s my happy place,” said a friend who lives on the real North Ronaldsay but also owns a flat in Leith. Emily, a student at Edinburgh University doing voluntary work on the Britannia, agreed. “The shops and bookshops along Leith Road, and the cafes and bars along The Shore [the vibrant waterfront area], they’re my happy place, by the water. I love the wildlife you see there.”
Admittedly, we only saw a few ducks, but the bars were busy when the sun eventually shone. Some of the vapers and hipster beards drinking and eating along The Shore possibly live in the nearby converted warehouses. What with its neo-classical Custom House and its Michelin starred restaurants, it’s slowly morphing into a creative hub, a McShoreditch.
We’d started our Edinburgh break at Leith’s waterfront Malmaison Edinburgh, a handsome Scottish Baronial-style former Sailors’ Home in the main cobbled square. There are informative plaques and sculptures directly outside, all reflecting the area’s maritime heritage, including a Merchant Navy memorial with little iron figures of men and camels and palm trees around the stone plinth.
The 100-room Malmaison, built in 1883, itself cuts quite a dash, with its turrets and pinnacles, central clock, stone balconies and Art Nouveau black and gold doors opening onto the outdoor terrace. Inside, it’s decorated throughout in the chain’s signature 50 shades of grey.
Initially allocated a room with little in the way of view, we were moved (by one of the very efficient Ukrainian receptionists) to a larger room at the front, which gazed out towards the Firth of Forth. We also had excellent Rear Window glimpses of office workers returning home, cooking their evening meal and settling down to watch TV.
It was still darkly decorated, though – including the muted blue and mink-coloured mural over the two double beds depicting a detailed old map of this part of Edinburgh. Splashes of colour came from four framed paintings, including one ordering: ‘Make your own luck’.
Our evening meal in the convivial Chez Mal Brasserie consisted of excellent gorgonzola and pea ravioli, and a hearty, tasty black bean patty burger with grilled red pepper and vegan Cheddar in a sesame seed bun. To finish: hot Valrhona chocolate mousse with peanut butter centre and salted caramel ice cream.
Buffet breakfast the next day was an admirable array of fruit salad, cereals, fruit poached in Earl Grey tea, redberry, granola and yogurt pots, croissants and pastries, as well as all the regular hot dishes.
After which, it was time to pack our cases (still weighing considerably less than five tonnes) and exchange Edinburgh-by-sea for Edinburgh-city. But that’s for next time…
Cabins on Fingal, Alexandra Dock, Leith, EH6 7DX, start from around £300 per night, including full Scottish breakfast and tickets to The Royal Yacht Britannia. fingal.co.uk
Rooms at the Malmaison Edinburgh, 1 Tower Place, Leith, EH6 7BZ, are from £128 room only, £158 double B&B. Tel: 0131-285 1478. malmaison.com
The Royal Yacht Britannia – royalyachtbritannia.co.uk
CrossCountry run regular train services to Edinburgh from all over the country: crosscountrytrains.co.uk
Visit Scotland: visitscotland.com