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A Mother-Daughter Ramble Through the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh

Castle tours, vintage shopping, and Queen Elizabeth’s old Range Rover.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Ramya Giangola
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Ramya Giangola

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations and itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

When L.A.-based fashion-retail and brand strategist Ramya Giangola asked her 15-year-old daughter what she wanted to do for spring break, the teenager said she’d like to experience Europe “when it’s cold”; she had only ever been in the summertime. Giangola liked the idea and considered it a good opportunity to see a few universities while they were there — while also squeezing in some vintage shopping. After spending a week in London, the mother-daughter duo flew into Edinburgh, then drove out to the Scottish Highlands, specifically to the art-filled Fife Arms in Braemar, owned by Swiss gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth. They planned for a few glorious days of hiking, castle-hopping, and eating lots of fish-and-chips. “We had so much fun discovering parts of Europe and the U.K. that we hadn’t seen before,” Giangola recalls, “trying new food, drinking tea (whiskey for me), and meeting all sorts of characters along the way.” But her favorite part? “Just being together, talking about life and listening to our Euro-adventure playlist the whole way through.”

Day 1

11:45 a.m.: Fly from London to Edinburgh 

After a few fun days staying at the Chiltern Firehouse in London, we took a 90-minute flight from London City Airport to Edinburgh. We were collected in a very neat and chic forest-green Range Rover by Steve, the chauffeur, for the drive to Braemar to our home for the next few days at the Fife Arms (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN), a gorgeous property that also functions as a sort of social hub for the town with various bars and restaurants on the property.

3 p.m.: Take a scenic drive from Edinburgh to the Highlands 

After an extremely scenic two-hour drive up to the Highlands, we arrived at the hotel. During our drive, we took lots of photos and learned a lot about this region of Scotland from our driver, who had recently relocated from Essex. We were told that the actual Rover we were in had been occupied by Queen Elizabeth not too long ago — just about six months before her passing!

3:30 p.m.: Settle in to our suite at the Fife Arms

Each suite at the Fife Arms is inspired and decorated in a very unique manner that reflects a character or personality that has some connection to the area and specifically to the royal family and Balmoral Castle, which is in town. Our suite, the Tsarina, was inspired by Princess Alexandra Feodorovna, who spent many summers at Balmoral with her grandmother Queen Victoria and her British cousins. Sadly, after becoming the Empress of Russia, she was brutally murdered along with her family during the Russian Revolution. It was said that Alexandra was Queen Victoria’s favorite grandchild. After getting settled, we went down for a drink and a delicious fondue dinner in the Fondue Hut on the property.

Day 2

10 a.m.: Enjoy a traditional Scottish breakfast

We slept like heaven in the most comfy feather bed and headed downstairs to the Clunie Dining Room (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater) and were met with a Scottish breakfast complete with soft-boiled eggs and soldiers and Marmite on the side. The restaurant is decorated with brilliant art and windows showcasing the beauty of the wild surrounding grounds.

11:30 a.m.: Wander through the Highlands

The hotel set up a driving-and-hiking tour of the Cairngorms, the highlands surrounding Braemar and Balmoral Castle. Our intrepid guide for the day, Simon Blackett of Yellow Welly Tours (and essentially the local unofficial mayor of Braemar), picked us up in his rugged Rover and shared stories about the area, pointing out gorgeous vistas; took us on an invigorating hike; then showed us the town and facility where the annual Highland Games occur every September. Prince Charles recently invested in renovating the Highland Games facility, and it is quite beautiful. We also drove by the estate of Manuela and Iwan (the couple who own the Fife Arms) and saw stunning site-specific artworks along with a beautiful herd of local Highland cows called heilan coos — they are just about the cutest cow species I’ve ever seen.

3 p.m.: Order lunch back at the hotel

After the tour, we had a delicious pub lunch at the Flying Stag (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN) back at the hotel, where we ate huge plates of fish-and-chips with perfect mushy peas.

7 p.m.: Sample the local whiskey

That night, we had dinner at the fine-dining Clunie Dining Room (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN) and finished with a nightcap at the brilliantly designed Bertie’s Whisky Bar (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN), as you can’t leave the Highlands without experiencing the local craft: whiskey!

Day 3

11 a.m.: Linger in the hotel’s library

We started the day with another traditional breakfast at the hotel and then had a slow morning, reading and chilling out under our favorite Picasso in the hotel library; we spent a lot of time in the library, specifically on this sofa underneath Picasso’s Woman Seated in an Armchair (1953). We took the morning to walk around and tour the art at the Fife Arms, considering it’s owned by the owners of Hauser & Wirth. You can only imagine how wonderful the collection is.

1:30 p.m.: Tour Balmoral Castle

We headed out for our tour of Balmoral Castle (Balmoral Estate, Ballater AB35 5TB), which had just opened for the season (the castle is closed from August to April 1). It was a gray, cold, and slightly bone-chilling day, but wow, what a castle it is. We learned tons about the origin story of the castle; Queen Victoria, who had it built; and listened to many tales about Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with the property.

4 p.m.: Sip afternoon tea and load up on souvenirs 

We had tea in the library with clotted cream, scones, and Champagne beside a roaring fireplace in our favorite spot, under the Picasso, followed by some shopping at the perfectly curated hotel shop. We were obsessed with our suite’s handmade soaps and lotions that are made with local herbs, lavender, and other flowers, so we bought a few bottles of those to ship back along with the teas we loved and a bottle of whiskey for my husband.

6:30 p.m.: Order a pint with dinner

We had a predinner drink back at the Fife Arms at Elsa’s bar, inspired by designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and then dinner at the hotel pub: the Flying Stag (Mar Rd., Braemar, Ballater AB35 5YN). I enjoyed pints of the local brew and fish-and-chips while a lovely Scottish band played. One of the coziest pubs I’ve been in; it has lots of fireplaces and is clearly a favorite with locals and guests alike.

Day 4

Noon: Head back to Edinburgh

Time to leave the Fife Arms and head back to Edinburgh. Steve drove us straight into the city center, where we checked into the Balmoral hotel (1 Princes St., Edinburgh EH2 2EQ). Aside from the Fife Arms, I planned this whole European adventure under the advice of travel-and-lifestyle guru Yolanda Edwards. I subscribe to her newsletter, and this is the second multicity European jaunt I’ve planned by studying her city guides.

3 p.m.: Check into the hotel

We checked into the hotel, which is right in the middle of town, next to the bustling train station. And our suite does not disappoint. Major views from every window and lots of space.

5 p.m.: Have an early supper

We were famished and had heard so many good things about the Bon Vivant’s Sunday roast, which is served every Sunday from midday (55 Thistle St., Edinburgh EH2 1DY). It was a perfect meal and the coziest pub vibes after our long drive and our early morning ahead (University of St. Andrews, here we come!). We shared the rocket-and-heritage-tomato herb salad and the roast-beef topside with traditional trimmings; both were great. The restaurant was about a ten-minute walk from our hotel, and even though I wouldn’t compare Edinburgh to a London or NYC, we definitely felt like we were back in a big city after the Highlands escape.

Day 5

8 a.m.: Tour colleges

The concierge team at the Balmoral is the best and arranged a driver for our scheduled visit to the University of St. Andrews. After another gorgeous and picturesque drive (past Gleneagles and the St. Andrews course, where I had to take a photo for my golf-obsessed parents), we took a lovely tour of the college and sat with the admissions team for a Q&A. We then met a family friend, who is also a first-year student, at one of her favorite cafés, Northpoint Cafe (24 North St., St. Andrews KY16 9AQ). We loved visiting St. Andrews, and it was exciting to envision a possible future for Chiara there.

4:30 p.m.: Squeeze in some shopping before dinner

Back in Edinburgh, I stopped at Walker Slater (44-46 Victoria St., Edinburgh EH1 2JP), and it did not disappoint. They have a great selection of classic Scottish apparel, from tweeds to suiting to knitwear. The only sad thing is they were almost closing up, so I felt rushed and asked them to hold a few things with the hopes I could make it back tomorrow. We walked back to the hotel in the gorgeous setting sun.

7 p.m.: Order spiced lamb at one of the U.K.’s best Indian restaurants

We got a drink at the bar of the Balmoral and then left for dinner at Dishoom Edinburgh (3a St. Andrew Square, Edinburgh EH2 2BD). It’s one of my favorite Indian restaurants in the U.K., and I had only ever experienced the ones in London. It was walking distance from our hotel, and since we had worked up quite an appetite after the long day we had, it was a welcome treat and packed with people. We basically ordered everything on the menu, but the favorites were the Keema Pau (a classic dish of Irani cafés), which is a spiced minced lamb and peas, and Dishoom Chicken Tikka, which is the restaurant’s family recipe.

Day 6

12 p.m.: Sleep in, then head to lunch

On our last day in Edinburgh, we had lots to cover. We slept in quite late and went for an early lunch at the absolutely exquisite Noto (47a Thistle St., Edinburgh EH2 1DY). Wow, what a meal it was. The restaurant has quite a Scandi vibe but also with a Scottish flair. The food was clean, textured, and creative, and the décor was gorgeous — even down to the bathrooms! The standout was the North Sea Crab, bathed in warm butter and served in a hollow shell. We also loved the little local chocolates that came with the coffee.

2:30 p.m.: Hit the vintage stores

We decided to spend our remaining hours in Edinburgh shopping. Chiara wanted vintage, and I was dying to see Dick’s Edinburgh (3 N W Circus Pl., Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH3 6ST). So vintage first: W. Armstrong & Son Vintage Clothing Emporium (Craigs Close, 29 Cockburn St., Edinburgh EH1 1BN) — what a treasure trove! Definitely inspired by our marathon-watching of Daisy Jones and our Fleetwood Mac ’70s soundtrack. We found so many cool pieces! Such a cool mix of people shopping, too: students, adults, tourists, all digging through. Then we hotfooted it to Dick’s Edinburgh (shops close early in town at this time of year), and wow is all I can say! What an edit — I had a field day and found so many good pieces: local knits; the most amazing socks; very cool flat, U.K.-made heritage boots; and more. Sadly didn’t make it back to Walker Slater before closing, but next time.

8 p.m.: Have a low-key dinner at the hotel 

We were exhausted and decided to keep it easy with dinner at the hotel since we had an early flight the next day. Scotland was absolutely brilliant — gorgeous scenery, wonderfully warm people, delicious food, and so lovely and chill. I cannot wait to go back soon.

Ramya’s Scottish packing list:

This literally is my spring 2023 MVP star piece. It took me from Paris Fashion Week to hiking in the Highlands to shopping in Edinburgh. Obsessed.

In London, I wore these wool pants tucked into high boots. Then, when we got to Scotland and Edinburgh, I paired them with The Row booties, cashmere sweaters, and silk scarves. These pants are so comfy, chic, and sustainable.

The OG accessory and perfect for every step of the trip — knotted close to the neck in the Highlands, looser and lower in Edinburgh. I brought four of them and wore them almost every day.

The boots were perfect for every part of our trip. Truly one of the most comfy waterproof pairs of shoes I own. For hiking in the Highlands to running around Edinburgh and London — just perfect.

[Editor’s note: For a more affordable option, these Everlane boots have a somewhat similar feel.]

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A Mother-Daughter Ramble Through the Scottish Highlands