At Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, Old Town Gets a New Twist
We visited on opening weekend and chatted with Sir Richard Branson about his latest property
If I’m honest, the visit to the Virgin Hotels Edinburgh starts long before you get there. If, like me, you’ve never been to the city, it begins when you’re Googling Edinburgh for the first time, discovering the gorgeous, centuries-old stone buildings that populate the city, excited for what you might see when you arrive. And then it’s the 30-minute drive into the city from the airport, past these buildings live and in person — the small hotels with lions at their frontispieces; the rows of townhomes on cobblestone streets under perfectly Scottish gray clouds; the University of Edinburgh buildings looming in all of their fairytale gothic-ness; and then, finally, the arrival at Virgin Hotels Edinburgh. Even with all this buildup, my first response was, “Wow.”
Perched at the top of Victoria Street in what’s known as Edinburgh’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the hotel is located in the India Buildings nestled in the city center. Constructed in the mid-1860s, the building’s exterior of beautiful, aged and intricate stonework was left in place as the hotel emerged inside of it, designated on the outside mostly by a door painted that signature Virgin red.
Virgin Hotels Edinburgh is the first Virgin Hotels venture in the UK. Despite the company’s home base in London, all of the hotels until now have been in the United States (though a Glasgow location will open in the coming months). Legendary businessman and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, on site for the hotel’s March 24th grand opening weekend, remembers some of his early Virgin record stores in town several decades ago. “I think our first store was in Princes Street, which was at the wrong end of Princes Street,” he laughs. “And if you go back 50 years, Scotland felt lively, but uninvested in. And the transformation has been dramatic. I mean, Edinburgh has gone from being an arguably slightly drab city to maybe the number one city in the world in a lot of people’s minds. That’s real transformation.”
The Virgin Hotels Edinburgh project began about six years ago to some public controversy, but was allowed to proceed as long as the building’s original structures were kept intact. The India Buildings were originally home to company offices — a sign for “The Ideal Trading Company” still resides on its exterior — and then it became the office of the registrar; indeed, many people got married inside its walls. Building was even halted for a time, as construction revealed ancient artifacts that were buried underground for about 1,000 years, possibly longer. The archaeological dig resulted in the discovery of “a human skull, a drinking vessel, shoes, jewelry, tools and knives, along with a ball used in a giant catapult and an early cannonball,” according to the Edinburgh Evening News. David Moth, vice president of operations for Virgin Hotels, tells me that though the items currently belong to the city, there’s hope of showing them at a hotel exhibition in the future.
Inside, the hotel has maintained the conversation between the building’s original interior and its forward-thinking attitudes about hospitality. Up the stairs at the entrance, for example, is The Oculus, a skylight dome restored by master plasterers atop a set of rooms in a circular, curving tower. On an uncharacteristically sunny Edinburgh day, the sun beamed through the dome, and every inch of 19th century originality was visible. More rooms are attached to the new construction, and there are 222 in total. The bell staff, in a modern twist, wears tartan plaid trousers instead of kilts. The Commons Club bar features original, beautifully preserved walls of honey-colored wood topped with a gallery wall of contemporary art. The elevator is adorned with red upholstery. The downstairs restaurant Eve, named after Branson’s mother, features street-art inspired murals.
And then there’s the service itself. Nobody is uptight — the environment is more casual, and by design. Branson refers to “just letting people be themselves.” Recalling the way Virgin Atlantic originally hired crews, he mentioned “they weren’t a Stepford Wives-type of cabin crew, they would joke and they would interact with our passengers. They didn’t feel they just had to stand there rigidly. I think that natural approach has worked throughout Virgin and particularly well with Virgin Hotels.”
It’s also difficult to have a bad meal at the property. Chef’s Table serves a five-course tasting menu prepared by chef du cuisine Emma Hanley, and the affable host Pedro chit-chats throughout the meal in the brightly-lit space. We were later invited up to the open kitchen with Hanley herself to garnish our venison course with edible flowers. Similarly, upon recommendation at the Commons Club restaurant, I indulged in perhaps one of the most luxurious dishes of my life — pieces of gently fried chicken topped with kimchi mayonnaise and black caviar. As a visitor, the warmth inside felt like a beacon of what was to come outside, making me feel comfortable as I explored this new city on my own.
The details that dictate a stay in the hotel are those Branson himself sought in the past. He knew exactly what he did and didn’t want. “I’m gonna just give you one example,” Branson says. “If you stumble back to the hotel slightly drunk in the evening and you want to turn that horrible Muzak off that they somehow left in your room and it takes you half an hour to find the switch — all those sorts of frustrations that we’ve all had in our lives —I think Virgin Hotels has gotten rid of and just makes sure you have the best team, the best staff and the best experience when you come to the hotel.”
The Virgin Hotels signature chamber designs are fully available here, cozy and capsule-like, with buttons that easily control both lights and the do not disturb signs. I was especially enamored with the light-up vanity table that made me feel like a movie star. Plus, you can use the hotel’s Lucy app to order room service anywhere on the property, like the roof deck that overlooks more gothic Scottish architecture, the hotel’s Funny Library and, of course. your own room.
Still, the hotel is new. There are some details that are currently being worked out, like when housekeeping should come, how waitstaff communicate with each other and getting the restaurant lighting right, for example. But this is all part of putting a hotel together. I’m sure everything will be fried chicken and caviar quite soon.
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