Families know the value of the National Trust for Scotland: days out; good playgrounds; events; history; and quaint tearooms. I was far less aware of their extensive portfolio of unique accommodation, much of it self-catering. Well set up for groups and families they also offer inimitable locations. You can opt to stay in a castle, wake up in a traditional hunting lodge, or start the day in a wee cottage located in the heart of a nationally renowned garden - and that’s just in Aberdeenshire.
We were on a mission to walk in Queen Victoria’s footsteps (as you do) in Royal Deeside. We desired a quirky, family-friendly place to stay and discovered that it’s quite possible, straightforward even, to book a two bedroom apartment at Mar Lodge in Braemar. Not only is it close to Balmoral (the Royal summer residence), Crathie Kirk (where John Brown is buried and where the Royals attend the annual Christmas service), and Royal Lochnagar Distillery (that obtained a Royal Warrant after a regal visit in the nineteenth century), but Mar Lodge itself had its foundation stone laid by Queen Victoria as it was to be the future home of her grand-daughter, Princess Louise. But how was this grand hunting lodge going to work as family accommodation?
CHECK IN – We swept up the impressive driveway and I felt like a Victorian heroine, although my children were both seen as well as heard. On arrival we had to radio for assistance from the reception hall, so it was quite a novel start. The reception was slightly tricky to find, located at a back courtyard at the rear of the building. A friendly, live-in member of staff led us to the first floor Macdui suite. We were blown away by what we saw.
THE APARTMENT – I have never seen an apartment this big in all my days, it was vast, running the entire first floor of the west wing of the building. The corridor was about 30-40 feet long. Each high-ceilinged room was traditional, comfortable and spacious. At our disposal we had a large furnished dining kitchen, a family living room offering another large dining table, a master bedroom, a large twin bedroom for the boys, and a bathroom featuring an appealing roll-top bath. To the manor born. The tots ran the length of the corridor, for no apparent reason, like a blur through the doorway, about fifty times. We then borrowed a DVD, from the lodge’s reasonably large and varied collection, for the kids to watch as we prepped dinner in the kitchen. The greatest compliment we can give Mar Lodge is that it felt like home, although our home doesn’t have a balcony or vistas of the Grampian mountains.
FOOD – As Mar Lodge is entirely self-catering we ate healthily and cheaply, dining in both evenings. We grabbed a cafe lunch en route to Mar Lodge at Aboyne’s colourful Spider on a Bicycle cafe, which caters for vegans as well as meat eaters. And we had lunch in Braemar’s chilled Bothy, both easy options for family meals.
Whilst you can head out on walks on Mar Lodge estate, to reach the major attractions a car is pretty essential. Or book a cab to a restaurant if you fancy a drink over dinner. We just bought prosecco and beer for the apartment, as parents often do, and watched a film once the kids were asleep.
THE STAG BALLROOM – The following morning we asked to visit the unbelievable ballroom onsite that’s hosted many a local wedding and regal knees up alike. Queen Victoria is said to have been piped into balls at the hall by the Duke of Fife’s men. The room is festooned with some 2500 stag antlers -this is a former hunting lodge after all. The tots’ eyes were on stalks, and we did face the tricky moment, visiting shortly after Christmas, when Mr Child asked if Rudolph was on the wall.
LOCATION – As well as a grand location for exploring historical Royal Deeside, we also could get active. A walk at Linn of Dee was a fresh start to the day. The gorge here is dramatic and dangerous so, I’ll state the obiovus, and advise caution when visiting with young tots. We were also based a short drive from the slopes of Glenshee, so we got both boys skiing, albeit briefly for two year old Junior. Mr Child would have stayed all day.
When we checked out and drove away from Mar Lodge I felt privileged to now be a part of the building’s history (admittedly a hugely insignificant one). Guests also support the NTS as proceeds go back into its programme of preservation. And, for a couple of night, I quite enjoyed the ‘Who’s Queen?’ vibe.
OUR STORY – We drove direct from our base in Aberdeen to Braemar, stopping en route at multiple attractions that make Royal Deeside such a globally renowned mini road trip. We received a two night complimentary stay for review purposes. P.S. We didn’t see Meghan, but maybe next time?
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