My husband is staring at me across an Edinburgh hotel room with a look that means “even after 30 years together, you still have the ability to astonish me.” But not in a good way.
“What do you mean you can’t go out because you’ve got no shoes?” he demands. “You packed four pairs.”
“Yes, but these aren’t for walking,” I reply, holding my vertiginous animal-print heels aloft. “We are staying at The George. Why do we need to go outside? What if we bump into someone we know?”
To explain; I lived in Edinburgh for many years, studied at the university, performed comedy on the Festival Fringe and began my career in journalism there.
It is also the city where I met my Edinburgh-born husband, so the place is bristling with in-laws, former colleagues and dear friends – none of whom know we are back in town for a back-to-the-future stolen weekend.
When we got together in 1989, the Athens of the North was as stubbornly genteel as Miss Jean Brodie, founded on the conservative triumvirate of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Jenners department store for fur coats (nae knickers optional) and the hushed formality of The George Hotel.
The five townhouses on George Street that make up the hotel’s historic core were constructed as part of Edinburgh’s 18th-century New Town. Today they are a category A-listed building.
As a student, I knew The George as the sort of quintessentially Scottish, tartan-trewed institution where grand English parents stayed for graduation. It was traditional and fusty, welcoming but in a formal, purse-lipped sort of way.
Fast-forward three decades and now my husband and I are parents – although not nearly so grand – so where else would we stay without the children, but The George? It is the embodiment of Edinburgh.
That’s why in its glory days the hotel was a magnet for gold-plated Hollywood A-listers like Elizabeth Taylor and Omar Sharif. One anecdote has it that Marlene Dietrich once rang down to complain about noisy builders on George Street interrupting her lie-in. The manager duly bustled across the road to explain they were disrupting Miss Dietrich’s beauty sleep. And they immediately downed tools. These days, I’m not sure even a Kardashian could command that sort of deference.
Unfortunately, The George has gone through quite a few iterations in the intervening years. It changed hands several times, losing both its allure and, most shocking of all, its name.
A takeover most recently by a large global hotel chain has led to a radical makeover, albeit with a clunky rebranding as The InterContinental Edinburgh The George.
No matter. Airport taxi drivers quite rightly persist in calling it The George, as do locals; it’s their hotel, whatever those InterContinental folks might claim.
So what was the verdict? My first impression, once I’d recovered from the juvenile thrill of stepping over the threshold, was astonishment.
The place was so light, airy and modern, while highlighting the stunning Corinthian columns, marble and venerable original features. Gone was the dark furniture and even darker carpets. Why, there wasn’t so much as a swatch of Black Watch to be seen. On one wall were huge, gloriously moody photographs taken in the gloaming.
The smart doormen and kilted staff were friendly, informal and beyond-the-call helpful. When my spouse discovered in the evening that he had left his traditional kilt hose (knee socks to you and me) in London, I rang reception more in hope than expectation of assistance with his sartorial disaster. Within moments, a pair of brand new dark grey hose were brought to our door, with the hearty exhortation to keep them. Only at The George.
Any hotel – frankly any enterprise – is only as good as the people who work there. Here, they were exceptional. From the charming waiters at breakfast, which was served in the richly characterful Printing Press restaurant (couldn’t recommend the spicy haggis enough), to the can-do concierges, nothing was too much trouble.
My husband did, eventually, chivvy me out of the building (in grey suede slingbacks) for a teetering stroll up the Mound and across to what was once the old regional council offices and is now a sleek block featuring the superlative seafood restaurant Ondine. The family at the next table were Spanish. The couple opposite Italian tourists. This is very much the new Edinburgh; in the 30 years since I lived there, the city has been transformed into a cosmopolitan all-year destination.
Where once everything shut early, and visitors were notoriously welcomed with the less than hospitable assertion “you’ll have had your tea”, here in the 21st century, Auld Reekie is open all hours. Now there are busy cafés, lively pubs and an unmistakable late-night buzz. Including on George Street, where some of the most impressive Victorian banks and insurance headquarters have been repurposed as bars and restaurants.
Fabulous for the city. Great for visitors. Not so good for hotel guests. Hand on heart, I have to say I never heard a thing. But my husband, a lighter sleeper, found it difficult to drop off on a Saturday night. I doubt even Marlene herself could have called time on the good-natured revelry, but it was nothing that improved glazing could not rectify.
The room itself was darkly glamorous and the bed enormous; but truthfully, we could have been anywhere; those pops of Black Watch, Harris Tweed, Borders cashmere were urgently needed as a wee reminder.
In the en suite bathroom moreover, the toiletries were (gasp!) generic, which gave us both a bit of a turn because if ever a sink called out for posh Arran Aromatics miniatures, it was this one. This inattention to detail, or perhaps deliberate corporate restraint, was slightly baffling given the hotel has two bespoke gins and is a proud inheritor of so much tradition.
But it’s still early days, so I hope these lapses will be remedied by management laying more emphasis on the hotel’s heritage. The George was named Luxury Brand of the Year in the 2019 Scottish Hotel Awards; it may be part of a chain, but it is also a gem that should be allowed to dazzle in its own distinctive right.
In an establishment where kilt socks can be rustled up faster than it takes to whip out a sgian-dubh, I’m confident that a Jenners’ job lot of plumply tasteful tartan cushions could effortlessly be arranged. Frankly, we elegant denizens of The George (see what I did there?) expect nothing less.
Standard rooms from £229 B&B per night. 19-21 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PB. (0131 225 1251; edinburgh.intercontinental.com)