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Luxury accommodation giving B&Bs a makeover

Ross, Kathleen and baby Ethan. Picture:  Neil Hanna

Ross, Kathleen and baby Ethan. Picture: Neil Hanna

LUXURIOUS garden hot tubs, Michelin style breakfast, four-poster beds and secluded grounds teaming with wildlife.

How about relaxing in a stunning roll-top bath overlooking acres of private space, falling asleep under designer bedding in a centuries-old home oozing character, with open fires and stunning furnishings?

Sounds like the very best upmarket hotel, a five-star place to stay with a five-star price tag, doesn’t it?

In fact, it’s the latest trend to hit what used to be the humble bed and breakfast industry – raising it from cheap and cheerful to highly stylish but without the eye-watering bill.

The result is a unique niche in the tourism market – stunning accommodation which could be mistaken for high-end hotel bedrooms, except it’s in private homes and available to stay in for just a fraction of the cost.

According to one B&B organisation which specialises in the luxury end of the market, there is an increasing trend among homeowners with large properties and extra rooms to spare to dive into the tourism business, often to help draw in extra income to help pay the soaring costs of just keeping a large property.

But others simply love the idea of opening their amazing properties for other people to enjoy – with the added benefit of being paid to do it.

Owners pull out all the stops to ensure their guests are treated to the kind of credit-card busting luxury and service they might typically ­expect in a top hotel – from expensive toiletries in the en-suite bathrooms to little extras such as juice bars in the lounge, iPod docking stations and ­antique furniture.

And when it comes to breakfast, the greasy fry-up of old has been well and truly ditched.

So who are these new super-B&B owners? And can they convince the rest of us to throw open our homes – and our lives – and let a stranger come to stay?

LETHAM HOUSE, HADDINGTON

Run by Chris and Barbara Sharman

The impressive drive leading to the whitewashed walls of 17th century mansion Letham House is lined with colourful rhododendron bushes – and already it couldn’t look any less like a traditional B&B.

Inside, the floor to ceiling windows are swathed in luxurious fabric, there are roll- top baths positioned to overlook the massive gardens with open fireplaces and stylish marble tiles, massive beds covered in designer covers and tasteful décor that would not look out of place in a glossy ideal homes magazine.

Owner Chris agrees it’s far from a typical spare room-type B&B: “I suppose it’s more like a private country house run in a family fashion like a kind of boutique guesthouse,” he laughs, struggling himself to decide precisely how to describe it. “It’s quite hard to pin it down to one thing.”

Chris, who worked making bespoke leather goods, and wife Barbara, who specialised in interior design and relocation services, bought the house with the aim of embarking on a major renovation project only to realise its potential as a business.

“We wanted to do the house up and get it back looking as it should, but of course we knew to keep a big house running, the costs would be high,” he adds.

“Luckily we enjoy entertaining, all our guests have been fabulous – from young romantic couples up to elderly couples.”

The lavish rooms – which cost from £130 per couple per night – have played host to visitors from as nearby as Edinburgh, to guests from Tokyo, China, South America and Australia.

And the quality is so high, the accommodation has a five-star gold award from the Scottish Tourist Board.

According to Chris, people are attracted by the idea of enjoying a traditional Scottish homely welcome rather than spend money on hotel rooms that look identical and often aren’t staffed by locals.

“If someone wants to stay somewhere with lots of rooms and a swimming pool, we suggest they might want to go to a large hotel,” he explains. “What we have are five-star rooms but without the five-star prices.”

Breakfast is cooked by Barbara – anything guests like from poached eggs to haddock to omelette. And, unlike many B&Bs, the couple also provide an evening meal if guests want to dine in, sitting together at a giant dining table where everyone can share the highlights of their day over East Lothian-sourced produce cooked to impressive restaurant-style standards.

Guests, says Chris, often return year on year – but trying to book up next month might be tricky, as Letham House has been booked a year in advance for visitors to The Open.

“It can be hard work – you’re on the go all day,” agrees Chris, who says he is in his “mid-50s”, “but it’s fascinating too. We really enjoy it.”

23 MAYFIELD

Run by Ross and Kathleen Birnie

Think of a traditional, old fashioned B&B breakfast and it’ll probably consist of cereal, fry-up, a bit of toast and a glass of juice.

Nothing wrong with that, but nothing to write home about either.

Which is why Ross Birnie’s B&B breakfasts are the kind of morning extravaganza that have landed them a mention in the Michelin accommodation guide.

Indeed, his pigs’ head breakfast was inspired by an Edinburgh Michelin star restaurant’s menu – a whole pig’s head slowly cooked for eight hours, the succulent meat carefully removed and then grilled, served with mushroom and soft poached egg.

Or if that’s not to guests’ taste, there are Loch Fyne kippers and Scottish smoked salmon served on brioche, creamy porridge that’s been carefully simmered for two hours and topped with flambéd fruit, peat smoked haddock, and more choices than you can wave a sad plastic container of supermarket cornflakes at.

Even the grilled tomatoes are given special treatment, marinated and seasoned overnight with Cornish sea salt, cracked pepper, fresh thyme and olive oil.

It’s an exhaustive breakfast menu but one which Ross, who once worked in catering on the QE2 and at the Balmoral’s former Grill, believes is vital to compete at the highest level. And the Scottish Tourist Board and the AA agree – both have awarded 23 Mayfield, five stars.

“The B&B game has changed a lot recently,” explains Ross, 41, who runs the business with his wife, Kathleen. “Cheap hotels have forced bed and breakfast businesses to come up with something unique to compete.

“Customers want something that’s more memorable than a bland room in a budget hotel. They want to stay somewhere that’s got a bit of luxury but doesn’t cost them too much, so they like old houses that have modern touches.”

He and Kathleen, 37, a scientist, have two young sons, Alfie, 18 months and newborn Ethan, who all live in their own private quarters at the property.

They moved in more than ten years ago and immediately began transforming the rooms into a mixture of traditional style with modern twists.

Each room now has its own unique character, complemented with little touches such as telescopes so guests can view the night sky, homemade tablet and Nintendo equipment for young guests who need their game fix.

Guests arrive from across the globe to snap up one of the eight double or twin rooms, and the two family rooms, from £40 per person per night – in particular from China where a travel blog’s rave review has seen an influx of guests.

According to Ross, visitors appear undeterred by tough financial times – indeed, he believes the financial crunch may be helping businesses such as his.

“People are looking at five-star hotel prices and there’s no chance in hell they want to pay out as much. Here they get the luxury, plus a hot tub in the garden and Arthur’s Seat just a walk away.”

But, he admits, it is hard work.

“When you run a business like this, you put your heart and soul into it. But you meet so many fabulous people, it’s the best job.”

WINDMILL HOUSE

Coltbridge Gardens, run by Michael and Vivien Scott

Michael and Vivien Scott raised their family in their sprawling home, but as the children moved out, they were left with a house that was largely unused.

Now, however, they have breathed new life into their much-loved abode – opening it up to visitors from all over the world.

It’s created an unexpected twist in their lives – now a 71-year-old grandmother-of-eight, Vivien could hardly have predicted that she’d be running a business and welcoming strangers into her home in her eighth decade.

“The house is really quite large,” explains Vivien. “It’s been our family home for 24 years, but we were rattling around in it when the family started to leave. There were rooms that we hardly ever went into.

“I have a friend who runs a bed and breakfast, and she suggested trying this. I loved it from day one.”

The house’s huge rooms lend themselves perfectly to being used for guests and the two-acre garden with its own stone windmill and regular visitors like swans, ducks and badgers gives guests even more space to relax in.

She too pushes the boat out when it comes to making sure her guests have five-star luxury – from deep, soft fluffy bathroom towels, extravagant fragranced bath oils and soaps, an elegant drawing room to relax in and ‘made to order’ breakfast, all from just £55 a night.

Since starting the business five years ago the couple have made lasting friendships with some of their guests – even travelling abroad to spend time with some with whom they forged a special connection.

“I think most people who come to stay could easily afford to stay in a five-star hotel, but don’t like hotels, they find they are like bland boxes. They prefer something like this.

“I’ve never regretted doing this . . . I want to do it forever!”

• The Edinburgh luxury Bed and Breakfasts and others around the country are part of the Wolsey Lodges network. For more details go to www.wolseylodges.com

 

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