Virgin Hotels opens in Edinburgh's Old Town on June 1 - we take a tour
It occupies India Buildings and other listed properties
The plastic wrap is still on the red carpet that stretches up the staircase of India Buildings on Victoria Street, and there’s a smell of new wood in the foyer.
I’m visiting the new branch of Virgin Hotels - the first from this brand in Europe - while they’re still completing the finishing touches of the multi million pound development.
There are ladders everywhere, and the sound of hammering echoes around the 19th-century part of the building.
On June 1, they’re due to open the first phase, which incorporates 54 bedrooms, the restaurant, bar and library, with the remainder opening in autumn 2022.
Although Richard Branson himself won’t be showing me round, since he’s probably sunbathing on Necker Island, there is a very enthusiastic appearance from Karen Maxwell from Edinburgh company Four-by-Two design, Virgin Hotels CEO, James Bermingham, and hotel manager Scott McArdle.
They’re keen to demonstrate the brand’s “surprise and delight moments”, says McArdle.
I didn’t realise the scale of this 222 bedroom and ten storey project, which is somehow slotted into the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It incorporates three listed buildings, and a gap site. It‘s a metropolis. In comparison, The Balmoral has 58 bedrooms.
In their new Commons Club Bar, on Victoria Street, they’ve restored the honey-coloured wood panelling, and there are irreverent artworks. These include a fire hydrant that’s actually a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. (Don’t worry, there are proper safety measures, so this place isn’t going to go the way of The Elephant House or La Belle Angele).
McArdle says there will be Scottish-themed cocktails, with one called Hadrian’s Wall, and they’ve bagged themselves a top mixologist.
They also show me around the Funny Library. They have these in every Virgin Hotel, and it’s a place for people to meet or do some work, or not. In this room, you can access the Link Bridge that connects the old part of the building to the new, and there are boxes of ‘funny’ books, still waiting to be unpacked. I see a paperback of Like a Virgin by Richard Branson on the top of the stack.
There’s graphic stag print wallpaper in this room, but the decor is not Brigadoon-by-numbers.
“At the start of the project, I said absolutely no tartan,” says Maxwell. That’s because they want to attract the community, as much as tourists, so they dodged a couthy tea room look.
“Virgin is a super global brand but as Virgin Hotels we want to be very local,“ says Bermingham. “So we bring in the local designers or talent from a hospitality standpoint, and give it that sense and spirit, as the accent and culture of place is super important. We want to win the hearts and the minds of everyevery community”.
Next door to this space is their mirrored private dining area, the Scarlet Room.
“It’s almost like a little train carriage to transport you into another world,” Maxwell says of her design, which features a red velvet banquette with various levels to sit on, and lights that resemble a shoal of metal jelly-fish.
When Maxwell started work on this small room, it was “a mess”, and still set up for when it was used for a scene from The Avengers, which was shot in the capital back in 2018.
Many other spaces were in a similar state of disrepair, and there was a nervous time when they had to check that protected bats weren’t nesting in older parts of the building.
Among other treasures, as part of the renovations, they discovered some ancient weapons, and a section of wall that predates the original city.
Also opening on June 1, will be Commons Club Restaurant, which is looked after by head chef, Steven Wilson, who has experience at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester, among other international venues.
He’s planning on serving Gigha Halibut, Shetland mussels and Caesar salad made with langoustines and crispy chicken skin. You access his restaurant down a staircase that’s flanked by portraits of Scottish women, like JK Rowling, Isobel Wylie Hutchison, Annie Lennox and a few others that I feel guilty about not recognising.
The dining rooms incorporate two spaces. Commons Kitchen is light and bright, with an open kitchen, and the restaurant is cosy, with a wine cellar, salmon-colored walls, green velvet seating, and curved arched ceilings.
The bedrooms are different in style from these spaces. They’re light and bright, calm and practical, with lots of smart details, like dressing tables and Smeg fridges. On the tea trays, there’s Santu coffee, brewed along the road on the Canongate, the obligatory Tunnock’s, but also Leith’s Lind & Lime Gin and Rapscallion Soda.
Once the first phase launches, we’ll have a few months until the next is accessible.
In my steel-toed boots and hard hat, I’m also taken around phase two, while it’s still a construction site.
My brain is boggled by how much is still to come. There’s the beautiful space that is the Oculus - a reading area and honesty bar, which will be for residents - as well as a rooftop terrace and a gym. In part of the 19th-century Greyfriars Hall, there will be massive luxury suites that are named after the Branson family, as well as an atmospheric events space.
The area that will probably be most used by non-residents will be the all day Eve Restaurant and Courtyard on the Cowgate. It features surreal three-dimensional murals of a sexy take on Mary Queen of Scots and a capercaillie wearing a Balmoral cap. There will be brunch, live music, and, as the final piece in this massive construction, it will even have an in-house florist.