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Travel: Luxury, pandas and a cannibal or two, as Edinburgh is crowned best city in the world to visit

© Shutterstock / StevanZZRoss Fountain below Edinburgh Castle
Ross Fountain below Edinburgh Castle

We’re sipping cocktails on board the world’s most famous yacht that, at its zenith, hosted Hollywood stars and world leaders.

The sun bounces off the sea and we lower our shades to better take-in the vista. The islands of Bermuda or Barbados? Or perhaps the Cote D’Azur?

No, sir! We’re in Leith, on board the floating palace that is the Royal Yacht Britannia and enjoying a Yotties Cuba Libre on its Royal Deck where once the Queen entertained the likes of Frank Sinatra and President Mandela.

Our drinks follow an impressive lunch of smoked salmon Caesar salad and crisp white wine served by sharply-dressed and impeccably-mannered waiting staff in the now glass-fronted deck that was previously the setting for cocktail parties and games.

Royal Yacht Britannia

Described as two ships in one, we had already “ooh” and “ahhed” our way through the Royal Yacht’s elegant State Apartments and the Admiral’s Cabin that we’d only ever seen in the Netflix series The Crown and marvelled at the functionality of crew quarters, where photographs hang of laid-back Royals socialising with off-duty officers and seamen.

This was, by all accounts, a happy ship. Little wonder then that the Queen – now in her Platinum Jubilee Year – openly cried when the vessel she described as “the one place where I can truly relax” was decommissioned in 1997 after 40 years’ service.

The highlight of our weekend in Edinburgh, this visitor experience – voted by Which? in 2020 as the UK’s best attraction – gives access to five decks including the Sun Lounge (the Queen’s favourite place to hang out, we’re told), the State Dining Room and The Queen’s Bedroom, right down to the laundry and engine room that gleamed as much in its working life as it does now.

Fully wheelchair accessible and with an audio guide in 30 languages, just about anyone can enjoy this tour. We’d recommend stopping in at the on board Naafi for some fudge!

Getting here was sweet, too. With access via the Ocean Terminal shopping centre in Leith, it took only about 30 minutes to reach the ship from our base at the newly revamped Holiday Inn in Corstorphine Road, smack bang next to Edinburgh Zoo, and a short hop from Murrayfield Stadium and the city centre.

Holiday Inn, Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh

The £1million refurbishment transforms its public spaces into an “Open Lobby” concept merging the previously separate reception, lobby, bar, lounge, restaurant and business centre into cohesive multi-functioning zones where guests can mix work and leisure.

We watched excited wee-ones returning from the zoo, chattering endlessly about penguins and pandas, while business types emerged from the fifth floor conference spaces to work out in the gym or take a dip in the pool. We liked that idea and followed suit – our first swim in two years thanks to the pandemic.

Dining here is also stress-free with a good all-day menu. We enjoyed calamari and pan fried king prawns followed by slow cooked lamb shank and a summer vegetable risotto.

Resuming our sightseeing we venture deep below the Royal Mile to wander The Real Mary King’s Close and walk in the footsteps of a plague doctor. We can almost feel the ghostly presence of those who went before us 400 years ago, like little abandoned Annie, the child left behind by parents fleeing infection.

Edinburgh Dungeon (Pic: Nick Mailer)

At the Edinburgh Dungeon, we face the laugh-out-loud judgement of Judge Mental before meeting our fate alongside witch Agnes Finnie in a room-spinning experience and are genuinely terrified at being invited to dinner in cannibal Sawney Bean’s cave, discovering we are on the menu.

After being “tortured”, we come too close for comfort with Greyfriar’s Kirkyard body snatchers Burke and Hare and almost loose our guts to Dr Knox’s dissections in the Anatomy Theatre. The Dungeon’s actors perform a heady mix of horror and humour and in their mock-up of bygone Edinburgh, we’re singled out as plague carriers and left for the bird-masked doctor of King’s Close to deal with.

It only leaves us to be dropped from the Grassmarket gallows (a great ride), and to be “lost” in the maze of “vaults” before being spat back into 21st Century Edinburgh.

What a capital experience!


P.S.

Britannia’s Royal Deck Tearoom’s Yottie cocktail is legendary. Featuring Pusser’s Rum, which was served to the Royal Navy in their daily “tot”, the Cuba Libre is mixed with Coke and bitters with a splash of lime.

Factfile: 

Prices at the four-star Holiday Inn on Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, start from £154.23. Visit ihg.com