Blazing log fires, wood panels, Highland landscapes, vast sofas, antique furniture and everywhere those amazing views. Visitors to the Atholl Palace in Pitlochry, on the Scottish highlands all agree that it looks like a palace fit for a king. Strangely enough, it never was a royal palace, but a Victorian era spa, even though the late Queen mother Elizabeth was a visitor at one point.

The Atholl Hotel features on all kinds of lists, varying from “Unique hotels to stay at before you die" to “One of the most jaw-dropping places in the world to stay.” Based only 60 minutes from Edinburgh and 90 minutes from Glasgow, the Atholl Palace Hotel offers a stay in a different world.

Another thing visitors agree on: There are many things to do in the area around the hotel, but once you have checked in, you really don’t feel like leaving the beautiful palace grounds.

The hotel is proud of its history Pict: Atholl Hotel

Colorful Entrepreneurs and Torturous Treatments

All this is amazing, considering that the Atholl endured a shaky start as a hydro spa in 1878, and had to overcome various financial problems before it became the top hotel it is today. The hotel is proud of its history, and thus opened a museum about itself in the building. Comparisons with Downton Abbey abound, especially since there is also a servant’s room, laundry room, diary and store from 1878 on display. There are tales of bankruptcy, colorful entrepreneurs, and unusual and torturous spa treatments.

In the museum you learn how a talented architect named Andrew Heiton Junior was commissioned in 1874 to design a spectacular Scotch Baronial Hydropathic establishment complete with luxurious accommodation, Turkish baths and treatment rooms for Victorian patients, their companions and relatives. Work began in August of that year, and the place took 150 men and four years to build.

Opening its doors in 1878, the Athole Hydropathic, as it was then known, offered the ‘water cure’. In the eighteenth century, ‘taking the waters’ had become a fashionable pastime for the wealthy who travelled to resorts around Britain and Europe to cure their ills. The baths, douches, packings and poultices were a small part of a larger package selling rest, recuperation, sociability and, in the case of the Athole, the romantic allure of the Scottish landscape.

Less Water, More Fun

Over the years, it became less about water and more about having fun. In 1886, the building and the lands were sold to Perth entrepreneur William MacDonald, who promoted the business as a ‘fashionable resort’. Spa treatments were still available but so too were motor rallies, fancy dress balls and tennis.

During the two world wars, the establishment was used for quite a different purpose: it became a school both times. In between, there was the roaring twenties, with well-dressed guests from all over England flocking in with chauffeur-driven limousines.

The rooms are as individual as the guests

Homegrown Lavender

By 2001, the hotel badly needed repairs and the new owner, the Castle Collection started extensive refurbishment. Over the course of a decade, locked away rooms and buildings were uncovered and restored. New and old gardens were carefully cultivated. The historic Victorian spa and Turkish baths in the lower ground floor were restored, and now live on as the Lavender Spa, which uses homegrown lavender and spring water which flows from the Ben- y -Vrackie mountain.

All 106 en-suite guest rooms at the Atholl Palace are accommodated within the original building and have a majestic sense of history about them. Most are spread over the upper three floors of the hotel and no two are exactly alike. The result is that the rooms are as individual as the guests, and many regular visitors have their own favorites.

There's no doubt the hotel benefits from its location. It's conveniently placed on the edge of the stunning Cairngorm mountain range, close to the historic Blair Atholl Castle and estate and in the middle of a pretty Victorian town complete with its own Whisky distillery and salmon fish ladder.

Prepare to be amazed.