“What’s in Aberdeen?” That’s the first reaction I received on mentioning that I was heading up to this Scottish city for a weekend. Let’s face it, Aberdeen is not exactly the top of any tourist lists and, given the time of year that I was visiting, November, expectations were pretty low. The scene in my mind was all set for grey, dreary, cold and unforgiving – all in all, rather bleak. Even I had to wonder for a second if I was going there for some light-to-medium masochism.
But in fact, an overwhelming wealth visits Aberdeen every year. Known as the oil capital of Europe, it’s home to offshore rigs, three heliports and visiting oil magnates. Donald Trump’s jet is frequently spotted when the tycoon drops in to assess the progress of his luxury golf course. With low unemployment and high net worth, the recession, it seems, has scarcely touched this part of Scotland.
So the city’s booming for business, but how is it for pleasure?
By some surprising stroke of luck the sun shone as I arrived and Aberdeen appeared to be a state of perma-green. Rows of almost overwhelmingly grey granite buildings sparkled slightly as their mineral surfaces reflected the sun. The friendly taxi driver volunteered his best Aberdeen chatter en route to The Aberdeen Malmaison, my home for the night. Unprompted, he offered: “The wife and I save up to go there for our anniversary dinner every year.”
Not quite sure why, but that fact pleased me somewhat – clearly The Aberdeen Mal held esteem with the locals. And with an afternoon of whisky tasting at Glen Garioch and a massage before one very sumptuous steak dinner at the hotel waiting, the weekend was looking rosy.
A flute of champagne and a quick bite of dainty lemon sole goujons, accompanied by crispy chunky chips, served well to line my stomach for the whisky tasting that came next. Or at least that’s the story I’m sticking to.
Glen Garioch, pronounced Glen Geery, holds the title for the most easterly distillery in Scotland. Situated in Oldmeldrum and named after the Valley of the Garioch, which grows the finest barley in Scotland, the distillery produces a portfolio of whiskies with sharply contrasting profiles. The Founder’s Reserve was buttery vanilla while the vintages projected a spectrum of preserved fruits. As a child born in ’86, I, of course, have to say that it was a fine vintage. But its softly smoky and lightly peaty allure certainly offers something to savour.
A quick tour and tasting later, it was back to the hotel for a relaxing hot stone massage in Le Petit Spa. The masseuse here will knead the knots out of your shoulders leaving you both calm and energised. Perfect, in fact, before settling into a feast in the private dining room.
The Chef’s Table at Malmaison is for those who seriously indulge in food. A glass divider softly draped in sheer satin separated the room from the bustling main restaurant on one side and the intense heat of the kitchen on the other. A mellow blend of metallic pewter and rotating scenes from the kitchen, live-beamed to the viewing screen, gives every sense of the action without the pressure-cooker environment. Then there’s the window to the meat room which stores the Donald Russell prime cuts, Malmaison’s meat supplier of choice. The fore-ribs hang by the window, the steaks rest on the butcher’s block and a live butchery demonstration is available if desired. Provenance is clearly high on the agenda.
Indeed Malmaison aims to source all its ingredients from within 30 miles of the hotel. I suppose that means game from Royal shoots at the Balmoral Estate 48 miles away is out of the question. But that doesn’t mean my crispy frogs’ legs, Josper grilled rib-eye and theatrically flambéd Alaska were any less impressive. The frogs’ legs were moist and silken, the flavoursome Donald Russell steak was perfectly medium rare and the dessert as pleasing to the palate as to the eye. Such good fare in fact, despite the insurmountable challenge posed by the generous portions, it was impossible to say no. And all were washed down with a robustly fruity Italian red, expertly chosen by the enthusiastic sommelier.
A very slow waddle back to my suite to soak up the warmth of a roomy bath was about all I could manage after such a feed, before a restful night’s sleep.
Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon braced me for a mid-morning historical tour. Old Aberdeen, made entirely of sandstone, bore the marks of religious struggles and restorations through the ages. As I was led by the guide from artefact to artefact, a fine spray of misty rain descended. The sun, it seemed, has decided that a viewing of sandstone didn’t require its service. The silver lining was that the wintry introduction to the ancient city worked up quite an appetite in me.
Back on the cosy banquette of the Malmaison brasserie, an iced seafood platter followed by pan-fried trout was served up along with a much needed pot of Earl Grey. The long lunch allowed just enough time to relax with the Sunday papers and coffee before it was time to head back south, but not before a drive down Union Street to Aberdeen’s illusive seaside where, if the fog and darkness hadn’t set in, whales and dolphins can apparently be spotted.
After landing in London, barely a couple of hours later and in time for bed, I considered the weekend. Though only a short stop, it managed to be both relaxed and packed with activity – frankly I’m not sure where the weekend went. And Aberdeen, I guess, had a surprising amount to offer for the pleasure seeker.