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30 September 2016

All Aboard!

It’s a touching reflection that Her Majesty, the Queen once said that the place in which she could truly relax was aboard her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia. Given the palaces, castles and regal abodes at her disposal, such loyal affection says much about its seafaring charm, and its success today, as one of the UK’s best attractions.

Now docked just a 2 mile drive from Edinburgh’s city centre, Britannia took the Royal family over one million miles around the globe. Today, the world’s most famous ship continues to impress from its permanent home, in the capital’s hip Leith district.

Anna Millar is a freelance writer, based in Edinburgh. She has written for numerous titles, including the Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday, Scotsman, Time Out and The List. 

Banner Image Credit: iStock.com/BrettCharlton

Commissioned by the Queen’s father, King George VI, Britannia was built in a Glasgow shipyard in the 1950s. When the King died before building began, it fell to the Queen to oversee the project, and help bring the vision of Britannia to life. From its iconic blue paint and signature 1950s design, to its historic adventures and personal anecdotes, it has stories to tell, and tell them it does. As a floating residence, it not only hosted the most high-ranking Royals during its 40 plus years at sea, but welcomed the likes of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Winston Churchill on board, to name but a few.

Royal yacht Britannia Edinburgh

Image Credit: Marc Millar

Set over a sizeable five floors, Britannia feels far removed from the Queen’s more lavish homes. Simple and sophisticated without being showy, it’s a reflection of its design in post-war Britain. The fact that is has been barely modernised during its 44 years of service remains a fitting testament to its timeless appeal.

Her Majesty's yacht Britannia

Image Credit: Marc Millar

Moored behind Ocean Terminal shopping centre the attraction, to its credit, manages to strip back the pomp, while losing none of its regal allure. Charming old photographs of the Royals on board line the walls, as you step out of the visitor centre. Open to the public since 1998, millions have stepped on board, and it’s been well designed to appeal to all ages. The audio guide is available in 27 languages, and they recently introduced a British Sign Language hand-held tablet for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing. A home to the Royal Family for over four decades, the hand held, self-led guide offers a unique, and at times surprisingly personal snapshot of what life was like here. The only royal residence in which you can see the bedroom of a living British monarch, the Queen’s Bedroom is on show here.

Engine Room of Britannia Edinburgh Yatch

Image Credit: Marc Millar

Beyond the personal spaces, the logistics of how the ship ran, from the Engine Room and Laundry to Sun Lounge and State Dining Room are just as fascinating. Forty five members of the royal household travelled with the Queen, not to mention the Rolls-Royce, which found its home on a specially designed garage on deck. While it’s a memorable snapshot of where they spent their more private moments, just as fascinating is the detail of some of the 968 official visits Britannia made.

Dining Room of Royal Yacht Britannia

Image Credit: Royal Yacht Britannia

Although decommissioned in 1997, most of the items on board are the originals, which only adds to the charm. The Royal Deck Tea Room, which would have been used for cocktail parties and receptions back in its heyday, is now a pit stop for coffee or afternoon tea. Seasonal events on board throughout the year add some fun to proceedings. Those looking to snaffle some souvenirs could do worse than the Britannia gift shop. Light on ubiquitous tourist tat, tasteful Britannia memorabilia and dainty Royal Collection china is the order of the day.

Royal Yacht Britannia

Image Credit: Royal Yacht Britannia

Beyond Britannia, Leith itself has loads to offer if you’re happy to wander off the more traditional tourist trail. Sure, the city centre has the obligatory castle and palace boxes ticked, alongside a ton of great galleries, but the people’s republic of Leith (as it’s affectionately known to its locals), is a cut above. A lifetime away from Irvine Welsh’s depiction, in pivotal 90s hit ‘Trainspotting’, the Shore area, just a stone’s throw from Britannia offers independent galleries, waterside eateries, cute cafes and top notch bars. The original harbour dates back to the 14th century, and there’s much merit to be found in a now much-gentrified Leith. Not to mention two of the city’s finest Michelin starred restaurants, Kitchin and Martin Wishart.

Alternatively, jump in the car, and a few miles away in each direction you’ll find some lovely beach spaces. Head east and you’ll hit Portobello (or Porty to the natives), in all its resplendent glory. Still flying the flag from a bygone age, this beach and promenade has puggies, top cafes and even some Turkish baths, should the Scottish weather prove less than fruitful for a sea paddle. Go west a few miles for the affluent Cramond area. A pretty harbour village probably best known for its fictional associations with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, locals flock here for dog walks, roller skating and leisurely walks.

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