The royal life at the historic Gleneagles hotel, the Grande Dame of Scottish landmarks
What’s it like today, to visit and stay at Gleneagles, the Grande Dame of Scottish landmarks, and a historic Art Deco hotel that dates back to 1924?
The trip starts on a luxurious note. I’m on a flight in the upper class of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, with a flatbed seat, purple-pink mood lighting, sipping on champagne and feasting on gourmet food.
Arriving in Edinburgh, we drive out into the countryside. Pastoral landscapes whizz past that look like they were painted by Constable, the great artist.
From glistening lakes, silvery rivers, to the rolling Ochil hills, covered in mist and a light drizzle. Driving through a picturesque driveway, I arrive at a massive stone building that looks like a set from Downton Abbey.
I check in for my stay at the Gleneagles Hotel (a member of the exclusive Leading Hotels of the World group), a historic Art Deco hotel that dates back to 1924.
This Grande Dame of Scottish Hotels, just an hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh, is surrounded by the highlands, set in 850 acres of rolling countryside, where once-glamorous guests in their tweeds would arrive by train, dine and dance at the ballroom, and play golf on its sprawling courses.
It was built by the Caledonian Railway to promote train travel and the music from its ballroom was even broadcast on BBC Radio!
The Riviera of Scotland
It has been called ‘Scotland’s glorious playground’, ‘the Riviera of Scotland’ and even, ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’.
Now, after a multi-million dollar renovation by the new owner Ennismore (the company behind London’s hip Hoxton Hotels), the hotel still feels regal and old world, oozing class and dignity of the ‘roaring ’20s’, from the doorman clad in his tartan kilt, to the long corridors lined with rich, green carpets.
My cosy double room with large bay windows looks over the green countryside, with a coal hearth activated by remote control, old, bound classics on the mantelpiece, heated bathroom floors and heavy drapes.
Of course, golf is what the hotel is known for, with its world-famous three 18 hole championship golf courses — the King’s and Queen’s courses, which predate the hotel and the Monarch’s course designed by Jack Nicklaus, but the new owners of the hotel are determined to offer more than just golf.
From falconry and clay pigeon shooting to tennis, croquet, fishing, cycling, off-roading, horse riding and gun dog training, the hotel offers a plethora of outdoor activities with trained instructors.
Down the ages, this hotel has served as a hospital during the wars, hosted celebrities and world leaders from George Bush to John Travolta and Sean Connery.
The hotel is a mini world with 232 rooms and suites and nine restaurants including bars, and Scotland’s only two Michelin starred restaurant, employing over 90 chefs, with its own vegetable garden and bakery, butter churned at the premises and the best of Scottish produce.
Century Bar in garnet red
If shopping is what rocks your boat, then Gleneagles has its own luxury shopping arcade with shops from Escada to Rae Feather bags, where you can stock up on anything from cashmere sweaters at the Cashmere Rooms to exclusive single malts from the Still Room.
On the first day, I have lunch at the Birnam Brasserie, in a Parisian bistro-like conservatory space (named after the ancient Birnam Oak tree, one of the last vestiges of Birnam Wood made famous by Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
With a winter garden and mosaic floors, it serves French-American fusion food from sandwiches and salads to steaks. I have the Courgetti Spaghetti with garden peas and broad beans, sipping on a refreshing Hugo drink with elderflower, lime and mint. The chocolate marquise is to die for.
I have a drink at the Century Bar, decorated in garnet red, which has gleaming glass cases filled with rare whiskies, velvet-covered banquettes, decorated with Scottish ceramics and textiles that have reference to the four seasons.
Later in the evening, we stop by at the American bar with 1920s décor, which had previously been used as the porter’s luggage room, three intimate spaces, with low candlelight and jazz playing in the background.
There is even a small cosy corner with sofas, popular with couples who want to propose in this special space!
Candlelight & live piano
The Strathearn is the enormous dining room with Ionic pillars, and elegant sofas in pale and royal blue, where the dining is an interactive experience.
I am bewitched by the trolley of freshly baked breads from chia bread to cheese sticks, that is wheeled in with dramatic élan, where the steak is flambéed before your eyes, house-smoked salmon is sliced by your table, a simple garden salad is magically stirred and seasoned before your eyes and even the traditional dessert called Clootie Dumpling with plum purée and whiskey is prepared in front of you.
The dining experience is superlative — from the flicker of candlelight to the live piano music, the fresh taste of ingredients, to the presentation of every dish, as the waiters whisk away the silver lids from dishes, like magicians.
We end the meal with some special Port wine, poured from an overly large decanter. Breakfast is something I look forward to every day — humongous portions served in a large room with views of the surrounding green landscapes — piles of freshly baked crusty breads, porridge, cakes and confectionary from banana breads to Chelsea buns, Scottish breakfasts of traditional haggis (dark minced meat cakes), sausages, freshly squeezed juices and fruits, eggs stations.
Fishing for rainbow trout
What stands out for me in the whole Gleneagles experience is the attention to detail — from the Wellingtons and waterproof Barbour jackets that you can borrow before you head out to the gin cocktail ingredients laid out before the hearth, on arrival.
The hotel is also children-friendly with a special ‘little glen’ centre, to toy cars and Shetland ponies that they can ride, and even a special kid’s breakfast section.
In spite of it being a grey day with the typical Scottish drizzle and wind, I head outdoors, guided ably by Yuri Janssen, the Sports Manager, who has worked all over the globe and is a talented photographer. We start with fly fishing where an artificial fly is used to lure fish.
Jerry who is teaching us to fly fish in one of the hotel’s trout lochs, rife with brown and rainbow trout, explains how to hold the rod and unravel the thread and throw it in the air before reeling it in.
In spite of the heavy winds buffeting us, we manage to reel in a rainbow trout in the net, before releasing it back in the water.
I take an introductory gun dog lesson with some magnificent and friendly Labradors who are trained to pick up the hunt.
Duncan and Fiona, who work with the dogs, explain the process of training these dogs, two hours every day for two years — with dummies thrown, they are made to retrieve them, sometimes they are trained blind, which means the dummies are hidden and they have to ferret them out.
Duncan explains how they match the personality of every guest to that of the dogs, so that they interact well.
A day out in the glens
Some very special moments are spent at the British school of Falconry housed in the hotel where more than 55 birds of prey from the golden eagle to hawks are raised and trained.
Putting on a leather glove, I have a ferocious-looking hawk alight on my hand, swooping from the trees overhead, looking out for a rabbit or pigeon to catch.
We take a look at the stables and Equestrian school, which does riding lessons, trail rides and show jumping lessons with more than 26 horses. My favourite here is Hetty, a petite pony wearing a rain hoodie, grazing in the paddocks.
After an outdoorsy day in the glens, I head to the award-winning health club and spa to relax before my next adventure.
The spa which offers saunas, steam baths, a warm vitality pool and an outdoor Jacuzzi, where I bask in the warmth, and finish off with a relaxing massage. I sit by the window in my room and look out at the green countryside, soaking in the tranquility of the place.