Gleneagles 2.0: Scotland's 'Glorious Playground' reinvented
Nick Bayly visits the recently revamped Gleneagles Resort in Perthshire to find out if the luxury highland retreat has regained its reputation as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’
In 2015, the team behind Hoxton Hotels, London’s hippest chain, bought Gleneagles, the most traditional of Scottish golf resorts. Moustache wax and man buns meets plus-fours and mashie niblicks — what could possibly go wrong?
Two years on, and after a renovation costing many millions, the monumental grey-stone pile, which was dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, and ‘The Palace in the Glens’, when it first opened in 1924, has unveiled a new look for the 21st century.
Sharan Pasricha, the charismatic 36-year-old chief executive of investment firm Ennismore Capital, Hoxton Hotels’ holding company, had found the 850-acre estate, which is an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, in a sorry state after decades of underinvestment. But he, like his rival bidders, saw the potential to reinvigorate this faded ‘Monarch of the Glen’, and has wasted no time in reinventing it as a countryside retreat for the monied elite.
Drawing on his hotelier’s eye for detail, Pasricha set about fixing the things that needed fixing – the tired accommodation, the gloomy interiors, and the rather stiff service, and left alone, to a certain degree, the elements that made it such a success, including the golf, the country pursuits and its general air of otherworldliness.
Without straying too far from the traditional ‘Gleneagles experience’, the new owner has retained the A-list heritage while adding a much-needed contemporary gloss. There are still kilted doormen to welcome you on arrival, and plenty of tweedy touches, but anything less and it just wouldn’t be Gleneagles, would it?
The accommodation at Gleneagles is split between the main house and Braid House, combining to offer 232 bedrooms, including 27 suites. The Braid wing, which opened in 2004, houses 59 split-level bedrooms. The more traditional rooms in the main house feature four-posters and are sprinkled with antiquities. The look veers from rolltop baths, tailored tweed and soft tartan, to Art Deco-influenced modernity.
Suites cross styles from classic to contemporary; Estate rooms have lovely views of the countryside – some with balconies and working fireplaces; Sovereign and Classic rooms are smaller. All have mini-bars, safes, iPod docks and Bose radios/CD players, coffee/tea-making, flat-screen TVs, bathrobes and slippers and Asprey toiletries.
The estate is also home to 53 luxury lodges at the Glenmor Village, where a choice of two-, three- and four-bedroom properties can be rented out for families and larger groups. Kitted out with all mod cons, and featuring its own clubhouse and café, free golf is included in the rental cost, along with access to all of the hotel’s facilities.
Andrew Fairlie’s two Michelin-starred restaurant – the only one in Scotland – remains the big draw for foodies, but recent additions hint at a more casual and family-friendly approach to dining at the resort, with a new garden café serving snacks and treats, and a new an all-day French-American brasserie, The Birnam, offering Parisian bistro classics such as steak frites, duck confit and moules marinière, alongside child-friendly burgers and croque monsieurs.
The vast art deco main restaurant, The Strathearn, has yet to benefit from a makeover, although the waiters flambéing languoustines and crêpes suzettes tableside provides the necessary wow factor for an entertaining evening out. The same venue also hosts breakfast, which, for £32 a head, will easily set you up for the day if you hit the waffle station and opt for the full Scottish. Haggis for breakfast anyone?View on Instagram
The golf clubhouse, which is a three-minute walk from the hotel, plays host to further two restaurants, the Auchterader 70 (named after the hotel’s original telephone number), an American-themed diner where sharing plates of pulled pork sliders and craft ales are the order of the day, and The Dormy, a casual, open-plan affair, which offers upmarket golfer’s fare, as well as boasting its own tandoor oven. There’s also a separate cigar bar, where stogies can be lit up in the comfort of a covered circular outdoor lounge, which comes complete with blazing log fire when the temperature drops.
There are two main bars to choose from – the Century and the American. Overseen by head bartender Joe Harper, who won last year’s Bacardi Legacy cocktail championship, the Century Bar steps straight out of the pages of a Hemmingway novel, and boasts a distinctly 1930s art deco vibe, complete with curved crimson velvet banquettes, glossy metallic bar, and a whisky tower in front of which a bevy of mixologists work their magic.
The cocktail list draws heavy inspiration from local ingredients, with the Spruced Up featuring cordial made from pine needles from the estate’s trees, alongside dandelion and burdock from the gardens, blended with champagne and citrus juice for a fizzy, sharp concoction, while for those who like a bit of drama with their drink, the Smoking Gun is as explosive as it sounds. A line of gunpowder is set alight in a blaze at the table, with the glass cupped over the fumes to imbue the cocktail with a suitably smoky flavour.
The American Bar, which is tucked away at the end of one of the hotel’s labyrinthine corridors, is back to its former glory, too, with the 1920s-inspired décor, including walls lined in lavender-coloured cashmere, giving it a slightly hedonistic feel. Here, a cocktail cart serving Champagne-based libations does the rounds between cooing couples, with the drink of your choice, at £25 a pop, is made at your table by creative head bartender Ludovica Fendi.
While many visitors will leave Gleneagles without having struck a golf ball in anger, or even mild resentment, golf remains one of the resort’s biggest draws. There are three championship layouts to be indulged, including the PGA Centenary — venue for the 2014 Ryder Cup, and the upcoming 2019 Solheim Cup— and the historic Queen’s and King’s.
While the Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary was tweaked ahead the Ryder Cup, all 54 holes have benefitted from a more recent major bunker renovation programme, which has brought them more into play, as well as improving the drainage for better year-round conditions.
The 6,462-yard Kings – the members’ favourite – is a traditional inland links, and features more undulating, slightly less manicured fairways
While far from being a classic Scottish heathland course, the 6,788-yard Centenary is a classic Ryder Cup venue, with plenty of risk-reward holes, a smattering of water, and big greens on which pins can be tucked away. With carpet-like emerald fairways, deep-filled white sandy bunkers, and firm putting surfaces, it’s a proper championship test, although perhaps a little out of keeping with its natural environment if we’re going to be picky.
The 6,462-yard Kings – the members’ favourite – is a traditional inland links, and features more undulating, slightly less manicured fairways – they let the grass grow slightly longer than the Centenary – and smaller, marginally slower greens. Designed by James Braid in 1919, it has been a regular host of the Scottish Open and the Johnnie Walker Championship over the years, the Kings takes a wee bit of course knowledge to master, with blind tee shots and approaches requiring the player to trust their course planner and hope for the best one more than one occasion. The par threes are particularly memorable, with the 160-yard 5th playing to raised green with trouble and steep banks on all sides, while the 7th, has a touch of the 12th at Augusta about it, albeit without the water to contend with.View on Instagram
The Queens, another Braid design, is a classic heathland layout, with touches of woodland and moorland golf thrown in for good measure. At 5,965 yards, it is significantly shorter than its neighbours, but no less demanding. Occupying the highest ground on the estate, it offers stunning views over the surrounding countryside, which will come as a welcome distraction should you find yourself spending too much time in the heather.
There is no shortage of excellent holes either, with the 5th and 6th shining early on, first a longish par three to a green beautifully framed by pines, then the longest of the par 4s playing up to a raised green.
The 9th is a Braid masterpiece where taking on the corner presents a real risk if you're not long enough, but the reward is just a short iron in if you take the Tiger line. Or should that be the Dustin or Rory line?
Other golfing experiences can be enjoyed on a superb 18-hole par-3 course, and there’s also a nine-hole pitch-and-putt near track close to the hotel, which is ideal for young families to give golf a go in more relaxed surroundings. The resort is also home to the Scottish PGA, and enjoys superb practice facilities, while the clubhouse offers memorabilia-filled corridors and a pro shop rammed full of logoed accessories.
For those for whom golf is little more than a good walk spoilt, the 850-acre Perthshire estate, now billed as the ‘Glorious Playground’, offers a wide choice of other activities to occupy the outdoor enthusiast, from hunting and horse riding, to shooting and fly fishing, and falconry and off-road driving.
For fitness obsessives, there are cycling, jogging and power-walking trails, while the pulses can also be raised on a guided tour of the estate on two-wheeled Segways. There are nine tennis courts, indoor and out, while for the pampering classes there is an ESPA spa – which is also set for a makeover – that boasts 20 private treatment rooms offering every conceivable face and body treatment, two swimming pools, outdoor hot pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, gym and fitness training, a beauty salon, and post-treatment relaxation areas.
Four-legged friends are equally well catered for, with gun dog training sessions also on the exhaustive menu of activities on offer, while kids will shortly be able to be let loose in a new crèche that is currently under construction, while there are mini battery-powered Land Rovers and bikes to scoot around the estate on.
A two-night B&B stay, with rounds of golf on all three courses, costs from £895pp. For the latest packages, visit gleneagles.com or call 0800 389 3737.