The many activities at Gleneagles may pull even the keenest golfer off the greens, writes Lee Tulloch.
It's surprising, but Scotland's premier golfing resort, Gleneagles, is not all about golf. In fact, there's so much to do on the 340 hectare Perthshire estate you never need to feel guilty if you don't swing a club.
The stately 232-room hotel opened in 1924 after two golf courses, the King's Course and the Queen's Course, were built in 1918. The project was the brainchild of Caledonian Railway executive Donald Matheson, who wanted to build a grand hotel to entice travellers to hop on the train to Scotland. The third 18-hole course was added in 1993 when the Jack Nicklaus-designed PGA Centenary Course was unveiled.
There is also a nine-hole PGA Academy Course, sweetly named the "wee" course (local junior golfers can use it for free) and a golf school with a high-tech swing room and a driving range.
For golfers, it's nirvana, not least for the views from the links of the heather-coloured Grampian mountains and the sheep-scattered Scottish countryside.
There's an extra flurry of activity at Gleneagles these days. In September 2014, the Ryder Cup, a biennial men's golfing competition that pits Europe against America, will be held on the Gleneagles PGA Centenary Course, the first time it has been held in Scotland for 40 years, bringing an estimated 250,000 spectators to the region, which all adds up to a lot of golf. But during three days at Gleneagles last April, my only visit to the links, apart from an entertaining hour trying to whack balls with a stick at the Golf Academy, was an early-morning walk in the mist on the King's Course.
The course is vast, dotted with meadows and copses, and surrounded by rural estates, and I became seriously lost. Golfers don't tee off until after 9 am, so I had to search for a groundsman to show me the way back. Luckily, after two hours tramping around in the cold, there was creamy porridge with Drambuie raspberries to appease me at the hotel. (Diageo, the multinational that owns Drambuie and Johnnie Walker, is parent of Gleneagles.)
Patrick Elsmie, chief executive of Gleneagles, says the course has been on the British social circuit as the summer destination for golf and shooting since the 1920s, but it was only during the 1980s, after an extensive renovation, that Gleneagles became more of a "hardcore" golfing destination. It's far less hardcore these days. More guests use the spa than play golf, he points out. (The spa recently won the Conde Nast Traveller award for best British "fixer-up".) And the list of other activities is so tantalising even golfers may have a serious conflict of interest.
Consider the Falcon School, for instance. Hunting is a traditional activity on the Scottish glens and the hotel does use birds of prey to catch game such as pheasants, grouse and rabbits, for preparation in the kitchens. Guests can learn how to fly the birds from the school on the estate grounds or go out hunting with gamekeepers in the surrounding countryside.
The school is a bit of a misnomer, because only two Peregrine falcons are kept there. They tend to be more difficult to train than the Harris hawk, which is the bird of choice here - 19 hawks are kept in their own large, clean rooms (rather than cages). The hawks are more sociable and hunt in packs but they're not as fast as falcons. Fortunately, we're not asked to handle Fatima, the golden eagle, who has a gimlet eye trained on us and whose talons are so huge that she can catch a full-grown deer.
If hunting is your thing, there's also an impressive shooting and fishing school. It's well equipped with everything you need, from air rifles to arrows, wellies to oiled jackets. There's an archery range, a clay-pigeon shooting range and an air-rifle range for guests 10 years and above. And children will adore the gundog school, where they can be taught how to train their pets using the hotel's very cute pack of labradors and retrievers.
Children are well catered for in other ways. The equestrian school has two large indoor rinks and stables for 43 horses. You can ride your horsey heart out here with lessons in all the equestrian arts, including riding sidesaddle. The hotel's two venerable Shetland ponies, Oscar and Arthur, are such fixtures that some former child guests return with their children to ride the ponies. If they'd like an activity that's a little more 21st century, there are quarter-sized Land Rovers for children to drive around a track. "We like to think everything an adult can do, a child can do," Elsmie says.
This is not to say that Gleneagles doesn't offer some indulgent adult pleasures. Many of them to do with whisky. The Dormy Clubhouse, which overlooks the 18th hole of the King's Course, is as convivial as a country club can be (most members are Perthshire locals), with a copper-hooded roaring fire in the middle of the large room and fabulous outdoor cigar bar set around a fire, where you can sip Johnnie Walker Blue in the cold, wrapped in cashmere blankets. The clubhouse is such a lively, welcoming place that I harbour a desire to be a member, even if the price of this is to learn to play golf.
The Clubhouse Bar and Grill serves excellent locally sourced fare, including the inevitable haggis, produced by local provedore Simon Howie. It's delicious, like richly textured pate. As a nod to "modern Britain" there's a blazing tandoor oven, which does a brisk trade. Head barman David Sinclair was anointed Glenfiddich's Malt Mastermind in 2011 and he can pour you any number of rare single malts.
Back in the bar of the hotel, you can down a 50- millilitre glass of "1805" special edition blend whisky for £500 ($900) or toast an affair with a £3250 Mappin and Webb cocktail containing a diamond ring. Just be careful when you swallow. There are 120 single malt whiskies on offer and a cosy fireplace you can settle down in front of to work your way through them.
(In April, when it was freezing, the fires were not lit. "It's not the season," we were told when we asked. They did graciously light one of the fireplaces, although we got strange looks.)
The bracing weather does stimulate the appetite. Happily, you don't have to take the hawks out to hunt down good food.
The hotel's premier restaurant, the Andrew Fairlie, is the only two-star Michelin restaurant in Scotland. Diners can choose from the a la carte menu or take the degustation menu for £125 a person.
The signature dish is a whisky barrel-smoked Scottish lobster, which is superb, but we also pounced with glee upon the "Scottish tablet", a delicious sugary fudge that was served with single malt at the end of the meal.
Dining options also include the busy trattoria Deseo, the main hotel dining room, The Strathearn, with its glass atrium overlooking the hotel gardens, or a specially designed health menu at the ESPA spa, which includes tasty "superfood" bento boxes.
Other activities might include trawling the shopping arcade for pricey cashmere, playing tennis on the lawn courts, hitting a croquet ball, getting lost in the maze or driving to a local village to visit the "sweetie" shop and buy some of that Scottish tablet to take home. There are also a number of whisky distilleries in the area that open their doors for tastings. The hotel can arrange excursions.
Then there's the spa and health club. The club has just undergone an extensive refurbishment to the 20-metre lap pool, leisure pool, jacuzzi and outdoor Onsen pool. There's a large gymnasium, which I didn't visit, having gained enough exercise tramping around the links and the immaculate 18th-century style gardens.
The beautiful spa by ESPA has 20 treatment rooms, a crystal steam room, a vitality pool lit by fibre optics, a sauna, an ice fountain and courtyard garden. Beyond some welcome pampering, the ESPA Life program offers bespoke treatments devised by complementary and alternate medicine practitioners and the spa therapists that are popular with stressed-out city types. (Gleneagles, which lies between Edinburgh and Glasgow, is less than six hours from London by train.)
You might also be tempted just to stay in your room. The main house, built in the French chateau style, was extended in 2002, with the addition of the 50-bedroom Braid House, named for legendary golfer James Braid, who designed the King's Course. The original building retains its manor house feel, with high ceilings and wide hallways. Many of the recently refurbished rooms look over the gardens. All are very comfortable and elegant, with thistle-patterned carpets, heather and metallic-coloured contemporary furnishings and amenities such as a kilt press, which you may need.
I slept in room 376, which had an enormous tiled bathroom with a beautiful freestanding bath. Styles vary from room to room.
The writer stayed at Gleneagles as a guest of the hotel and flew from London to Edinburgh with Virgin Atlantic's new Little Red service.
Virgin Atlantic has a fare to Edinburgh for about $1770 return from Sydney including tax. Fly to London Heathrow (about 24 hours with a transit in Hong Kong) and then to Edinburgh (1hr 30min with Aer Lingus); see virginatlantic.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Virgin Australia to Sydney to connect.
Classic rooms start from £335 ($600), bed and breakfast, depending on season. Phone 0800 704 705, see lhw.com.
MORE INFORMATION gleneagles.com.