With a flap of his wings and a swish of his tail, Victor the Harris’s hawk cut a graceful sweep above the grounds at The Gleneagles Hotel and landed with a soft thump on my gloved hand. After being rewarded with a tasty treat provided by his minder from the Scottish School of Falconry, Victor was off again, gliding through the spring sunshine and causing consternation among the local herring gulls.
As well as Victor and his fellow Harris’s hawks, the school is also home to an array of other birds of prey, including the peregrine falcon and the golden eagle. Even though the name “Gleneagles” comes from the Gaelic word “eaglais” or “church” and doesn’t have anything to do with eagles, it still feels like a fitting home for the facility, which was founded as the world’s first dedicated falconry school in 1982 before moving to its present home in the hotel grounds in 1992.
The Gleneagles Hotel is seldom far from the headlines. In 2005, it played host to world leaders including Prime Minister Tony Blair and United States President George W Bush for the G7 summit and in 2014 it staged the Ryder Cup, with Europe’s golfers triumphing over their American rivals. The contest marked the first time that the Ryder Cup had been held in Scotland in more than 40 years and was one of the highlights of tourism agency VisitScotland’s second Year of Homecoming, alongside the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. In 2019, the women’s version of the competition, the Solheim Cup, will also take place at the site.
As well as boasting three championship courses – the King’s, Queen’s and Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Centenary courses – the Perthshire venue is also home to the PGA National Academy and its nine-hole par three course, along with an 11-acre pitch n’ putt and championship practice ground.
But there’s so much more to Gleneagles than just golf. As well as the falconry, the hotel is also home to a gundog school, an equestrian school and a shooting school. Other activities on offer range from fishing and tennis through to off-road driving and even Segway tours.
Foregoing a ride on a horse or a Segway, I opted for Shanks’s pony as my preferred method for exploring the hotel’s grounds, which extend to 850 acres. Three way-marked jogging routes take guests on one-, two- or three-mile trails around the golf courses, while the longer woodland walk leads past the Glenmor shared-ownership houses – no mention of the words ‘time share’ here – and then on across the moorland around the shooting school and equestrian centre.
After ticking off the birds of prey at the falconry school, it was wild species that were the stars of the show on the walk. Roe deer sat calmly among the trees, while buzzards circled overhead, mewing their familiar call to anyone who would listen.
Walking certainly built up an appetite. If the words ‘golf’ and ‘Gleneagles’ go together then the name ‘Andrew Fairlie’ is seldom far behind. The holder of two Michelin stars since 2006, Fairlie opened his self-titled restaurant at the hotel in 2001. But just as there’s more to Gleneagles than golf, there’s more to the hotel’s food than Fairlie’s legendary dishes. With two AA rosettes to its name, the Strathearn restaurant offers silver service dining. The staff in the Strathearn work hard to put guests at ease, providing a welcome relaxed style of banter that helped me to enjoy my steak Diane fillet mignon followed by tarte tatin.
Part of the enjoyment in the restaurant was the theatre that accompanied the meal. The fillet mignon was prepared and pan fried at the table, while a trolley was wheeled about in a hushed fashion, offering diners the roast of the day, a beef wellington. The Strathearn was also the venue for the famous Gleneagles breakfast, which elevates the concept of a help-yourself buffet to a whole new level. Pancakes made while you wait, sir? Certainly. A bloody Mary or a glass of Champagne to accompany your cornflakes, madam? No problem.
The hotel also has Deseo, a Mediterranean restaurant that includes meat and fish counters, where guests can not only select the size of their steak, but also specify the breed. Options include Aberdeen Angus and native guest breeds provided by butcher Simon Howie.
The Gleneagles Hotel was the brainchild of Donald Matheson, general manager of the Caledonian Railway Company, while he was on holiday in Strathearn in 1910. Many of Scotland’s luxury hotels – including the Balmoral and Caledonian in Edinburgh – also began their lives as railway hotels; a sharp contrast to the budget brands housed next to many stations nowadays.
The hotel opened in 1924, five years after the King’s and Queen’s golf courses – which were designed by the renowned James Braid – had welcomed their first players. It soon became a playground for the rich and famous and, after the Second World War and the nationalisation of the railways, it expanded into the conference business, with recent visitors including Entrepreneurial Scotland’s annual gathering back in April.
The AA awarded Gleneagles five red stars in 1986, with the 232-bedroom hotel maintaining its grading ever since. Diageo – the spirits giant behind whisky brands including Bell’s, Johnnie Walker and Talisker – sold the hotel in 2015 to London-based hospitality firm Ennismore for a reported £150m. The new owner recently embarked on a major refit of the main bar and some of the bedrooms in the main hotel, so my room was in Braid House, a self-contained annexe opened in 2002.
While the rooms in Braid House have a different feeling to the main hotel – with modern grey tones replacing the traditional tartan – all of my expectations were surpassed, with fresh milk for tea in the fridge, twin sinks, a walk-in shower and a giant bathtub, plus an outstanding view across the golf courses to the hills beyond.
Bed and breakfast at The Gleneagles Hotel costs from £365 per room per night from
1 May to 30 September 2016.
Find out more at www.gleneagles.com