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Nick Trend visits the hotel and plays the revamped course at Gleneagles that will host next year’s Ryder Cup.
''I’m so sorry about the porridge, sir. May I get you a glass of champagne with our compliments to make up for your disappointment?”
The waiter looked quite distressed: it was, he assured me, the first time it had ever happened, and I suppose it is quite a troubling moment when Scotland’s most famous hotel runs out of porridge at breakfast time. Especially when there is a Quaker Oats production plant only half an hour down the road.
Nobody could call me a fussy man, I thought, but there was no way around the problem. I turned down the champagne, and quickly forgave Gleneagles this unexpected and uncharacteristic lapse. After all, I had an ideal day lined up in front of me: a relaxed morning exploring the hotel, an afternoon round on the Queen’s Course – my favourite of the three 18-hole Gleneagles layouts – and then dinner at Andrew Fairlie, arguably Scotland’s best restaurant, tucked away by the entrance to the ballroom.
Mind you, I could have done with some porridge. The evening before I had hauled myself around the PGA Centenary – the course which will, in exactly one year’s time, be hosting the final two-ball pairings for the 2014 Ryder Cup. They will find this a long, hard challenge, with few concessions to wayward driving, and some unforgiving greens. The only relief is for the soul – the panorama of distant Perthshire hills which frames almost every shot.
Ironically, this course used to be something of a poor relation to the two great James Braid layouts, the King’s and Queen’s which date back to the 1920s and line the ridges, dips and plateaus of the heath nearer the hotel. Originally designed by Jack Nicklaus in the Eighties as a contemporary “American-style” championship course, hemmed with long shapely bunkers and defined by concrete cart paths, the PGA used to sit a little uncomfortably in the landscape. Two years ago, however, in consultation with Nicklaus, many of the holes were remodelled. The result is much more sympathetic. The cart paths remain, but the bunkers have been redesigned, there is a lot more subtlety around the greens, and there are some splendid “stadium” holes, notably the 18th, a risk-and-reward par-five, which will make for some fascinating spectator sport when matches finish here this time next year.
Now, naturally, it is the one course which we all want to play. Last week, the Dormy clubhouse was buzzing – full of men in monogrammed jumpers gearing up for their special round, and the course they were talking about was not the King’s or Queen’s, but the PGA. Most of us won’t be able to visit for the Cup – tickets have already sold out. But we can come and get a feel for the layout so that in 12 months’ time, when we are watching an approach shot to the 7th green on television, we will remember just how hard it is to get the distance right, and just how sharply ball will swing across the putting surface.
The great thing about Gleneagles, however, is that it also appeals to non-players. Built by the Caledonian Railway on a wave of optimism after the First World War, its aim was to offer the socialites and sportsmen and women of the roaring Twenties all the style and distraction they could desire. And that legacy has continued. During the three days we were there, I hardly saw my non-golfing wife in daylight hours. Each morning she would switch off her phone and disappear into the spa, or the gym, or the equestrian centre only to reappear at unexpected moments – usually around meal times – in a noticeably relaxed and agreeable mood. At one point, having just finished a three-mile woodland walk, she popped up out of the blue on the 18th tee of the Queen’s course. We walked down the final fairway together and she thoughtfully held the pin for me as I holed a 25ft putt. I kept pretty cool, and she now thinks it’s perfectly normal that I finish my rounds with a birdie three.
Gleneagles for golfers
Apart from the PGA Centenary, the King’s Course, at nearly 6,800 yards with a par of 71, is the stiffer challenge of the Gleneagles layouts, with some steep undulations and tricky platform greens. Play off the white tees, and you save 400 yards, but lose a shot – par 70. I have a soft spot for its sister course, the Queen’s, which is only 6,000 yards, par 68, but has a tough opening six into the prevailing wind, and some glorious holes in the bosky countryside around the turn.
Gleneagles for non-golfers
As well as traditional country-house summer games such as croquet and tennis, Gleneagles has developed a wide range of country pursuits. The equestrian centre and shooting school have facilities of the highest standard and are particularly noteworthy, but you can also try fly-fishing, falconry, off-road driving and cycling. The Club area of the hotel is free for all guests to use and includes sauna, steam room, and an indoor pool, with an outdoor extension. The spa is open only to those who have booked treatments.
Gleneagles for families
Most of the activities listed are specially adapted for children too, and there is a playroom with trained staff. The hotel website lists the full programme, together with age restrictions.
Eating and drinking
The highlight is Andrew Fairlie’s restaurant (01764 694267; andrewfairlie.co.uk). Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred chef creates extremely precise, artfully presented French-influenced dishes, based on Scottish ingredients – lobster from Scrabster , roe deer from the Glenalmond estate, and even blackberries, morels and wild strawberries from the Gleneagles heaths. Menus from £95. Service is formal but not stuffy. The main hotel restaurant, the Art Deco Strathearn, serves classic French-Scottish dishes; while Deseo, by the spa, specialises in Mediterranean cooking, including excellent tapas.The Dormy Clubhouse, by the golf courses, specialises in bar food and tandoori dishes.
Gleneagles is expensive, but if you time your visit carefully, and look out for seasonal deals which include meals or activities, you can make big savings. The cheapest room rates – the Winter Warmers – start at £235 per night for a double room with b & b (valid from November to March). The best-value golf package is available for Sunday nights from October to March, at £295 b & b for two and includes a round on any of the three courses, or a 55-minute spa treatment, for each person. Note that from November to March all the courses will be adapted because of winter maintenance, so you may or may not be able to play the standard 18s. Next year, access to the PGA Centenary will be subject to some restrictions because of the Ryder Cup.
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