Highland Heaven: A Review of the Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland

Jul 31, 2019

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While there are plenty of great value hotels in the United Kingdom and Europe that can be booked with points, there are also unique once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Although TPG UK members have stayed at plenty of inexpensive and, well, unexciting hotels, for a special UK team offsite with TPG himself, we decided to find somewhere truly unique and memorable.

Booking

The TPG UK team were on the hunt for a great location in Scotland for a few-days offsite strategy session, and finding hotel rooms here only a few weeks in advance proved to be a challenge. We initially looked for standard rooms for each team member but were quickly advised by the hotel that they did not have enough rooms for us. They did have suites available, which, while more expensive, were two bedroom, with each bedroom having its own en suite bathroom, as well as a shared living space. Since we’d only need half the amount of rooms, we went for the suites.

A luxury, unique hotel like this does not come cheap. While the property is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, it cannot be booked with points and does not belong to any major hotel loyalty program. Each suite cost £1,255 per night. We booked through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, which included the following complimentary benefits:

  • Daily breakfast for two
  • Room upgrade at check-in, when available
  • Noon check-in, when available
  • 4pm checkout guaranteed
  • Afternoon tea (only a benefit for Centurion cardholders)
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi
  • A complimentary round of golf for two people per room, including greens fee and cart rental (for courses that permit carts), once during your stay

Location

The Gleneagles Hotel was built by the former Caledonian Railway Company in 1924 in a sprawling estate near Auchterarder, Perth and Kinross, Scotland. The vision upon construction was for “a large country house hotel, built in the style of a palace which would provide leisure in the form of golf to the travelling public.” It boasts 232 rooms, including 27 suites.

Given its remote location, Gleneagles has its own railway station with a shuttle service to the hotel. The property is approximately the same distance from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, which have flights to various destinations in the UK as well as further afield. We landed at Glasgow Airport (GLA) with some other members of the TPG UK team, collected our hire car and drove the one hour or so from the airport to the property.

Check-in

A cheerful Scottish doorman dressed in a kilt greeted us as our car pulled up and quickly organised for the car to be parked and our bags collected. We had several interactions with gentleman over the course of our stay, and he was always ready with a smile, a warm greeting and great conversation regardless of the Scottish spring weather, which was not as pleasant and consistent as he was.

Inside, the reception area was well-staffed, and we were quickly helped. We arrived around midday and were advised that some of our rooms were not yet ready. We had organised a number of activities with the hotel team in advance as part of our team-building trip and were advised that the guest-relations manager for the property wanted to meet with us to confirm all of our plans.

While we were happy to do this, the process felt clumsy and inefficient because of the number of staff and handoffs involved in what would should have been a simple process.

We were passed from staff member to staff member, all in a very polite and friendly manner, but each change in staff member required another spontaneous staff meeting, which felt confusing at times. We were made to feel important and valued guests (they made an awful fuss over little old us), but we wasted a good 30 minutes simply getting from ‘We would like to check in’ to ‘I’m the guest-relations manager. Here are the plans’ via some other manager who also sat down with us for some chitchat in between. It would have been far better if whichever staff member first spoke to us simply completed the entire task themselves (like seating us and finding and introducing the manager to us) rather than getting so many additional staff involved.

The confusion continued after the meeting as we waited for our rooms. By this time, the early check-in time of 2pm that we had been told had passed. The same people we had spoken to when we arrived had no real memory of who we were, why we were there, which rooms we were staying in or whether they were ready. Admittedly we had several bookings, but at this price point, guests shouldn’t have to provide more than their name or ID — the staff should take care of the rest. It reached a point where when a front-desk manager suggested sitting down for yet another meeting to discuss the status of our suites (long past the advertised check-in time). I almost replied, ‘I don’t want another meeting, I just want my room.’

When we finally received our room keys, there was more confusion about where our luggage was. If I had known how much frustration and delay this would have caused, I would have just kept my luggage on me the whole time. We appreciated the effort the staff went to, but the entire check-in process was far too complicated and frustrating, and involved far too many staff.

Room

With a property the size of the Gleneagles, we knew our step count would be decent by the end of the weekend, and the suites were in the main building but a long way from reception and were quite difficult to find.

Once we located them, we were very impressed with their decor and sumptuousness. The Connoisseur Suite had a large, comfortably furnished living room with a bedroom on either side.

I had perhaps naively thought the walls of the rooms would be adorned with traditional Scottish tartan designs, but instead the rooms had a fairly modern design. A large number of guests we overheard in the common areas seemed to be golfing enthusiasts from the US, so the decor may have been tailored to this target market.

Waiting for us on the dining table of our suite was a welcome gift of a gin-and-tonic mixing set, Scottish shortbread, nuts and fudge.

Each bedroom was slightly different but very well-appointed and extremely comfortable. I slept like a baby in the king bed. There was a large en suite bathroom for each bedroom with a walk-in shower, deep soaking tub and Asprey toiletries.

The suites were on the top floor of the main building of the property, so only had small windows that looked out over various parts of the property. Unfortunately, there was construction below our window that didn’t make for a beautiful view.

One bedroom of each suite was made up with a king bed, the other bedroom had twin single beds. We were asked when we first checked in about the bedding combinations. As we were two separate adults sharing a suite, we asked if we could have two king beds and were assured this would not be a problem.

Almost immediately after checking in, there was a knock on the door with a staff member arriving to convert the twin beds into a king (by stripping them, moving the mattresses together and remaking it with new bedding). Given how luxuriously the beds were made up, this was quite a job and involved both the first staff member and a second coming back and forth in and out of the room for a good 30 minutes to complete this task. The second staff member didn’t even knock the first time they entered, so we were surprised to see a stranger walk into our suite and into the bedroom. Both staff members went in and out of the suite numerous times to perform this task.

Given we had advised our bedding preferences several hours earlier, it seemed like a service breakdown that the rooms had not been made up in the correct configuration by housekeeping while we waited hours for them to be ready.

Though all our rooms were eligible for upgrades as part of the FHR booking we had made, the #firstworldproblem was that out of the hundreds of rooms at the hotel there was only really one available suite that was actually better than the one we had (not least because we needed two-bedroom suites for most of the team). This was the Whisky Suite. This went to the boss, visiting from New York for our offsite.

If we thought the suites were opulent, Brian’s suite was next-level, an enormous bedroom and living room with a full-size dining room.

Food and Beverage

There were numerous restaurants and bars in the hotel complex, and this was an area where the property really shined. There was a casual patisserie with an endless, delicious-looking pastry array.

We took lunch on the first day and breakfast each morning in the Birnam Brasserie. This was a beautiful space with light streaming through the internal courtyard, the sort of Instagrammable background people would queue hours for in London for the perfect snap.

Lunch here was excellent. We stuck to simple meals and soft drinks in advance of our busy afternoon.

Breakfast was a busy affair with so many guests to cater for. There was a high-quality, well-organised buffet as well as coffee, fresh juice and an a la carte menu item included each morning.

Sitting near the kitchen for the first breakfast, I spied an incredibly epic-looking soufflé that immediately caught my attention. It wowed me both in terms of presentation and taste, and I happily ordered it again the following morning.

Other members of the team ordered the kedgeree.

For dinner on the first night, we went to the relatively casual Dormy restaurant, which featured a range of pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, pub classics and, we were surprised to see, Indian dishes. These were all well-priced, given the high-end location. We were talked into trying the Indian dishes by the enthusiastic waiter and even invited to view the authentic tandoor before deciding. I thoroughly enjoyed the Indian food, especially since it was somewhat unexpected in a classic Scottish setting.

There were two main bars in the hotel complex, one large, all-day option right next to the entrance called The Century Bar and the smaller American Bar, which was only open at night. The Century Bar was a gorgeous space and proved to be a natural meeting place for our group, and we enjoyed several drinks there during various parts of our stay. Their cocktail list was interesting and reasonably well-priced, and they delivered excellent drinks.

On the first night after dinner, we decided on a nightcap at The American Bar. We had been warned at check-in there was a relatively strict dress code, the only venue in the hotel with such a dress code. A couple of our team members may have been dressed a touch too casually for the code, but we were welcomed in and quickly seated and served. Like The Century Bar, The American Bar provided interesting delicious cocktails that we all enjoyed.

On Day 2, we decided to experience a traditional afternoon tea at the Glendevon restaurant as our lunch. This was a big space that was almost empty for the duration of our meal.

We were not in any rush, but the opulent and complicated service routine by the few staff in the cavernous space was quite drawn out and meant we often waited a fair while for something we had ordered, or to order something. The food was excellent — amongst the best afternoon teas I have had — and they were very obliging with tea and coffee refills. I avoided the Champagne to ensure a steady aim for that afternoon’s activity.

Later that afternoon, we tested out the room-service menu for a snack. The food was delivered in less than 30 minutes and looked and tasted excellent.

On the last evening we decided to do something very special and very Scottish. We booked a private dining space in the hotel’s wine cellars with a Scottish whisky tasting and traditional haggis. To surprise Brian, we arranged for a bagpipe player in full Scottish kilt to walk us to dinner and ‘address the haggis’ (I was unsure what that involved in advance).

It was certainly a memorable experience marching through the hotel public spaces following a Scotsman blasting a bagpipe — we received plenty of surprised stares from other guests but most whipped out their cameras to capture the moment and even followed us to see where he was going. The wine cellar was deep within the basement of the hotel, which meant winding through many staff-only areas. This was a really cool way to dine, and I was impressed with how well the hotel managed to pull this off, given the complications with a simple check-in and bedding configuration the day before.

We sampled various Scottish whiskies prior to dinner. I’m the first to admit I’m not a whisky connoisseur, but I enjoyed what we tasted.

When we were seated for dinner, the bagpiper returned with a haggis. I was excited to try this, as I had never done so before, despite my partner’s family being Scottish. The address was given as a long tale, a sort of poem about haggis’s role in Scottish history and folklore. We tucked in to the haggis, and I really enjoyed it and would happily eat it again.

The meal continued with several more courses, plenty of fine wines and even more whisky.

Amenities

You could be as active or inactive as you liked at The Gleneagles. There were the expected amenities like a gym, indoor and outdoor pool and beauty spa.

There were also a lot of shopping boutiques, which guests had to walk through in order to reach the breakfast restaurant. All these shops did feel a little cheap for what was a historic luxury property and were deserted our entire stay, but Scottish weather can be very unpleasant for much of the year, so I imagine that guests may enjoy retail therapy if they can’t be outside.

But outside was where the best parts of the Gleneagles experience lay. We had booked a range of activities, and they were all thoroughly enjoyable. Though not booked, we heard there were ferrets on the property when we arrived, so went for a walk both to get out bearings and to see if we could find them. We discovered they were kept near the resident eagles, and though we turned up unannounced, the staff provided an impromptu demonstration of just how powerful these magnificent creatures are.

On the morning of Day 2, it was time for our first scheduled activity. TPG are huge dog fans — our New York office has resident Points Pups — so we jumped at the chance to participate in a gun-dog training exercise. The hotel has a few dozen dogs that live on site and are used to assist with hunting, primarily to collect the animals the hunters shoot. While we were not at all interested in hunting animals ourselves, we adored the chance to spend quality time with these beautiful animals, using plastic ducks to simulate the real thing.

The two trainers were patient, welcoming and enthusiastic about their jobs — you could tell they loved what they did. Our dogs were well-trained, even if they did have the occasional toilet accident!

That afternoon, it was time for clay pigeon shooting. I know virtually nothing about guns and was quite nervous about the prospect of trying to shoot a small clay item hurtling through the air. The gun masters were great, kitting us up in traditional gear and organising us into teams in the, of course, opulent hunting ‘hut.’

There were various courses we tried out, from the clay pigeons flying away from us to over our heads to bouncing along the ground like a hopping rabbit.

Despite mostly missing the targets in my first round, I quickly got the hang of it. By the final round, I was hitting most targets. We decided to turn the exercise into a competition with a generous prize.

This made for a exciting and tense afternoon but was an absolutely perfect team-building experience, and an enormous cheer went up from our entire team when our UK head of video, Jean Arnas, (who had never fired a gun before) beat out country boy Brian Kelly, who had a secret talent for firing a gun. (Stay tuned for Jean’s review of his first-class prize!)

The final outdoor activity for the day was the driving range. I’ll be completely honest and admit golf isn’t my sport, and I know it is the main reason most people come to The Gleneagles. There are four courses at ‘the home of golf in Scotland,’ including the PGA Centenary course, which hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup. There were serious golfers practising on the driving range, and I didn’t want to insult them or the hotel staff by arriving, dressed inappropriately and wildly swinging at golf balls. I was happy to watch and admire the beautiful courses and surrounds, and if you are a golf fan I’m told by golfing experts that there is no better place in Scotland to play.

Overall Impression

This is no ordinary hotel, and this was no ordinary trip away. The Gleneagles was an unforgettable experience with an unforgettable price tag to match. We were perhaps not the target market for the hotel, as we were not avid golfers, nor were most of the group American, which seemed to be a real focus for the hotel.

The suites were absolutely beautiful, and I would have happily stayed for a month, although the constant interruptions after checking in to the room were became frustrating and unwelcome. There were so many staff that service often became much more complicated and difficult than it needed to be — staff members should complete service tasks they start themselves where possible, rather than having endless meetings, delegations and delays.

All of the food and drinks we sampled were excellent, especially the unexpected Indian food. It was a wonderful weekend of Scottish history and culture, though I was surprised the furnishing did not feature more Scottish touches.

Best of all were the activities — as beautiful as the interior of the hotel was, it was wonderful to be outside as a team, and I would return for those activities again even if I were not staying at the hotel. All were perfectly organised, very enjoyable, and the clay shooting especially was the perfect team-building exercise, which was the purpose of the trip.

The Gleneagles is a special hotel for a special experience.

All words by Ben Smithson. All photos by Nicky Kelvin / The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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