Could Gleneagles and The Balmoral be Scotland’s best family hotels? Steve Tooze and family put them to the test
Golf has never featured anywhere on my bucket list. I’ve always agreed with the wry old put-down that it looks like a good walk spoiled. But it turns out that I’d simply never been to Gleneagles before.
Standing at the tee on a driving range that points toward the austere beauty of the surrounding heather-covered hills, I had one of those Damascene moments. Tom, the funny, patient and clearly highly-talented golf pro, had been running my partner Jane, our two children, Scarlett, 15, and Fin, 12, and I through the weird, un-natural intricacies of a golf swing.
Jane and the kids seemed to be getting the hang of it, regularly knocking balls in the general direction of the holes. I had been largely responding by hooking the ball wildly left and into the trees.
Then suddenly, just for an instant, it all came together. There was a satisfying ‘thwap’ as the face of the club connected cleanly with the ball and it flew in a high, straight arc through the glittering late winter air to land near the 250m marker.
I let out an astonished whoop of joy and amazement, getting a glimpse of what must motivate otherwise sane grown men and women to become obsessives who spend great chunks of their lives hacking around courses up and down the land. The sweet feeling of those rare and elusive few seconds when it all goes right.
That urge to enthusiastically teach total newbies how to have that moment of getting it right runs deep at the famous and venerable old golfing resort at Auchterarder, an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh. It may be a globally-revered mecca for golf nuts and veteran country sports types, but it wears its elite laurels lightly, and without the slightest hint of insider snobbery.
The four of us had never picked up a gun in anger, but the resort’s shooting experts took that as smoothly in their stride as golfing-pro Tom. Within minutes on the clay pigeon shooting range, our nerves had vanished under the gentle tutelage of Nick, and we were blasting the little black discs out of the air with shotguns like seasoned pros. In fact, Jane was so good at it that I began to suspect that she may have a secret second life as an Olympic marksman.
Similarly, good-humoured but clearly expert tutoring on the target range had us knocking down little metal rabbits and grouse with air rifles with no problem. Again the female half of the family proved deadlier than the male as Scarlett emerged as a lethal crack-shot (much to the annoyance of Fin who was certain that many hours of video game mayhem on Fortnite had ensured he was an expert with any gun).
But there’s lots more to love about Gleneagles than golf, shooting and fishing. It was recently purchased by Ennismore, the people behind the Hoxton hotel chain, much beloved by hipsters and creative types, and that seems to have added an extra air of cool to an already stylish location.
The rooms are spacious, stylish and distinctly old school without falling into the country house hotel trap of being fussy or cloying. The bars and restaurants manage to effortlessly tip-toe the same tricky line between old world and very grown-up charm and boutique sophistication.
We loved the laid-back ambience of the Dormy restaurant with its classic grills and tandooris, and one evening all four of us sprawled in a plush booth in the beautifully refurbished Century Bar, the adults relishing impeccably mixed Old Fashioneds and Mojitos, while the kids sipped mocktails that nonetheless looked just as elegant. Breakfasts in the Birnam Brasserie, with its vast array of pancakes and pastries, were a big hit with all us too.
Then there’s the pool and spa. The main pool is big, light and airy, just the right size and temperature for some serious length swimming, there’s a super slick adult-only pool, while the wonderfully warm outdoor pool wowed the kids at night with its funky neon lighting, waterfall and underwater jacuzzi effects.
In the spa, I had one of the best massages of my life. My only regret is that I ignored the instructions to arrive early and so missed the chance to spend at least an hour circulating through the array of monsoon showers, scrub areas, plunge pools and zen-like (and child-free) chill- out zones.
Talking about children, the kids clubs here are possibly the most designer yet laid-back you’re likely to encounter. Little Glen for two to nine-year-olds, made us all wish we were kids and The Den for
six to 15-year- olds gives children a sense of autonomy with cinema, pool table air hockey, and giant board games.
Gleneagles certainly won a place in the hearts of our two kids with an amazing tree-climbing and zip-wire experience in the woods one morning and a meeting with some very cute ponies. They were only sorry that our stay was too short to cram in a multitude of other possibilities including tennis, canoeing, fly fishing, falconry and football. It certainly lives up to its ‘glorious playground’ moniker where kids can do anything adults can.
We left with preconceptions that Gleneagles is a hang-out for tweedy golfers completely busted, mainly by the elegantly clad, experienced staff at the top of their game who so clearly love their jobs.
In fact, it had been a week of reassessing stereotypes for all of us. Before motoring up to Gleneagles, we had spent a couple of nights at the Balmoral, an equally iconic five-star hotel on a prime spot in Prince’s Street in Edinburgh.
It’s a great stone monolith that sits glowering across Waverley railway station and up toward Edinburgh Castle like a slightly forbidding uncle from a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. But it’s stern looks hid a heart of gold, and a fine sense of Scottish style.
Built as a railway hotel in 1902, it has embraced a new identity as a very upmarket home-from-home, perfectly placed for exploring the historical attractions, shops, restaurants and gardens of both the Old and New Town.
Our inter-connecting high-ceilinged rooms (with the longest curtains we’d ever seen) was beautifully decorated with great views of the castle and the imposing black spire of the Scott Monument on Prince’s Street, the tallest monument to a writer – Sir Walter Scott – in the world. A bottle of Speyside single malt for us, and caramel popcorn, sweeties and a thoughtful selection of comics for the kids made it all the more inviting! We all loved the iconic Palm Court, a famous tea room with a starched but relaxed sense of theatre, and a peek inside the whimsical suite with porthole windows where JK Rowling stayed to finish Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.
Again, it was the idiosyncratic and warm-hearted staff who made as big an impression as the gorgeous décor. Like Giovanni, the bartender in the Prince Brasserie who told us over delicious steaming hot chocolates that he always keeps one of his New York diner-style booths free for kids.
It’s rare to find grand old hotels that make you feel at home with children in tow. It seems that, in Gleneagles and the Balmoral, Scotland has two of the best.
A family room at Gleneagles costs from £385 per night based on a family of four with breakfast. Golf lessons at Gleneagles cost £65 per adult and £60 for two children.
A zip-wire lesson costs £40 per person, and £80 per person with tree climbing. Clay pigeon shooting costs £85 per person.
Junior suites at The Balmoral costs from £600 per night and a one- bedroom suite starts at £850 per night. Both include breakfast. Children under 13 receive Bonnie the Owl and a selection of sweet treats and magazines on arrival, plus a personalised passport to be stamped around the hotel.