Vitali Vitaliev visits an old Scottish treasure and finds it offers a uniquely democratic kind of hospitality.
If asked to name the most striking feature of Gleneagles Hotel, I would say ‘democracy’.
How come, I hear you ask, for this historic five-star establishment is surely pricey? Indeed, but democracy cannot be expressed solely in monetary terms. Gleneagles’ unique democratic modus operandi allows each guest to remain in his or her own comfort zone: those who come for a meeting or a conference can focus entirely on the business agenda, unless they wish to succumb to hedonistic relaxation – in the spa, in one of the bars or restaurants, or outside – on over 800 acres with three championship golf courses, cycle paths and shooting ranges.
Gleneagles adjusts to you by being an atmospheric mixture of a US-style convention centre and a quiet British country inn, where guests are addressed by their first names and hot water bottles are left in the rooms of an evening whether they’re asked for or not.
A discerning guest is likely to experience a gamut of mutually contradictory emotions: from complete isolation – as if caught inside a bubble of an alternative mini-universe, to direct involvement, i.e. feeling inseparable from the hotel’s magnificently modernised Adam-style interiors and its old-railway-station ambience (it is, after all, one of Britain’s great railway hotels), to the point when you feel teleported 95 years back in time.
Time, in fact, does not exist in Gleneagles, particularly in winter when a spark of greyish daylight outside its bay windows is brief like the final flash of a dying light-bulb. It can be midday or midnight – who knows, and who cares? The only measurable parameters of time can then be observed in the Strathearn restaurant, with its décor of the golden-age-of-railway waiting room: if it’s morning, they unveil a Lucullan breakfast buffet, with five types of smoked salmon. If it’s evening, there is an eight-course tasting menu, including Orkney scallops and Scottish halibut.
In Gleneagles, you also become part of history. It all started in 1910 when Donald Matheson, the newly appointed GM of the Caledonian Railway Company, decided to build a luxury hotel in the Strathearn Region. His plans were delayed by WWI, but Gleneagles finally opened in June 1924 (a bespoke railway branch, leading to it, opened a year earlier) with the ceremony transmitted live in what became Scotland’s ever first outside radio broadcast. The hotel was termed ‘The Highland Palace’ and even ‘The Switzerland of Scotland’.
The hotel has since changed a number of owners and tenants, including a short period after WWII when it functioned as a rehabilitation centre for miners. For over 30 years, Gleneagles had been owned by Diageo, and in 2015 it was sold to private investment company Ennismore, which has recently completed a multi-million-pound refurbishment, with an emphasis on events and meetings spaces (see box).
The result is astounding and the pride of the 1,100-strong (at peak times) staff is highly contagious for the guests, each of whom is likely to leave as a true patriot of Gleneagles (or, to use my own euphemism, of ‘the Democratic Republic of Gleneagles’), with a firm intention to come back. I certainly will.