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Summertime spin through Scotland reveals destination beating to a lively, global drum



Visiting the UK and not venturing outside of London is a bit like flying to New York and never straying beyond the neon dazzle of Times Square, or jetting to Paris only to do laps around the Eiffel Tower.

Step outside the capital’s buzz, and a treasure trove of history, culture and jaw-dropping scenery awaits. Scotland reigns supreme with its untamed beauty, enchanting lochs and cities that echo with ancient history. It offers an adventure that’s as diverse as it is captivating, plus a host of brand new attractions.

Scotland’s place on the map can get a tad confusing, tangled in a web of geographical and political threads that link it to the UK, the British Isles, Europe and, pre-Brexit, the EU. Occupying the northern half of the Great Britain, think of it like Abu Dhabi’s status within the UAE – no language lessons, passport or currency changes required.

Yet, in this land far removed from desert dunes, the scene is dramatically different from its southern neighbour, England. Here, rugged mountains and ancient castles scatter the horizon, the haunting melody of bagpipes fill the air and the local accent – a rich, thick brogue – challenges the ear, especially when wandering off the beaten path and into the heart of the Highlands.

But Scotland’s allure isn’t just in its landscapes or lore, it’s also in its high-profile admirers. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, finds a slice of paradise here, owning a vast estate on the Isle of Skye. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, is often spotted exploring northern shores. And the connection doesn’t end with royal visits – direct flights from Dubai and Doha cater to a recent surge in travel demand, spurred by the UK’s easing of visa regulations for GCC visitors, creating a bridge from the Middle East to Scotland’s enchanting mystique.

Though those sweeping vistas described earlier might seem worlds away from any urban buzz, diving into a Braveheart fantasy is surprisingly easy. A mere 30-minute jaunt from Glasgow lands you at Cameron House, a lavish five-star retreat that emerges from lush forestry and rolling hills beside the almost mystical Loch Lomond. The 17th-century building marks the threshold of the Highlands – there’s even a sign to prove it.

This historic resort, once the home of famed novelist Tobias Smollett and more unusually a troupe of grizzly bears (a quirky nod to a previous owner’s wildlife fascination), now welcomes guests with the warmth of traditional Scottish hospitality. Think tartan aplenty and doormen decked out in kilts, offering a taste of Highland heritage without skimping on luxury – something that Middle East visitors will likely appreciate.

According to the hotel’s director, Michael Lavizani, most guests from the Middle East come for the cooler climes, then stay for the activities, which include speed boat rides, archery and an on-site thermal spa, plus easy links to nearby Glasgow, one of the UK’s best shopping cities.

“You have landscapes that have been untouched for thousands of years, Scotland’s only private sea plane right on the loch, and you’re also within half an hour of a Christian Dior boutique,” says Lavizani.

An hour’s drive from Cameron House through the heart of Perthshire is Gleneagles. This renowned hotel, a jewel of the roaring Twenties and often hailed as the Riviera of the Highlands, has played host to luminaries from Sir Sean Connery and John Travolta to Tony Blair. Its fusion of ultra-luxury and a staggering array of more than 60 activities has in recent years earned it a new nickname – the Glorious Playground.

Here, suites tucked into turrets and cocooned beneath castellations boast sprawling estate views, with rich velvets and quirky print wallpapers marrying the allure of yesteryear with the polish of modern luxury. These spaces are a haven after days filled with clay pigeon shooting, falconry, or the traditional art of gun dog training. Not to forget the trio of championship golf courses, horse stables, and mini Land Rovers for the little adventurers.

You have landscapes that have been untouched for thousands of years, Scotland’s only private sea plane right on the loch, and you’re also within half an hour of a Christian Dior boutique

Michael Lavizani

The hotel has also seen an influx of guests from the Middle East of late, with numbers doubling annually over the past five years and travellers primarily hailing from the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Gleneagles managing director Conor O’Leary sees the trend as a testament to a “well-travelled” demographic that is eager to “immerse the great outdoors”.

Dispelling the myth of large Gulf family groups renting out entire hotel wings in London’s poshest districts, it’s actually smaller groups that venture into the Highlands, embracing the offerings without the need for customisation. “Initially, we anticipated visitors from London seeking an add-on weekend,” O’Leary says. “But now we’re seeing guests flying directly to Scotland for week-long expeditions into the Highlands.”

According to O’Leary, Gulf visitors are particularly drawn to hawk hunting – joining a legacy that began with the world’s first falconry school at Gleneagles in 1982 – as well as castle explorations, land walks and deer stalking on the estate. Scotland’s famously capricious weather acts not as a deterrent but as a magnet for guests from sunnier regions. “Certain areas and hotels in London are very oversubscribed with Middle Eastern visitors during the summer months, so guests come to Gleneagles to see Scotland and dial down the speed in a colder climate,” he explains.

Journeying from the rugged expanse of the Highlands to the cobbled, history-soaked streets of Edinburgh reveals a new wave of hotel and restaurants openings that are shaking up Scotland’s hospitality scene. The ancient stones of the Royal Mile, weathered by centuries of history, no longer only lead to tartan and complimentary shortbread – but to fresher, more youthful properties that appeal to a new wave of global travellers.

Alongside stalwarts like The Scotsman Hotel and The Balmoral, visitors are flocking to Richard Branson’s edgy Virgin Hotel, the affordable and stylish Motel One and the sultry, velvet-draped House of Gods.

The latest addition to the scene is the W Edinburgh, cutting a striking figure with its spiralling bronze facade that boldly swirls up from the New Town skyline. The doormen wear kilts here too, but with a twist – they’re sleek all-black ensembles, a marked departure from the bright colours of traditional tartan.

Inside, ultra-stylish rooms give a nod to national heritage with subtle tartan accents and walls adorned with portraits by the Scottish-born fashion photographer Jodie Mann. Yet, with its dramatic fire pits, avant-garde revolving circular beds, and sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows, the W Edinburgh boldly declares that it’s time to embrace a new era of Scottish hospitality.

Seizing the opportunity to bridge the old and new, Gleneagles recently unveiled its first urban pied-à-terre in a grand former bank building a few streets away from the W Edinburgh. Echoing the timeless elegance of its rural sibling, The Townhouse offers bedrooms that ooze style, combining woody greens with blush-toned canopied beds and soft velvet chairs that creates an enclave of sophistication in a busy corner of the capital.

While it’s primarily a trendy members’ club, Gleneagles Townhouse is open for all to stay. During my visit, I even spot Harry Potter star Ralph Fiennes rubbing shoulders with the city’s hoi polloi at breakfast – and he’s not the only visitor in town looking for something new. Dining under the ornate corniced ceilings of The Spence, the hotel’s restaurant and rooftop bar, the chatter is not only in English but Arabic, French, Italian and a generous dose of Scots. A typical Tuesday in a nation that’s mastered the art of global hospitality with a local twist.

Updated: May 09, 2024, 10:06 AM

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