Framed by the deep gray-blue of one of Scotland’s most famous lakes — make that lochs — behind him, the handsome red-tailed hawk swooped a few feet above the expansive Cameron House lawn before perching on my outstretched, heavily gloved hand. His trainer, a fast-talking chap with blond hair and an outdoorsman’s restless, open attitude, quickly fed his friend a big chunk of raw meat. A quick forearm flick and the big bird was off again, lighting on a tree limb some eighty yards away.
I’d arrived at this stately castle-turned-resort a few hours earlier after a two-hour Scotland Rail ride from Leuchars Station just north of St. Andrews to Queen’s Station in downtown Glasgow, where Jeremy Hawkings, Connoisseurs Scotland’s marketing man, picked me up for the 40-minute drive north to Loch Lomond. A spate of rain would be chased away by bright, sun, then return, then run away again — the classic Scottish weather game in full play. When the loch came into view I caught myself thinking of Lake Tahoe, that glorious mountain jewel, back home in Nevada. We have our share of hawks there, too, but I’d never gotten this close to the beautiful predator, especially one so tuned in with his human cohort. It was a thrill, as was the hour-long Loch Lomond cruise that immediately preceded it — aboard the Cameron House’s luxury craft, Celtic Warrior.
I wondered if the hawk could track down my errant golf balls the following morning at The Carrick, a fine parkland layout and the only course in Scotland that straddles the island’s Lowlands and Highlands (divided by an actual faultline), with nine holes on each — the outward down low, starting along the loch’s tranquil shore, the inward climbing toward mist-shrouded hills right out of central casting before soaring downhill, bird-like, with one dramatic, mid-iron drop at the par-3 14th. Alas, the hawk was otherwise engaged, so I was on my own in the early fall chill , pushing a powered trolley up and down the rain-drenched Carrick’s gentle ridges, through thick turf and around muddy puddles. At any rate I lost far fewer balls than I would on the other courses on this journey, all of them links on the sea. Named after Scotland architect Doug Carrick and opened in 2007, this routing among stands of pine, fir, spruce and plenty of deciduous trees as well as ponds, wetlands and streams is generous in width, with large and surprisingly quick greens even after a stretch of soggy weather. Bunkering is, fittingly, of the small, round, “pot” variety.
The course is a solid hike, too; by the time our group reached the halfway house — actually a boat converted into a cozy confine where the single malt flows — we were more than ready for a quick and bracing dram. At 10 a.m., no less. Then it was into the Highlands (complete with a welcome sign on the 10th tee) for a sublime trek through nature, augmented with thrilling golf shots. The round reaches its literal high point at the tree-shrouded 13th green and clifftop 14th tee, then winds downhill to culminate at the modern, mountain lodge-styled clubhouse and Claret Jug restaurant — a large, stately, comfortable room loaded with golf memorabilia and serving breakfast through dinner, everything from steak and barbecue chicken to classic Caesar salad and, yes, haddock and chips, the “other” national dish besides haggis. While the Carrick might not enjoy the notoriety of the Tom Weiskopf-authored Loch Lomond Golf Club a few miles north, it has hosted its share of high-profile amateur and pro events over the years. And will again. It’s a wonderful place to begin a Connoisseurs-hosted golf tour, especially if you’re flying into Glasgow.
Same for the Cameron House, which is one of Scotland’s most popular resorts due to its size (100 acres), ease of access, wealth of recreation water and land-based recreation options (boating, biking, hiking … and falconing) and broad breadth of rooms both within the main baronial mansion (the two-room suites are a lovely option) as well as several stand-alone family-sized bungalows. Its impressive restaurants include the Cameron Grill for Scottish breakfast, elegant lunch or solid steak-seafood dinner; the award-winning Martin Wishart for a high-end experience; and the casual Boat House for solid resort fare with views of the resort’s marina and loch beyond. That’s where I got my first literal taste of Connoisseurs hospitality with a cozy bowl of seafood chowder, and ended with a final Loch Lomond seafood dinner the following day as we prepared to head north and east to Aberdeenshire on a luxury shuttle provided by Little’s, one of Europe’s top personal transport companies.
Before that meal, however, we had some drinkin’ to do. About 30 miles into the Highlands is Glengoyne, the nearest Scotch distillery, where we took a fascinating Malt Master Tour —the first of several whisky-tasting adventures on this journey. A veteran Scotch aficiando named Arthur led us through Glengoyne’s meticulous, unrushed brewing process begun in 1833 and altered very little to this day: air-drying its barley malt (no peat burning in this part of Scotland); mixing it with water and mashing it into wort — a sweet, thick beer-like base — in huge wooden vats; fermentation with yeast; distilling in distinctive bell-shaped copper stills; harvesting the “pure centre cut” clear alcohol; and, finally, aging it in Spanish sherry casks in a cool and dark warehouse for anywhere from three years and one day (the bare minimum to yield an official single malt) to 25 years or more. Then we had the opportunity to blend our own personal flasks of Scotch to either sip through the bogeys and birdies to come or stash for the eventual flight home. I’ve still got my bottle, just waiting for the right time to pop the cork and relive those heady first few days in Scotland.
Cheers to that. Or, to put it a Scottish brogue, sláinte mhath!
Cameron House: www.cameronhouse.co.uk
Connoisseurs Golf: www.luxuryscotland.co.uk
Glengoyne Distillery: www.glengoyne.com