(This article first appeared in the July 2012 edition of Golf Canada magazine)
Golfing in Europe presents a delightful dilemma. What country and where to play? Many courses are linked to luxury resorts where you're guaranteed the ultimate golf vacation lifestyle with golf. Here are five of Europe's best 5-star golf resorts.
Ever since the 1950s when the first charter flights began to arrive in Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands has continued to attract millions of visitors every year in search of sand, sea and sunshine. The good news for golfers is that the island is well supplied with 24 quality courses, and several are within chipping distance of the capital, Palma. The best address is the Castillo Hotel Son Vida - an oasis of luxury nestled in the heart of the exclusive villa district of Son Vida, about a 20-minute drive from the airport.
Situated high above the Bay of Palma, this gorgeous 13th-century castle hotel exudes a rich Spanish grandeur with its historical architecture, exquisite antiques and collection of valuable paintings. Since opening in 1961, the hotel has attracted a long list of famous guests including the Spanish Royal Family and film stars like Brigitte Bardot and Steve McQueen. Surrounded by fragrant lush gardens, the view from the hotel's extensive terrace reaches far over Palma. Distant houses spill down verdant hillsides towards a bustling harbour presided over by the imposing 14th-century Gothic cathedral glistening in the sunshine.
Only a few minutes drive from the hotel is Son Muntaner golf course designed by Kurt Rossknecht in 2000. Son Muntaner meanders lazily through an undulating Mediterranean landscape and features well-conditioned fairways and greens, with numerous water hazards and elevated tees. Surrounded by magnificent pines and silvery green olive trees that dot the fairways, the course boasts one special tree in particular. On the fairway of the par-5 15th is the fantastically gnarled and twisted thousand-year-old olive tree known as Sa Capitana, one of the oldest on the island.
Son Muntaner is one of four golf courses linked to the Castillo Hotel Son Vida, which is part of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Mallorca. Designed by F.W Hawtree in 1964, Son Vida is Mallorca's most time-honored course, and the original home of golf in the Balearics. The hilly and challenging layout of Son Quint with marvellous views over the Bay of Palma from several of its tees and greens, and the Executive 9-hole course, adds up to 63-holes in total and one of the best golf complexes in Europe.
Portugal has always been one of Europe's most popular golfing destinations and although the southern Algarve may have the lion's share of the courses, for the travelling golfer looking for something a little quieter and off-the-beaten-track, the Oeste region is an interesting option. Star billing must go to the Praia d'El Rey Golf & Beach Resort, less than one-hour north from Lisbon, situated along a beautiful sandy beach in a rural landscape of rolling sand dunes and pine tree forests.
The centerpiece of the luxury resort is Cabell B.Robinson's wild and wonderful Praia d'El Rey course - a marvellous combination of a parkland front nine and a links back nine that follows the coast with spectacular views over the Atlantic and the Berlenga Islands beyond. When he first viewed the site Robinson said: "This is the kind of landscape we architects try to create, but at Praia d'El Rey it's all here, naturally. Now it's my responsibility to protect it."
After the tighter pine-lined fairways of the opening nine, the course opens up and heads towards the pummeling Atlantic offering all the elements of a Scottish or Irish links, but with warmer weather. Bold deep bunkers, undulating greens, and natural sand areas contrast sharply with the lush green fairways. The signature stretch of holes is from 12-15 that runs along the coast, and a mention must go to the 17th, a gigantic uphill par-5 measuring 570 metres. The whole course offers variety, challenge and magnificent views and along with the top-quality facilities is the reason why Praia d'El Rey was awarded 'Europe's leading Golf and Leisure Resort 2010.'
Away from the golf and resort there's plenty of off-course attractions and activities – from numerous archaeological and historical sites to sparkling Atlantic beaches, enchanting coastal villages, excellent seafood and fine wines. Well worth a visit is the charming fortified town of Óbidos with its picturesque cobblestone streets and whitewashed churches, all encircled by the walls of the 12th century castle.
Standing on the elevated tee of the 567-yard par 5 1st, eyes are drawn down a fairway that bucks and plunges like a raging river towards a large green protected on three sides by soaring dunes. This is the start to a classic round of golf at Doonbeg in County Clare, a links designed by course architect Greg Norman less than ten years ago in 2002, but looks and plays like it's been part of the landscape for a hundred. Holes play, up, down, beside, around, and seemingly into the towering dunes. Bunkers are dug by hand, some edged by tall layers of stacked sod, others by shaggy tufts of native grass.
Doonbeg's caddies will often give the time-honoured advice; "Keep it on the fairway and out of the thick stuff." Depending on the ocean breezes, a caddie may suggest taking anything from a 4-iron to a sand wedge for Doonbeg's signature hole - the spectacular 98-yard par-3 14th, arguably the best one-shotter in Irish golf. The par-4, 18th is a fitting finale to a memorable course, with the ocean stretching the length of the 440-yard hole. Don't bail-out too far left or your second may prove extremely difficult, and the wonderful though deceptive putting surface is a real test for players of all abilities.
Beyond the green is Doonbeg's magnificent granite Lodge, offering elegant accommodation with ocean, river and courtyard views from its one-to-four-bedroom suites, individually furnished with antiques and each with its own private living space and kitchen area. The Links Cottages are even larger residences located alongside the course and offer a self-catering option for families and golfing groups. Amenities at Doonbeg include 5-star dining, spa (with steam rooms, sauna, whirlpool), fitness area, Darby's bar, golf shop and concierge service.
Normandy's Pays d'Auge region is where some of France's best cheeses such as Camembert are made alongside highly-prized drinks such as the fiery apple brandy Calvados. This slice of France is also blessed with a selection of fine golf courses; and for the gourmet golfer an excellent base is the Hôtel du Golf Barrière, a luxurious golf hotel situated on the slopes of Mount Canisy, just five minutes from the coastal town of Deauville.
Many famous guests have enjoyed the old-world charms of the Hôtel du Golf Barrière since it opened its doors in 1929, including Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford and Yves St Laurent, who smile across from their autographed photos inside the foyer. Just opposite, is the cool Le Green Bar, where you can sink into the red velvet armchairs and choose from a selection of thirty types of Calvados.
Only a long putt from the hotel is Golf Barrière de Deauville, rated among France's top 20 prettiest layouts. The three loops of 9 holes are in excellent condition throughout the year, with beautifully manicured fairways and greens. The original 18 holes (red & white tees), built by Tom Simpson in 1929, is a lovely parkland layout, with a nice mix of undulating fairways and varied holes with panoramic views over Deauville and Pays d'Auge country. The other nine-holes (blue tees) designed in 1964 by Henry Cotton have a more wooded character.
Another excellent 27 holes (connected to the hotel) are located 15 kms south of Deauville at Pont L'Évêque, famous for the Normandy cheese of the same name. Golf Barrière de Saint-Julien's main 18-hole layout, called Le Vallon is hilly in sections and winds through lush Normandy pastureland. The higher part of the course encourages some open-shouldered driving, and the lower section features several testing water hazards.
Look out for holes 9 and 18, two par-4s where you must play your second shots over water to reach heavily bunkered and undulating greens, with the marvellous chateau-style clubhouse as a backdrop. If you have time, stop by the restaurant for some fine French cuisine before taking on the 9-hole Le Bocage course.
Turnberry, an icon of Scottish hospitality and the home of four Open Championships, has been treasured for over a hundred years and the hotel has recently been reborn as part of Starwood's acclaimed Luxury Collection following a multi-million pound renovation. The five-star resort boasts fine Scottish cuisine, a wide range of outdoor activities, an award-winning spa, two championship golf courses, the Ailsa and the Kintyre, the nine hole Arran beginners course and the acclaimed Colin Montgomerie Links Academy.
Turnberry's famous Ailsa course came to international prominence with the infamous 'Duel in the Sun' between Tom Watson (champion) and Jack Nicklaus over four sweltering days during July 77. Since then, Greg Norman (1986), Nick Price (1994) and most recently Stewart Cink (2009) have made up the quartet of golfers to lift the Claret Jug at Turnberry.
The 2009 Open championship was particularly memorable, with 59-year-old Tom Watson only a whisker away from arguably the greatest sporting achievement in history. When Watson walked up to the final hole at Turnberry needing par for victory, the world held its breath while it waited for a new hero. But, the ball slipped past the hole when Watson wavered over his 10-foot victory putt and Stewart Cink took victory after a four-hole play-off.
Polls regularly acknowledge the Ailsa as one of Britain's top three courses with regular rankings within the world's top 20. The ninth (Bruce's Castle) is a contender for Turnberry's trademark hole. Adjacent to the famous lighthouse and the remains of Robert the Bruce's Castle (Scottish King from 1306-1329), this 452-yard par-4 has no bunkers, yet is a daunting par-4 especially from the Championship tee which is perched on a rocky premonitory on the edge of the sea.