GOLF IN SPAIN & PORTUGAL
by David Brice
Few countries match Spain and Portugal for the sheer variety of reasons to visit. The beaches of the Iberian Peninsula’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines have long been popular with Northern European sun-worshippers, who flock here during their traditional summer vacations. For American visitors, the rich history and culture of two of Europe’s oldest nations have always provided the main attractions. Now a new phenomenon is drawing more Americans to both Spain and Portugal — golf.
The dramatic increase in the popularity of golf over the past decade has led to a corresponding upswing in people taking a golf vacation. The opportunity to play top-ranked courses is an irresistible temptation for any golfer, and the Iberian Peninsula is home to a good number of Europe’s best.
The traditional idea of a golf trip being the exclusive domain of “the guys” — where spouses are left at home and golf is the sole focus — has all but disappeared. In its place, more considerate golfers — of both sexes — are choosing destinations offering a diversity of attractions and activities that appeal to accompanying partners who may be less enamored by the game. In a sport acknowledged as having definite chauvinistic leanings, this is a huge step forward. Spain and Portugal could well help save more golfers’ marriages than we will ever know.
Between them, Spain and Portugal contain 27 of Continental Europe’s “Top 100 Golf Courses” — an important fact for any golfer. Equally appealing, the best courses in both countries are conveniently clustered together, minimizing the amount of travel required to play them. With non-players in mind, the golf gods have placed these course clusters close to many of Spain and Portugal’s most fascinating attractions.
On a two-week trip, the very best of Spain and Portugal can be savored at a leisurely pace with perhaps two different hotel stays in each. Travelers with less time than this would do better by choosing to focus on just one country. Each destination has unique appeal.
If Portugal is the choice, travelers can divide a weeklong stay between the charming capital of Lisbon — or better yet, the coastal region surrounding the city — with a similar stay on the Algarve, the golf-rich region in the south of the country. Separated by only a couple of hours’ drive, the two regions provide quite different experiences with easy access to all of Portugal’s top-rated golf courses.
The chic resort towns of Estoril and Cascais sit in the middle of a cluster of outstanding courses just a half hour from the heart of Lisbon. A commuter train runs frequently from both towns into the city center, allowing easy access to the capital’s many attractions without the hassle of driving back and forth, and fighting big-city traffic.
Within minutes of Estoril or Cascais golfers can be playing some of Portugal’s most respected golf courses, including Penha Longa, Oitavos and Quinta da Marinha. The historic town of Sintra is just as close and well worth visiting.
Situated an hour’s drive north along the coast, Praia D’El Rey has taken Portugal by storm. A relatively new course, it is well on the way to establishing itself as the best layout in the country. After golf on Praia D’El Rey, travelers can explore nearby Obidos, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the country. Narrow cobblestoned streets, ancient churches, brightly painted houses and a selection of excellent restaurants makes this a wonderful escape from golf for everyone.
Picturesque coves, inlets, bays and some of the most pristine beaches in Europe lie along the Algarve, which stretches for 75 miles along Portugal’s southernmost coast. Here you’ll also find Portugal’s heaviest concentration of championship courses. Vilamoura’s Old and Victoria Courses rank among the best, accompanied by Penina, San Lorenzo, Vale do Lobo, Quinta do Lago and a dozen more. All are located within a few minutes’ drive of each other. Golfers could spend their entire trip here playing 36 holes a day, and still not have enough time to experience all the highlights.
Almost 300 courses are scattered throughout Spain, with the great wealth extending from the southern Portugal/Spain border, along the Atlantic, into the Mediterranean, all the way to Barcelona and the Costa Brava. It’s a 750-mile journey of glorious golf and some of the best courses in all of Europe.
The heart and soul of Spanish golf, however, lies in the colorful, southwesterly region of Andalucia and the Costa del Sol — better known these days as the Costa del Golf. From Gibraltar in the west to Malaga in the east, this golfing wonderland encompasses almost 60 top-notch courses, including Valderrama of 1997 Ryder Cup fame, the top-ranked layout on Continental Europe. Now considered the spiritual home of European golf, this is a course every golfer dreams of playing, despite the very limited availability to visitors.
Valderrama’s golf neighbors may lack the same name recognition, but they share an almost equal level of prestige and are certainly ranked among Spain’s best. Sotogrande, San Roque, Almenara and the stunning new layout at La Reserva are all top-quality layouts and tough enough to challenge even the most accomplished golfer.
Spend a few days away from the coast in the beautiful Andalucian capital of Seville, soaking up the rich culture of this historic city. The home of flamenco and the birthplace of tapas, it’s renowned for outstanding architecture and gourmet food. Seville is also setting for the excellent Royal Seville Golf Club.
Heading back toward the coast, it takes less than an hour to reach the sherry capital of Jerez de la Frontera with more temptations for golfers and non-golfers alike. Visiting a sherry bodega or two is almost mandatory, and as the region also produces superb brandies, why not a brandy house as well? Jerez de la Frontera has another important institution headquartered here, the Royal School of Equestrian Arts. Horse lover or not, visitors should take in the amazing daily performances of horsemanship.
For the golfers, Montecastillo Golf Club is located just a couple of miles outside of town. A past host to the Volvo Masters, one of the most prestigious events on the European Tour, it offers one more opportunity to test golfing skills against a spectacular Spanish layout.
The best place to end a golf trip to Spain: in fashionable Marbella, an ideal resort base from which to sample more of the Costa del Sol’s endless golf banquet. More than two dozen courses surround the town. La Cala offers three excellent layouts — hilly, testing, and thoroughly handsome. Monte Mayor presents another unique if mountainous challenge, as does the coast’s most recent addition, dramatic Santana Golf Club.
An equally impressive menu of off-course activities delights even confirmed non-golfers. Marbella’s delightful Old Town presents a maze of narrow, winding streets, fountains, wonderful restaurants and galleries. For nightlife and chic boutiques, the center is the Marina at Puerto Banus, featuring trendy restaurants, nightclubs and the ever-popular Casino. For a fascinating excursion, people can visit the medieval town of Ronda. Spectacularly located high in the mountains behind Marbella, it was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.
Not just golf but castles, museums, beaches, and grand cuisine add to the magic and intrigue that is the essence of the Iberian Peninsula.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on programs offered by Golf International, Inc.: Tel: 800-833-1389 or 212-986-9176; Website: www.golfinternational.com.
For additional programs and tour operators, see “Find Your Adventure” under “Golf — Spain” and “Golf — Portugal.”
Author David Brice is president of Golf International, which specializes in golf travel to Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal and France. He also has served as president of the American Association of Golf Tour Operators (AAGTO) for the past 10 years.
GOLFING IN SPAIN AND PORTUGAL - TRAVEL TIPS
• Plan a golf trip early. High demand, private clubs, such as Spain’s Valderrama, sell out the limited number of starting times allocated to visitors as early as six or nine months in advance.
• When to Go. Golf is a year-round affair in Portugal and the south of Spain, but better to miss the crowds by avoiding the traditional European holiday months of July and August. December and January can be on the cool side, but any of the remaining eight months will be great.
• Choosing Accommodations. Where to stay is as important as where to play. Spain and Portugal offer accommodations ranging from the most luxurious, to charming small hotels, to some that might be less than desirable. Rules of thumb: People should never lower their normal standard of living, and always should stay near the courses they are playing.
• Expect to dine late. Meals are normally taken much later in Spain and Portugal than in the United States. Lunch is usually eaten at 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. and dinner at 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. or even later.