Barging Comes to the Fore in Scotland
by JOEL ZUCKERMAN
A golf pilgrimage to Scotland is a time-honored tradition for any serious player, but a barge journey through the waterways of this ruggedly beautiful landscape is a relatively recent invention. Now travelers can combine their love of the ancient game with a tranquil cruising experience through the Loch Ness and other legendary waterways in the Scottish Highlands.
For the journey, home base is the 117-foot Scottish Highlander, a former working barge that's been converted into a sumptuous floating hotel by Go Barging. The tour operator has designed a golf itinerary that avid players will find to their liking: seven days/
six nights of luxury barging, along with five rounds of golf, including several on courses of championship caliber. Life on the barge itself is consistently first rate, with attentive service, superb cuisine and astonishing views.
The Royal Treatment
Far removed from its utilitarian roots, the barge looks like a floating gingerbread cas-tle, vibrantly trimmed in blue, red, and black. Dark wood paneling provides understated elegance to the interiors. With four cabins (all with private bath), the vessel can accommodate up to eight passengers, attended to by a crew of four: captain, chef, hostess and tour guide.
Located in the bow of the vessel, the Cameron Suite offers the most spacious accommodation, with a large double bed. The other cabins are snug- to-small, and offer either twin or double beds in varied configurations. For dining and relaxing, there's the cozy saloon, where books, beverages and lively conversations abound.
The 60-mile long Caledo-nian Canal provides the main conduit for the barge journey. It was constructed in 1822 to provide a safer and more efficient means to navigate from the North Sea to the Atlantic.
Before the 20-odd miles of canal joined the 40 or so miles of lochs already in existence, sailors took their chances in the treacherous Pentland Firth on the northern coast, where 14 mph currents and whipping winds can set the sea aboil. These days the canal hosts mainly pleasure craft - sailboats, cabin cruisers and sight-seeing charters.
The cruise commences in the tiny village of Dochgarroch, located just a few miles from Inverness, the largest city in the Highlands. Spying an infrequent ray of Scottish sunlight glinting off the water, I fervently hoped it might por-tend a stretch of fair weather all too rare in this part of the world.
There were mammoth swans escorting the barge, ospreys feeding their young in a nearby fir tree and the first sighting of Loch Ness. And that was just in the first half-hour.
Loch Ness Mystique
There was no sign of "Nessie," but our attention was drawn to the sheer rock face that rises immediately at the shoreline of Loch Ness. It makes the initial foray through the loch look something like a green-and-heather version of the Colorado River winding through the steep confines of the Grand Canyon. Scotland's best-known body of water is pitch-black just below the surface, just a few degrees above freezing and up to 800 feet deep. Not exactly a water-skiing paradise.
Weather in Scotland can be problematic, but May through September is usually the best bet for fair skies and comfortable temperatures. Anything short of a gale dictates time spent on the spacious deck of the Scottish Highlander, drinking in the rich scenery.
Go Barging makes all the golf arrangements, securing the times and arranging shuttle vans to the courses. Some layouts are located right along the canal, while others might be up to an hour distant. The itinerary includes golf legends as well as endearing courses which seem virtually unchanged since the game originated centuries ago.
One of the golfing highlights on the itinerary is undoubtedly Royal Dornoch. Depending on your perspective, the locale is either best known as the birthplace of golf architectural icon Donald Ross, or as the latest nuptial site of entertainment icon Madonna.
What's indisputable is that the finest course in the Highlands is located in this sleepy village about an hour north of Inverness. At Royal Dornoch, the links unfold in front of and below you on the third tee like a golfer's Elysian Field. The 6,500-yard, par 70 course has a logical, beautiful routing, with holes strung along Embo Bay in the mouth of the Dornoch Firth.
Golf has been played on these grounds since the 1600s, but Old Tom Morris is credited with the current design, completed in the late 1800s. Virtually all of the cavernous greenside and fairway bunkers are visible from the tee or approach areas. Donald Ross
apprenticed for a time at his hometown course, and was influenced by the marvelous raised greens in much of his later work, particularly at famed Pinehurst #2.
Another memorable round awaited at the Carnegie Links at Skibo Castle, a Donald Steel design from 1995. Although this is an exclusive member's club, well-heeled prospects or travelers are invited for a one-time visit, and can enjoy unlimited golf, sports, spirits, food and lodging at the castle for a substantial nightly tariff.
Some Scots malign the course as contrived or "Americanized" - probably an automatic resistance to anything less than a century old, rather than any design factor. Carnegie is both dangerous and gorgeous, with narrow, twisting fairways laid between the Dornoch Firth and Loch Evelix. Close by looms Struie Hill, a foreboding monolith perpetually shrouded in mist. A great gorse-covered dune acts as the spine of the 6,700-yard course, offering a natural delineation between parallel fairways.
Not only golfers enjoy this property, since Carnegie Links is something of a wildlife refuge as well. Otters, seals, heron, deer and fox are among the animals living on or near the grounds.
Besides its status as the birthplace of golf, Scotland is also well known for the rugged beauty of the landscape and friendliness of its people. But a capital of cuisine it's not. Fortunately, on board the Scottish Highlander, the Australian-born chef Damon, was a shining ray of light in the land of black pudding and haggis. Assisting him expertly was Mary, a worldly Canadian whose charm and knowledgeable table service were evident in equal proportion.
At mealtime, Damon served a delicious variety of international cuisine, including Scottish specialties. Kippers and eggs started the day, followed by salmon and seafood at lunch, and venison or game in the evenings, accompanied by fine wines, cheeses and fresh breads.
As the barge neared the Atlantic Ocean at canal's end, the scenery began to change. The waterway had been mostly straightforward and commercial through much of the journey, but it began to narrow and softly curve in either direction, like a winding river. Fields of wildflowers and old stone farmhouses came into view, with cattle grazing and horses in the pasture. It offered an entirely different perspective on Scottish beauty.
"The scenery is definitely one of the highlights of barging in Scotland," offers Derek Banks, the owner of Go Barging. "Everyone talks about the beauty of the French countryside, but to my mind Scotland has it beaten hands down."
The barge anchors next to some extraordinary sights. There is a night spent in the shadow of Urqhuart Castle, a 13th-century medieval stronghold, as well as a night near snow-capped Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom.
The final round of the journey often takes place at tiny Fort Augustus, located just minutes from the canal. If nothing else, it would have been memorable simply for the brilliance of the weather. Sweat and sunscreen entered the golfing equation for the first time, making the amble through the pasture that much more delightful.
This simple nine-holer with two distinct sets of tee boxes abuts the Caledonian Canal, and is primitive by any standard. The greens are cut like fairways, the fairways are cut like rough, and the rough covered with sheep. Animals outnumber humans here by a large margin.
I teed off in total seclusion; the clubhouse was closed and locked, and the only sound was the bleating of the herd. Striding the property like a modern-day flock tender with a titanium shepherd's crook provided a clear vision of what the game was like in centuries past.
There might be 50 courses of renown in Scotland, but twice as many like simple Fort Augustus, with local rules allowing free drops from sheep's wool, and an honor box set outside for greens fees. It's a journey to the essence of the game, a journey made even more memorable when undertaken by barge.
Go Barging offers six day/ seven night barge and golf trips from April through to early November. Rates run from $2,640 to $3,840 per person (double occupancy), including accommo-dations, meals, wines and open bar, golf fees and transfers to and from the golf courses, and more. For details: Phone: 800-394-8630; E-mail: sales@go
barging.com; Website: www.Go Barging.com.
For information about additional tour operators and programs, see the Geographical Index under "Scotland - Barge/ Golf."
Photo courtesy of Go Barging.