Think of golf in Portugal and most people's minds will turn, not unnaturally, to the Algarve, that strip of country along the Mediterranean coastline. But if you want excellent golf and much else besides, you should try Lisbon, the capital, and its surrounding areas. The best place for golf is the small (20 by 40 kilometres) area known as Costa Do Estoril and Sintra.
There are many extremely good golf courses in the area but the enormous bonus, for golfers and non-golfers alike, is that you can also spend time in one of continental Europe's most attractive and vibrant cities. Lisbon has a long and rich history that virtually seeps through the pores of the buildings but is also modern, cosmopolitan and a shopper's paradise.
So, that's the non-golfers taken care of but what of the golf? An excellent place to base yourself is the Hotel Quinta Da Marinha (pictured above), which is in a 250-acre resort created out of a plantation of umbrella pines. The nearest British equivalent would be Wentworth and the ambition has been to create the same mix of high-value private properties and golf. What Quinta Da Marinha has in addition to the quiet, tree-lined roads is the hotel itself, spacious, airy and comfortable, with fine views over the swimming pool, golf course and the Atlantic beyond. The hotel opened almost 20 years ago but substantial refurbishment of both hotel and golf course since 1999 has seen significant improvements.
Robert Trent Jones Jr oversaw the upgrading of the course, which is a good test but one criticism is that the start is a bit cramped for space - after leaving the par three 2nd you have to cross the first fairway about 50 yards of the green to reach the 3rd tee. Also, the clubhouse is a fair trek, about half a mile, from the hotel, and not the easiest place to find your way around; it's in three distinct sections and they're not especially well labelled.
Finally, it's difficult to escape the sense that whole course has been designed around the spectacular par five 11th, which leads back to the hotel swimming pool. Two lakes, one eating into the right off the tee, and the second one on the left all the way up to the green dominate your strategy. It's an extremely photogenic hole but gives the unmistakeable impression that, because of this, all the others have been slotted in as best they can. However, it would be wrong to leave the course without mentioning the par three 15th. It plays around 150 yards and, with a deep ravine between tee and green and the Atlantic crashing into cliffs along the left, it leaves an indelible mark on the memory.
The crowning glory of Quinta Da Marinha, though, is the newly-opened Oitavos course (pictured over), a three-minute drive from the hotel. It is, simply, magnificent and ScottishGolf has no doubt that it will soon be rated one of the best courses in continental Europe. It has three distinct topographical elements - forest, dunesland and open, transitional areas between the two. Each hole has been built to blend in with the terrain in which it is situated so that, in keeping with so many great courses, they look to have been there forever, despite having only been open just over a year. At around 6,400 yards (5,809 metres) it is not over-long but is an excellent test of golf for all level of players - and get this for a Portugese golf course, not a water hazard in sight.
The course architect was Arthur Hills, an American, and ScottishGolf would like to apologise now for any criticism it may have made over the years towards US course designers for their tricked-up, over-fussy, water-dominated layouts. Oitavos is a testament to what can be achieved from good raw material and a sensitive, talented architect. If you only play one course in the Lisbon area, this has to be it. You can even enjoy a round in the rain.
Portugal's climate makes it very attractive to UK golfers as a winter destination but sunshine cannot be guaranteed. Remember the appalling wet weather we had between October and December last year, when it rained virtually every day for the whole of the autumn? Well, they had the same weather in Portugal and when it rains there it can be of biblical proportions - some of us were sloshing down the fairways looking anxiously over our shoulders for an ark. ScottishGolf visited in November and three of the four courses we went to were nigh unplayable. Despite this, and the need on one memorable occasion to use a ball retriever to rescue a mint-condition Nike ball from a lake in the middle of the fairway at Quinta Da Marinha, Oitavos was in astonishingly good condition.
One of the simplest measures of any course, we think, is the old question: 'If you could play only one golf course for the rest of your life, would you choose this one?' In the case of Oitavos the answer is a resounding 'Yes, and it would be a delight.'
Older, much better established and nearly as memorable is Penha Longa. In fact, the course is almost as good, just different. Where Oitavos makes maximum possible use of its location on the coast, Penha Longa is about a 30 minute drive inland, set in rolling (in places cardiac-inducing) hills and created from the ubiquitous pine trees and rocks of the area, - the name Penha Longa means long rock. Its character is hilly and your 15th club is definitely between your ears, as it requires patience, planning and perseverance.
It was also designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr and uses the rolling, undulating landscape to excellent effect, although you might want to consider investing in a buggy. Either that or make sure you don't have the honour when you climb up to several of the elevated tees, so that you can get your breath back before teeing off. It has water on four holes but the hazards blend well into the existing countryside and don't seem to have been stuck in as specific features. The hotel attached to the course is luxurious and expensive but there's no hint of the snobbery of aloofness that can be a part and parcel of up-market facilities - in fact, Penha Longa was the friendliest of the four courses on our itinerary.
A close second, though, was Club De Campo at Belas, an enjoyable, inland, resort-style course. Sadly, on the day of ScottishGolf's visit, the back nine was unplayable due to the heavy rains the area had experienced for weeks - and the front nine was only just negotiable. Despite that, it's a good test although doesn't blend into its surroundings quite as successfully as Oitavos or Penha Longa; in places the labour and effort that have gone into creating this playground in the hills, shows. Oh, and because a number of the greens are elevated you'll need a good iron game because approach shots need to be both long and accurate.
Mention must be made, though, of the par five 2nd, which is a mirror image of the 13th at Augusta National. It doglegs from the tee left-to-right and only big hitters would attempt the green in two - especially with sodden fairways offering no roll. The green is set at an angle and guarded by a stream at the front. ScottishGolf remembers the hole so well by virtue of a birdie and par but lack of space, sadly, doesn't allow a detailed description of how they were achieved.
If you fancy staying in Lisbon and venturing out for your golf, rather than the other way round, the Dom Pedro Hotel is recommended. It's the newest five-star hotel in Lisbon and it's restaurant offers super views over the Tejo river and old city. Even if you can't afford to stay, a meal there makes an excellent treat. The hotel is one of seven in the Dom Pedro group, which specialises in packages for the holiday golfer.
Portugal has always been a popular golfing destination, especially to us Brits, and particularly in winter. But don't think only of the Algarve; Lisbon and Costa Do Estoril and Sintra would be an excellent holiday destination in any event but the addition of superb golf makes it nigh on unmissable. And if further proof were needed, it has just been voted the Established Destination of the Year by IAGTO, The International Association of Golf Travel Operators.
The Esoril and Sintra golf coast beat off competition from places such as Hilton Head, Palm Springs and Myrtle Beach in the USA, the south of France and south-west Ireland, in addition to home-grown areas such as Ayrshire and Fife. Each area nominated is rated on criteria such as: Customer satisfaction, quality of golf courses and accommodation, value for money, support from suppliers, tourist boards and airlines, professional conduct of suppliers and accessibility to tee times. It's a big deal in the travel industry and shows how good this destination is.
What are you waiting for?
TAP - Air Portugal
(+351) 218431100; www.tap-airportugal.pt
Quinta Da Marinha/ Oitavos Golfe
(+351) 214 860600; www.quintadamarinha.com
Penha Longa Golf Resort
(+351) 219 249011; www.caesarparkpenhalonga.com
Belas Club De Campo
(+351) 219 626600; www.belas-clube-de-campo.pt
Dom Pedro Hotels
(+351) 213 896601; www.dompedro.com
|| 13 - JANUARY 2003