Difficult though it is to believe, destinations such as Spain, Portugal, Florida, Carolina and Thailand haven't always held the attraction to golfers on holiday that a honey pot holds to a bee. In many cases their development as golfing destinations has come about over recent decades through a combination of cheap and frequent flights, increased consumer spending on holidays and the growth of golf itself as a recreational pastime.
And in many instances the renowned or 'great' golf courses that people now flock to play - Sawgrass, Kiawah Island, Valderrama, Sotogrande and the like - are comparatively recent developments. In short, people didn't start rushing to these oases of fairways because of the great golf on offer; they wanted to play golf somewhere warm and the native country or state built courses to accommodate this ambition.
Oh, and there's one other thing they've got - climate. Specifically, the sort of climate that offers year-round sun, along with a comparatively young economy that allowed green fees to be set at a competitive, if not positively attractive, rate.
A new player in the field of specialist holiday golf destinations is Cyprus, an eastern Mediterranean island with a strong Greek history and tradition, despite a strong Turkish presence, and an invasion by Turkey in 1974 that leaves the island partitioned to this day (although diplomatic moves are afoot to end this impasse). Cyprus has had two golf courses (Tsada and Secret Valley) since the early 1990s but it is the latest development - Aphrodite Hills (pictured over), which opened last year - that will alert the world to the golfing pleasures that can be found in this charming part of the world.
The course was designed by Cabell B. Robinson, an American who learnt his trade with the Trent Jones company before fleeing that particular professional nest to set up on his own. He tends to specialise in the Mediterranean region and among his earlier projects are Praia d'el Ray (Lisbon) and La Cala (Malaga). If you're familiar with those courses it is perhaps sufficient to say that Aphrodite Hills at least matches and in some respects betters them.
Secret Valley and Tsada (pictured above) were built, one suspects, to dip a toe in the water and see if Cyprus could hack it as a specialist golf destination. Aphrodite Hills will ensure that it becomes one - it's that good. And it gets better. The Lanitis Group, which masterminded the development, has plans for at least three more high quality courses and resorts around the island. A five-star Inter-Continental hotel is being built, for example, on the Aphrodite Hills complex but, unlike Spain and Portugal before them, Cyprus has learned the lesson about high-rise hotels spoiling the very landscape that visitors come to view, so most building on the island is strictly regulated and it is rare to see anything built nowadays that climbs higher than three or four stories.
But no matter what the quality of hotels or infrastructure, for the golfer it is the quality of the course that matters and Aphrodite Hills is an extremely enjoyable challenge. It is not a great course - that accolade belongs to only the best the world has to offer - but it is very good, in many ways the perfect holiday course. This means that it requires thought and a sensible approach but is not over penal (there are only two water hazards, for example). In addition, it starts fairly gently but has a tough finish, particularly the par five 18th, which is guarded by water and would tempt only the crispest strikers of a ball to go for the green in two.
The course is set on two plateaus amid the hills and the signature hole is undoubtedly the par three seventh. Because of the land on which the course lies, buggies are compulsory and when you drive down the cart path cut into the side of a gorge to get to the seventh tee, you will understand why. The track is reminiscent of those winding mountain roads you traverse to reach a skiing resort and even in a buggy you tend to be on full brake most of the way and the odd touch of vertigo is entirely appropriate. The hole itself is a mid length (156 metres) one-shotter to a wide but shallow green with no bunkers.
Oh, and between you and the green is nothing but a yawning chasm. Simply, you hit the green (or go a little long) or you're dead, and there's absolutely no way, if you fall short, that you can recover your golf ball. It's the classic all-or-nothing par three that requires a little courage and faith in your swing. Generally, the back nine is the more enjoyable of the two but the width of the fairways and size of the greens mean that players of most abilities will get around as long as they're relatively straight. But a word of warning, the size of the putting surfaces means that you can find the very short grass without too much difficulty but put yourself in the wrong part and a three-putt is almost guaranteed.
The villas and apartments being built as part of the complex are not intrusive and playing the 18th to the accompaniment of the Electric Light Orchestra's Mr Blue Sky (courtesy of a loud transistor radio belonging to one of the builders at the back of the green) made for a rather appropriate finale to a round of golf in 65F at the end of February. Green fees are an extremely acceptable £44 Cyprus (until May 18; then £38.75 until September 14 and £51 from September 16 onwards) considering that they include the cost of buggy hire. There are significant reductions for children under 16, who must be accompanied by an adult. At the time of writing a Cyprus pound is worth £1.15 sterling.
But to prove that even Cyprus has some poor weather, a proposed round at Tsada, much higher in the hills, was cancelled because of overnight snow, which quickly disappeared but left the ground, especially the greens, too frost-affected to play. Nevertheless, undaunted, ScottishGolf borrowed a buggy and drove the course to get a feel for it. This is always a bad move because, if the course is any good, as Tsada is, driving around without being able to play is a frustrating experience.
Way up in the hills with a fabulous view from the 11th tee down towards the sea, it is a wee bit cramped for space, nestled as it is in a valley, so in consequence you need to be very straight from the tee. There are few long holes (only two par fours in excess of 400 yards) but some of the fairways (which are narrow and mainly tree-lined; I paced one out at 17 yards across) are sloping to such an extent that it is difficult to imagine a ball holding them in summer.
The best hole is the 14th; 151 metres par three set alongside a gorge with the green angled (top left to bottom right) in such a way that you have to carry the corner of the gorge to make the green. It has no bunkers; doesn't need them but is one of those beautiful but dangerous short holes we all love. The course has three par fives (longest is 17 at 495 metres); four threes and an overall par of 71. Anyone who shoots their handicap there would be fairly pleased.
In places Tsada looks a bit scrubby but they've just built their own reservoir so will now be able to water more than the greens and fairways in summer (and hope to widen the fairways in consequence) and they're intending to improve the cart paths this year. Buggies aren't compulsory but the hilly terrain makes them a popular choice and it's that terrain that offers the real challenge. The par three 10th, for example, is only 166 metres on the card (white, or visitor tees) but is virtually dead uphill. Add to that a breeze in your face and it could be a full-blooded driver just to get there.
Most important of all, Tsada is extremely friendly and the sort of place where you can forget entirely where you are, with few intrusions from traffic or any other noise except the wildlife. One small footnote, in the literature about Aphrodite Hills, golfers are warned not to hunt with too much vigour for golf balls in the undergrowth because of the 'wildlife'. It was a warning that ScottishGolf took to heart so we cannot comment on exactly what form this wildlife takes; it's enough for us to be warned about it. Green fees at both Tsada and Secret Valley are £28 Cypriot in high season (September 16-May 15, 2004) and £23 Cypriot in low season (May 16-September 15)
The golf in Cyprus is, for the moment at least, situated in the south-west corner of the island, around the town of Paphos (also spelt 'Pafos') and it's a good base from which to see much that the island has to offer, including the striking offshore rock where legend has it that Aphrodite, goddess of love, was born. Cyprus has a long and fascinating history and when you're not playing golf there is a great deal to explore. It is very popular with, and has long associations with the British but don't worry, UK visitors tend to be late middle-aged and older, more interested in a nice cup of tea and an early night than getting drunk in the disco, wearing union jack shorts and throwing up their recently eaten kebab outside your hotel window at 4am.
In consequence there are a number of signs advertising 'full English breakfast' and quite a few bars with names such as the Queen Vic or Rovers Return but if you prefer ethnic authenticity on your holiday, the real Cyprus, with all its Greek influence and cultural history, is not too far away.
If you do choose Paphos as your base, the Paphos Amathus beach Hotel is a perfect location from which to explore, both for its own inherent quality and its location. In essence, turn left out of Paphos Airport, after about 16km turn left at the first roundabout in Paphos, go to the bottom of the hill and, if your brakes don't work, you'll end up in the hotel forecourt. The hotel is quiet, elegant, efficient and friendly and is used to catering for golfers.
Back on the airport road, both Aphrodite Hills and its near neighbour, Secret Valley, are within a 20-minute drive of the hotel. Secret Valley is not too demanding but you need to be straight. One memorable element is that they make real features of the tees; lots of rocks, shingle and cactus plants make them stand out. In addition, many of the holes are framed by striking rockfaces and backdrops, which adds a dramatic element to the round. Both this course and Tsada are good member golf club standard - the sort of layout you might find in the home counties - and that's no bad thing because the last thing you need on holiday is a brutal challenge where survival is the only ambition.
Which brings us back to Aphrodite Hills. You will be hearing many good things about this delightful layout and they will probably all be justified because golf here, and the island of Cyprus generally, is inviting, enjoyable and above all, fun.
Details of Tsada and Secret Valley can be found at www.cyprusgolf.com while Aphrodite Hills has its own site at www.aphroditehills.com.
Details and photographs of the Paphos Amathus Hotel are available at many websites, including www.icfar.com and www.cyprushotelsonline.net.
Cyprus Airways flies from most major British airports (flight time four-and-a-half to five hours) to both Paphos and Larnaca, which are both within easy reach of the island's three golf courses, although Paphos is the closest.
|| 18 - MARCH 2003