Crashing weddings, crazy Russians, and some golf: A year playing round the world

Courses and Travel

Unlike most, we don’t just guess what a destination is like – we actually go. But not everything goes to plan, as travel editor Chris Bertram found out

Golf travel editor Chris Bertram has been to corners of the world some of us have never even heard of. So we asked him to document his year in the air and on the fairways, with some interesting characters along the way. Starting, obviously, in January…

Abu Dhabi

The one with the rude Ryder Cup player

This started the year off and we got there in just over five hours. Apparently when a royal is on board, they put the foot down. A round at Yas Links – clearly the best course in the Middle East and one of my favourites outside Britain – was followed by nights out on Yas Island and downtown, but also the tedium of grabbing players on the range for interviews.

After one especially sore snub by a player with a huge opinion of himself (clue: English, Ryder Cup player, big smile when the cameras are on), Dustin Johnson restored my faith in humanity and professional golfers.

Chris Bertram Dustin Johnson in Abu Dhabi

Adare Manor

The one with the perfect weekend

If I’ve had a better weekend than this, it was so lively I’ve forgotten it. A brilliant redesigned inland course with hints of Augusta and THE most special experience imaginable in the converted manor.

Adare wants the Ryder Cup and given it won’t go to a great historic course, it deserves to get it.

Hilton Head Island

The one with the puncture

Landing in Atlanta late on the evening of April 4 I was very happy; I was going to The Masters the next morning. An hour or so later, things were looking less rosy as I was changing the punctured wheel of my hire car at 1.20am under the dim light of a rural church.

The temporary spare got me to my Airbnb and then to Augusta, and obviously I got it repaired to drive to Hilton Head on Friday evening…

At least that would have been the sensible thing to do. But I didn’t dare miss a minute of Masters spectating by getting it repaired, so drove 200 miles with essentially a frisbee as a rear wheel.

Hilton Head was worth it though – the courses at Palmetto Dunes and iconic Sea Island were superb – and while there I got the tyre repaired for the drive back to Augusta. I then escaped unscathed from my no-nonsense Airbnb host…

Augusta Airbnb host sign

She was actually lovely.

Azerbaijan via Belgium

The one with the wedding

After the European Institute of Course Architects conference in April – when I played Tom Simpson’s Fagnes and brand-new The National – I flew back to Manchester and walked from T3 to T2 to get on another plane, bound for Baku. The travel was worth it though, because the Dreamland resort I visited is superb and Baku itself is super-cool.

After watching the F1, via a couple of post-race parties, I found myself in a traditional Azeri wedding late in the night. Standard trip.

Sardinia

The one with the perfect lunch view

Lunch views in Sardinia

The golf here is just OK but this is a brilliant island. Lunch at Stintino, exploring Capo Caccia and Bosa, and great dinners in Alghero made this a fabulous four days. Definitely visit Sardinia, just don’t feel the need to play too much golf.

Costa Navarino

The one with the No. 1 ranking

Officially the best in Continental Europe, with the Dunes – an excellent technical course and ludicrously scenic Bay allied to crazy levels of luxury and amenities in the hotels.

Flights to Kalamata are limited so we flew to Athens and drove down to the Peloponnese.

Bergerac

The one with the ‘characters’

I could barely get that theme tune out of my head on this trip. But when I wasn’t thinking about Crozier, Charlie, that car and the Bureau des Estrangers, I was enjoying one of my favourite areas of Europe.

I stayed and played for the second time at the brilliant Chateau des Vigiers but the highlight was the game at Saint Emilionnais, during Tom Doak’s invitational event. It is one of my favourite continental courses and many of those attending Doak’s event could be safely described as ‘characters’. They were almost as entertaining as the charismatic architect’s funky design.

Bergerac Airport

Quinta do Lago

The one with the steak

QdL has three super courses and we played two on this trip in June. The retro chic Magnolia Hotel was also a brilliant base for this long weekend in the Algarve.

Overshadowing even the courses, hotel and sunshine – plus the beach day, lunch at The Shack and birdie-birdie start on the Laranjal – was an epic meal at Bovino Steakhouse. Starters – amazing! Various cuts of meat – amazing! Desserts – amazing! It’s so good that if you have a bad meal here, I’ll pay the bill myself. (Disclaimer: I won’t, I will just get QdL to write it off for making me look stupid.)

Tuscany

The one with the credit card

This July trip started badly when I was refused the car I’d hired as my credit card doesn’t show my middle name in full.

After a very expensive on-the-spot hire at the desk next door, the trip started at tranquil Argentario on the secret that is Monte Argentario, then continued at Castelfalfi.

If you like mixing golf with sightseeing then you’ll enjoy it here, with trips to San Gimignago, Florence and Siena. Just don’t drive into the latter, it’s a Unesco site and cars aren’t welcome, which I only realised as I drove out. Some sort of fine will surely make its way to me as a result.

Oh, and never, ever hire from Firefly.

Bulgaria

The one with the border incident

Bulgaria swimming pool

It seemed like a good idea; the Cape Kaliakra resorts look appealing, and I needed to go to find out how good they are for our Top 100 Resorts list. But there are limited flights to Varna and Sofia is a long drive west. Bucharest, though, is around two hours away. A night out in the Romanian capital then drive down to Cape Kaliakra in the morning. Perfect!

The night out was everything we hoped for and more so we felt quite smug as we approached the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Turns out, though, it is more strictly policed than most in Europe and the police didn’t like the photocopied permit the ‘sporty’ hire firm had given me.

It has to be the original but just as I thought my pleas were finding some sympathy, one of the officers pointed out it was also out of date. Oh joy. Thanks ‘Cars4Rent’! So we could enter Bulgaria, but the car couldn’t. Hiring a second car was considered but we eventually got a taxi to Lighthouse. 

At least that was the end of the drama though. Oh no, wait, there was still an ill-advised bike ride to get to Thracian Cliffs – the clue is in the name, really – a hotel power cut for a day, a return taxi driver who slept in, a hire car whose dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree on the way back to Bucharest, and acute traffic problems that meant we nearly missed the flight.

The resorts were great too. Thracian Cliffs is clifftop golf on steroids, BlackSeaRama is a strong support cast and Lighthouse is a solid course and the place to stay.

Milan and Lakes 

The one with the lack of drama

Milan

The perfect two-stop trip. Land in Milan and have a night out in the hipster Navigli canalside area, where the bars have this loss-leading idea of paying for two drinks and getting a meal for free. It’s hard to work out how this works for them but it certainly worked for us – parking the hire car overnight in the city centre cost more than our evening meal!

Then to Palazzo Arzaga near Lake Garda as I’d heard it was an excellent resort; I had not been misled, because the course is lovely and the accommodation is an intoxicating mix of luxury and palatial heritage. Garda itself is great – especially Sirmione – and so is Lake Como, but eschew Como the town in favour of lesser-known Lecco. It is much prettier and less hectic.

Stop at Baveno on the way back to Milan. It was an unusually seamless trip, on reflection. How tedious.

Oman

The one with the utopian hotel

The best hotel of the year. The best hotel of any year. I am ludicrously fortunate to stay in really nice hotels all over the world, but The Chedi in Muscat tops the lot.

It is effortlessly classy and for a five-star hotel that is essentially six-star you never feel anything other than totally at ease.

Low-rise villas are arranged between the main building and the sea around a myriad water features and groomed gardens. Bedrooms and suites are spacious, luxurious and equipped with everything from a sunken bath to complimentary gin, whisky and vodka.

There are three pools including a 103-metre ‘long pool’, excellent spa and gym, Pilates and yoga on the lawn overlooking the sea, and seemingly endless pool bars to eat and drink in from morning to midnight. Muscat has three courses, with Greg Norman’s seaside Al Mouj the pick. If you are in Dubai or Abu Dhabi for a week and fancy something very different, fly or drive to Oman.

Or head straight here from the UK. It’s that good.

The Chedi, Oman

Verdura Resort

The one with the sunbed inquisition

Peak ‘lols’ when someone approached me while lying by the pool in August to ask if I was “that person who does the Top 100 rankings”. Even more amusing and frankly astonishing was the fact she didn’t think I was really awful at them.

Anyway, Verdura is brilliant, where it is genuinely hard to split which of the East and West courses is better –omething I admitted to my sunbed inquisitor.

St Petersburg

The one with Sergey

How I ended up going here is an hilarious story in itself.

How I got the visa to go is just as good.

But we’re running out of space. This trip was all about my crazy Russian host Sergey – owner of the excellent Gorki Golf Resort – and things like him insisting on at least one pint of beer and three vodka shots after nine holes, or him closing down the world-famous Hermitage Museum so I got a guided tour with course architect Lassi Pekka Tilander.

Oh, and the fact Sergey casually flew to Majorca to meet me for a night out on my next trip to Palma five days later. I then also saw him in Slovenia in October. And we are going skiing in Georgia in March. Otherwise a standard host. 

Majorca

The one with more Sergey

Met Sergey for a night out in Palma (more vodka), produced some truly horrific golf on two Arabella courses (Son Vida is the original and best and Son Muntaner is also really good with Son Quint the No. 3), then had a run in with the hire car company over some phantom scratches (still unresolved). Fin.

My year in numbers

My top 10 British breaks in 2018

Gleneagles: Three days in heaven…hard to believe there is a better golf resort in the world. In fact there isn’t. Read more here.

Stoke Park: Excellent course renovation and hotel and facilities ooze class – especially the bedrooms and spa.

Mottram Hall: Pleasant course and characterful hotel with understated luxury that should be higher profile. Read more here.

Rockliffe Hall: A tasting menu worthy of an elite London eaterie and super-glitzy bedrooms. A special retreat. Read more here.

East Lothian: Love the relentless number of links along the A198 and we found a brilliant base: Garleton Lodge. Read more here.

Headlam Hall: Had never even heard of it before being approached to go. Such an easy-to-love Durham venue. 

Forest Pines: Knew the three nines were lovely, didn’t realise the food was up there with five-star levels. 

Southport: The quality of world-class links on your doorstep is incredible. Read more here.

Oulton Hall: Perfect for an overnight stay with excellent food and cool drinks.

Windermere: One of England’s most funny and scenic courses – and great food.

More travel guides from NCG

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