In the second part of his 2019 review, our travel editor finds low-profile superstars as far apart as Porto and Ajman, skis in Georgia, and pairs up Cyprus and Istanbul
Spanning 16 countries and 56 flights, I’ve spent 12 months trying to bring you ideas of where to go for your next golf trip (plus maintaining my year-round tan).
I’ve been to so many places this year that I’ve had to split my reflection of my year in the air and on the road into three parts – and I still can’t even include everywhere I’ve been. These are just the highlights/episodes of misfortune.
If you missed the first part, you can read it here. Anyway, this is May to September, ranging everywhere from Tbilisi to Ajman and Istanbul to Porto…
In six words: Skiing, dumplings and Russians in Tbilisi
Some of my trips are as a result of meticulous planning and sound judgment on where I really need to visit. Others are hatched over too many vodkas than is good for any man.
This trip to Tbilisi falls into the later category. It was dreamt up while in Russia in 2018 by my host for that trip, Sergey, who owns Gorki golf resort.
He told me you can ski and play golf in the same day in Tbilisi and that was comfortably enough to see me sign up to visit a different Georgia in April to the one I usually head for at that time of year.
So out went azaleas, pimento cheese sandwiches, neatness beyond belief and more rules than you had at Primary School, and in came ski slopes without any classification or guiding posts, earthy meat-and-dumpling dishes, lakes of alcohol, and a fine hilltop course by another member of the trip, Lassi Pekka Tilander.
Apparently we are going to South Africa in 2020…
In six words: RND and Montrose found in Iberia
I’ve done the Algarve many, many times and I am very well acquainted with Lisbon (see later), but I’d never been to Porto – and, according to Portuguese native Sean Corte-Real, now running La Cala in Spain (see later), this was a big mistake.
So we convened in the city in May and started the trip by taking in Porto vs. Sean’s team Sporting Lisbon in his uncle’s corporate box.
We ate and drank to excess as we watched the match and then headed to the city for much more of the same.
And then the golf started – and it’s fair to say Sean was correct regarding Porto because as a result of the trip two of the three courses, Oporto and Estela, made it into my Continental European Top 100.
The former reminded me so much of Royal North Devon and the latter is Montrose (sadly including the erosion), while the trip’s third venue was Vidago Palace, which is a resort that has echoes of Gleneagles.
So, all in all, not the worst few days…
In six words: European Tour course, Tough Mudder, canoeing
Back in the Middle East, I played Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s National course for the first time – because for some reason when I’m there during tournament week in January, they don’t let me on.
Anyway it was worth the wait, because in my view it is arguably the most impressive technical course in the Middle East, even if it lacks the seaside setting of Yas, Saadiyat and Almouj.
It’s placing at No. 4 in my Middle East Top 25 illustrates how good it is.
While in Abu Dhabi I also did everything from a Tough Mudder race (OK, mainly sand but in 32 degrees, so, you know…) to canoeing in the mangroves, and cycling round Yas Marina F1 circuit to epic brunches (all inclusive food and alcohol for five hours) overlooking the Gulf.
As I said, sometimes this job works for me.
In six words: It was Top 25 research, honest!
OK fine, this was mainly just unadulterated luxury.
Jokes aside about how good my life is on the road, there is a vaguely serious side to it – mainly when I uncover a low-profile course that is actually really, really good.
This happened in the small emirate of Ajman, which is between Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. The course, Al Zorah, was designed by Jack Nicklaus among mangroves that give it a tidal element.
That aspect is fun, but it is the hugely entertaining green complexes and all-round variety of holes that made this such a find. And thus our No. 6 in the Middle East.
Oh, and I didn’t baulk at staying over at the Oberoi Al Zorah (above), where it is hard to know what is the biggest attraction – the exquisite bedrooms, the idyllic seaside location, the fabulous spa, or the peerless food.
Please can I come back?
Cyprus and Istanbul
In six words: Better value than Belek, year-round sun
Back to Europe for a trip to the continent’s year-round sun destination. You can go to Cyprus in November and it will be lovely but we went instead in July when it was scorching. Compared to a Middle East summer though, balmy.
Cyprus has four excellent courses on the Greek side of the island but it was Korineum on the Turkish side that really impressed.
It basically offers what you get in Belek, just for – as unlikely as this will sound – even better value for money. No, really.
And it’s just 20 minutes from Ercan airport, from where you can fly for about £70 to the incredible city of Istanbul for a short break.
And of course I couldn’t resist that. Istanbul is as vibrant a city as you could wish for and at night you can work your way through the hipster bars and restaurants of the Karakoy district.
It’s in my top five European cities and Korineum my top-five value resorts.
In six words: Sinkholes, canyons, and a Norman classic
This was my second trip to Muscat because I did a flying visit in 2018 and liked what I saw of Al Mouj so went back via another trip to the UAE for a proper look.
My first impressions weren’t wrong, hence its No. 2 ranking in the Middle East – and frankly it could easily be top. It mixes a spectacular ocean setting with the most playable and enjoyable Greg Norman design I’ve experienced.
Off the course, Oman was equally impressive. Wadi Shab (an amazing river canyon), Bimmah Sinkhole (an amazing well the size of a circus ring that you can swim in) and Jebel Akdhar (an amazing mountain range) were followed by a day trip a to sub-tropical Samanah.
To top it off we snorkelled in famous Daymaniyat Islands… well that that was the plan, but rough waters saw that cancelled and we had to content ourselves in the fabulous Kempinski Almouj instead.
Oman though… wow.