A low-profile course in East Lothian, a big-budget course in the Middle East, and some Continental European superstars feature in Chris Bertram's latest travel blog
This month was all about the search for great courses and destinations that usually fly under the radar and saw from me playing golf in East Lothian to the Middle East.
Add in plans being made for some Continental European trips and it has been a typically eccentric few weeks. Try not to hate me too much.
Sink holes, a tropical oasis and a world-class golf course
This job – sorry, “job” – takes me to some amazing places. Oman definitely fits that description.
I made a brief visit there last December to have a look at Al Mouj, because I’d heard good things about it from an excellent judge, so knew it was likely to be a key part of my imminent Middle East Top 25.
I saw enough to make Al Mouj No. 2 and also loved the city of Muscat itself, so when the chance came to return last month I couldn’t fill in my visa with the Royal Oman Police fast enough.
Oman sounds like the sort of typically random place I go to and play golf – Tbilisi, Jordan, Beirut, Baku et al – and the sort of destination that is a one-course town.
Amazingly it’s not, because in addition to Al Mouj there is also Muscat Hills, Ghala and Jebel Sifa, meaning it actually has more courses than Abu Dhabi.
Add in a perfect climate – as flawless in winter as the UAE countries yet not unbearably hot in summer – superb beachside hotels plus a myriad off-course attractions and you have a lot of reasons to make the seven-hour trip from Britain.
Al Mouj is the star attraction and I’ll focus on the Greg Norman-designed seaside course in an article soon; suffice to say my second look at it made me glad I had boldly positioned it at No. 2, behind only World Top 100-ranked Yas Links.
We stayed in the Kempinski hotel within the Al Mouj residential complex, which is virtually walkable from the course and is a great base whether you want to chill by the infinity pool or beach or size up the Friday drinks package in the livelier second pool bar.
In fact they love a drinks package at the Kempinski, and I can’t say unlimited beer and Chilean red wine from 7pm to 10.30pm for £22.50 didn’t appeal (that is amazing value for the Middle East).
There is a strong Indian influence, felt most pleasingly in one of its four restaurants – where you get a taste of what a curry should be like. In fact it’s so good you’ll end up having curry for breakfast too.
It was a special trip in every sense, so I couldn’t recommend Oman highly enough.
Move away from Muscat on the coast and within an hour you are climbing into spectacular mountains (basically anything beginning with ‘Jebel’).
We had a guided tour of the awesome ravines and peaks of Jebel Akhdar (pictured above), including a traditional Omani lunch at the home of a local family. There was so much food I think we’d still be eating it now (and wish I was).
The views are sensational and there is some tremendous trekking to be experienced – especially when you’re being guided by local dude Raqi – if that appeals.
Other highlights included the historic fort city of Nizwa en route to Jebel Akdhar and an expedition to Wadi Shab – an incredible canyon with a river running down it (pictured above).
Just remember to take a plastic bag to put your phone in so you can swim right to the end, where the waterfall is.
It would be really frustrating if you had yomped for two miles over the rocks of the canyon floor only to realise no-one in the group had a bag to keep your phone [camera] dry while you swam the final mile to the waterfall…
On your way to Wadi Shab from Muscat, casually stop off for a swim in the Bimmah Sink Hole (below).
In fact waterfalls featured strongly on the trip, especially on the day trip to the tropical oasis of Salalah, just an hour’s flight away.
This is like a visit to the Lake District, so for those living in the Middle East and used to dusty sand and arid heat, is an absolute sensation – because you get waterfalls like the one pictured below at Darbat.
We hired a car in Salalah, which meant I had two hire cars under my name simultaneously.
That scenario further encouraged me to get the cheapest and smallest car available in Salalah, which would obviously normally be fine but for the fact most of the amazing natural attractions are located at the end of very rough tracks.
So it was quite amusing to be bumping along these tracks in a pimped-down Chevrolet Spark with only huge 4x4s for company.
It was less amusing when the fuel gauge suddenly fell to beyond zero when we were eight miles from the nearest garage and close to the end of a rudimentary track with only bemused Omanis staring from behind blacked-out windows at these bufoons of tourists as our potential saviours.
That the waterfall was mysteriously dry added to the hilarity. The joke was slightly starting to wear thin when we then tried to drive down an adjacent track about an hour later after getting fuel, thinking we were heading to a different waterfall. Nope, it was the same water-less waterfall.
Fuel and navigation issues aside, if you’re looking for a fascinating winter sun destination, Oman would be in my top three recommendations.
Final Continental planning
My favourite Top 100s to compile by some distance are the Resort and Course rankings I produce for Continental Europe.
In two months’ time I’ll publish my Continental European Courses Top 100, so the next few weeks involve flying to a few destinations I either need to visit for the first time or revisit for a second time.
One key one is a second trip to Denmark, to get to five more of its contenders for a first time, as well as hop over to the German island of Sylt, where feted seaside course Budersand is located.
Another is another reconnaissance to Lisbon, where I’ve been several times but which has a couple of courses that are threatening the top 20 of the ranking for the first time.
If I can slot in a trip to Hamburg, I will feel very happy with my research – and of course that means everyone will obviously be entirely happy with the final list. What? Oh…
A pleasant surprise to East Lothian golf
If I had to select a favourite area of Scotland it would be East Lothian.
Ayrshire, Aberdeen, Dornoch and inevitably St Andrews all have strong claims but Scotland’s Golf Coast, to the east of Edinburgh. just has the edge for me.
One of the reasons is the snaking A198 that links so many of the area’s mystical names and runs through my favourite golf town, Gullane.
Dunbar is a little further south of all those A198 clubs but its classy links is worth the extra travel time from the capital. That’s what I used to write anyway; from this point onwards I will be saying ‘its two links’.
That’s because Dunbar has two appealing courses – the eponymous one that is established as one of East Lothian’s top tracks, but also – as I found out last month – lower-profile Winterfield.
What an absolute delight it is.
It starts with a par 3 masquerading as a par 4 – where you must hit a strong but well-flighted shot all of 230 yards from an elevated tee over a canyon to an elevated green – but after that it is mainly scenic, fun hole after scenic, fun hole.
The flatter top section is the lesser of the two nines, but still offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Firth of Forth from its lofty position as well as entertaining holes.
Then the pace increases when you cross the entrance road and start playing over more interesting terrain that naturally produces even more memorable holes.
The 14th is the stand-out – a par played over the corner of the rocky bay which was used to replicate North Berwick in the film Tommy’s Honour – but I enjoyed the 13th and 15th just as much.
The former is a twisting two-shotter over undulating bluff-edge land that ends on a brilliant green and the latter played away from the beach to a cosy enclosed green at the foot of the hill on which the clubhouse sits.
Let me know if you’ve played it in the comments below, or you can tweet me.