Connoisseur Clive: Lisbon, Portugal
Clive is our undercover roving reporter, who tells it like it is. NCG’s bon viveur plays off 13, always finds the best places and is an expert in enjoying himself, on and off the course Downtown Lisbon has something for everyone, from stylish restaurants to hundreds of different varieties of bars that run from quiet sophistication to eardrum-woundingly loud.
For an outstanding place to savour the delights of Portuguese cooking at its best and learn about the country’s massively underrated wines, book a table at A Travessa, atmospherically set in an old convent.
This is not the kind of place for a lads’ night out but rather somewhere to enjoy the finest the capital city can offer.
Some golfing pilgrims find plenty enough sand on the golf course, so when they are on their travels they have no great desire to spend off-course time on a beach.
They want to be in or near a city that can provide easy and affordable transport to some top-quality courses and a wide selection of sights to see plus pleasing bars and restaurants to visit. For them, Lisbon is the perfect destination.
Strangely for a country where golf is a sport played by few of the natives, the area surrounding Lisbon offers some terrific tracks that fit perfectly into a five-day tour, especially if taken out of season when the sun often shines but perhaps not quite as brightly as the discounts that are available.
Our first port of call was Estoril, only 25 minutes south of the Portuguese capital and the site of one of Europe’s finest grand old hotels.
The Palacio Hotel opened in 1930 and has acted as a holiday home for many of the crowned heads of Europe as well as obligatory host to countless film and sports stars. There are many excellent reasons to stay at the Palacio, not least because of the five star quality of service and the comfort of the rooms, but the one that appealed most to us was the ability to have an overnight stay and a round of golf at the delightful and traditional Estoril.
Golf Club for €150. It is is the ideal start to a golf trip, being only three minutes up the road from the hotel, quite short and not too tough, but steeped in atmosphere, as one would expect from a club that has been around since 1929.
This is a delightful, switchback walk through 5,700 yards of pine trees, mimosas and eucalyptus, so do hire a caddy, as they know what they are talking about, and this is a course well worth walking.
Having enjoyed an excellent meal on the Estoril terrace, gazing out to the Atlantic, we had to decide where we should play next. If you want somewhere challenging, dramatic and exhilarating then look no further than Oitavos Dunes in the Sintra-Cascais National Park.
Set on the most northwesterly point in Europe, Oitavos is very similar to a British heathland course with close-cut fairways, sandy wastes and wild shrubs, plus fairways lined by sweet-scented pine. There is the added bonus of wonderful sea views on one side and the soaring Sintra mountains to the other.
Although only opening in 2001, there is a wonderfully natural flow to Oitavos as we eased ourselves into the first four holes. Created by American architect Arthur Hills, the course is rightly ranked in the world’s top 100.
If the wind blows hard you should be prepared for a stern test, especially over the closing stretch, but what is most pleasing on a fine day is the quiet stillness in glorious surroundings with only the sound of the birds and the snap of club on ball to disturb us.
With five tee boxes the course can play as long as 7,000 yards from the tips to less than 5,000 yards from the forward ladies’ tees.
With some tough raised greens and treacherous run-offs this is certainly not a course for novices but is another perfect out-of-season venue as rounds can become very slow at peak periods. There is also a luxury and extremely modern hotel on site, but Lisbon is only 30 minutes away and Estoril five miles.
Leaving the Oitavos clubhouse was a wrench but we had to move on and make a choice between golf at Quinta da Marinha and Belas. At the moment you should choose the latter as Quinta da Marinha is having a new clubhouse built that will not be ready until next summer and has reconfigured its original Robert Trent Jones layout into a rather confusing muddle where far too many fairways have to be crossed to get from one green to the next tee.
So wait until these problems have been resolved and head back towards Lisbon for another striking and demanding test at Belas Clube de Campo. It sits in a lush valley where a buggy was essential to transport us up and down long slopes between holes.
Visitors get a warm welcome here from Birmingham-born director of golf Paul Saunders and his team. The front nine is as spectacular as it is tough with huge, rugged sand traps, streams and great pools waiting at nearly every step to snare a wayward ball. The greens were lightning-fast too when our little group took to the course, especially when putting down the numerous slopes we encountered.
Having negotiated a treacherous U-shaped lake to land on a narrow, firm green at the 18th, we can look forward to some excellent food and drink in the airy, modern clubhouse.
After two tough rounds we needed to take it easy on our last day, so we simply headed five minutes up the road to Lisbon Sports Club where this charming old golf club sits, like Belas, in a deep valley.
This is very much old school golf, not long but extremely testing with small greens tucked into groves of mature trees and lots of raised tee boxes.
With so many trees surrounding them it comes as something of a shock to find the greens in such superb condition and, as well as judging the pace of them, the secret to success around this tight 5,800-yard track is being in the right position for the second shot.
The Sports Club makes a delightful sign-off to any trip to the Lisbon region and there are many other splendid courses only too keen to welcome us back again.