Iberia's answer to Montrose, Gleneagles and Royal North Devon are found in this beguiling city
Portugal could barely be more on the radar of British golfers, with the Algarve our No.1 destination for a trip abroad and the three areas around Lisbon making rapid progress in the market of late too.
It’s hard to believe the country’s third golf area has featured on too many wish lists down the years though, but after spending four days there, it was easy to conclude our historic indifference to a break in Porto has been a serious error.
In its favour are three terrific courses and a couple of solid others as support cast.
It also boasts delightful weather for half the year and a brilliant, brilliant city that compares favourably with anywhere in Europe.
Finally, it offers indubitably tremendous value, given the quality you enjoy.
Estela Golf Club
A little-known seaside course of captivating views and memorable holes.
You know by the time you’ve walked from the car park to the clubhouse and caught a glimpse of its landscape that you’re going to enjoy Estela.
In fact you probably know as you’re winding your way along narrow seaside lanes en route to the course in all honesty.
It looks and feels like it will be a lot of fun, and is also likely to be easy on the eye. Sure enough, it is.
It is pretty much as close to a links as I’ve seen in mainland Europe, up there with the likes of Royal Hague and Le Touquet.
The dunes landscape is certainly akin to what we’d expect of our own links, even if the grass isn’t the fescue we would find prospering on top of British and Irish sand.
It even shares a worrying problem with British and Irish courses such as Montrose and Doonbeg – that of coastal erosion. So, holes on the front nine are being narrowed by the advance of the tide and the retreat of the dunes.
It is painful to see and for the sake of the club, its members and its future visitors, one hopes they can arrest it.
It makes the early section especially difficult given their unforgiving fairways, but they remain high-calibre holes: the 1st with its narrow undulating fairway and green; the short 2nd with its uphill infinity green; the tough 3rd’s exacting drive between bushes and dunes; the par-3 4th toward the ocean; and the exacting 5th to an elevated beachside tee.
All five of the opening holes play along the shore and into the prevailing north wind and it is as good an opening salvo as you will find on the continent outside the absolute elite venues.
Turning round, the 6th plays along a rollercoaster fairway towards the notable windmill behind a long narrow green. The 7th had to be altered because of a neighbouring caravan site – a classic UK links theme – but remains a strong test as it snakes to a well-bunkered green.
The sporty two-shot 8th is fun and then the opening half is concluded with a semi-blind tee shot but in fact – unbeknown to the first-time visitor – the first hint of a bail out.
These last four holes are with the prevailing wind and you get four more in that direction after passing the clubhouse at halfway before turning for home.
There is more room on the back nine, even if the drive off the 10th is disconcertingly tight by virtue of its snaking fairway.
It includes two strong par 5s at the 13th – a sweeping hole on a grand scale – then the 15th, which twists and rises across the undulating topography.
The par 3s are contrasting, but reflect the likely wind; the downwind point-to-point 12th is close to 200 yards off the backs to a small target while the 17th is just 170 yards but can require a three-wood to get home.
The uphill home hole is a brilliant, exacting way to finish a round and a match. Make a par here on this sloping green in front of the clubhouse and you can expect to win the hole – and make the Super Bock and panoramic views from the clubhouse just that bit more invigorating.
Picture Gleneagles or Stoke Park and you have an idea of how good this resort is.
I said to my companions on the trip that I felt this resort is like a miniature Gleneagles and while the Scottish resort is in a class of its own worldwide, Vidago Palace indubitably incorporates elements of it on a smaller scale.
And if not Gleneagles, then think of somewhere like Stoke Park or Lough Erne and you have a picture of the historic opulence you can expect in the hotel here, more details of which I provide below.
Vidago’s golf is the ultimate course of two halves, with the original nine holes in woodland mixing with the more open recent holes.
You start in the old section and they really are a treat. Set on rolling ground between mature trees, the holes are as imaginative as they are memorable.
The 1st is a fairly tight start for a hole of 400 yards and ends on a green with gentle slopes in it. Five is not a bad opening score.
Then comes a twisting par 5 in the opposite direction, a short but strategic three-shotter that sums up much of the course as a whole.
Next is a fabulous par 3 over a pond to a large funky green with tonnes of movement in it, the back tier being much higher than the front.
The varied beginning – with just one par 4 in the opening quartet – is completed by an intriguing par 5 with a green beyond a stream that cuts across the fairway on a diagonal 100 yards from your target.
The drive on the 5th takes you into the more open land of the new holes and it would be misleading to suggest they are quite as charming as the originals.
They are all perfectly pleasant, solid holes but simply lack the allure of their older siblings. So when you play to the green of the 9th, part of the original course, you are reminded just how good the original nine will have been as a whole.
On the back nine, the 11th begins what become acute elevation changes, meaning a buggy will be useful to most golfers.
The next is a lovely downhill short hole while the 13th offers an appealing tee shot then a nicely positioned green.
The fun really begins on the 15th, a very tight par 5 played up and over the brow of a hill then down to a pleasing green site with rocks cuddling the target.
The 16th is a dog-leg left but your main focus is on the climb upwards! It requires strong legs and muscular hitting.
The next provides respite, tiered tees being set into the hill offering a wonderful panoramic view over the treetops before you bewilderingly have to chip a wedge to the edge of the hill for your second and then fire a mid-iron distinctly downhill to the drop green.
It’s a little contrived and design connoisseurs will choke on their port wine, but by now you’ve been utterly seduced by everything about Vidago that you give scant attention to its foibles.
The long, downhill par-3 18th ends this adventure and returns you to the understated luxury of one of Europe’s great golf hotels.
Oporto Golf Club
Continental Europe’s fifth-oldest course has echoes of an English classic.
This reminded me so much of Royal North Devon in so many ways.
It was founded in 1890 by Britons working on port wine, so only Pau, Dinard and Biarritz in France and Royal Antwerp in Belgium are older on Continental Europe.
That pedigree manifests itself in a fabulous wood-panelled clubhouse that oozes character and class.
In the same way as at Westward Ho!, Oporto displays all its history beautifully – you can spend an hour drinking in all the feats and events of yesteryear, including the Skeffington Cup, the oldest continuous trophy in the game’s history.
The similarity with RND continues on the course, with a topography and design themes that chime with the Devon course, as well as somewhere like Leven in Scotland or England’s St Anne’s Old.
So it’s all about flat land that switches between gentle ripples and more pronounced undulations.
It’s about welcome width off the fairway and varied, interesting green complexes.
And it’s about a challenge that is so natural that if someone told you hole number X had been changed at some point, you really wouldn’t believe them (in fact a couple have actually been tweaked).
The turf is, as ever on the continent it seems to me, not like the fescue we play from on our seaside courses, and indeed in the early days inland soil was brought in the tragic belief it provided a better surface for golf.
But there is so much sand that the fairways and greens are enjoyably firm and a delight to play from.
Oporto had my favourite hole of the trip, the short 8th that had echoes of both the Postage Stamp and 17th on the Old Course. If there is a better hole in Portugal I’d be surprised…or I’ve just forgotten it.
It is 165 yards off the whites and an exacting 190 from the back tees, and is so challenging because the green is a work of art.
In the shape of a slender figure 8, is sits at an angle to the tee and is a wide but shallow target.
It slopes left to right and has three tiers in it. Oh, and a bunker in front which gives it the echoes of the Old’s 17th.
You could place it on any links course in Britain and it would maintain the round’s momentum.
I also liked the sporty two-shot 6th, under 300 yards but whose small elevated green makes even a par hard won.
The short 13th is another cracker and while the end of the back nine is less seaside in nature, there is nothing to dislike about the holes.
Finally the routing is as eccentric as I’ve ever witnessed. It makes Muirfield look like a military march back and forth!
So when it’s breezy, you are always having to work out what the wind will do on almost every hole.
Where to stay
We stayed at three venues: Solverde in Espinho, which is ideal for access to Oporto; Vincci in the centre, which is good for Estela; and Vidago Palace.
The latter is the prized stay. You will not be disappointed by this fabulous hotel.
Your room will delight you for a start. They are absolutely exquisite and of a calibre I have not experienced at a golf resort anywhere else on the continent.
You dine in extraordinarily atmospheric surroundings, the main restaurant having a balcony all around it that was apparently used by parents watching their children dance back in the day.
The food is excellent and the wine as good as you’d expect from the Douro Valley. And in the morning the breakfast requires a good hour to be done properly.
There is a spa and tennis courts, walking trails and an inviting cocktail bar. And the ambience of the place is worth the room rate alone.
Vincci has a terrific city centre location and nice rooms, a good breakfast and a cool rooftop bar.
Solverde has a cool beachside setting, a swimming pool, spacious rooms, and good non-golf facilities.
There are lots of nice restaurants in Espinho’s promenade and is only an hour from Estela and five minutes from Oporto so works well for both really.
When to go
Porto enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year and from May to September inclusive you will enjoy a golf break with warmth on your back.
It is not as hot as the Algarve so if you definitely want to be in the pool after golf, you would be wise to stick to mid-June to August.
But for over half the year it offers perfect golf weather and even in winter a very mild climate.
Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport is a very pleasant experience and is served by Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick and Stansted in the UK.
Once you’ve landed, don’t hesitate to hire a car because you’ll need one to get to the courses – and it is one of the best countries in Europe to drive in.
Golf Concierge can take car of that, and the Sa Carneiro car hire depot is one of the best we’ve experienced.
Off the course
Porto is truly fabulous, with so much to do and see, yet with a feeling of a large town rather than an unwieldy city that you never get to grips with.
Spend your time by browsing the side streets or exploring the historic buildings, or visiting Livraria Lello, the magical bookshop that inspired Harry Potter author JK Rowling.
Porto’s charm is summed up by the city centre branch of McDonald’s. You won’t want to eat anything from it given the local food is so good, but the building is exquisite.
At night you will love its atmosphere whether you are in the heart of the city among the trendy bars with locals spilling out into the streets, or down by the river in a terrific fish restaurant.
A great way to explore the city is on a free walking tour. We didn’t do one but know of visitors who have and were very impressed.
And then there is all the Douro wine and port wine to ‘research’.
The price point
This is definitely one of Porto’s attractions.
You can play five rounds at the five courses for little more than £200 (225 euros) and when you consider how highly I rate some of them, you’ll appreciate how appealing that is.
You only have to play two of the courses, in other words not simply play the same one five times. But really I would vary your selection as the depth is excellent.
You can get three rounds for 150 euros or four for 190 instead.
Remove the hassle
Porto-based Golf Concierge can arrange anything from hire clubs (such as the latest TaylorMades, delivered to your hotel) to hire cars (with Europcar) to green fees at the top courses and accommodation at the hotels we mention.
It is run by Miguel, who we met on our trip and you’ll be in safe hands if you book through Golf Concierge.
For further details visit golfconcierge.pt or email [email protected]
The clubs and hotels have teamed up together to form the Porto Golf Destination.
You can get further information by visiting www.portogolfdestination.com or by emailing [email protected]
And they really couldn’t be a more friendly group of people.