Ajman in the UAE isn't a famous name in golf, but it has one of the world's best golf resorts and a perfect winter sun option, says Chris Bertram.
Let’s get straight to the point: this is the best golf resort in the Middle East and North Africa.
There is a good chance that suggestion may surprise you because, as was the case for me until recently, you might not even have heard of Al Zorah or indeed the emirate in which it is located, Ajman.
And while the statement ought to be qualified by the fact it isn’t an especially crowded field because UAE powerhouses Abu Dhabi and Dubai don’t create too many course-and-hotel resorts, if Al Zorah was in Continental Europe, it would be in the top 10, and the leading one-course venue.
What’s more, North Africa provides lots of options and even if the UAE also did – if the best courses in the region teamed up with one of the best of the many gleaming hotels – Al Zorah would still be very hard to beat.
Yas Links, our inaugural No.1 in the Middle East, and one of the hotels on Abu Dhabi’s fun-filled Yas Island, as well as Almouj and the majestic nearby Chedi Muscat would be two such strong examples.
Al Zorah would, however, be an extremely tough opponent. Why? Because in its golf offering it has the course we ranked as the No.5 in the Middle East last year and the adjacent hotel is rated as the No.2 in the entire region.
You read that correctly; The Oberoi Al Zorah – which you might never have heard of – is rated as the second best hotel in the UAE. That is some statement, because this is a land of staggeringly impressive hotels.
In fact, it might lead you to conclude the course is the weaker of the package, but that would be to mistakenly underestimate this Nicklaus Design.
It is the course by Jack and his firm that has impressed me the most – and I’ve played Monte Rei in Portugal, which is regarded as one of the continent’s best.
I enjoyed Al Zorah more, though. The Troon-managed facility is one of the region’s best-conditioned courses (only Els Club can match it in my opinion), it has a playable and entertaining design, and it has a tidal element that offers something unusual.
It can play to 7,169 yards and make even the strongest players fight for par on every hole, or you can play it from 6,522 or 6,071 and give yourself a chance of a nice score while also having the experience the architect intended.
There are balanced nines of 36, with two par 3s and two par 5s on both, and there is pleasing variation among the par 4s, with the 3rd and 16th weighing in at just 309 and 292 yards off the Silver tees yet the 12th a meaty 390 off those same tees.
It is always windy here too, which makes a round here pleasant even in a Middle East summer but also means you are gauging it and dealing with it over every long shot.
Al Zorah lets you open your shoulders without fear of overt punishment and while there is a premium on finding the best angle from which to play your second, even if you’ve got the drive spot on, the approach will be exacting.
It consistently felt like a second-shot course to me, if not a third-shot one…because miss the greens here and you will almost always face a tricky and above all entertaining recovery.
If like me you enjoy the short-game more than hammering drivers, it is brilliant fun all the way round. Playing on my own and with no groups pushing me round, I would often throw my ball down in a different part of the green surrounds from where I had played and have an extra chip or two from there.
It was too tempting not to try to land the ball on the part of the green where you thought it would feed down to the hole. Sometimes there was more than one way to do that; it’s far from the fescue-rich experience of a links, but the fun and creative element is definitely here.
The ball sits up on the lush grass pleasingly for the less confident chipper, but Al Zorah often requires creativity as well as some skill to chip it close and holding the greens from downhill lies and onto sloping surfaces is an entertaining challenge.
Not even the most brazen golfer will dare blame any missed putts on anything other than themselves, because these are pristine surfaces.
The aforementioned tidal element begins in earnest on the 7th, with water sitting all the way down the right when the tide is in.
It is then even more in evidence on the 8th, with staggered tees sitting up like islands surrounded by water.
And then it dominates the back nine, water lying to the left of the 10th before you turn round and play with it all the way down the left of the 11th, around the green of the 12th, over it on the 15th and then more or less surrounded by it on the closing trio.
Al Zorah, which is managed by Scotsman Phil Henderson, is examining the possibility of managing the tide to have the water in more often and it certainly adds something to the experience.
Even without the tide though, Al Zorah is highly enjoyable.
After a welcome open start with the first drive of the day, you face a funky green that is an accurate portent of what is to come.
Then it is the first of the par 3s, this one played over water with a bail out to the right but if you take that option it only means you then face a tricky pitch towards the lake.
The second short hole, the 5th, has the first hint of the tide coming in, with water on the right, and then on the back nine there are fine par 3s at the 15th and 17th.
The former plays all over water but its location on the edge of the mangroves makes it also look brilliant when the tide is out. The tiered green makes the test as good as it looks.
Two holes later comes a very strong 3 where you need to get your shot fading up the angled left-to-right green.
This duo is part of a stellar climax that is part of, in my opinion, the stronger half at Al Zorah.
The closing third, indeed, is packed full of excellence. The 12th has a twisting fairway leading to a huge green with trademark run-offs and is followed by two more solid two-shotters.
The next has water on the left all the way up to a small, undulating, table-top green, while the 14th turns you in the opposite direction and ends on a sporty, narrow target with water hard to the left side throughout.
In between the par 3s is a cool short par 4 with the mangroves to the left. This green is also ‘pushed up’ and, as aforementioned, the shaved surrounds demand precision strikes if you miss the target. Bunkers are set into the bank on the left, which falls pleasingly to the eye into the mangroves.
The last has a similar feel to 16, a par 5 that gives you a chance of finishing on a high.
If you do so, for now you celebrate that closing birdie in a temporary clubhouse close to the 6th hole. But the permanent clubhouse – naturally next to 1 and 18 – is well underway.
The best post-round option is however The Oberoi Beach Resort, situated right next to the course.
It is a hotel that simply has few peers. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in some incredible places all over the world and nothing is definitely better than this – from Gleneagles to Adare Manor in Europe to The Chedi in Muscat and Le Touessrok in Mauritius.
It is small, neat and elegant, unlike almost all of the other leading hotels in the UAE. It has the feel of the aforementioned Chedi, and indeed the Omani hotel was something of a model for The Oberoi Al Zorah.
It is laid out in a series of relatively low-rise buildings: a reception and lounge area; two separate restaurants and bars; beachside villas; three floors of bedrooms; a gym; and a spa.
These sit on different levels, with reception, the bedrooms and one restaurant on the higher ground and the seafood restaurant, villas, gym and spa on the beach level. The swimming pool is a halfway house. All the buildings are interspersed with lush, immaculately tended greenery that contrasts strikingly with the white walls.
The centrepiece is the long, narrow swimming pool, complete with the kind of alluring cabanas as you’d expect. It’s the kind of place you find it hard to move from; it is as idyllic a place for sunset drinks as it is for basking in the early afternoon sun, cooling off in the water, or snoozing in a cabana.
The beach, if you prefer, is a two-minute walk away (you are, indeed, never more than a five-minute stroll from any part of the resort).
Whichever option you choose as your place to soak up the sun, your arrival will be greeted by chilled water and an iced lollipop in a tropical fruit flavour.
Choose the sand and you’re given a fun little device with which to call for service but it’s almost not required because the staff are so attentive they are on hand as soon as they sense you want something.
The Oberoi Group is an Indian family-owned and run hotel group that specialises on creating the right blend of expertise and atmosphere.
The Oberoi Group also has under its umbrella Trident hotels as well as in flight arrangements, car rentals and other travel and tour services.
The food is also heavily influenced by its mother country, which is sensationally good news for lovers of Indian cuisine because it is of a spectacularly high standard.
The little pots of joy at lunch were probably the highlight of the whole stay, even if they competed with the pancakes and eggs at the a la carte breakfast or the Mediterranean seafood offering in the evening.
Across the menus at The Oberoi there is Arabic and Western as well as Asian cuisine to savour.
Yoga is held at 9.15am daily and if that or the small but well-equipped gym isn’t for you then perhaps the spa will be, which again is deeply unshowy in contrast with the rest of the UAE. And, for most western visitors, surely all the better for that fact.
In the entire place there is no attempt to dazzle you; The Oberoi, it seemed to me, wanted to hypnotise you with its elegance, its quality and its effortless charm.
The fact we finally left the hotel at 6.20pm on the day we checked out (having spent the afternoon on the beach and by the pool) is probably an indication we were indeed mesmerised by this tranquil bolt hole.
Not too many in the golf world will realise one of the world’s leading resorts is located in Ajman – very possibly not too many in neighbouring Dubai do either – but that’s indubitably the case.