With 54 holes and a hotel, this Spanish resort should be a prime option for British golfers...but hasn't been. Chris Bertram reports on the revolution at a once-famous name.
“If you’re a golfer over the age of 50, there’s a good chance you’ll have been to La Cala. If you’re 35-50, you’ll have probably heard of it. If you’re under 30, it’s probably never been on your radar.”
That’s the candid verdict of Sean Corte-Real, the relatively recently appointed general manager of La Cala, and it’s one I couldn’t agree more with.
I actually think La Cala’s status reflects that of Spain in a wider sense, which is a horribly sweeping generalisation but one I feel has a lot of foundation to it.
Spain led the advance of the golf package deal in the 80s, and nowhere more rabidly than the Costa del Sol – or the Costa del Golf, as it has styled itself.
It has done very well out of British golfers ever since, but four decades later what once sparkled in the Andalusian sun isn’t quite so dazzling now, especially compared to new destinations such as Turkey as well as its long-time rival the Algarve, which I think has made a better job of continually upgrading.
There are several big names in Spain that simply look a bit tired now, because like most things in life – a house, a car, a football team – if you don’t invest in it, you suffer.
That extends to marketing your product too, and apathy in this respect might come from nothing more than complacency – or because if you don’t feel confident about your resort, maybe you aren’t keen to shout about it.
La Cala, it feels to me, fell into at least one of these categories. I hadn’t been for over 10 years, when I played its America course on a whistle-stop tour of the Malaga area and since then had heard nothing about it – which, given I am contacted by people as far and wide as Russia to the Seychelles to check out their destinations, is a little odd.
Things are changing there now, though, and have been since Corte-Real, a former European Tour player who also ran Vila Sol in his native Portugal, was lured west from Las Colinas. It was the type of role he wanted, but only if he had the financial muscle to make the changes he knew La Cala needed.
Irish owners FBD Group astutely agreed, and the ongoing transformation is highly impressive. There’s a lot to describe.
Let’s start with the courses. The Asia is currently poised to reopen after having all of its greens ripped up and replaced with Bermuda grass, which will ensure year-round immaculate surfaces.
La Cala, obviously, scores well in courses, given it has 54 holes of very solid resort golf – much more of which later. I’d suggest its next strongest suit is setting, not only its tranquil hillside location but also its stress-free ambience.
The America has had its bunkers all renovated and the Europa will have its done next year. All three courses will have Bermuda greens by 2020.
In the clubhouse, the pro shop has been totally revamped into a swish retail and admin area, and La Bodega – a tapas restaurant – has opened just yards from the clubhouse’s excellent main restaurant.
In the hotel, a new bar has appeared next to reception and the next big job is an overhaul of the breakfast room.
I ranked it 47th in our Continental European Resorts Top 100 last year, largely on the back of it having 54 holes.
It was, thinking about it now, a little harsh on La Cala as it was then. So when I revise the list in 2020, it’s fair to say this progressive resort will find itself a good deal higher in the ranking. Looking at El Prat in the top 20, it is now in that kind of class.
In that ranking, we mark each resort for courses, accommodation, setting and non-golf facilities.
If you’re looking for a golf break where you get a taxi from the airport (Malaga is 25 minutes away) and never have to move until you go home yet play a variety of courses, this is for you.
Because whoever planned La Cala when it opened 30 years ago did a brilliant job. The hotel is at its heart, with the clubhouse and 1st tee of the Asia a three-minute stroll away. The 1st tees of the America and Europa are under five minutes in a buggy away.
The hotel itself is the very antithesis of the vast, soulless, characterless buildings that we all have been to, ones where you never get a grip of where the lifts are or the best way to the pool because they are just so big and unwieldy.
La Cala has over 100 rooms, but somehow everything is just in the right place. Shaped like a U, with the pool in the middle, you are never more than a couple of minutes from your sunbed, bar, reception or the restaurants.
Built in Spanish style with robust teak beams and neat stonework, it does not look dated, even if the adjoining Spa – which was added later – does seem especially fancy.
The Spa is undoubtedly another highlight of the resort, with a bewildering array of different treatments that would keep a Made in Chelsea star happy for a week.
There is also a gym, squash court, table tennis, kid’s club, tennis court and spinning room, plus good practice facilities in an Academy that includes a Par-3 course.
The bedrooms are a good size – not least the huge balconies – and are just what you’d expect of a four-star hotel. They may well be on Corte-Real’s hitlist at some point in the future but they will not disappoint as they are right now.
The hotel restaurant has a lovely open-air setting but we found it impossible not to keep going back to the clubhouse – for classics such as burgers, grills and pizzas done very well – and the atmospheric La Bodega, which has fabulous tapas.
While La Bodega is a new addition, Campo Asia was there from the start, namely 1989. Campo America arrived two years later and Campo Europa a further 14 years down the line in 2005.
America has previously been regarded as the No.1 but there is a chance that may change, with the Europa taking that mantle. They are certainly closely matched but offer something a little different, as does the Asia.
It is shorter and cleverly routed by Cabell Robinson – the American architect who has left such a mark on the Costa Del Sol and still lives in the area – so short in fact that Corte-Real is making it walking only when it reopens.
To anyone familiar with golf in this area, you will know how different that policy is and to this golfer’s mind is one to be commended. It is probably the No.3 here, yet if I was choosing one of the three to play next week, it might be it.
Asia has just re-opened after being closed for two months while all of its greens have been upgraded to Bermuda grass to improve sustainability and year-round conditioning, and all its bunkers fully renovated. The results are spectacularly good.
The Europa was the last of the three to open and is the most spacious and least quirky, with lots of gently undulating fairways snaking between residence-free hills.
It has, in my opinion, the resort’s best nine holes – namely its second half – and arguably the best hole on the property, the intriguing and exacting two-shot 4th. The imminent bunker renovation here will take it to the next level.
All of America’s bunkers have already been renovated and the par-3 4th remodelled. This is a course of stellar short holes and a mix of strong and tempting par 5s.
All three courses would easily be in the top half of what Spain offers. They aren’t threatening the likes of Valderrama, La Reserva de Sotogrande and PGA Catalunya, but once the renovations are complete, they will sit very comfortably just under the likes of La Reserva, Finca Cortesin and Las Brisas.
The resort as a whole will suit some golfers more than La Manga – which for various reasons has always remained in the spotlight – because its smaller size will appeal compared to the Almeria complex. To qualify that comment, La Manga is bigger – 450ha to La Cala’s 400ha – but the difference is that everything is much more intimate at La Cala.
So which type of golfers would La Cala suit? Difficult question. Of the four kinds – male groups, female groups, families and couples – there is something for them all.
Male groups would love the amount of golf and the super open-air clubhouse and bar. Female groups would, at the risk of generalisation, enjoy the comprehensive and swish Spa as well as the restaurant.
Families will be very content around the pool, in the no-nonsense bedrooms and at the clubhouse at night – where the grassed area in front of the canopy becomes a playground after food has been finished.
That leaves couples…and yet I saw lots of non-golfing pairs having a very nice time there when I stayed.
So La Cala can offer something for every type of golfer. And what it offers now and going forward is only going to improve. If others don’t similarly progress, expect very, very few Spanish resorts to look down on it in rankings in the near future.
The comprehensive spa, modern cuisine and upgraded courses mean over-50s will fall back in love with the course they remembered, 35- 50-year-olds will now want to play the course they heard so much about, and under 30s will now be curious about the vibe around a resort that was in danger of being forgotten but is not one of Europe’s most vibrant.