Resort spotlight: Dreamland, AzerbaijanNovember 2, 2018 Courses and Travel
When you discover there is a high-calibre golf resort in Azerbaijan, you realise golf now has no boundaries whatsoever, writes Chris Bertram
If you read that Dreamland Resort in Azerbaijan is good, you might well assume it is ‘good’ in the context of the country in which it is located.
Azerbaijan is hardly a hotbed for golf – although as it happens, two hours away there is another fine play-and-stay option in Quba – so it is perhaps natural for one to qualify the praise for Dreamland by thinking it it is impressive ‘for Azerbaijan’.
That perhaps the conditioning is acceptable. The architecture makes sense. The range and practice facilities are enticing. The service and ambience is what we’d expect of a top venue in a more established country. The accommodation is appealing.
But Dreamland isn’t just impressive for Azerbaijan, it is impressive within the much wider scope and the significantly larger golfing pedigree of the whole of Continental Europe.
With a brand-new hotel opening this year to add to the course that has been there since 2015, it qualifies as a ‘resort’ and is thus a contender for the Top 100 in Continental Europe we will publish at the start of October.
It compares favourably with all but the elite venues of golf’s established powerhouses. Only the most illustrious names – revered resorts such as Costa Navarino or Terre Blanche – categorically offer more than it does. Otherwise, this resort impresses at least as much as anything else you have been to.
The allure of Baku
In order to appreciate how good a golf break at Dreamland could be, it is first of all necessary to understand a bit about the country and city it is located in.
Known as the ‘Land of Fire’, many westerners might have visions of a largely grim former part of the Soviet Union. Others may feel it is more of a Middle Eastern destination.
In fact, it has elements of both, which only adds to its mystery. Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union until gaining independence in 1991 and Baku is located on the easternmost point of Eastern Europe, at the crossroads with Asia and on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. So, this exotic city offers an alluring mix of Muslim culture and Western decadence.
Lonely Planet has Baku in the world’s top 10 cities for urban nightlife. A trip to Dreamland is not a standard golf break.
The Middle East themes centre around the superb climate that means long hot summers – yet never oppressively steamy because of the almost constant breeze that gives Baku its other name, ‘City of Winds’ – as well as beautifully warm spring and autumns.
You can get there within six hours from London, so Baku falls between short and long haul while offering as many as nine months of the year when it is perfect for golf.
The other key link with the Middle East is in what lies beneath. Baku is home to oil and gas. This has brought wealth to this historic city – whose core is the 12th-century Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and has given it something of a reputation as a party city.
Baku’s affluence and modern outlook is witnessed in its skyline, with handsome stone buildings of great heritage mixing with huge gleaming skyscrapers. It makes for a spectacular backdrop for the F1 race that is now a fixture here.
These skyscrapers, many lit spectacularly at night, represent the new sparkling lifestyle funded by the reserves of petroleum gold.
Dreamland is twinned with the most famous of them all, the Fairmont Flame Towers. It changes colour frequently and boasts spectacular views of the Bay of Baku and is close to all the nightlife.
Lonely Planet has Baku in the world’s Top 10 cities for urban nightlife, thanks to its numerous lively bars, restaurants and nightclubs. So, a trip to Dreamland is not a standard golf break.
An impressive Dye design
Dreamland’s course was designed by Cynthia Dye, who is steadily moving out of her legendary uncle’s shadow with her work in Europe rather than her native America.
Dye has not only created Dreamland but West Cliffs near Lisbon – destined to be one of the world’s leading seaside courses.
While Azerbaijan work does not enjoy the same breathtaking views as her Portuguese project, it is based on the same solid design principles.
It also doesn’t benefit from the changes in elevation that offer such extraordinary drama to West Cliffs – but while Dreamland was carved out of the flatlands close to the airport, the fairways are hardly runway flat.
“Dreamland’s desert-like terrain meant we were cutting into solid Baku Stone – an element which makes Baku city so enchanting, but highly challenging if you are building a golf course,” says Dye.
“Nevertheless I think most golfers are very impressed by the undulating terrain they find. Water storage was also important, and has been blended in to become a feature on the majority of the holes.”
Opened in autumn 2015, Dreamland is a strong modern parkland that nudges up a level in class by virtue of the variety to the holes. It is parkland in character throughout, but Dye’s clever use of the land, lakes and, frankly, just having the nous to not make every hole a 430-yard beast mean it is always interesting.
Dreamland rolls over crumpled fairways between often significant earth forms and several lakes. It can stretch to a muscular 7,478 yards but you’ll want to play it off the 6,400-yard white tees which, in the ‘City of Wind’, will be plenty to cope with. If you want a guide as to the strength of the wind here, have a look at the way the tree next to the 4th green leans in such an extreme south-westerly direction.
Managed by IMG Golf, it is in majestic condition, too, thanks to the work of Scotsman Martin McGavock and the whole complex is benefiting from the expertise of the well-travelled MD, Yorkshireman Phil Jones.
A mix of strong and fun holes
There is almost no rough to speak of here. The only time you’ll lose a ball is if it finds water, but there are only four holes without the wet stuff, so be assured there is still plenty of challenge.
The opening two holes are friendly affairs off the whites and then comes a brilliant sporty two-shotter that turns left around the lake. It might be under 300 yards off the white tee but if you find the green between water and sand, you deserve a look at a birdie.
There’s another similarly cool short par 4 at the 8th that turns right to left and allows the brave, strong player to have a tilt over the corner at the small green. The 11th is another sporty 4, as is the 14th, where water is an increasing threat the more you dare to drive closer to a green that is partly obscured by a mound.
You encounter the first of a super collection of par 3s at the 5th, played over water but with a bail-out to the right for the nervous.
It is the only short hole on the front nine but there are three coming home, and water plays a part in all: it guards the right side of the 10th (with refreshment in the neat cafe beyond it); it foreshortens the 13th by sitting 20 yards before the green; and it lies to the left of the 17th, which is played from an elevated tee and is notably exposed to the wind.
The changes in pace at Dreamland that play such a part in keeping it interesting is seen at holes such as the 6th, prolifically bunkered and providing a different look and challenge as the sand traps guide you round the lake.
Then the look of the 9th, with piles of rock on both sides of the fairway, adds interest to a downhill par 5 that plays into the wind.
There is more residential development evident on the back nine but it is minimal compared with most resorts in Europe and is never really in your eyeline.
Coming home, this golfer’s highlight would be the par-5 12th, whose main feature is a huge grassy mound towards the end of the fairway that has the appearance of nostrils by virtue of two bunkers set in it.
It partly obscures the green, which is pleasingly funky; wide but shallow and the most undulating on the course. The topography and fun of this hole, if not the grass, could be mistaken for Prestwick.
The closing stretch is characterised by consecutive tough 4s at 15 and 16 followed by a classic closer, a risk-reward par 5 that turns to the right at the end of the fairway to allow water to guard the entry to the green.
The clubhouse is as impressive as the course, a stylish and spacious affair where you will enjoy recounting your round over food (try the barbecued chicken) and drinks.
Golf knows no boundaries when Azerbaijan has a golf resort this good. And not just good ‘for Azerbaijan’.
Easy trip to arrange
Dreamland Resort can organise your accommodation, golf equipment and even shoes.
The opening of its own 42-suite hotel, overlooking Dreamland’s excellent driving range and short-game area, is a real boon and means the club can offer stay & play deals on site as well as with the much-photographed Fairmont Flame Towers.
There are also 240 villas and 350 apartments on sale to investors.
Off the course
For the more adventurous, try a day trip to Azerbaijan’s famous mud volcanoes – which, as the name suggests, ooze bubbling mud. And yes, people do bathe in them.
Nor should you miss the incredible Burning Mountain, Yanar Dag, just half an hour from Baku. This natural gas fire blazes continuously on a hillside. See it at night: it is mesmerising.
Dreamland also arranges trips to Amburan Beach Club, 30 minutes away. A magnet for Baku’s sun worshippers, it is the ideal place to spend a day working on your tan instead of your golf swing.
There are positives and negatives here. For ‘only’ six hours on a plane you get the aforementioned superb climate; but there aren’t loads of direct flights. The best option is with Azerbaijan Airlines, from Heathrow to Baku Heydar Aliyev International (GYD). If that doesn’t work for you, there are a myriad routes in; we got there via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines and came back through Paris Charles de Gaulle with Air France.
Add another 18
To add further golfing variety to your stay, Dreamland can also organise a stay and play trip to the impressive and highly luxurious Rixos Quba hotel in the Caucasus Mountains, which is adjacent to National Azerbaijan Golf Club.
The 24-hour trip gives you 18 holes of golf, a night in the Quba hotel, and a drive into the mountains as a refreshing change of scenery.
Want more details?
Visit the Dreamland website for more information.