ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - I’ll never forget my first experience of combining castles with golf while on vacation.
It was at one of those mini-putt emporiums along the Grand Strand in Myrtle Beach and my 5-year-old son (at the time) and I had just birdied the Windmill Hole when we came upon the “Dragon’s Castle Hole.”
The object was to putt our balls over the drawbridge and into the dragon’s yawning mouth before the gates slammed shut. Neither of us were able to slay the dragon that day – the gates closed too quickly, we protested – but the experience did open the door to the possibility of one day combining golf with real castle visits during our “adult” vacations overseas.
We assumed, after all, because golf is the “Royal” game and everything important to the sport has the word “Royal” attached to it — The Royal and Ancient Golf Association . . . Royal this and Royal that golf club — there must be lots of golf courses near castles in destinations where golf is king, like Scotland and England.
In fact, did you know that most monarchs play the game and one, Queen Elizabeth’s second son Prince Andrew, is a scratch golfer — not surprising since he has little else to do except play the game and one of his best friends is Nick Faldo. Bonnie Prince Andrew even had the 9-hole course at Mom’s weekend retreat, Windsor Castle, refurbished a few years ago into a championship nine.
So, whenever my son and I travel on vacation with golf clubs slung over our shoulders, we make it a point, if we can, to combine rounds with stays at castles — or whatever regal palaces are called in other foreign destinations outside the United Kingdom — and the practice has led to some interesting holidays filled with historic adventures, a few ghostly experiences, and lots of great golf.
Most of our castle/golf stays have been in England, Scotland and Ireland but we’ve also combined the practice in places like France — the castles there are called chateaus — Portugal and even a couple in the United States and Canada.
In no particular order, then, here are a few of the castles we’ve visited and offered us some great golf experiences:
Bovey Castle, Moretonhampstead, England: This regal Edwardian residence, nestled deep in England’s majestic Dartmoor National Park, is home to one of the country’s most treasured courses, designed in 1926 by non other than JF Abercromby, one of the finest British golf course designers of the Golden Era and often mentioned in the same breath as Old and Young Tom Morris.
The 6,303-yard course may be small but it’s utterly beautiful — meandering through the castle estate, surrounded by idyllic landscape, with challenges to meet any handicap. Two gentle-flowing rivers snake through the course and add to the shot making options. Bovey also offers a fully-equipped clubhouse, golf academy and bistro for pre and post match meals and snacks. The accommodation at Bovey is second to none and a few days at this hideaway will make your British holiday is well worth the reasonable expense.
Bovey was built in 1906 by Viscount Hambledon, son of business baron W.H. Smith, of bookstore fame, and is perched on a hill overlooking the dramatic Devonshire countryside. It has become a desired weekend retreat for Londoners searching for the gentile life of long ago — long walks into the lovely dells and dales; early morning hot air balloon rides; falconry lessons; pints at charming local pubs, most of which date back to before golf was first played in England; and slow-paced rounds on one of the most relaxing courses anywhere in the British Isles.
Bovey Castle is also where the classic 1939 movie “Hound of the Baskervilles”, starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, was filmed.
Bovey’s Old Course, which, thankfully looks nothing like its more famous Scottish cousin in St. Andrews, has been named one of the Top 100 courses in Britain.
How good are the holes on Bovey’s Old Course? Well, the legendary British golfer Henry Cotton once remarked: “Bovey’s 7th hole may be the best par 4 in British golf.”
The best view of the castle comes from the par-3, third hole, the one next to the castle’s fish pond where they pull out small trout early in the morning and serve it to you for breakfast. Bovey is a place fit for a king but fortunately commoners like us can stay and play.
Culzean Castle, Maybole, Scotland: This beautiful Scottish castle sits overlooking the Firth of Clyde and is in easy driving range of some of Scotland’s best known golf courses — Turnberry, Royal Troon, Prestwick and Western Gailes — but it’s most famous for the American who once lived here.
Wartime General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later became U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, lived at Culzean for a time when he commanded Allied Forces during World War II and the Scots were so grateful for what he accomplished, they gave him rights to the castle as long as he lived.
Eisenhower, whose lifelong passion was golf, seized the opportunity and was often seen lugging his clubs along the fairways at Royal Troon, Turnberry and Prestwick, all British Open venues.
Our stay at Culzean, which is located just down the road from Robert Burns Cottage at charming Alloway, was the highlight of our stay in Scotland. Even a stroll down the hollowed fairways of St. Andrews could not compare with Culzean.
American golf groups love to stay at Culzean and some pay extra to sleep in the general’s bedroom, which remains decorated exactly the way it was when Eisenhower stayed here.
The golf courses that sit in the shadown of Culzean, even the low-cost local variety, are all sensational and combine lovely views of the rolling countryside with dramatic ocean vistas.
The castle dates back to 1569 and offers up lots of Eisenhower memorabilia, including one of his uniforms and lots of original maps with D-Day landing positions — great conversation pieces for golfers after rounds.
Staying at the castle is like staying in a museum — the beds are all overstuffed and the furniture is vintage. Your stay may also be livened up by some of the ghosts that live here. Rooms start at about $200 a night but the experience is priceless.
The Grove Castle Hotel, Chandler’s Cross, England: There’s two castles you can see from the air when you fly into London, Windsor Castle and the Grove, an 18th century country estate once owned by the Earls of Clarendon, and now home to one of the best golf courses in England.
The original castle residence remains but newer, more modern apartments have been added to the mix and getting a room here is never easy since the Grove has become a retreat for Londoners looking for a quick country fix close to home.
But the main draw at the Grove is the golf course — designed by American Kyle Phillips, who studied under Robert Trent Jones. This 6,766-yard masterpiece is a sheer delight from start to finish. The majestic hotel is never out of sight during a round and Phillips took full advantage of the rolling landscape and small rivers (part of the Grand Canal) that flow through the property.
The “Groovy Grove” is located just 15 minutes from Heathrow Airport — that makes it a great start to any British golf holiday — and a few minutes from Watford, the city made famous by pop star Elton John, who was president of the local soccer club. John still holds concerts in Watford from time-to-time to help raise money for the team.
Paris International, Ile-de-France, France: As mentioned earlier, the French call their castles “chateaus” but they’re no less impressive than the British variety, especially the ones now linked to the country’s best golf courses.
One in particular is Paris International, a course located about an hour outside the City of Light, whose grand clubhouse was once a regal residence, complete with turrets, and was restored to its original brilliance by Japanese businessmen.
Huh?, you might say.
Well, in the 1980s when Japan was to world economics what Tiger Woods is now to golf, Japanese executives would arrive to conduct business but wanted to play golf between meetings.
The most land available was almost always connected to old chateaus, like this one, which had been abandoned. So the Japanese spent millions modernizing the “clubhouses” with lots of marble and brought in Jack Nicklaus to design one of the best courses in Europe — with one of the world’s best finishing holes.
Golfers can stay in rooms especially designed for groups in the turrets, which overlook the splendid 18th — a downhill par-5 with an island green.
The front nine at the 6,319-metre (courses here are measured in metric) Paris International far exceeds our expectations but the back is no less challenging and the par-3, 13th, which stands in the shadow of another great chateau owned by an Belgium tycoon whose son was once kidnapped and had his ear chopped off, is one of the best short holes anywhere.
Domaine de Belesbat, Courdimanche-sur-Essonne, France: This is no Paris International, from a golf course perspective, but the 16th century chateau built to house the mistress of a former king of France is something to behold and a great place to kick off your golf shoes and stay a while. The chateau comes complete with moats and some of the most beautiful gardens in Europe.
The course is a park land beauty and a delight to play and at around $100 a round, a bargain, to boot. I must admit the front nine was a bit disappointing, but the back nine at the par-72, 6,033-metre course was stunning, filled with lots water hazard challenges. The 18th sits in the shadow of the chateau and is quite charming.
Chateau de Cely-en-Biere, Cely-En-Biere, France: This is another great 17th-century chateau the Japanese turned into a lavish golf course in a quaint town known more for its beer production than its golf. There is marble throughout the Cely clubhouse and we quickly rank the first, ninth and 18th holes among our favourite holes in golf.
The course is in remarkable condition, in part because only 16,000 rounds were played last year.
Disney Golf, Orlando, Florida: This may be stretching the golf and castle theme a bit but a collection of courses I like most in the world are huddled together near the most famous castle in them all — Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Sparing no expense, Disney has produced five of the best courses in Florida on their mega site in Orlando that’s bigger than some small countries.
The Palm, Magnolia and Osprey Ridge courses are the main draws here and each offers their own unique features that set them apart from other predictable Florida courses.
Disney World may be Micky Mouse’s home but the courses are anything but.