LISBON - Portugal’s Algarve region is one of the best-known and best-respected European golf destinations – its world-class courses would not look out of place in any country.
But the sun-drenched Algarve is not the only golf region in Portugal.
And, it says here, the Algarve may soon lose its moniker as “the best golf region in Portugal” if its country-cousin, the Estoril region, has anything to say about it.
The Estoril, with its delightful, sweeping Atlantic beaches and moderate climate, was a late comer to the golf destination game but it’s making up for lost time with a flurry of golf course construction the likes of which this country has not seen since the Algarve was first developed.
The result has been overwhelming and impressive. Suddenly, the Estoril can offer some fabulous courses designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones on land surrounded by historic relics like Roman aqueducts and flush with ancient vineyards, all of which sit in the shadow of medieval towns and castles.
“Is that really a Roman aqueduct crossing behind the seventh green?” I asked a local man I had been paired with during a recent visit to the Ritz Carlton Penha Longa Golf and Spa Resort just 16 kilometers outside Lisbon.
“It is indeed an old aquaduct that was used to carry water to Lisbon for many centuries after the Romans left,” said the delightful man.
Penha Longa is one of those golf surprises the Estoril region offers visitors – its sweeping terrain challenges a player’s shot-making ability to well-protected greens, and the imposing 14th century monastery, which sits atop an outcrop dominated by a huge cross, tests players’ power of concentration.
Penha Longa is so good that they’ve held a few Portuguese Opens here and the pros were brought to their knees. The, par-72 course is much friendlier to visitors – if you play the right tees.
As enchanting and beautiful as Penha Longa is, it’s not my favorite course in the Estoril. That honor goes to the Pestana Golf Course located in the fairytale town of Sintra, home to a candy-colored castle that once served as the summer home of Portugal’s royal family.
The 18-hole gem is part of a grand resort offering 137 impeccably decorated rooms and lots of feel good spa and recreation facilities.
The course flows through the area’s mountainous landscape and the castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site is never out of sight. The par-3 holes on this course are particularly challenging but then again so are all the rest.
After golf, the town and its collection of ancient buildings and churches – don’t miss the beautiful 12th century Igreja de Santa Maria, which was rebuilt after the country’s 1755 earthquake.
Lord Byron, the legendary British poet, once described Sintra as “this glorious Eden” and that was long before they added the Garden of Eden-like golf course.
Above: Portugal's rugged coastline looks much like Ireland or Scotland.
What we love about European destinations is that you can combine golf with visits to historic towns and quaint bars and restaurants where the local wine flows like water and prices for food, lodging and golf are always reasonable.
Portugal, which moves to a Latin beat after the sun dips behind the 18th tee, is no exception to this rule. Its offerings of spicy fish and seafood dishes and fine wines – this country ranks among the best wine producers in the world – just adds to the flavor of a golf vacation here.
However, Portugal does offer one more incentive to visitors – port.
Yes, the thick by-product of wine that is sweet to the tongue is exclusive to Portugal and the area around Porto, the place where the syrupy liquid is produced in great abundance, is also blessed with some memorable courses.
A few other golf courses just outside Lisbon we highly recommend:
1- The Praia d’El Rey in magical Obidos - not from the religious site at Fatima. Obidos is another of those fairytale towns that you must visit after your round on this par-72 beauty cut through a pine forest and along beachside dunes. It’s easy to get distracted by the eye candy that surrounds you here and the Cabell Robinson-designed demands your full concentration. The Moorish castle, narrow streets, and pubs of Obidos will be waiting for you to explore after the round.
2- Oitavos Golf Club. Another beauty spread out along the shores of the Atlantic, this course is so good it regularly hosts the Portuguese Open. This course is full of surprises so you might want to play it twice. Lots of wide fairways but they all narrow at the small greens. Being so close to the Atlantic, there’s a definite links feel to this course. The estate wines served in the clubhouse are the perfect ending to a perfect day at Oitavos.
3- Troia Golf Course. This is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. creation – yes, golf in Portugal has a long history – and one of his European masterpieces, with sand dunes, lots of tree-lined fairways, bold bunkers, raised greens and some of the most challenging doglegs anywhere. An added feature here is the boat ride you must take from the town of Setubal to get to the course.
4- Quinta do Peru. The Arrabida Mountains are this course backdrop and that should give you an indication of how lovely the setting is here. The course is pretty impressive as well, with two long par 3s and lots of challenging par 4s. The course is flat but the 300 acre pine forest it cuts through temps you into the woods off the tee on most holes. This is a private course but like all private courses in Europe, they welcome tourists with advanced tee times.
So, as you can see, when planning your golf vacation to Portugal, you’ll have more than the fantastic Algarve region to choose from.