SOUTHAMPTON, BERMUDA - Florida and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are the easiest spring golf destinations for Eastern Canadians to get to. Golfers can fly in the morning and be on a course in the afternoon, which is especially nice if the trip is less than a week or even a long weekend.
But one spot often overlooked by those in a hurry to get golfing is Bermuda.
Unlike the more distant islands of the Caribbean – such as Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados – Bermuda is further north in the Atlantic (much further than most realize) and is thus quicker to get to (much quicker than most realize).
Flights from Toronto, for example, are three hours max. It’s quite possible for Eastern Canadians to park the car in a slushy airport lot, board a plane and be in Bermuda (and Bermuda shorts) in time for an afternoon tee off.
But the ease of getting to Bermuda isn’t the biggest selling point the country has to offer as a golf destination. It’s the golf itself.
With the exception of perhaps the Dominican, no island in the East Coast-Atlantic-Caribbean corridor has better options in my opinion.
Bermuda isn’t big – just nine miles long – but its seven courses offer a little of everything, from modern gems to classic links.
I visited this winter on a four-day jaunt packed with golf, good food and good times. I left with an awareness that Bermuda is not only a top-notch spot for golf but a fascinating and beautiful country rich with culture and history.
My arrival coincided with the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, an exhibition tournament in which the winners of the four major championships of 2011 squared off over 36 holes. This time, Keegan Bradley bested Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke.
The PGA of America puts on the tournament and its members were on the island in full force. Golf was the main topic of discussion in restaurants, bars and lounges. The island was abuzz with golf.
Watching the four major champions duke it out, up close, around Port Royal Golf Course was a treat. Playing the same course, with the same final-round pins, the day after the tournament was an even bigger treat.
It was one of four courses I played while in Bermuda. And certainly my favourite of the quartet. In fact, it was my second-favourite course I played in all of 2011, as I noted in an earlier blog that ran down my most memorable courses played last year.
It’s not surprising Port Royal is a splendid course. It’s a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that opened in the early 1970s and was recently given a whopping $14.5-million (U.S.) overhaul to make it worthy of staging the Grand Slam.
Thinking back on the ocean-side course, it’s the stunning views of the Atlantic I’ll remember. The ocean is visible from much of the course, with the exception of a few of the opening holes, and is most breathtaking over the closing holes. (My group and I spent an inordinate amount of time taking pictures on the 16th hole, a devilish par three that hugs the coast, with water in play all down the left side and behind.) Vistas aside, I liked the course, too. It has generous enough fairways – perfect for a public course that is vulnerable to big winds – and there’s a terrific mix of holes moving in all sorts of directions. I suppose I’ll remember the 16th the best (it has the same postcard quality as the seventh at Pebble Beach) but my favourite might have been the 11th (a tough masculine dog leg that begins with a partly blind, uphill tee shot and ends lower at a small green). But really, any of the holes on the back nine, especially, are keepers.
Formerly Castle Harbour, this private course built in 1932 has also undergone a major renovation (in 2002). It’s a strong layout with a surprising amount of elevation changes. Despite tipping out at just less than 6,500 yards, it’s plenty tough enough.
Like Port Royal, it has a ridiculous amount of awesome vistas. The 17th hole, for example, is a simple and short enough par-four but it’s hard to concentrate with its view of Tucker’s Town and the Castle Islands ahead. The 18th is a beautiful closer, working uphill with the clubhouse high above.
Our visit to Tucker’s was unfortunately interrupted by a flash storm. We only got nine holes in (we started on the back). It’s a course I’d definitely like to see again, if for nothing else to see how close it comes to rivaling Port Royal.
The storm wasn’t a total bummer, though. It gave us a chance to have lunch and hang out with Paul Adams, the course’s director of golf. The British expat is not only a gregarious host with a natural charm, but he offered a few tips on getting onto the private course: Stay at the luxurious Tucker’s Point resort (a Rosewood property) and come to Bermuda in the winter, when the weather is less tropical but the number of visitors significantly less.
The links, also on the ocean, is Bermuda’s best-known course. It is steeped in history – the original layout, opened in 1921, was designed by esteemed architect Charles Blair Macdonald – and has staged dozens of championships, including the Grand Slam before it moved to Port Royal.
It really is a terrific course, with plenty of elevation changes and incredible vistas. The front nine through a coral canyon is as pretty as the back-nine holes that play more along the ocean. The view from the elevated tee box on the fifth hole, which wraps around the water, is spectacular, for example.
The one quibble was its conditioning. It didn’t seem up to the standards of a classic. The entire course just felt a little rough around the edges, without polish.
Still, it’s a must play. It launched Bermuda's reputation as a golf destination.
We stayed at the Fairmont Southampton. It’s a gorgeous hotel perched atop a hill. On the sides of the hill and wrapping around the hotel is a charming 18-hole executive course.
Such courses can often be afterthoughts, but this one isn’t. While just a par-27, the holes are both challenging and fun.
Because of the topography of the land, the tee boxes and holes are rarely on the same level.
After being buffeted in the high winds at Port Royal and Mid Ocean, a quick trip around the Fairmont’s track was a welcome breather one late afternoon.
My only mistake was not talking a cart. It seemed absurd to ride at a par-27. But I didn’t take into account the massive elevation changes. It turned into a good workout.
I was more than content at the Fairmont, a hotel with all the modern amenities on a beautiful tropical property. The Fairmont has another hotel on the island in the city of Hamilton. It would be more business travelers, or those who prefer a more urban and commercial district environment.
The Waterlot Inn can’t be beaten for both local charm (it’s housed in large traditional Bermuda cottage and has been serving for 340 years) and quality of food. Upscale but still friendly, it has a mixed menu but the savvy dinner will veer toward the out-this-world steak and seafood. Ask to see the wine cellar.
WHAT ELSE TO DO
Tourism is a big part of Bermuda’s economy so there’s no shortage of activities, from deep sea fishing to spas. My time there was predominantly occupied with golf, but among the enjoyable sides ventures were an ocean swim early one morning (I just splashed around at the beach near the Fairmont for an hour, but serious beach goers will probably want to check out Horseshoe Bay or John Smith’s Bay, both of which feature Bermuda’s famously pink sand) and a taxi tour through the historic town of St. George. Just seeing the architecture and the tight, cobbled streets is worth the effort. A knowledgeable driver like we had will surely know the history of Bermuda’s proud past as a military and trading outpost and its not-so-proud history as a slave destination.
Air Canada has nonstop flights from Toronto and Saturday service from Halifax. WestJet also flies nonstop from Toronto.
For more info, check out gotobermuda.com