I’ve travelled near and far to play golf, arriving by car, bus, plane and even subway to make my tee-off time. But Zodiac? This was a first.
“We’ve never had a landing like this,” said golf pro Terry Hamilton, greeting my group as we clumsily swung our legs over the side of the inflatable boat, stepped into the 9-degree water (thank goodness for rubber boots) and staggered up onto a wide, red-sand beach framed by parabolic dunes. We had arrived on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, and just over the towering mounds was the Links at Crowbush Cove, one of Atlantic Canada’s premier golf courses.
The excursion was part of a golf cruise operated by One Ocean Expeditions, a Squamish, B.C.-based company that is best known for its adventure tours of Antarctica and the Arctic. Crowbush was one of four courses we visited during our eight-day journey that began in historic Louisbourg, N.S., and included stops in Cape Breton, N.S., PEI, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Que., and finally Sable Island, N.S.
To call the trip just a cruise or golf trip, though, is misleading, narrowly defining an experience that was so much more. Yes, we travelled by sea – aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research vessel turned cruise ship with a mysterious past – but this voyage lacked the usual traps of a floating holiday. Instead of never-ending buffets, lounge singers and strolls through tourist districts at each port of call, we mixed golfing on bucket-list seaside courses with cycling, hiking, sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, bird watching, whale spotting, photography outings and Zodiac tours along some of Eastern Canada’s most rugged and spectacular shorelines.
One Ocean added the golf-focused sailing to its Canadian Maritimes offerings this year, targeting the game’s enthusiasts who want a richer experience than the typical buddy trip of 36 holes by day and drinking by night.
“We think it is still true to our DNA as a company,” said One Ocean founder Andrew Prossin, a former competitive sailor with roots in Cape Breton. “I don’t think it is a radical departure, although I think we’re going to tap into a separate market.”
The passengers on my cruise were certainly bonded by a love of golf. With only 60 or so guests on board, the cruise’s intimacy was among its greatest charms: A couple of days in, everyone knew each other on a first-name basis. Our group included a senator, a former politician, titans of industry, entrepreneurs, fellow journalists and retirees who remain active and curious about the natural world. Many of the guests – most ranging in age from 40 to 70 – came in couples; in some cases, just one spouse was a golfer, leaving the non-player to partake in the other activities.
I had already played all four of the courses on the trip before: Crowbush, Highlands Links in Ingonish Beach, N.S., and sister courses Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Inverness, N.S. It’s hard to imagine a better foursome in Eastern Canada, or all of Canada for that matter. All four are among the best 40 in Canada, according to ScoreGolf magazine’s seminal ranking of golf courses, with the latter three within the top 10.
But as much as I savoured teeing up on those courses again, it was the time away from the courses that turned the trip from a great golf excursion into an unforgettable life experience.
The small pleasures included evening drinks in the Ioffe’s bar, listening to Celtic tunes played by fiddler Andrée Mackula Thériault and mandolinist Graham Lindsey, plus a tour of the ship’s lower decks, featuring a glimpse of the undersea surveillance equipment that contributes to the rumour that Ioffe is a former spy vessel. At dinners, whether in the Ioffe’s dining room or on the ship’s deck for a barbecue, our group compared notes about our adventures (us golfers usually had enough time to squeeze in another pursuit) in discussions that grew more animated as the week went on. “You can tell how great the day was according to how loud the dining room is at dinner,” said Kaylan Worsnop, One Ocean’s expedition leader on our cruise. Most nights, it was very loud.
The larger pleasures were all natural.
Our stop on Îles-de-la-Madeleine, for example, was originally supposed to include a round on a fifth course – a nine-hole in L'Étang-du-Nord; unforeseen scheduling conflicts at the course stopped that from happening, so many of us joined a cycling outing led by One Ocean guide Lee Symmes, a pro cyclist.
The island presented a dreamy escape. From a bike saddle, the scenery floated by at a stress-free pace. Symmes took us along hilly, oceanside roads that passed cozy cottages and homes, each painted in a vibrant colour, standing out against the brilliant blue sea. We took a break in sleepy Havre-Aubert village, loading up on artisanal chocolate and pastries to sustain us on the return portion of our 30-kilometre route. Who needed golf?
But the serenity of Îles-de-la-Madeleine was a mere warm-up for what we were about to experience on Sable Island, the last full day of the cruise. This is what that will remain in my memory – and soul, even – long after I’ve forgotten about all the great (and awful) shots I hit during the golf days.
The island, 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax (yes, this cruise hit the open ocean), is a protected National Park Reserve, a crescent-shaped sliver of a sandbar that is as untouched by humans as any place I’ve been.
Just a handful of people (all Parks Canada staff) live there regularly, and only a few hundred outsiders visit a year, all by permission granted in advance. The island is perhaps best known for its 500 or so wild horses, but its fauna also include 350 species of birds (the Ipswich sparrow only breeds there) and the hundreds (thousands?) of harbour and grey seals that bobbed in the surf watching us as we headed ashore in Zodiacs.
We had only a few hours on Sable Island. Divided into smaller groups, we walked along the beach, through soaring dunes, into flat grasslands, and then to an oasis where some of the horses grazed and drank water mere metres away. Our walkabout ended with a climb up a dune that peaked at about 60 metres above sea level, giving us a view of the ocean on both sides.
My group of trekkers included Leona Aglukkaq, a former federal politician from Nunavut who was Canada’s environment minister when Sable Island was formally made a reserve in 2013. With her son in tow, she was setting foot for the first time on the sanctuary she played a role in protecting forever.
“The whole expedition has been really exciting," she told me on the wind-swept beach. "But what’s really special today is I get to land on the island with my 10-year-old son, Cooper, to show him the work I did to create this park.”
I am sure every member of our group left with a similar feeling, even without the personal or professional connection. Sable Island was a special place to wind down a special trip. Golf is a great excuse to travel but it’s also a gateway into a wider world of wonders.
The writer was a guest of One Ocean Expeditions. It did not review or approve the content.
Ships: One Ocean Expeditions operates using two Russian-owned ships, the Akademik Ioffe and the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. In addition to 42 Russian sailors and 24 One Ocean staff, the ships can take about 100 passengers. The fleet has recently grown with the addition of the RCGS Resolute, which can accommodate an additional 40 or so passengers.
Golf: The RCGS Resolute is expected to be used on the two golf cruises in 2019 – one around Ireland and Scotland in June and the other through the Canadian Maritimes in July. The itinerary of the eight-day European cruise is set to include six golf stops, including Ballyliffin in Ireland and Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands. The Canadian cruise, also eight days, will feature the same golf courses as this year’s voyage.
Logistics: Passengers bring their own golf clubs, which are kept in a ship storage room (not in passenger cabins) and shuttled to the courses and back by staff via Zodiac boats.
Price: The 2019 per-passenger cost on the golf cruises ranges from US$4,395 for triple occupancy to US$9,195 for top-end suites. All food, golf and other activities are included. Air transportation to the embarkation point airports (Dublin on the overseas trip and Sydney, N.S., on the Canadian cruise) are not included. Alcohol and extra services such as massages are also not included.
Gear: One Ocean provides full protection against the elements, including rubber boots, rain pants and jackets that are both warm and waterproof.
Accommodations: The Ioffe and Vavilov were built as research vessels. Cabins and common areas are comfortable but not ultraluxurious, although essentials (bedding, toiletries) are high-end and niceties such as robes are available. Food is exceptional, with a local chef on board to supervise the meals. The RCGS Resolute more closely resembles a traditional cruise ship, and it promises more amenities, including two dining rooms and a wellness/spa area.