While half of the UK population voted to turn its back on Europe last summer, it seems that its travelling golfers remain fully committed to our continental neighbours – at least when it comes to holiday destinations.
Spain, France and Portugal all enjoyed double digit growth in golfing visitor numbers from the UK in 2016, with the latter enjoying an impressive 20% increase in the number of rounds played by British golfers in its two main golfing regions, the Algarve and Lisbon.
While the Algarve, which celebrated its 50th anniversary as a golf destination last year, has been a perennial favourite with sun-seeking Brits since the 1960s, it is the area around Lisbon that has seen the biggest growth in recent years, with over 100,000 of us flocking each year to play its 20-plus courses, all of which are located within an hour’s drive of Europe’s westernmost capital.
While the Lisbon area might not quite be able to match the Algarve in terms of quantity, there is unquestionably plenty of quality on offer. The region can be divided into three distinct areas. The Silver Coast, to the north west of Lisbon, is where you’ll find the likes of Bom Successo, Royal Obidos and Praia d’El Rey. The central area, around Cascais and Sintra, is home to favourites such as Quinta da Marinha, Penha Longa and Oitavos Dunes, while to south of the River Tagus you’ll find the Blue Coast, where the courses at Aroieira, Quinta do Peru, Ribagolfe and Santo Estevão await.
Awarded the title of European Golf Destination of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators for the third time last year, Lisbon’s Golf Coast not only boasts a wide variety of quality courses, but also offers affordable green fees, a year-round mild climate, and easy access to the attractions of the city. My three-night trip in October took in the highlights of the Silver Coast, teeing it up at Bom Sucesso, Praia d’El Rey and Royal Obidos, before heading back towards the capital for a round at Oitavos Dunes, and a whistlestop tour of Lisbon itself.
A two-and-a-half hour flight from the UK takes you into the heart of Lisbon, where its Portela airport is located surprisingly close to the red-tilled rooftops that dominate the historic city’s suburban skyline. After picking up a hire car, we drove 100km up the coast to the Evolutee Hotel at the Royal Obidos Spa & Golf Resort to begin our packed golfing schedule.
Opened just two years ago, the boutique-style Evolutee Hotel – terrible name, lovely spot – sits in splendid isolation overlooking the Royal Obidos golf course, commanding views out to the Atlantic. Boasting just 39 rooms – make sure you bag one with an ocean view – the five-star venue features an Elemental spa, two swimming pools, a restaurant and bar. More importantly, it’s just a short walk down the hill to the clubhouse.
While Royal Obidos was laid out temptingly before us, our first round was actually scheduled for Bom Sucesso, a championship course located just a few miles away, which occupies a spectacular site alongside the Lagoa de Obidos. Set within a substantial residential development, the 18 holes at Bom Sucesso opened in 2008 and were designed by Donald Steel. It is the very epitome of resort golf – offering generous fairways, a smattering of water, and some interesting changes in elevation.
After a gentle opener, the course quickly gets into it stride at the second, a very strong par-5 which sweeps downhill to a green protected by a lake on the right. The same lake is then carried to the par-3 third, which sadly swallowed my first ball of the trip after a miss-judged tee shot. The back nine kicks off with a pretty par-3, while the 12th is a testing 400-yard par-4, with water to the right with the hole turning left to an off-set green – a clever design, which asks questions the whole way.
Some say that the final two holes are worth the green fee alone, and although that diminishes the quality of other 16, the 17th and 18th are both show stoppers. The tee on the par-5 17th commands the best view on the entire estate, although this demanding 580-yard dogleg will require all of your attention once you’ve put away the camera. The 18th offers a similarly inviting view from the tee, although the drive requires a little more thought, as a stream crosses the hole twice before you reach the safety of the green. Two pars at these holes will make the first drink at the clubhouse taste particularly sweet, although mine tasted pretty good with a couple of hard-fought bogeys.
Back at the Evolutee Hotel, we refreshed our weary limbs with a trip to the sauna and steam room in the spa, and a dip in the pool that overlooks the golf course, before heading down for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, which is where all the main meals are served. Specialising in Wagu beef, along with locally sourced fish, the evening meal errs on the finer side of dining, so if you’re after more rustic fare, the clubhouse restaurant is a more affordable option.
After a good night’s sleep, and an excellent breakfast – where I indulged in the first of what turned out to be rather too many Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts to you and me) – we got up early to play Praia D’El Rey, one of my yet-to-be-ticked-off bucket list courses.
Sadly, a club competition on the day meant that we could only play the back nine of this Cabell Robinson belter, but it’s unquestionably the better half, with more holes taking in those stunning coastal views. Teeing off at the par-5 10th with the sun barely above the horizon, and a whiff of autumnal moisture in the air, it felt like proper millionaire’s golf, with no other groups ahead to impede our progress.
With no previous holes to help us into our stride, the 10th is tough place to start, with the green to this 530-yard hole protected by a deep bunker left and an even deeper lake right. From here on, the back nine just gets better and better. If any have to be picked out, then it must be the stretch from 13-15 that runs along the coast. All are superb tests, with the signature par-3 13th and the 15th, a demanding 400-yard par-4 with a big dip short of the green, being personal favourites. Thankfully, we didn’t have to contend with the Atlantic breeze on our visit, which would make finding the narrow strips of fairway even harder, but either way you’d be hard pushed to find a better stretch of holes in mainland Europe than these.
A brief walk along the corridors of the stylish clubhouse will leave you in no doubt as to the architect of the course that waits outside. Images of Seve Ballesteros greet you at every turn
The course, if I’m brutally honest, is beginning to show its age, and needs a little bit of attention in terms of its conditioning, while the numerous villas that border some of the fairways are an ugly, if financially necessary, distraction to the overall beauty of the layout. The front nine, which flits between the ocean and some inland holes, will have to wait for another day, but I’ll definitely be back for more, especially when the new course currently being designed right next to it, West Cliffs, opens for play this summer.
Designed by Cynthia Dye McGarey of Dye Designs, West Cliffs sits on arguably an even better stretch of land than its illustrious neighbour, and although it was still in the shaping phase during my visit, it is already clear that this will go straight into many peoples’ lists of ‘must-play’ courses in Europe. Measuring 7,000 yards off the back tees, it covers a vast tract of rolling sand dunes, interspersed with coastal vegetation and areas of pine groves, all of which overlook the sea from a variety of elevations above the cliffs at the mouth of the River Obidos. Also owned by Praia d’el Rey, West Cliffs looks destined to elevate this part of Portugal among the golfing cognoscenti, as well as serve to increase interest in all the other courses in the region.
For our second night at the Evolutee Hotel, we shook things up by having a meal in the clubhouse, which was suitably relaxed, albeit a little quiet given the season, but no less enjoyable. And it was to the same clubhouse that we returned the next morning for a tee time at Royal Obidos, whose course I had been eyeing up for the previous 36 hours from my bedroom terrace.
A brief walk along the corridors of the stylish clubhouse will leave you in no doubt as to the architect of the course that waits outside. Images of Seve Ballesteros greet you at every turn, and it’s hard not to feel sad to learn that this was his last creation, opening just months after his untimely death in 2011. The great man never got to play the course, but as with so many other aspects of his life, he’s left a lasting legacy that future generations will be able to enjoy for years to come.
While the course doesn’t have a beachside location, and only offers brief glimpses of the ocean, each hole demands full concentration, especially on the eight holes that feature water. The tee shot at the par-five second sets the tone, with a monster hit required over water to make a dent in the yardage, with a lake running the entire length of the left side of the fairway; while other standout holes on the front side were the 3rd, a par-3 with an island green; the 4th, a long par-4 requiring a very accurate second shot, and the 7th, a par-5 which offers commanding views over the massive lagoon in nearby Obidos.
The back nine is no less demanding, most notably the par-4 12th, a right-angled dogleg, with just a small plateau of fairway to aim at off tee, deep trouble right, and a long second to a raised green. Tension is heightened at the par-4 14th, where the second shot requires a mid-iron over water, while the par-5 18th provides a suitably rousing finish, with an elevated tee providing the launch pad to a fairway protected by bunkers, before approaching a semi-island green set off at angle with water left and long.
Playing off the middle tees is a good choice for higher handicappers, but those looking for the ultimate ‘Seve experience’ will want to suck up the full 7,300 yards. There are lots of run offs around the greens where you can practice your Seve-style up-and-downs, while the putting surfaces are smooth and suitably manicured.
After a relaxed lunch in the minimalist clubhouse, whose floor-to-ceiling windows offer superb views, we packed up the car and set the sat nav for Cascais, where we had a rendezvous with the last course on our all too short trip, Oitavos Dunes. Some 90 minutes later we checked into The Oitavos Hotel, a grand edifice of angular concrete and glass that looks more like a contemporary art gallery than a place to rest up for the night.
Set over three floors, the entire ground floor of the Y-shaped building is one giant open space measuring the length of a decent par four, with the dining room, bar and lounge area spread out to bring the light in and afford the best possible views. The spacious guest rooms are all bright and airy, although the glass-walled bathrooms are a bit odd when you’re sharing with a colleague. It’s fair to say that The Oitavos doesn’t do cosy, but if chic, contemporary minimalism (think private hospital meets Terminal 5) is your thing, you’ll feel right at home here.
Anyway, back to the golf. Confusingly, we drove to the clubhouse at Oitavos Dunes expecting to tee off from there, but were promptly sent back to the hotel, as the first tee is located right next to it. Confusion over, we made our tee time with seconds to spare, and were soon negotiating our way through the narrow, pine tree-lined fairways that dominate the opening stretch of holes.
Opened in 2001, Oitavos Dunes was designed by American architect Arthur Hills, whose reputation is little known outside of his native shores. Thankfully Mr Hills overlooked Americans predilection for ‘target golf’ in favour of a more naturalistic, raw golfing experience, making superb use of the landscape to carve out a unique 6,900-yard course that combines the rare golfing creature – a woodland/links hybrid.
Kicking off with six tree-lined holes, it then opens up dramatically into the dunes for 10 holes, before returning to the woods for the final two. On paper it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but in reality it most certainly does. Precision rather than power is the order of the day over the opening holes, as anything hit mildly off line will almost certainly require a chip out sideways. Once safely negotiated, the course opens up as you rise out of the woodland, with a real opportunity to open the shoulders on the back-to-back par-5s at 7 and 8.
On the back nine the pick of the holes are the 14th, 17th and 18th, but none of the others can be said to let the course down. The 14th is a wonderful par-3 that plays much longer than its 165 yards suggests – as I discovered to my cost when what I thought was a well struck 7-iron disappeared into the storm ravine that then runs all along the right hand side of the hole. The final two holes are solid tests to finish the round, both par fours measuring over 450 yards. The 17th is slightly easier, as it has a downhill approach, but the green is tricky and the bunker front left must be avoided. The 18th is a classic finishing hole – a long, dogleg left with a narrow fairway, and trees and dunes bordering the rough on both sides.
Overall, Oitavos Dunes is a fun course, but its hybrid nature will not tick everyone’s box of how a championship course should play, and it will certainly not be one for links purists, despite playing firm and fast. The course enjoys a lofty position in course ranking lists, which gives rise to impossibly high expectations from those who place a lot of faith in them, but my advice is cast aside those preconceptions and enjoy it for the golfing experience that it is.
My other advice is to ditch the buggy and play on foot. The course is largely flat, and a good walk will set you up nicely to enjoy the excellent food on offer in the stylish clubhouse.
After our round, and suitably refreshed, we drove the few miles into Cascais, and spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the harbour and the backstreets, stopping for coffee – and more custard tarts – before making plans for dinner. We swerved the hotel restaurant in preference for something more adventurous further afield, and after an hour spent peering into menus and checking Tripadvisor, we hit upon Monte Mar, a seafood restaurant that sits on a rocky outcrop just a mile along the coast from The Oitavos Hotel. Here you can pick your own lobster from a tank, have freshly-caught sea bass filleted at your table, and if you time it right, watch the sun sink into the Atlantic with a cold glass of Albarino before stumbling back to your bed.
The following morning, after a suitably excessive buffet breakfast in the hotel – – custard tart count already up into double figures for the trip – we joined the lengthy queues of commuters driving into Lisbon. Thankfully, we weren’t planning on doing a day’s work, rather a 10-hour tour of the city with the help of a guide kindly provided by the Lisbon Tourism Office.
After depositing the hire car, we were whisked away in a Mercedes seven-seater up to the highest point in the city, St George’s Castle, where from the perfectly preserved ramparts you can enjoy stunning views out over the rooftops to the River Tagus and beyond. The castle is also home to one of the world’s first 360-degree cameras, an ingenious periscope that reflects the light off an enormous concave dome to offer a complete view of the city to warn of imminent attack from the sea.
After wearing out our camera shutters, we walked down the hill – the city is built across seven of them – through the winding cobbled streets, stopping off at a superb wine shop, Garrafeira Nacional, to pick up a bottle of white port and try a glass of Ginjinha, a sweet cherry liqueur that the locals seem to drink at all times of the day. With the clock ticking, and bellies rumbling, we stopped off half way down the hill for a light lunch in a restaurant called Zambeze, which draws its culinary inspiration from Mozambique.
Suitably revived from lunch, we carried on down through the streets of the Chiado district, Lisbon’s answer to Shoreditch, where groovy young things get up to all sort of artistic activities amid small boutiques, and a mix of bohemian cafés and bars.
For those not being chaperoned in a luxury minibus, the clanking yellow trams are still the best way to get up and around the city. The No.28 passes through the oldest quarters, while the Gloria and Bica funiculars are the best way to reach the happening Bairro Alto district. And there also hoards of tuk tuks, which look like an instant cure for piles as they jiggle over the cobbled streets.
We then hopped back in the Merc and headed out to the Belem district to see the famous tower that guards the entrance to the mouth of the Tagus, and take a peak inside the Jerónimos Monastery, where 15th century explorer Vasco de Gama and Luís de Camões, one of Portgual’s most revered poets, are buried.
Feeling a little peckish after all this culture, we advised our guide of our interest in all things custard-related, and soon found ourselves inside one of the most popular cafés in town, Pasteis de Belem, a blue and white-tiled temple to eggs, cream, sugar and pastry, where rows of ovens churn out upwards of 20,000 tarts a day to a seemingly endless stream of tourists. It was custard nirvana, but even I was beginning to reach Peak Pasteis at this point, although it didn’t stop me buying half a dozen more to take back to the UK.
And with that our brief tour was over. So much left to see, but no time to do it. Our journey back to the airport took us past the stadium of one of Lisbon’s two Primeira Liga football teams – Benfica – the other being Sporting Lisbon, and golfers with a passion for football should try and combine a visit to the city with of the four annual derby matches. The next is April 23, although league leaders Benfica’s match against Porto, currently lying second in the table, will also be worth catching on April 2. If you’re unable to secure match day tickets, both clubs offer stadium tours – providing looking at rows of empty seats and peering around deserted changing rooms floats your boat.
Where to play
Praia D’El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resor; praia-del-rey.com, Green Fees: €42/€69 (low/high)
Royal Obidos Spa & Golf Resort; royalobidosgolf.com, Green Fees: €50/€100
Bom Sucesso; bomsucesso.net, Green Fees: €42/€58
Oitavos Dunes; theoitavos.com, €67/€113
Where to stay
The Oitavos, Cascais; theoitavos.com
Evolutee Hotel, Royal Obidos; royalobidos.com