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Discover the golfing charms of northern Portugal

11 June, 2013

Discover the golfing charms of northern Portugal

June 2013

When planning a golf trip to sunny Portugal, the majority of golfers will give scant consideration to playing outside the Algarve area, such is the lure of the top ranked courses strung out along the southern coastline of the country.

Because it’s so easy to arrange flights in and out of Faro, and with literally dozens of layouts located within an hour’s drive of the airport, you can see why so many people take the easy option of arranging their golfing vacation around the southern resorts.

The Associação de Turismo do Porto and its partners thought it was about time that the northern region of the nation was showcased as a destination for golf and culture and so, at the end of May 2013, twenty European Golf & Travel Media Association members were invited to see just what the area had to offer. Top 100 was lucky enough to be represented within that EGTMA delegation.

First port of call on the tour of Porto and the north was the historic old club of Oporto, situated on the Atlantic coast in Espinho. One of the oldest clubs in continental Europe, Oporto Niblicks, as it was originally called, was founded by British golfers in 1890 when they laid out a course between the railway line and the beach.

This rudimentary 9-holer was named St. Skeff Links, in honour of the first President of the club, Charles Neville Skeffington. The layout may have changed over the years but the golfing traditions of the club remain intact, as can be seen by the many old trophies and honours boards on display in the clubhouse.

A non-golfing interlude in the afternoon of the first day allowed the EGTMA group to briefly explore the Historical Centre of Porto, one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in northern Portugal. Built on the hillsides overlooking the mouth of the river Douro, the buildings in this 2,000-year old city are an eclectic mix of old and new that somehow co-exist, giving Porto an historic, yet contemporary feel at the same time.

Highlights of this short tour included a look inside the magnificent Gothic Church of São Francisco and a visit to see the tile-panelled vestibule of the São Bento Railway Station, where scenes from the nation’s history adorn the walls. Best of all was kept ‘til last though, with a look round the neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace) where the stunning Arab Room - built in an exotic Moorish Revival style between 1862 and 1880 - simply takes one’s breath away.

Heading inland to the Minho region and the small town of Amarante, on the banks of the Tâmega river, the 30-bedroom Relais et Chateaux Hotel Casa de Calcada – built during the 16th century as a palace for the Count de Redondo – played host to the EGTMA group before members played a round on the hotel’s course the next morning.

The 18-hole Amarante course is short, extending to only 5,030 metres, with seven par threes on the layout. What the eighteen holes might lack in length, they more than make up for with a tortuous routing over a very hilly landscape. The signature par four 4th hole has also been known to wreck the scorecard of several top amateur golfers during competitive play here so this course is more than capable to offering a stiff test.

Next stop on the Tour of the North was Vidago Palace, where golfers who can afford to stay at the 5-star hotel will not be short changed as it offers luxury all the way with a capital “L”. For those on a more modest budget, the brand new 3-star Primavera perfume hotel, located next to the main gates to the property, also has a range of excellent “stay and play” package deals available.

Philip Mackenzie Ross first set out the old 9-hole Vidago Palace course in the 1930s and Chris Powell and Bob Cameron have recently remodelled it. Six of the original holes remain and they’ve been joined by twelve new holes that now extend into the Vidago valley.

Number four in the visit to the “cluster of five” courses in northern Portugal was Axis Golfe Ponte de Lima, situated in the hills above the old town of Ponte de Lima and operated by the Axis group of hotels. If ever there was a course of ”two halves” then this is it; a very hilly front nine followed by a largely level, parkland back nine – the contrast in styles really could not be any starker yet the two loops combine wonderfully to offer a very engaging round of golf.

Before returning to the Atlantic coast to complete the media trip, the EGTMA delegation had the opportunity to stroll around the sleepy market town of Ponte de Lima and soak up the laid back atmosphere. In the main square, facing the low arches of the Roman bridge, sits the Largo de Camões fountain and it’s in one of the little cafes close to this 17th century water feature that one can easily spend an idle hour or two watching the world go by.

The final leg of the tour to the region around Porto took place just to the north of the beach resort of Póvoa de Varzim, at breezy Estela. The course hosted the Portuguese Open in 1991, two years after it first opened, and it’s since held several European Amateur Championships. It’s as close as possible to being classed a “proper” links, with holes fanning out from the clubhouse in two tight returning circuits of nine. Unfortunately, the club is engaged in an ongoing fight with Nature and it’s doing its best to hold back the beach from the fairways on the front nine by erecting a fence to keep the many tons of sand from blowing onto the course.

An opportunity then arose on the last day for a Top 100 visit to an additional course that was not on the official program. As it worked out, the 1930s 9-hole layout at Miramar turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip “up north”. Not only is it a cracking little track, it’s also one of the most historically important in the country because the club was one of the four founders of the Portuguese Golfing Federation in 1949.

Golf in the north of Portugal is certainly rich and varied; from links-style layouts on the coast to more rugged, hilly courses inland. There is, as one might say, something for everyone. Visiting this region on a golfing excursion is not just about playing the courses, it’s about exploring the wider area at the same time to discover the many cultural attractions that make Porto and the surrounding districts such a rewarding, if somewhat under-rated, destination.

Jim McCann


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