Portugal: Golfing the Atlantic Coast
By Peter Hellman
As a traveling golfer, I think of myself as someone who has "been there, done that" at a lot of golfable destinations. So, you might find it surprising that Portugal was not on my list. Fortunately for me, an invitation came my way last year and in mid October I went to experience what European golfers have been raving about for years and we Americans know so little about. You would think that the English run up to Scotland for a golfer's holiday whenever the urge hits them, but even they get a bit weary of the cold and rain and from time to time seek lusher fairways, warming sunshine, good wine, better food and lower prices.
The easiest part of Portugal to reach from England or any other part of the world is Lisbon, the capital. I visited an area just 45 minutes west of the city called the Estoril/Cascais Coast. This is not the area of Portugal most golfers hear about. That's the Algarve, which is located in the extreme southern part of the country. But to many who have visited both regions, it's the Estoril that wins out because it has more to offer golfers and explorers.
I traveled with a group of fellow American golf tour operators. It's a congenial group who love the game, are by no means great golfers (that certainly includes me) but are keenly interested in finding great golf experiences for their clients. The 45 minute drive to our hotel actually took a bit longer than an hour. Traffic around Lisbon is thick and the roads tend to be small. Our hotel for our six night stay was the newly built The Oitavos located just north of the town of Cascais. It is an ultra-modern, Five Star, beautifully located structure of 142 rooms with ocean views from ample balconies. The Champalimaud family, our hosts and owners of the land for three generations, built and manage the hotel. But, prior to it's opening in 2010, they built what is to my mind the finest golf course (designed by Arthur Hills) in the region - Oitavos Dunes. Golf Digest ranks it among the top 100 courses in the world. Though not located on the water, the course sits on high rolling dunes that provide views over the Atlantic to the west and rugged forested hills and mountains to the east. With so much visual temptation around you, concentrating on hitting the ball is difficult. After a serious lunch at the modern club house, we headed out for a quick round before dark. Though always tired after a long overnight flight to Europe, I like to be physically active and avoid napping so that I can more easily get on to the countries clock. A round of golf always helps.
Though The Oitavos hotel and its golf course were my favorites on this trip, there were other excellent hotels and courses in the area. One of the most interesting hotels was the Palacio Estoril. Opened in 1930, it was the hub of espionage and intrigue during WWII. Because Portugal was neutral, diplomats, spies and wealthy refugees and celebrities congregated here and enjoyed Estoril's beaches, clubs and casinos. It is grand style and popularity continues today. A smaller and less grand hotel located directly on the water is the Albatroz. Charming rooms in a somewhat funky style command a primo piece of strand with great views from virtually every room.
Hopefully you get the idea that the area has many great accommodations properties to satisfy virtually any taste (ultra-modern to classic old world charm) and pocket book. But, I stray from the subject – the subject of golf. The Palacio Hotel in Estoril owns and operates the Estoril Golfe Club, which is one of the oldest in Portugal and designed by the famous Scottish golf architect Mackenzie Ross. Built on high forested hills above the town, the course has many altitude changes and is unfortunately divided by a highway. A pedestrian bridge links the first nine with second. Though a bit funky, the course is worth a round and the relaxing original club house has plenty of atmospheres for an after-round beer and sandwich.
A newer course on the way to Sintra (a world heritage site and worth a visit) is the Penha Longa Atlantic. The course and a short nine-hole are part of an excellent modern resort built on the grounds of a restored 16th century summer palace. Designed by Robert Trent Jones and finished in 1992, the course works its way to commanding high ground and funnels its way through forests of pine before returning to the club house. I loved this course and it is not because I scored well.
Other courses one should play in the area are: Pestana Beloura, Belas Club de Campo and Club de Golf Quinta da Marinha. These courses are modern, have interesting layouts and enjoy easy access from The Oitavos Hotel. On my next trip to Portugal, I plan to add the Oeste Region to my itinerary. This area of wine and sea is about 1 ½ hours north of Estoril. Praia d'el Rey, a Marriott resort, has a magnificent course along a long beach known worldwide by surfers for its excellent waves. The course boasts four holes along the beach with plenty of sand dunes defining the lush fairways. There are views of the Atlantic from virtually every hole. Other courses in the area include Campo Real, Dom Sucesso and the newly completed Royal Obidos.
Since I mentioned wine, I should probably tell you more about it and the food in this part of Portugal. Local wine is abundant, delicious and inexpensive. This not to say that you can't find some very special wines to celebrate your hole-in-one or some important date. Port is another very drinkable product of Portugal and often served with or after dessert. Port hails from Porto several miles farther north.
As you can well imagine, the Atlantic influences the menus of restaurants along the coast. And as the top consumer of cod in the world, you will find it prepared in ways you may have never thought of. One of the best meals we had was in what our host called a local's restaurant – Mar do Inferno. Perched on a high bluff over the Atlantic, this seafood heaven was packed with diners eagerly digging into shellfish of all kind, cod (of course) and some of the best tasting small lobsters called bruxas (witches) and large shrimp or langoustines I have ever eaten.The final reason for considering Portugal for your next trip is value. Not only is the Euro favoring dollar travelers again, but Portugal like several southern European countries is suffering economically. Government imposed austerity programs have reduced wages by 10%, increased work hours and raised taxes in order to deal with a deficit is unsustainable. The affect of these measures is less local demand for goods and services, which causes prices to fall and if you coupled that with the weakening Euro, you'll find Portugal may be your best bet for a perfect golf experience in 2012.