Best links courses in Portugal and Spain

What are the best link courses in Portugal and Spain?

There is undoubtedly something very special about links’ courses, for it was on the barren stretches of infertile land that literally links the mainland to the sea that golf began. Exposed, unproductive and no good for anything else, this sandy land was perfect for golf. It drains well, the humps and hollow create interest and the turf was delightfully springy. And, best of all, the mighty dunes provided a dramatic backdrop as well as some welcome shelter.

How these dunes were created is rather more complicated than you might think. Yes, the wind whistling in off the sea certainly played a part. But, curiously, the dunes were originally formed at the end of the Ice Age when the glaciers retreated. Finally relieved of the enormous weight, the sandy land sprung up and the towering dunes took shape.

Apologies for the geology lesson but it’s important to understand the process for it explains why, in Europe for example, true links courses are only found in the north where glaciers rumbled up and down. Further south, if the soil is sandy and the course is right next to the sea where the wind howls and the sand mounds up, it’s quite possible to create links-like conditions that are a perfectly acceptable imitation of the real thing. But purists might object to describing them as links.

Because it’s on the Atlantic where powerful winds blow in from the west, Portugal’s coastline is more likely to experience conditions suitable for the creation of links-like courses. The one that comes closest is Troia, the truly magnificent course on a peninsula just south of Lisbon. It enjoys the extraordinary luxury of having the sea on both sides and this Robert Trent Jones Senior layout is simply superb.

The comparatively new seaside course of West Cliffs on Portugal’s Silver Coast has a wonderfully natural feel and is somewhat exceptional in that it was designed by a woman, albeit a scion of the famous Dye family. In sensitively preserving most of the existing terrain, Cynthia Dye has done a remarkable job and produced a fabulous course.

Also on the Silver Coast is incredibly beautiful Praia D’El Rey. Here there are significant wind-blown dunes and gorgeous views out over the Atlantic. Like Oitavos Dunes near Cascais, it comes remarkably close to the real thing you’ll find, for example, in Scotland. But it’s so much warmer!

Only just over the border in Spain, there is the recently-upgraded Empordà Links in the golf-rich Costa Brava region, the always impressive Parador de El Saler – which has been built on the shores of the Mediterranean 18km from Valencia– and Parador de Malaga, the oldest course in Andalusia and venue for the 2010 Spanish Open.

 

FESTIVALS IN THE COSTA BRAVA

Although you will find festivals throughout the whole of Spain throughout the whole of the year, nowhere does festivals bigger, better or louder than Catalonia. Everyone loves a party but no one loves a party more than Catalonians. Consequently, the Costa Brava is rightfully regarded as the Festival Capital of Spain.

Naturally, the high season for festivals is in the summer but, whatever time of the year you visit, you are almost to catch at least one. And if you’re serious about embracing the local culture, you should put on your party clothes and join in the fun.

Festivals come in a range of sizes and shapes. Some are huge and internationally acclaimed while others are far more parochial. Frequently they have a religious dimension and celebrate a saint’s day but the holy aspect of the event is usually drowned by the din. Frankly, any excuse for a party is seized upon and often the origins of the celebration are lost in the mists of history.

The venues are some of the Costa Brava’s most idyllic and emblematic spaces such as villages, castles, botanical gardens, archaeological sites and historical monuments. Even a beach will be considered suitable for a spot of revelry.

Possibly the most popular are the music festivals, which cover all tastes from classical, opera, pop, jazz and one which you might well have never heard of, havaneras, which are songs sung by fisherman and could loosely be described as sea shanties. Immensely popular, the Havaneras Festival staged in September on the beach of the Port of Soller, attracts a crowd of around 10,000.

Theatre and the performing arts such as dance, clowning and puppetry are also hugely popular and fill the streets with acrobats, magicians, circus acts and a range of entertainers.

Fireworks are another popular ingredient and spectacular displays frequently light up the night sky and wake up anyone attempting to sleep through the festival.

One of the biggest and most notable is the Cap Roig Festival, a music and dance festival held in the Gardens of Cap Roig. Celebrated annually since 2001, this event attracts a variety of national and international artists.

Another ‘biggy’ is the Festival de Porta Ferrada in Sant Feliu de Guíxols. It’s believed to be the oldest summer festival in Spain and takes place throughout the village in its streets, squares and venues with a range of local and international artists from a variety of disciplines including musicians, singers, orchestras and choirs.

The mediaeval Castell de Peralada is the setting for the Castell de Peralada Festival during the months of July and August. Set in the Castle Park gardens, it’s an ideal venue for concerts on a summer night. The church and the cloister, by contrast, host recitals, chamber concerts and small-format operas.

Golf and tourism in Mallorca

Ever since the birth of mass tourism back in the 1960s, the beautiful Mediterranean island of Mallorca has been one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations. With its enviable climate, gorgeous scenery and glorious beaches it particularly appeals to sun-starved tourists from norther Europe, especially those from Britain and Germany.

Anxious to both go upmarket and extend the season, the tourist authority has always been keen on golf. With their high disposable incomes and immaculate manners, golfers are very attractive visitors. Not only that but they are also happy to travel outside of the more popular months of the school holidays in what people in the travel industry call the ‘rump’ season. In other words in the spring and autumn.

The only area where golf could possibly conflict with the stated aims of Mallorcan tourism is over environmental issues. The island is proud to have avoided the mistakes made on the Spanish mainland where unbridled development has irreparably damaged significant lengths of coastline. But worries about scarce water resources have put golf courses under scrutiny.

They have responded by going to enormous lengths to demonstrate their genuine green credentials, protecting sensitive areas and introducing vigorous recycling programmes. Regarding water, they have reduced their consumption and switched to brackish and recycled water. In this respect, the development of new grasses that both need less water and are more tolerant of impure water has helped significantly.

With the approval and support of the authorities, it is therefore unsurprising that golf has flourished and the number of courses has expanded so that there are nearly a couple of dozen today. And the quality of the courses is exceptionally high.

Although there is something of a concentration in the south-west corner of the island close to Palma, the capital, the courses are pretty well scattered throughout the island so that, wherever you are, you’re never very far away from a golf course. Indeed, it is said that no two courses are more than 40 miles apart.

Mallorca has been hugely successful in its tourism strategy and the island benefits enormously as a result. Golf has played a crucial role in its success and other holiday destinations have sought to copy its example. Climate change poses a significant threat, especially as it will increase the pressure on scarce water resources. But golf has demonstrated its ability to adjust to changing circumstances and one development that has been observed on Mallorcan courses is an increase in low maintenance ‘waste’ areas that don’t require either watering or mowing. But golfers will do well to reverse the traditional warning and to ‘Keep ON the Grass’.

Scale the heights of majestic mount Teide in Tenerife

Best places to visit in Tenerife

Wherever you go in Tenerife you can always see it. All you have to do is look up and there it is, dominating the entire island with its brooding presence.

Mount Teide is extraordinary. First and foremost it is very tall and rises to a height of 12,188 feet, making it the highest point in Spain and the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic. Although its height above sea level is impressive, in fact it’s very much higher. Measured from its base on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s 24,600 feet and the fourth highest volcano in the world. Its height just lifts Tenerife into the top ten highest islands in the world.

Although you can if you want to, it’s not necessary to climb all the way to the top to appreciate what an extraordinary natural phenomenon it is. It’s volcanic but you can relax on your way up and as you wander about as it hasn’t erupted for more than a century and is unlikely to do so again anytime soon. However, it’s not extinct and the experts believe it will be active again one day.

Some 8,000 or so feet beneath the summit and extending over a vast area of roughly 47,000 acres is Teide National Park, which is the most visited national park in Europe welcoming around 3m visitors a year. They come to see one of nature’s true wonders full of extraordinary volcanic scenery, unique flora and fauna and spectacular views that, partly because of the thin air, will literally take your breath away. What air there is, of course, is wonderfully clean and clear and you should therefore breathe in deeply.

One of the best things to do in the park is to take a ride on the cable car. The base station is at 7,729 feet and the cable car climbs all the way to the top station, which is at 11,663 feet. The journey takes about eight minutes and is quite a thrill. From the top, the views are absolutely incredible and you should be able to see Gran Canaria, La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera.

Although incredibly high, you’re still not quite at the very top. The good news for the incredibly intrepid is that there’s a trail from here that takes you to the crater on foot. It’s a tricky walk that takes about three-quarters of an hour but your account of what it’s like should certainly trump anyone who wants to talk about their birdie in the hotel bar in the evening.

 

Other things to do in the Algarve besides golf

Best places to visit in Algarve

The Algarve may be the golfing capital of Portugal but there are other things to do on this gorgeous stretch of sea and sunshine besides smashing drives, hitting greens and holing putts. Unless you’re under 18 or only drink beer, one of the delights of the Algarve you are almost certain to enjoy is the wine. There are about 2,000 vineyards and 30 wine producers to be found in the Algarve. Many of them welcome visitors, will gladly take you on a tour of their winery and doubtless allow you to sample some of the product. There are too many to list here but most of them are Quinta (farm) . Although it’s perhaps invidious to single out one, Adega do Cantor (The Winery of the Singer) is owned by Britain’s very own Sir Cliff Richard. It’s near Albufeira and is well worth a visit.

Unless the sea is very rough, boat trips have always been fun. And recently there’s been an upsurge of interest in sea-life in general and dolphins in particular. All along the coast now there are boats who will happily take you out for a couple of hours and can almost guarantee at least a couple of pods of dolphin frolicking in the surf.

Still on the water, you can go parasailing in Vilamoura, kayaking around the Benagli caves in Portimao or surfing in quite a few spots along the coast. Jet-skiing is also quite popular but less environmentally desirable, perhaps.

If you’ve been to the Algarve you could hardly have missed the many billboards advertising Zoomarine. Near Albufeira, it’s a great day out with all sorts of attraction from a wide variety of rides to a range of aquatic creatures including sea-lions and dolphins plus a few spectacular exotic birds.

Wandering around the marina at Albufeira and admiring the impressive boats is a pleasant way to build up a thirst before slaking it in one of the many bars in the area. And if you find yourself suffering incurable boat envy, you can always charter one for the day for around a €1,000 to find out if an opulent lifestyle suits you better than your present more mundane existence.

And finally for something completely different try wandering around the largest sand sculpture festival in the world. It’s in Lagoa and it’s called, Sand City. The sculptures are created from over 50,000 tons of sand and are quite spectacular.