Monday, July 30, 2012

Inside The Ropes - Carne

The Atlantic Coast Challenge enjoyed its second year in 2012, and a very successful one it was too. Leading up to it, I asked the organisers to donate a free threeball as a prize – which they did. The winner was Denis, and I asked him and his companions to fill in an ‘Inside the Ropes’ questionnaire when they played Carne Golf Links on July 3rd.

Carne opened in 1995. It is one of the remotest golf courses on the island (along with Ceann Sibeal and Narin and Portnoo), in the far north west corner of Co. Mayo, in Belmullet. It’s a beautiful spot and, if golf is your drug, then you’ll be wanting to play it at least twice. I played on consecutive days with my father in 2006: on day one, the par three 14th was a wedge; on day two it was a four iron that came up short. We were playing two different courses and that is one of the beauties and terrors of links golf.
The guys are useful golfers and were placed fifth overall after two days of golf (Rosses Point and Carne), but faded on the final day at Enniscrone – which was the toughest challenge of the event by a fair margin.

Denis (10 handicap), James (7), John (12)

[Photo: approach to Carne's par four 8th]

Q. What are your overall impressions of the course?
Denis: Great golf course. Back 9 as good as any in the country.
James: Very enjoyable. Challenging.
John: Eddie Hackett made a most beautiful links. The back 9 are a great test of overall skill.

Carne was Eddie Hackett’s last design, and it is his greatest legacy – in my opinion, anyway. The man was a master of leaving the beauty of the landscape untouched, with the fairways at Carne moving simply and mischievously between and around the dunes to create some of the most remarkable holes you will ever play. With a new nine ready to open, it will keep Carne in the spotlight. I imagine that they will have a hard time deciding which will be the main 18, once all 27 are open for play.

Q. What are Carne’s best features? What really stood out for you?
Denis: Very true greens. Huge dunes! Playability.
We were really well received and welcomed by Mary Walsh in the Pro shop. She was genuinely keen for us to enjoy the day.
James: Mary in the Pro shop was most pleasant.
The setting and the scenery were outstanding.
Undulations on the fairways and shape of the greens.
John: The shape of the greens. Mary gave us a lovely welcome.

[Photo: the par three 16th (from the 17th tee box). The 16th tee box is top left of shot]

Q. Are there any negatives – either on or off the course? If so, what are they and how would you suggest they’re fixed?
Denis: 9th green is too penal.
Coffee at €2.50 and pint of cider at €5.30 are excessive.
James: Nothing serious come to mind. There are a few blind tee shots – I would suggest white stones on the fairway showing you where to hit the ball. I was really impressed with everything about the course – but maybe the greens could have been a bit quicker.
John: Coffee at €2.50 and pint of cider at €5.30

If the negatives are restricted mostly to the price of drinks, then Carne doesn’t have too much to worry about. The 9th green is a beast for sure, with big movements and one of the most daunting approach shots you’ll play at the club.

Q. What did you find particularly tough about the course (excluding the weather)?
Denis: Aprons of greens shaved, so it was difficult to chip. Greens could have been a fraction quicker.
James: Finding the speed of putts and putting from off the green.
John: The greens. They were a little slow.

I expected some comments on the blind shots and some very tricky approaches – the shape of some of the green complexes is mind-boggling at times.

[Photo: Carne's opening hole, and just a taste of the undulations and bunkers to expect]

Q.What is your favourite hole and why?
Denis: Hard to choose between 16, 17 and 18… after parring the three of them!
James: 17th. It is a spectacular hole that demands a lot and really lives up to its Index 1.
John: The 17th is a cracking par four. You need to drive the ball long and accurately, and what an approach shot to the green.

[Photo: the par four 17th, taken from the 18th tee box. Believe me, this gives no indication of just how tough this hole is]

Q. What other links courses have you played?
Denis: Waterville, Ballybunion (Old & Cashen), Tralee, Doonbeg, Dooks, Lahinch, Enniscrone, Rosses Point, Portmarnock Links.
James: Ballybunion (Cashen), Dooks, Tralee, Enniscrone, Rosses Point.
John: Waterville, Ballybunion, Tralee, The European, Lahinch, Enniscrone, Rosses Point, Connemara, Ballyliffin (x 2), Portstewart, Portsalon, Rosapenna, Dooks and Doonbeg…. And Royal St. David’s, Tenby and Ashburton, as well as Minerton in South Africa.

Evidently, a well-travelled, links-playing bunch.

Q. How does Carne compare?
Denis: Back 9 as good as any – overall, on a par.
James: Very well.
John: It can live with the best of them.

[Photo: The short par four 11th is a beauty of a dogleg right - the green sits behind the highest part of the dune. See next shot for more...]

Q. You’re selling this course to a friend – sum it up in one sentence.
Denis: Very playable and enjoyable if you keep it on the short stuff.
James: Fantastic golf course that every kind of golfer would enjoy.
John: It’s a beautiful layout amongst the dunes.

Q. Your rating out of 10
Denis: 9
James: 8
John: 8
Total: 25

[Photo: the other side of the dune on the 11th]

Q. Value for Money (currently €50 per person) out of 10
Denis: 9
James: 9
John: 9
Total: 27

The rack rate (April – Oct) is listed as €65 (€90 for the day) on the website, but if you go through to the booking process you'll find that golf only costs €50 (€40 before 9am), and Carne offers a variety of options, including buggy hire and grub). €50 to play one of the most outstanding links on the island is well worth the journey, don't you think.

Carne Twitter Feed
Carne Facebook Page

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bray Gets a Splash of Sunshine

[Photo: A sweeping panorama from the 11th tee at Bray. Wicklow and Dublin Mountains, and the Irish Sea]

Sunshine. Who would have thought we were going to see that again this summer? It was a perfect day for getting out onto a golf course and I hadn't been back to Bray Golf Club in five years. 

Some 30 years ago, I used to catch the bus to Greystones to visit my grandparents. The 84 would climb up the hill out of Bray on its way to Windgates, passing enormous crop fields on the left. They rose steeply up the hillside and when, years later, I heard that Bray were moving their golf club to those very fields, I thought somebody had been too long at the Poitín. But move they did (although the old course, down near Superquinn, is still being played), in 2003, and an impressive job Des Smyth made of it.

[Photo: view back down the par five 6th]

On a sunny morning it is easy to love a course that has views like this. The clouds spun shadows over the Wicklow Mountains that are visible for the entire round, and the quality of the greens here has always impressed me. The course is in great condition too, with the Metropolitan Cup semi-final to be played here on Sunday (against Stackstown).

There is a five year plan in place to make improvements, and some of the early work can be seen around the 18th tee box. There has also been a shift in fairway lines, with the rough being allowed to grow up and close in on fairways. As a balancing measure, the rough around the edges of the greens has been taken away. When these changes were first delivered, members thought it would make the course too easy... but of course removing the rough means that balls can roll off greens and keep going for several feet, down the flanks of the greens. It leaves tricky shots to get up to the pin. Alan Threadgold, the Manager, told me that since the changes scores have gone up.

[Photo: the view of the 18th green and back to the small gap in the trees that you have to play through]

The one thing you have to remember about Bray is that the greens are big and have plenty of undulations. If you don't get it close with one of your little bump and runs up the banks, you'll be two-putting for sure. I picked the par three 2nd as the Toughest Hole, in Hooked, but it looks innocuous from the tee. At 153m you don't expect too much difficulty, but it's Index 5 for a reason. And that reason is the green.

And it's all the tougher when the 1st hole is Index 1 - a par four of 389m.

The full set of 45 Flickr images can be found here.

[Photo: the hole that I suspect Bray would offer as their 'signature' hole - the short par four 11th]

Bray has matured very well in just under a decade and it is well worth a visit. If you're thinking it's too steep, there are only a few climbs (the 10th and 17th), of which most are from green to tee and on the front nine. There's also the extremely comfortable clubhouse.

Mount Juliet Anyone? 'Inside the Ropes' Needs Volunteers

[Photo: the par three 14th, green to tee]

My 'Inside the Ropes' project is progressing at a good pace and now Mount Juliet have agreed to come on board and offer me a complimentary fourball... which means that I am looking for three golfers to join me in Kilkenny on Sunday 19th August for a 2.50pm tee off time. If you're a member of the golf forum on, then I suggest you go there and add your name to the list... otherwise leave your name and mobile number on here as a Comment (I won't publish the Comments, so your mobile number will be private).

I can't say much about Mount Juliet that you don't already know - it helps when you're regularly ranked as the best parkland in Ireland.

If you want to play there are a few things to note:

·      Your handicap is irrelevant - if you can hit a ball, stick your name down - I'm not handicapist.
·      You must be available to play and be at the course on time. I'd suggest getting there at least 30 minutes beforehand as it's worth touring the place and the practice facilities. There's a full 18 hole putting course at Mount Juliet as well, so if you want to play that, get there in plenty of time.
·      I'm looking for golfers who have not had the privilege of playing the venue before.
·      You must be prepared to spend half an hour in the bar afterwards!

If you can make the tee time for sure, then leave that Comment and three names will be picked at lunchtime Friday 3rd August.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Magic of Martinhal – Day 3

It was our third and final day at Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel in the south west Algarve. One of my biggest disappointments was not getting much time in the room. Spacious, comfortable, no fuss. It begged for a couple of hours of five star relaxation with the private terrace basking in the sun on the other side of the glass, and a fancy mini-bar looking terribly cramped with so many bottles and goodies aching to be set free. There was also the small matter of the marketing pack we had been given. A quick glance told me that you won’t be paying five star prices for Martinhal’s five star comfort and facilities, and I wanted to go through the pack in more detail.

Our itinerary listed this as a ‘free morning’, but Joke (pronounced ‘yokay’), our minder and host for the three days, had tempted us with a final morning kayaking excursion. There were the expected ums and ers and polite refusals – some of us were still carrying the scars of the previous day’s bike ride – so it was left to Dermot to man-up. In return for a chance to relax, however, we were all expected to turn up on the beach for Dermot’s epic voyage at 10am. The ‘free morning’ had evaporated before our eyes.

A buffet-style breakfast is served at O Terraco (the formal restaurant in the evenings). There is such a wide choice that the food needs two rooms. At one end there’s fresh orange juice (probably from the orange grove down the road) and champagne (seriously!)… at the other it’s a selection of cold meats and cheeses. If you want something hot, that’s all there too. It really is one of those ‘where do I start’? occasions, and you can order anything that isn’t out on display.

[Photo: a view of the hotel from the beach dunes - front left is As Dunas restaurant; front right is one of the swimming pools]

As with the other two restaurants, there’s a special area for children, where a member of staff plays with the young ones while parents get to relax over breakfast. It was easy to see the difference it was making to parents and children alike, and it emphasised that children and family are at the heart of the Martinhal ethos. It’s the sort of place that once you’ve experienced it, you’ll be wanting to come back… if only because the kids will be nagging you all year long.

After the night before I wasn’t that surprised to find myself enjoying breakfast alone on the terrace. The pool below drew some early morning volunteers – doing their laps in perfect morning sunshine – and a jogger moved leisurely along the beach, inches from the lapping surf.

Joke arrived. She’s Belgian and very good at her job. I’m not just saying that either – she spent the whole three days with us (apart from the bike ride) and joined in our activities whenever she could (she made fools of us on the Padel tennis court and even came to Penina to accompany Charlie in the buggy). We had a leisurely chat about her regular if somewhat unusual commute from Belgium to The Algarve, the story surrounding Martinhal including the small stand of mature pine trees visible from the terrace, and the resort’s sister property at Liss Ard in County Cork.

[Photo: views from Reception and the mature pine trees protected during construction]

Dermot joined us, grabbed a bite and then the three of us set off for the Watersports centre on the beach, across sand that melted between our toes. Of the other members of our party, there was no sign.

We watched Dermot don his lifejacket, drag his kayak to the water and then paddle steadily out into the bay, determined to do a tour of the island.

“There are actually five islands,” Joke said. “You just can’t see that from here.”

[Video: Dermot sets off. A 360 degree panorama follows… apologies for the humming – I was still in 1980s mode from the night before]

… which explains why Dermot was gone a lot longer than I, or he, had anticipated. He paddled past the island and vanished from view. With so little wind, the sun bright and the water calm, the beach was proving a magnet for families from the resort, but the beach wasn’t crowded. There were only a handful of people in the water, and we finally spotted Dermot reappearing about fifteen minutes after his disappearance. Kayaking, wind-surfing, surfing, parasailing… you can do it all from the Watersports Centre right on Martinhal’s private beach. They even have dinghies and mini-catamarans, but I think Dermot had had enough by the time he returned. It’s over half a mile to the island, which is hard going on the shoulders – and there was still a round of golf to go. What’s more, Dermot was on my golf team so I didn’t need him wearing himself out. We’d pulled straws to create two teams of three with the combined scores from the two days determining the winners. After one round at Penina, we were in front – just.

There was time for one last delicious lunch on the terrace of As Dunas, and then we were off to Amendoeira Golf Resort, where Christy O’Connor Jnr and Nick Faldo have each designed a course under the Oceanico brand. It’s modern, it’s new and it’s big and brash. It is about as far from Penina as it’s possible to go in terms of design and subtlety: to call the clubhouse huge would be an understatement. And it all looked highly impressive on the drive over the specially built bridge that passes above the O’Connor course.

[Photo: the 3rd hole, a par three, with the 18th beyond and the clubhouse above]

Generally speaking, the O’Connor course is on the low ground, while Faldo’s slips up and down a nearby hillside. The O’Connor is longer too with constant water hazards, but by all accounts it is the less strenuous test. We played off the forward tees (we weren’t blessed with time in terms of our flights) and the course was remarkably benign from such a position (5,900 metres). Big fairways and greens and, despite water, it is spacious for much of the round.

[Photo: Brian drives on the dogleg right, par four 10th]

Buggies are almost a must. Temperatures aside, there are some walks from green to tee – and late on a buggy may prove a blessing. As we split up into our two threeballs, someone came out and poured ice into the buggy’s drinks box. I’d bought two 2 litre bottles of water for the heat and it was almost too cold to drink after 15 minutes. There’s a winding drive down to the first tee, past a statue of Christy himself (there’s one of Faldo too), and then a par five to start proceedings. An opening salvo of pars is always going to leave you liking a course, but at the end I preferred Penina. The O’Connor has some superb holes (3, 10, 14, 15 and 18 come to mind) and it is clearly a driver’s course, but Penina demands more restraint and imagination.

[Photo: Woodpeckers on the 15th tee]

On the 15th tee we encountered some woodpeckers who had been knocking around the place all day. It was a nice addition to a very quiet round of golf – the place was deserted, and the extensive development of houses overlooking the course are all empty… and in NAMA! 

In the end, the combination of Karl, Dermot and myself came out victorious, but there was no time to celebrate as we were bundled back into the minibus for the 30 minute trip to the airport.

We made it comfortably, returning our golf clubs to the clubstohire stand before standing stationary in a queue for half an hour. Dermot was telling me that over 70% of traffic through Faro Airport comes from Ireland and the UK. Looking at the Departures screen, it seemed eminently possible.

There was one final twist as we sat on board the Aer Lingus plane at 8.30pm, waiting on someone who’d decided to go walkabout. The Portuguese air traffic controllers were going on strike at 9pm. If we didn’t take off by 8.40pm we wouldn’t be taking off at all as we wouldn’t clear Portuguese air space. The errant passenger finally arrived, a gentleman who looked to be in his 90s and on crutches. As he took his seat – sloooowwwwly – the air hostesses were running up and down the aisle checking that the doors were shut. Yea, I thought as the plane headed for the runway, that helps.

This was the first media trip I had been on and it is an experience I won’t forget. It was organised with great precision by Destination Golf, hosted wonderfully by Martinhal, and included two great rounds of golf. Nothing was too much trouble, and the Taylormade clubs I was given by clubstohire were excellent – true, I hated the big white-headed R11 driver, but the five wood was a thing of beauty.

If you're looking for somewhere to stay with a gang of golf buddies, then Martinhal isn't it. No, Martinhal is a romantic getaway or a family-friendly vacation... with the opportunity for a golf nut (or nuts) to slip away for a round of golf or two on the quiet.

The folks at the resort were unbelievably generous with their time and hospitality and names must be named – so, thank you to Roman and Chitra (the owners), Joke, Nick, Rob, Rosa, Vasco, Manuel and David. They epitomise the friendliness and relaxed nature of Martinhal.

Fact File:
Prices at Martinhal Hotel start from €141 per person, per night for dinner, bed and breakfast, based on two people sharing. Weekly (7 nights) B and B rates start from €1,568 for a family of four, and include either lunch or dinner. Houses and villas are also available to rent with an 8 day/7 night package for a two-bedroom self catering house (2 adults and 3 kids) for €1,890 (includes one meal per day).

How to get there:
Aer Lingus flies daily to Faro from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. For more information on fares and schedules log on to All the major car hire companies are at Faro.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mount Juliet - August Golf

What I like about Mount Juliet's marketing is simple: they maintain a constant momentum for their Summer Golf promotion, specifically through social media which costs next to nothing. They promote the events through various LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (Tom Kennedy, their Golf Sales Coordinator) pages - as well as elsewhere I'm sure - and on their website.

It helps of course that you have an excellent product, but that doesn't hide the fact that they are actively using social media to get the message out there. I am currently going through Twitter to identify all of the Irish clubs that have Twitter accounts. There are more than I expected, but what I did expect was that most of them aren't active - they simply set up the account and it's been ignored ever since. Plenty of people don't see the point of Twitter, but it's an important marketing weapon when it doesn't cost anything and golf clubs are, in general, struggling financially. The same applies to Facebook which is much more popular with golf clubs (it's easier to interact and you can show photographs)... but it takes little effort to set up a Twitter account and link it directly to Facebook, so that every time you post to your Facebook Wall it automatically appears on Twitter. I do it the other way around as my Facebook page is mostly ignored (in fact you can't even find it because I don't have enough 'Likes'), but it's the obvious thing to do when you have such huge audiences and the when the future of golf is the younger, social media-savy generation.

Here are Mount Juliet's August events - and the Parent/Child tournament is a great addition:

• Second of three qualifying events
• 3 person team event - €180 per team
• Winning team proceeds to the Grand Final in September
• Overall winners will win a place in the Irish PGA Pro-Am at Mount Juliet on October 10th

-Parent and Child Golf Tournament
• 2 Person Team event for parents and children of any generation
• €60 entry fee 

Summer Series - Open Golf Competition
• 4 person team event
• Entry fee of €240 per team including burger on the 10th tee

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Magic of Martinhal - Day 2

There was no backing out of it. I had said I’d do it, I was committed, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. The itinerary I’d been sent the week before had listed ‘bicycle ride’ on Day Two… which had seemed easy enough at the time.

But as I straddled the mountain bike shortly after breakfast, it took mere seconds to discover that certain parts of my body were not happy about the departure from the normal routine, which involved sitting in front of a computer or walking a golf course.

[Photo: Breakfast on the deck of O Terraco. Now why would you want to go cycling when you could be enjoying this!]

“Put this on,” Manuel said, passing me a helmet. Great, I thought, the pain of mountain-biking combined with the humiliation of helmet-hair.

Five star luxury it might be at the Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel, but a bike seat is a bike seat, and when one hasn’t met your backside in eons it is bound to be an uncomfortable encounter.

The six of us set off behind the tall and fit Manuel, and by my estimation not one of us had been on a bike in over a decade. As he rode with ease and grace, we fumbled and stumbled our way through the gears, over rocky terrain, through sand and into bushes.

He took us up through the nature reserve that surrounds the hotel, giving the resort a wonderful tranquil air. First we went through the pine forest and then on to the exposed landscape that stretched into the distance.

As with any holiday, what you choose to do is up to you, but on this occasion the itinerary was set by someone else. Dermot, from Destination Golf, had invited me to experience the joys of Martinhal and I had accepted willingly. What does a 6am flight matter when you’re headed to the beauty of Portugal, all thanks to Martinhal, and Aer Lingus who had accommodated us on their early morning flight.

Still, as my bike ricocheted off a large rock and forced me towards a large crevasse, I wasn’t thanking anyone. Yes, it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot, but only if you avoid the six white Irishmen making royal asses of themselves on bikes that no one over the age of 30 should be allowed anywhere near.

On the horizon lay our destination – the lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent, but no matter how hard we pedalled, the lighthouse never seemed to get closer…. until suddenly we were there, passing small stalls selling trinkets and rugs, and camper vans discharging yawning, stretching passengers, talking in different languages. The furthest south west tip of Europe this might be, but tourists were still drawn to this enchantingly peaceful spot.

The bright red dome contrasted against the startling blue of the sky and the white walls that surrounded the courtyard. We strolled from one side to the other, looking down from the cliffs into the Atlantic below. On one side you can stare north, on the other you peer east.

Karl, one of our group, forked out for some well-earned ice creams. They soothed our over-heated muscles, but not for long as Manuel drove us out and back onto our bikes for the return journey. This time he took us along the coast, into the ruins of Beliche Fort, and then on to show off some of the area’s beautiful beaches. The pick has to be Donel beach, cocooned by tall cliffs of dark rock, with smooth, velvet sand stretching for almost half a mile towards the headland of Sagres, upon which sits the Fortaleza de Sagres.

[Photo: Beliche Fort on the cliff tops, with the lighthouse in the distance]

[Photo: Donel beach]

For History Buffs

The Fortaleza and Cape St. Vincent provide the area with something of an aura that puts Sagres firmly on the world map. And it’s all thanks to Prince Henry the Navigator who built his famous School of Navigation here, in the 15th century. Great mariners, astronomers and cartographers came here willingly during the Age of Discovery to build the ships that sailed the globe and established Portugal as a colonial power. It has left a legacy that is part of the fabric of countries as far away as East Timor and Brazil, and will be for many generations to come.

We stopped by the fort, dropped our bikes and ventured as close to the edge of the cliffs as we dared. The beach had a mere dozen people strewn across the sand as the waves rolled in. The area is a popular surfing spot, depending on the tides, but today it was the sun-lovers who had it to themselves – the surfers were off at one of the other 20 beaches.

[Photo: the guys looking down on Donel beach, with the Fortaleza de Sagres behind]

After another perfect lunch at As Dunas – I was seriously falling for the Sagres beer – it went with the fish dishes like a charm, especially the calamari. I love my food and while fish has never been a big favourite of mine, I was rapidly becoming a convert. Sitting on the deck, beneath the parasols, looking out to sea – it was one of those ‘where else would you rather be?’ moments.

[Photo: Cataplana and a cool beer on the deck of As Dunas]

I have to confess that after a week in Madrid last year, when I was disappointed by the Spanish cuisine, I hadn’t been expecting too much of the Portuguese fayre. But I had underestimated Martinhal. The food at As Dunas is exceptional – fresh fish prepared the Portuguese way (Cataplana is a local speciality) and food is always enhanced by the joy of al fresco dining.

And then, finally, it was off to a golf course. There’s only so much luxury a person can take before wanting to hit something.

Penina Golf Resort

Le Meridien Penina Golf Resort is outside Lagos, about 45 minutes east of Martinhal. There are golf courses closer to the hotel (Boavista, for example), but Penina has a proud reputation, hosting the Portuguese Open on ten occasions. It is a flat course that flows gently back and forth between lines of trees that all too often squeeze you. It is not enthralling by today’s lofty standards, but Penina is the grand dame of Algarve courses with subtle design that harks back to the days of Sir Henry Cotton. This was the Algarve’s first course and it remains a favourite, tucked away behind a tall, white hotel that has recently been refurbished. And it is not only the hotel that has seen a face lift – the practice facilities have been upgraded substantially and now claim to be among the best in the Algarve.

[Photo: green to tee on the par three 13th. Water all the way]

I’m not sure why we turned down the buggies that were offered when we arrived – presumably most of us felt that to experience a golf course fully you have to walk it. Charlie had no such qualms and happily slid behind the wheel while the rest of us floundered in the 30 degree heat.

I liked Penina’s easy charm and elegance. The trees gave it a dignity that matched the course’s age, while the water added several thrills, notably on the back nine. A sign by the par three 13th proclaims that the hole was voted one of the best 500 holes in the world in 2005 – although it failed to say whereabouts it ranked in that 500. It is a long par three, over water all the way, and myself and Ed both found the wet stuff, while Karl took the easy route, laid up and narrowly missed his par.

[Photo: Penina's Index 1 12th hole. My drive ended up on the bridge to the right of shot]

I was disappointed to lose the ball as it had served me well on the previous hole, the Index 1 par four, where I hit my drive 360 yards (we measured it using Ed’s watch. Don’t ask!). A trick if you’re ever over that way – hit your drive onto the buggy tarmac path and watch it bounce all the way to the green.

Martinhal does not classify itself as a golf resort but, even with its focus on family, the resort offers the passionate golfer an opportunity to sneak away for a round (i.e. send your other half to the Spa), in which case the sensible thing to do is hire your clubs from at Faro Airport, and avoid all of the hassle (and your partner’s frustrated glances) of bringing your own clubs. [See my previous blog on the excellent clubstohire service.]

[Photo: the back of the Le Meridien Penina hotel as you head to the 1st tee]

Os Gambozinos

On our return, everyone headed to their rooms for a well-earned shower before making the short trip through the resort to restaurant number three. Os Gambozinos is the family-style restaurant, serving the staples of holiday food like pizzas, pastas and burgers, as well as a variety of Portuguese dishes. It is relaxed and fun, and the restaurant is located in the resort’s village square. Here you’ll find the Kids Clubs, a small supermarket and a clothes shop – just in case you’ve forgotten that essential item, such as swimming trunks. One of the five pools is located up some steps, with a small gym alongside. It only serves to emphasise that while you can go off and explore the surrounding countryside, it is far too easy to find yourself wrapped up in everything Martinhal has to offer. And the Kids Clubs just make that so much easier if you so choose. You can leave your kids (aged 6 months to 18 years) in one of the five clubs (age dependent, obviously) where they will be looked after, fed and entertained for up to six hours a day by professionally qualified staff – there’s a babysitting service too – leaving you and your partner to check out the pools, the sports facilities, the nature reserve, the dolphin watching trip, the pilates on the beach, the watersports centre and, of course, the restaurants - each of which has play areas alongside.

[Photo: The Village Square with kids' play area. Photo taken from above the shops]

Martinhal is built on the site of a previous hotel, called Os Gambozinos, which was – how shall we put this – past its best. That’s not a charge that will be laid against Martinhal any time soon. Everything is new and pristine (apart from some of the trees which were rather cherished), and you won’t fail but to be impressed.

At the end of our meal, our hosts tempted us to venture into Sagres. They wanted to take us on a ‘pub-crawl’ – although I suspect they had no idea what an Irish pub crawl entailed – but we ended up staying in the one bar all night. It was quite a funky place for such a quiet, laid back village and the beer was cold. Why move? We left shortly after 1am, with only one of our hosts still with us – the others had slipped away during the evening, unable to keep up or overwhelmed by the DJ banging out an assortment of 1980s hits last heard in, well, the 1980s. Still, I suspect we all went to bed humming one of the night’s tunes… Kajagoogoo, perhaps.

The Magic of Martinhal - Day 1

[Photo: Os Gambozinos in the 'village' square]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Magic of Martinhal – Day 1

A 3.30am start might sound a bit brutal, but as the plane came in to land at Faro a few hours later, the shadows sliding off the wing like sheets off a statue, any thoughts of tiredness vanished.  Beneath us, Portugal’s Ria Formosa Nature Reserve ran for miles, separating land from sea. Its 17,000 hectares is home to hundreds of species of birds and it ends just before the wheels touch down. It was an inspiring welcome to a country I hadn’t visited in almost 20 years.

I was a guest of Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel, invited on a media trip by Dermot Synnott at Destination Golf, and playing golf at the oldest and one of the newest courses in the Algarve. It doesn’t get much better than that…

… only it did.

The drive west took less than 90 minutes, across an easy highway that rolled past white houses and through stretches of red earth and orange groves.

I have never had the pleasure of five star luxury, but there is something glorious about Martinhal that goes beyond the garland of ‘five star’. It is effortless, relaxed and charming… not fussy, exact or formal.

[Photo: a panorama of the views from the hotel reception]

A Setting to Impress

And it got off to an impressive start as we pulled up to the hotel. Stepping out of the taxi revealed sun drenched views of beach, islands and a sea layered in blues and greens. There were six of us and we all stopped to look. The hotel rests on a slope above these views and one of the resort’s five swimming pools. It is all tucked away in the Costa Vincentina nature reserve on the Algarve’s most south-westerly tip. This is a quiet, unspoilt corner of the world, reflected by the peaceful village of Sagres which sits bright and white on the distant headland - its houses scattered like sugar cubes across the cliff tops.

The hotel has been designed and built to be sympathetic to its environment: it is only two storeys high. Local materials were used and this shines through in the easy style that falls underfoot and rises overhead. Chandeliers, straw lamps, cork tables and timber floors, it all breathes life into the delight of this place.

[Photo: the drop off area outside the hotel reception]

Our bags and golf clubs were whisked away and we were taken for a welcome drink on the long balcony of the O Terraco restaurant, on the first floor of the hotel. We leaned against the balcony and took our time drinking in the views. Below us the swimming pool was a source of laughter and joy as children and their parents enjoyed the cool waters. It emphasised the resort’s true audience.

We were six golfing journalists but Martinhal is a family-focused resort, well away from the ‘golf coast’ that proves so irresistible to Irish and British golfers. That’s not to say you can’t play golf – indeed, the resort has preferential rates with local clubs – but this is an opportunity to relax, have fun and keep the whole family happy.

[Photo: the Lounge of the O Terraco restaurant and bar]

Cool, Calm and Comfortable

David, from Reception, escorted us to our rooms and showed us how things worked. The Bose iPhone/Pod station, the air conditioning and the safe… sadly, he didn’t show me how the showers worked. Yes, plural. There are three showers – two in the walk-in shower and one over the bath. It mattered little. Despite having a good education, and regarding myself as being reasonably intelligent, I could not get them to work… I ended up seeking help and discovered I should have been pushing buttons, not pulling them. I did, however, discover that the emergency cord – conveniently placed next to the shower controls – worked perfectly. I thought it might be the on-off cord, but some banging on the door and cries of concern moments later indicated that it wasn’t.

[Photo: Perfect comfort in the bedrooms]

The rooms were perfect, both in their understated style and their comfort. Muted greens and greys exuded a cool chic, and the bed was about seven feet wide. Families of four can rent these rooms with a spare bed/cot… but there is little need with a bed that size.

The best part of the room – apart from the bed and the Bose thingy – is the window. Including the glass door, it’s as wide and as tall as the room, opening up perfect views of the ocean and islands, and demanding breakfast on the small, private terrace outside.

And if you’re thinking that I was given a particularly good room, it was no better or worse than the other 37 rooms. What’s more, most of them (including mine) sit in units of four just beyond the hotel itself. Take a look at the photograph – it adds privacy as well as novelty.

[Photo: view from the bedroom - the islands are part of the nature reserve]  

A Taste of the Sea

A lunch at the resort’s second restaurant, As Dunas, followed. Fish caught locally was cooked with Portuguese flair and served al fresco on the terrace. Turbot, sea bass, bream, golden calamari. We sat under parasols on the terrace, out of the midday sun. All of us, that is, apart from Brian who chose a seat at the end. The sun practically gravitated towards him and he basked in the 27 degree heat.

Then came the tour. We were driven around in golf carts and shown the different types of houses that guests can rent – from one to three bedrooms. There are some with private pools and gardens, some with balconies on either side to catch the morning and evening light, and all of them with clean, elegant lines and comfortable décor. They’re even installing solar panels (tube and photovoltaic) to help turn the place carbon neutral.

[Photo: The lounge (and views) of one of Martinhal's houses]

With the tour done we were deposited at Club 98 at the far end of the resort, where many of the sports activities (non-sea related) are based. Mountain-biking was yet to come, but for that afternoon’s entertainment it was Padel tennis – it’s a cross between squash and tennis, with glass walls at the end and along the sides. It’s a thoroughly entertaining sport but the rules will keep you confused. Vasco, our ever-enthusiastic instructor, kept explaining them – and joining in – but we mostly made them up as we went along.

[Photo: this is what a Padel tennis court looks like]

Finisterra Spa

There was little time for a shower (especially as most of it was spent trying to figure out how to work the controls) before we were expected at the resort’s Finisterra Spa. On the way, I walked along landscaped pathways lined with lush grasses and cork and olive trees, and decided that the resort was empty. It wasn’t – it’s just that it is spacious enough and there’s so much to do that people simply seem to disappear.

[Photo: The chill-out area in the Spa, where you can relax/snooze/snore after your treatment]

I pretty much disappeared as well, when Christina got her hands on me at the spa.

20 minutes of bliss later, her fingers having worked their way deep into my shoulders and back, I was floating on the moons of tranquillity… or snoring, as most people call it. There are six treatment rooms and in each of them an Irishman was lying face down, wallowing in contentment.

Portuguese - Through and Through
The day finished in the O Terraco restaurant where we had been earlier that day. I was presented with a bottle of Sagres beer (named after the local village) and a couple of us stood on the terrace as the sun set over the headland. Dinner was served shortly afterwards, and we were treated to the chef’s six course tasting menu. Each dish came with a recommended wine, which was wasted on me as I don’t drink the stuff, but the Sagres beer was a perfect accompaniment as far as I was concerned – whether it was salad, fish or duck. The food was superb and served in portions that always left you wanting more.
The resort is proud of its roots, from the materials and timber used in construction, right through to the cork tables and the remarkable straw lamps in the bedrooms, which are some five feet tall. So it is no surprise that the wine list is exclusively Portuguese (bar a champagne or two for those who wish to indulge.

It was a long and enjoyable night and 22 hours after getting up, I discovered that not only was it the biggest bed I’d ever slept in, it was almost the most comfortable.

 [Photo: private pool and garden at one of the houses]

Click on the links to read about 
Day 2