It's not until most first time visitors arrive on Portugal's Algarve Coast that they really begin to appreciate how many golf courses are located here. There are some 36 of them in total, all located along a brief, 90 mile strip of Atlantic fronted coastline -- one course every 2 ½ miles. No matter which way you slice it, that's a lot of golf and unfortunately, unless you are staying for a month or two, you're simply not going to be able to play them all. The choice of which half dozen or so you should play on a typical one-week visit, can be rather bewildering, but with a little professional guidance from a golf travel specialist, such as Golf International, who knows Algarve golf well, you will quickly learn, there is a heck of a lot of something for everyone.
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From raw beginners, looking to get started in the game with a few friendly lessons at one of the many highly acclaimed golf academies located here, to experienced, low handicappers, eager to take on the toughest layouts, some ranked among Europe's very best, you'll be spoiled for choices. And for all of the so-called, average players, who regularly shoot "something over 100", most courses offer a number of different tee positions, bringing even the most unforgiving, monster layout, within their abilities as well. The Algarve is one of the most golfer friendly destinations on the planet.
The heaviest concentrations of courses are located in the Central and Western Algarve, extending from the regional capital of Faro for about 45 miles west, to just beyond the beach resort of Lagos. This is the direction most arriving visitors head for, no matter whether it's the beaches or golf courses that brought them here.
Overlooked for many years was the Eastern Algarve, the 30-mile stretch of coastline heading off in the opposite direction, from Faro to the Spanish border, which reveals a totally different side of The Algarve. There is a very special and totally unspoiled, natural beauty to this forgotten part of the coast, ignored by visitors for so long. The dramatic cliffs and rock formations of the west, give way to impressive expanses of pure white sand beaches and brilliant blue lagoons, protected from the Atlantic surf by barrier islands. Wild life thrives in the Formosa National Park with huge flocks of pink flamingoes offering spectacular displays of Mother Nature's many talents. It was inevitable that countryside this handsome would attract a golf course or two and probably many more.
Fortunately, golf development has not been overdone, aided in no small part by the close observance of environmental protection policies, an area where The Algarve has proved to be a world leader. Today, the Eastern Algarve offers just six layouts in total, but what beauties this half dozen have proved to be, each with its own special character and appeal. Personal preferences will help decide which courses to play and it should be more than one. Here are three of the best that may help make the decision.
Benamor Golf Club, located just 5 minutes from the elegant historic town of Tavira, was the pioneer of golf in these parts, opening its doors in 2000. The intriguing design is the very last created by a wonderful friend of golf on the Algarve, the late English architect and best golfer of his day, Sir Henry Cotton. Unfortunately Cotton died before the course was completed and he never got to see the charming piece of golf artistry he had created. His original inspiration had come to him back in 1986 from the delightful little church that has stood next to what is now the 18th green, for more than a century. It's perhaps a fitting tribute to this golfing great that the church, now an integral part of the course, has since been refurbished and re-opened for its original purpose - as a house of worship.
Benamor provides a fascinating round with a variety of challenges that are always fair and a range of tee positions that allow the player to adjust to their own skill level. It's a course to be savored and enjoyed at an easy pace, allowing time to take in the magnificent vistas of mountains, ocean and pure, natural beauty that surrounds - its tranquility totally in keeping with the character that is the Eastern Algarve.
Starting out in a gentlemanly fashion, the course is always polite and never overly aggressive, so take full advantage and play for birdies on these first few holes, avoiding the forests of mature olive, carob and almond trees that line the fairways. The friendly nature is continued throughout the first half with relatively short par-4's. On the back nine, water comes into play on the 10th, a par 3 demanding a carry across the small lake. On the 13th, a stream crosses the fairway and on the 17th a menacing pond jealously guards the green. Perhaps the only time this delightful layout shows any hint of being just a tad mean is on the closing hole, a long, 563 yard par-5, but with that little white church standing dutifully behind the green, you will feel a compulsion to forgive -- after all this is a layout that reminded you just why you love golf.
Leaving enchanting Tavira, it's little more than a 15-mile drive along the coast to reach another ancient small town, Castro Marim and the 5 star, Castro Marim Golf and Country Club, a complete resort that includes 27-holes of spectacular golf. Spend a few days here in one of the plush villas, each with its own private swimming pool, and you'll never want to leave. Horse back riding, deep sea fishing, tennis, yacht excursions from the club's private marina, one of Europe's most enticing golden sand beaches and an endless variety of water sports -- choices will have to be made. And let's not forget the golf, with two different layouts, The Atlantic and The Grouse Courses, both at your disposal.
Played from the tips, The Atlantic Course provides a stern enough test for even scratch golfers, but with a selection of tees, played from the forward positions, this handsome layout comes within the grasp of mere mortals and a thoroughly enjoyable round will be had by all. Seldom do claims of such wide appeal hold true for any course, but the design is exceptional and The Atlantic delivers on its promise.
This is a course for the thinking golfer - brains and not brawn will see you through to a respectable score, but it demands your full attention every step of the way. The Atlantic has a sizeable defense arsenal, which is used effectively and seldom predictably. If you think this is going to be just another resort course, think again. There's a crusty side to this layout and although it's never devious, it delights in providing more than a few surprises.
Water hazards are plentiful and the bunkering is always strategically placed, often working in combination with the water and producing some demanding situations. But perhaps it's the amazing contouring of the fairways and constant elevation changes that offer the greatest ongoing challenge. One minute a downhill gallop from an elevated tee to the green below, the next an uphill climb to a plateau green -- it's a roller coaster ride that creates thrills aplenty. Unquestionably, Castro Marim is one more feather in Portugal's golfing cap and helps establish the Eastern Algarve as a serious addition to the ever-growing reputation of golf on this sun-blessed southern coast.
The Castro Marim Golf & Country Club is more than enough temptation to lure any golfer to The Algarve's eastern corner, but it's only the beginning of the story. Just a few miles away is another stunning championship layout at Quinta do Vale, which opened to accolades from even Europe's harshest golf critics.. Literally within months of opening, Quinta do Vale has gained a celebrity status, primarily because it is an exceptional layout, but with more than a little assist from the man responsible for the design -- Seve Ballesteros.
Seve has long been established as arguably the best European golfer of the 20th century. Less well known on this side of the Atlantic is Seve's longtime and very successful involvement in course design, which started back in 1986. But it should come as no surprise that great golfers can produce great courses. The person often shows in the design, as do their favorite aspects of the game. Quinta do Vale is a reflection of Seve Ballesteros, his personality, artistry and the game he played so well.
Just like Seve, the layout is exciting, creative, at times opinionated, occasionally argumentative, but certainly never boring. It stimulates thinking, rewarding imagination and the unconventional approach. In short, Quinta do Vale is a thriller from the first tee to the 18th hole and a course that simply cannot be missed by any serious golf aficionado.
There's no doubt the design is impressive with 6 par-5's, 6 par-4's and 6 par-3's. The wide fairways contain plenty of doglegs and water is in bountiful supply, coming into play on half of the holes. Always a top bunker player when he was on tour, Ballesteros has been more than generous in providing an ample supply of them here. Problem is they are deeper than is usual and used very effectively to guard the already well contoured and often multi-tiered greens.
Seems that just as in Seve's earlier career, and his innate ability to extricate himself from the most serious of problems, success on Quinta do Vale depends on the visitor possessing similar talents. If you also share Seve's unusually good short game and some of his talents with the putter, you might end up with a decent score. The good thing is, with the exhilaration of playing such an outstanding course; you might not even care about your score.
The Algarve belongs on every golf travelers list of must visit destinations, just make sure you include the entire Algarve coastline and don't miss the irresistible, Eastern Algarve. For more ideas and suggestions on discovering the very best courses on your Algarve trip, click here.
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