Links to Natural Beauty
In the world of premier golfing, “remote” has become the new standard.
In 1999, the opening of Oregon’s Bandon Dunes created quite a stir in the golfing community. Positioned on a jagged stretch of coastline five hours outside of Portland, Bandon’s overwhelming success proved you could build great golf courses with stunning ocean scenery in remote corners of the world—and people would still come. After Bandon, a new breed of golfer emerged: those who sought out far-flung places of the planet for the sheer glory of playing one-of-a-kind links. Over the last decade, a number of courses followed the same approach, from Kauri Cliffs in northern New Zealand to Tasmania’s Barnbougle Dunes and all the way to Canada’s Cape Breton Island—a mountainous, V-shaped parcel of land at the northern tip of Nova Scotia.
Known for natural beauty, Scottish flair and seafood, Cape Breton has long captivated nature lovers with rugged mountain ranges, glistening lakes and sprawling coastlines. Visitors might well find themselves in the midst of a moose or bear sighting, while a drive down the rocky coastline along the famed Cabot Trail features outstanding offshore whale watching. Here, tongues are more Scottish than what you’d find elsewhere in Canada, and that’s part of the charm. Travel + Leisure magazine named Cape Breton the “Top Island Destination in the Continental U.S. and Canada” in 2011. It’s a pretty impressive accolade, considering Cape Breton is several hundred miles and a time zone from any large metropolitan city.
Beyond its good looks and Celtic roots, Cape Breton is doing much these days to slake golfers’ desires, thanks in part to two of its most spectacular courses. The first, Highland Links, has stood the test of time. The other, Cabot Links, which opened in 2012 to feverish buzz, is just getting started. Together, these two Canadian courses have sealed the island’s status as one of the premier golfing destinations in the world. Here are the highlights.
Highland Links has been on every golfer’s to-do list for decades. Located within Cape Breton Highlands National Park, right on the Cabot Trail, Highland Links is often ranked the No. 1 public course in Canada, and consistently rated in the top 100 in the world. A high-powered storm in 2010 threatened Highland’s marquee status, but the property was soon restored to its original grandeur, with upgraded drainage and fluffed-up bunkers adding to the face-lift.
Golfers from all over flock to Highland Links’s undulating fairways, which rumble from the Atlantic Ocean all the way through a river valley and into thick woods. Framed by towering mountain peaks and majestic valleys, this 18-hole masterpiece has everything you could want in a course: beautiful scenery, a fun but challenging design and true playability. As the course’s website states: “The course unfolds like a series of chapters from a great book. Each chapter, or set of holes, has its own unique setting. When they are combined together they make for a wonderful journey through, or story of, the local landscape.”
The soft turf of Highland Links is challenging by any standards and teems with tricky lies, dramatic elevation changes, and precipitous approaches. Famed Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, commissioned to design Highland Links in 1939 by the National Parks Service, ingeniously separated the roughly 7.5-mile/12-kilometer course into three sections—each of which is separated by a long walk. “Thompson incorporated an interesting feature in that he has two back-to-back par fives on the front and two back-to-back par fives on the back,” explains Graham Hudson, the operations manager for Highland Links. Hudson believes the best time of year to play Highlands is from mid-July to late September, when the minimal humidity provides superb playing conditions.
The first six holes of Highland Links start close to the ocean, with a long, uphill swing at tee off. After the sixth, the pace turns inland over a river bridge and on a long walk toward steeper slopes and a much more intimate, secluded setting (the wild and tight seventh, named “Killiecrankie,” which rollercoasters through 570 yards/521 meters to an elevated tee, is a favorite among many). There’s another break in between the 12th and 13th holes, where you walk a picturesque quarter mile along a narrow river path before resuming the toughest last stretch along the coastline again. Prepare to get your exercise.
Adds Hudson, “Golfers that enjoy the serenity of the remoteness, the quiet of the wilderness and incredible scenery will not be disappointed. The golf course is unforgiving to those who stray from the fairways, but all levels of golfers appreciate the genius of the greens and the concepts of ‘risk and reward.’”
Whereas Highland Links includes plenty of dense forest, Cabot Links claims nary a tree in sight. Instead, the landscape runs fast and firm with uninterrupted views. Nestled between the ocean and the picturesque town of Inverness, Cabot Links draws many comparisons to Bandon Dunes, and that’s no coincidence, since Cabot co-founder Mike Keiser was also the mastermind behind Bandon. Keiser, a Chicago-based greeting card mogul, helped bring Cabot Links to life with co-founder and Toronto entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar.
“With five sets of tees to choose from, we feel that golfers of all levels will enjoy Cabot,” explains Cowan-Dewar, who was the first to learn in 2004 about Cabot’s available parcel of land. “The mandate of course architect Rod Whitman was to make the course fun, as links golf tends to be.” Cabot Links is arguably the first “true links” to be built in Canada, since every hole offers an ocean view—and five of those holes play directly adjacent to the beach. The definition of an authentic links varies, but is generally defined as a rugged seaside course built on well-drained sands that provide a tight canvass for the ball to run (thereby “linking” the ocean to the inland). All authenticity aside, Cabot Links is genuinely player-friendly and packed with wild personality: smart, challenging and quirky.
The layout was conceived in harmony with the dramatic seaside views, sandy soil and formidable shore-side winds. Right out of the gate, the course hits you with the ocean’s sweeping beauty. Cabot’s first nine holes are flat and open, while the backside is full of sandy dunes reminiscent of Northern Ireland. Standouts include a stunning 13th hole that wraps around a bay and the 16th, a long, uphill par 4 that climbs to a tricky green. Fourteen is probably the star hole with a half-blind tee shot, and begs comparison to the famous seventh at California’s Pebble Beach. Golfers here are rewarded for creativity, not obedience. The short par-4 eighth hole, for example, offers many ways to play off the tee, especially when the wind is at the golfer’s back. And the 14th—a hole that’s been heavily photographed—spells heavy penalties on a miss. Walking is the order of the day at Cabot Links. There are no motorized carts, only caddies and pull carts. In the summertime, the warm ocean breeze proves a worthy companion.
Muses Cowan-Dewar: “It is rare in the 21st century to find land so akin to the linksland where golf was born in Scotland, Ireland and England.”
If You Go
Private jetters can touch down at JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport (ICAO: CYQY), a two-hour drive to Cabot Links and 80 miles/128 kilometers from Highland Links.
T: 902.564.7723; sydneyairport.ca
Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa: Perched high on the headland, this historic hotel offers sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. The front desk is a short walk from the first tee at Highland Links. In addition to the inn and lodge rooms, private two- and four-bedroom pet-friendly cottages are also available for booking.
T: 800.565.0444; kelticlodge.ca
Cabot Links Lodge: Designed by award-winning Nova Scotia architect Susan Fitzgerald, this 48-room luxury boutique hotel features well-appointed guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling views of the Cabot golf course out to sea.
T: 855.652.2268; cabotlinks.com/accommodations
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