Having a Vine Time
In the heart of perhaps France's most famous wine-growing region, Peter Smith found a few vintage products.
Southwest of France contains some of the world's most famous vine-yards, and some of Frances best golf courses. Bordeaux has always had a good relationship with the English - after all, it was English merchants who first began exporting wine from France, and for 300 years this region, Aquitaine, was ruled by 'English kings. The city today is a thriving business centre but 'the after-hours life is good, with many good restaurants with very fine wine lists.
To add to all this, surrounding the city are several excellent golf courses, the best of which may well be Golf du Medoc, which has two courses, the Chateaux and the Vignes.
Each hole on the former, designed by Ben Crenshaw's architectural partner, Bill Coore, is named after a famous wine-making chateau from the region, and you can visit each chateau and taste the wine by arrangement with the golf course - a wonderful way to spend an afternoon (or several!).
But the mornings should be reserved for golf. And what a treat that is. The Chateaux course is reminiscent of Walton Heath, full of heather and gorse, with few trees. Water comes into play on a few holes, memorably on the short 5th, playing 170 yards over the lake to a narrow green.
The secret is to hit the front of the green and let the ball run to the right. The Vignes (Vines) is totally different, playing around a couple of large lakes and through what was a dense wood when I visited it. Then came the Boxing Day storm that hit France last winter and flattened many of the trees. But it's still a good course and one that will have you coming back for more.
Several other courses are close by, including Cameyrac, between the two rivers, which has rolling fairways and some tight shots even though generally the course feels very open, and Pessac, set in a peaceful forested area close to the city. Water is featured on several holes here and there are some very good par-threes. The other major course in this area is Golf Bordelais, an excellent course and definitely one not to miss. You could spend an entire week, or longer, in the Bordeaux region, sampling both the golf and the wine, although most people will, perhaps reluctantly, decide it is time to move on to pastures new.
Follow the Dordogne river inland about 50 miles and you will reach - on the way to Bergerac - the charming Chateau des Vigiers. A 16th-century chateau has been developed into a 36-room, 4-star hotel with a gourmet restaurant - and when they say that in France, you know you're in for a very good meal. Donald Steel designed the golf course, which runs through a working vineyard (they make their own wine) and plum orchards. Lakes help to make the layout interesting and the oak woods give not only a wonderful feel to the place but introduce some challenging holes. For the really active sporty type, there is also a fitness centre, tennis, biking and (for the not quite so active) fishing. Anyone who has ever flown from England to Madrid or the Costa del Sol, and had a window seat on the journey, has probably looked down on the almost endless white sandy beach fronting the Bay of Biscay. Running almost 150 miles south from the mouth of the Gironde almost down to Biarritz, the high dunes behind the vast expanse of white sand are almost made for golf and it is perhaps surprising that there are no more than a handful of courses lining the shore. But what this stretch of land lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality, and the pick of the bunch must be Seignosse.
An on-site hotel makes this the perfect place to stay in this part of France, and several other excellent courses are within easy reach. The course is one that is used regularly for pre-season practice by Jose Maria Olazabal, and when you get on the greens you'll understand why. They are fast and rolling and you can experience the sort of putts the top players have to contend with on tour, such as putting one way for the ball to do a sharp U-turn and head in the opposite direction.
The first hole has a long, narrow fairway with trees on either side - the region of Aquitaine does, after all, contain Europe's largest forest. The greens at Seignosse are, in general, large but hitting the right part of the green is vital. This is an excellent examination of iron play, which might go some way towards explaining why Olazabal is so good at that. There is also a great deal of elevation on the course, which again calls for exemplary approach play. There is not a bad hole on the course and if you come off here with a decent score you will have done yourself proud.
Jean Van de Velde - you must remember him! -learnt his golf at the impressive Hossegor course, not far from the beach and just ten minutes from Seignosse. This is well worth visiting, too, being very reminiscent of the Berkshire. In the traditional fashion of the best English inland courses, trees and sand bunkers constitute the course's chief line of defence.
Another near-neighbour. Golf des Moliets, is a fabulous course which runs through the forest for much of its length but then breaks out on to the Atlantic beach for four exhilarating holes.
The most memorable hole on the inland part is perhaps the 9th, where a good drive is needed in order to find the left-centre of the fairway, leaving perhaps a 7-iron to a green heavily guarded by water. However, after the short 12th you emerge from the forest to a breathtaking view of the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean and then play four holes of absolutely perfect links golf. The 13th (380 yards) is quite difficult, with a blind drive, but it requires only a 3-wood tee-shot over a disused concrete wartime bunker set in the dunes to a small landing area that will gather the ball to the left, leaving a short iron to a hidden green over another huge sand dune.
The next two holes run along the beach and both are excellent. If you can tear yourself away, you can have one last lingering look at the sea as you stand on the 16th tee, a short downhill par-three which requires more club than you might think.
Biarritz was the home of the jet-set in the 1960s and its name is still synonymous with style, although it is not now so grand as it once was. It remains, however, a charming little town on the beach with several wonderful seaside walks and some hotels that would still be the choice for many in search of quality. The restaurants in the town may, in the summer at least,
be a little too touristy, but if you can avoid the peak months you will find good food at realistic prices in a congenial setting.
The golf, too, is pretty impressive, starting with Biarritz-Le-Phare (The Lighthouse). The course is right in the centre of the town, surrounded on all sides by upmarket housing, yet this is no American-style fairway development, for these are houses in streets near the course and they do not impinge on to the players views. You're unlikely to carve a 3-wood into someone's back garden or swimming pool. In fact, with high trees and dense foliage, in some parts of the course you're not likely to notice the houses. What you will notice is the imposing sight of the Pyrenees and Spain in the distance.
The course is not particularly long and the driver will not need to come out on every par-four; position is more important than length here. The par-threes are particularly interesting.
Lunch, as everywhere in France, is something to be taken fairly seriously, and to be seen out on the course during lunch is bad form, except perhaps at weekends. In keeping with a long-standing French tradition that has died out at many, places but not here, Le Phare is closed on a Tuesday.
If Le Phare is in the centre of the town, just to the north is Chiberta, another terrific amalgam of inland and seaside holes. The opening hole is a pleasing enough par-five, but it's main job is to get you out to the coast and some genuinely magnificent links holes. They occupy most of the course, but even when your journey back towards the clubhouse ineluctably means you have to head inland, the final holes cut through the forest are no let down.
A few miles inland from Biarritz is Makila, an interesting if rather open course that runs through a housing development. Yet here, unlike some other places, the real estate is tasteful and set back from the fairways. Again, in several parts of the course you hardly notice the houses. The first two holes demand good driving and the 4th is a charming little par-three that plays steeply downhill and only needs a wedge. The back nine has some especially wonderful views of the Pyrenees.
Going south now we come to Arcangues, designed by Ronald Fream. The course is set in meadows with a couple of lakes and sloping fairways. From the first hole you play downhill then across the bottom of the valley through part of the village on the front nine. The homeward half takes you round an old chateau via some charming little holes that, while not long, are full of character. Overall the site is a little hillier than the ideal but the length is not overdone, meaning it's a course where the premium is on accuracy. And, again, the views are wonderful.
It is not far to go to find two more old favourites. Chantaco was the family seat of the famous sporting family of Lacoste. Now, and notably in France, you see their crocodile on most polo shirts. The golf course is very attractive and challenging, but not a place to play on the day you're spraying the ball around. La Nivelle is more open and more of a roller-coaster course, with a steep hill taking you up the first hole, a par-five, and three hours or so later bringing you back down with a par-four. There are a few too many blind shots fore the purists' liking, but it does nevertheless provide an enjoyable day's golf.
Into the heart of the Pyrenees, Pau is the oldest club on the continent of mainland Europe, and the fourth oldest in the world outside the UK. At the time of Napoleon's escape from Elba and his march on Paris and into Belgium, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in May 1815, some of Wellington's troops were stationed in the Pau area and, with a few Scots being among their number, they began to play golf on a stretch of land close to the town. By 1856 a proper golf course and clubhouse were in existence and they basically remain unchanged to this day, although the clubhouse has been altered and extended. The honours' board dates from 1875 and the members began to wear a crimson jacket about the same time.
The course is compact but it is not long, as you might expect to be the case of a course dating back nearly 150 years. From the first hole, a 290-yard par-four, to the last, a 135-yard par-three, Pau is charming and gentle, yet no pushover. Touch and technique are required and a good and careful golfer could set a pretty good score here. It's a welcome relief from those modern courses where only distance seems to count.
And whatever you shoot at Pau, don't miss lunch. This is France, after all.
Peter Smith is a freelance golf and travel writer.
AN IDEA OF EXCELLENT VINTAGE
A very good way of combining two of the best things in life is to take a special holiday to sample some of both, and one company, run by an enterprising Englishman, does just that. Based in the wine mecca of Bordeaux, Clive Cross and his French wife have set up a company called Golf Wine Tours, and one of its tours features visits to vineyards and golf courses in the Bordeaux area.
Arriving in Bordeaux by lunchtime, you first go to Medoc for lunch and a round of golf before staying the night near Bordeaux. Day two dawns with a drive to the village of Pauillac, home of one of France's most famed wines, visiting the cellars of the Grand Cru Classe property, Chateau Lynch Bages. Across the Gironde river is the Royan Golf Club, carved out of a dense wood of mimosa and pine, with fast greens and undulating fairways.
The next day, the trip moves on to Cognac and, after a visit to the cellars of Hennessy, you play Cognac golf course, which winds through part of the vineyard and enjoys sea views. That night is spent in a chateau before you return to London the next day via a brief stop at St Emilion - although this visit can be extended.
One of the lovely things about these select tours - apart from good golf, good food, good wine and the conviviality of a small group - is the attention to detail. For example, once you arrive at Bordeaux airport, you can forget about your golf clubs: they will await you on the first tee at each course. Also, your luggage will be taken to your room in each hotel while you enjoy yourself on the course or elsewhere. And your golf shoes are cleaned for you overnight, ready for the next day's battle.
That is a nice touch.
Golf Today Course Directory - France