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Golf in Greece - Costa Navarino

In a land defined by myth and legend, the philanthropy of one man has not only resulted in the creation of one of Europe’s finest new eco-friendly golfing destinations, but at the same time provided for his homeland and his people a focal point upon which to build a more prosperous future. Richard Simmons reports on the extraordinary story behind Costa Navarino

As all eyes turned to Celtic Manor in October 2010, the story of one man’s successful endeavour to invest hard-earned riches in his homeland is one that will be become synonymous with the 2010 Ryder Cup. Clearly a man to be taken seriously, Sir Terry Matthews made it his quest to bring one of golf’s showcase events to Wales, and while the tens of millions it is reported to have cost may be small beer to this self-made billionaire, it is the single biggest personal investment in tourism in the UK and one that has, in the last 10 years, had a profound effect on the economy in Newport and the surrounding area.

Fifteen hundred miles and a cultural lifetime from South Wales, a region in the south western tip of Greece – otherwise bereft of hope and industry – is in the process of being transformed thanks to a similar ‘the boy done good’ fairytale. The only real difference is in the bottom line: without the diversion of a golf match, rags-to-riches seaman Vassilis Constantakopoulos has poured more than €1 billion (£820m) of his personal wealth into creating a string of resorts that will put the otherwise overlooked Messinia region of the Peloponnese firmly on the tourist map.

Known universally as Captain Vassilis, the patriarch of the Constantakopoulos family – so it turns out – had been quietly buying up plots of land for over 20 years. During that time he accumulated over 1500 hectares in four distinct parcels (such is the way of things here it took over 1,000 individual land deals to put his portfolio together). Taking the name from Navarino Bay, one of the Mediterranean’s largest natural harbours,where an allied armada of British, Russian and French ships overcame the Ottaman fleet – a decisive turning point in the Greek Revolution that led to the country’s independence nearly 200 years ago – the Captain’s masterplan is ‘Costa Navarino’, an eco-friendly development that will see four individual resorts (featuring seven courses) sit within half an hour of each other. Given that golf in Greece previously extended to a course each on Corfu, Crete and Rhodes, with another on the outskirts of Athens, and the implications in opening up the region to a new market in golf tourism are plain to see.

“It’s a huge investment,” says Giorgos Chronopoulos, the mayor of Messinia. “In fact it’s Greece’s biggest ever tourism project. And it’s the only positive thing to have happen in our region in years. Villages that were once dead have come alive again thanks to the high quality, year-round tourism. It’s given us optimism for the future.”

Two of the four proposed resorts are now well advanced in the shape of Navarino Dunes, which opened this summer, and Navarino Bay, where Robert Trent Jones II and his trusted ‘shaper’ Doug Ingram recently completed the initial routing on what is a stunning piece of property overlooking the bay (and where Banyon Tree will operate one of two planned hotels – the group’s first European venture).

Navarino Bay – with its earth-sheltered villas embedded into the natural terrain – is scheduled to open in late 2011, while the artistry of Trent Jones II, who has identified three distinct loops of six holes (Seaside, Canyon & Grove), promises a playing experience that will sit well with the existing layout at Navarino Dunes.

Featuring a Bernhard Langer ‘signature’ course created in association with Ross Mc- Murray and European Tour Design, the Dunes may be billed as a ‘resort’ type course playable for golfers of all standards – which it certainly is – and yet while the fairways may be wide and the greens generous, strategy is paramount to navigate a safe passage, avoiding deep, well-placed bunkers and leaving your ball in a location on the green that gives you a putt – built to highest specifications, the roller coaster surfaces are dangerously slick.

As early as the 2nd hole you are treated to the glorious sight of the Ionian Sea glistening beyond the green, and then you are off on a wonderfully eclectic stretch of holes to the turn, including a terrific short par-three at the 5th, with it’s tumbling green running high left to low right, and the spectacular downhill par four 6th, reachable under favourable conditions but again hole where all the danger lies in the multi-contoured and stepped green.

Making the turn, the 11th is another stand-out hole, a par-four played directly into the prevailing wind, the sea again visible beyond the raised plateau green. It’s the sort of hole you can imagine Langer following a buttoned drive with a flighted long iron, banked against the wind to the heart of the green. Anything else gets short shrift.

Strategic partnerships are often key to the success in a resort-style development, and at Navarino Dunes the combination of high-end accommodations and guest amenities from Starwood properties – in the shape of The Romanos Luxury Collection and Westin brands – along with Troon Golf’s expertise on all things related to the condition of the course and the service off it guarantee standards you’ll want to enjoy again and again. Families will be particularly drawn to the Westin, where the specially designed children’s areas – including the Cocoon care centre (for children up to 3) and the fantastic Sand Castle playground and pools (up to 12s) simply underline Westin’s commitment to being a true family destination.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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