The Continental Connection
With an ever-expanding menu of stay-and-play breaks throughout France and Northern Spain, Brittany Ferries caters for over 12,000 golfers a year –and with the eyes of the sporting world on Le Golf National, on the outskirts of Versailles, for the 2018 Ryder Cup, interest in Brittany Ferries’ slick operation is set to swell over the next 12 months. Editor Richard Simmons talked to Tavistock’s Graham Ruth, the man whose entrepreneurial vision has translated into one of golf travel's great success stories
By Richard Simmons
This year has marked the 20th anniversary of Brittany Ferries’ golf programme – which you effectively founded. How did that originally come about?
It came in totally blindside as far as I was concerned. After a career in financial services I had been looking for a change of pace and set up a small company operating corporate golf days. I worked from home in Tavistock and utilised the contacts I had to take clients to places like St Mellion and Woodbury Park, aiming at premium brands, BMW, Mercedes, Carlton, ITV. We built up 40-odd events a year and a local solicitor approached me and asked if I would do some work for the Lord’s Taverners, the youth sports charity. Within 12months we were tasked with raising £50k and that’s what really started me thinking on a much larger scale. We came up with a plan designed to raise the lot in one go, and on March 10th 1996 1,200 golfers sailed out of Portsmouth to Caen. The overnight trip was generously sponsored by Mizuno, the Normandy Tourist Board, Waterford Crystal and, of course, Brittany Ferries, and the upshot – after a riotous 48 hours – was a total of £48,500 raised for the Taverners.
Effectively the prototype event for Brittany Ferries’ golf operation as we know it today?
Absolutely. Tickets were £99 and golfers entered in teams of four – we could have sold it out twice over. The Goody Bag alone was worth more than that! The Taverners is a London-based charity and the event attracted a lot of big corporate – that’s what enabled us to raise our target in one hit. A few weeks later I received a call from the managing director of Brittany Ferries who told me that the two channel crossings were the best the company had ever had financially – they had never seen money spent quite like it...the food, the champagne, fine wines. On the strength of that success he asked if we could put together a dedicated golf programme – and that’s how Brittany Ferries’ golf operation came about. The agreement was settled on a handshake and it took 12 months of negotiations and hard work to get up and running. We distributed details of the packages through travel agents and golf clubs and the original agreement remains to this day, 20 years later. All on a handshake.
The original packages were built around easy access to courses in Brittany and Normandy?
Naturally, the courses we looked at initially were based within striking distance of the landing port’s on the west coast – be it Roscoff, Caen, St Malo. So, yes, we were targeting Normandy and Brittany and gradually expanded operations into the Loire. Funnily enough, a year or so previously I had taken a couple of groups from my club, Tavistock, to Brest, in Brittany. We played at Brest Iroise, a top-20 ranked course in France, and the whole experience had been hugely impressive, with accommodation on-site. It’s just so easy – pack the car onto the ferry, a 35-minute drive on the other side. Sorted. Then, as you begin to explore the region, you discover just how good a destination this is for golf. We went to Golf de Pleneuf Val Andre, a Challenge Tour venue for the last 12 years and a truly stunning golf course. The first nine reminds me of the Nicklaus Course at St Mellion, then you reach a spectacular run of holes from the turn. The 11th tee sits some 200 metres above a beach that stretches as far as the eye can see and provides a fantastic view of a sweeping par five. Just spectacular.
The glorious seaside setting of Golf Pleneuf-Val Andre, rated as one of the prettiest courses in Brittany
Then there’s Dinard, the second-oldest course in France (behind Pau in Aquitaine), a wonderful links and much more of a handful than it first appears. Golfers take a look at the scorecard and think, ‘Um, 6000 yards, this should be pretty straightforward...’ Think again! The clubhouse at Dinard is stunning, too, one of the finest in France, an Art Deco building with views of the Emerald Coast. Handy, also, for the port at St Malo. I could go on and on...there are so many first-class courses. One of the first places I visited – and still one of my all-time favourites – is Champ de Bataille, which was described to me as the ‘Wentworth of Normandy’. It is situated in the grounds of a magnificent Louis XIV chateau and you don’t see another golfer from the moment you leave the first tee to the final green.
Established in 1887, the fabulous links of Dinard, at Saint Briac-sur-mer, is the second oldest club in France behind Pau (in Aquitaine). The Art Deco clubhouse adds a certain je ne sais quoi
And the cruise element is an integral part of the package.
Very much so. As the concept has developed so we have made more of the ferry element and the channel crossing, especially when it comes to the longer routes as we expanded into Northern Spain. There’s a real holiday feel as you cruise down to Santander on what is our flagship – dinner on board, entertainment, a good night’s sleep. These are luxury vessels, not ferry boats as people remember them. They are geared up with cinemas and bars, restaurants and shopping. And when you roll off the ferry in to the old town of Santander there’s a feeling of having stepped back in time – I love this area of Spain, around Pedrena and Bilbao.
Brittany Ferries’ flagship vessel glides into the port of Santander
We initially focused on Seve-designed courses, and I was lucky enough to spend some time with the great man, which was a special highlight in my career, and the courses here are not only spectacular but offer incredible value. And, of course, from Northern Spain you are just a couple of hour’s drive to the Aquitaine region of France, where you discover a raft of quality courses from the Robert Von Hagge-designed Seignosse – one of the finest courses you will play anywhere in Europe – to Golf de Moliets, another stunning seaside layout within a century-old pine-forest on the Atlantic. Join the areas up and you have more classic golf at Royanne, St Jean du Mont, La Baule, and the whole thing is suddenly a big business. We can feed the thirst for people to go and play in what was never previously regarded as a golfing destination – not in the same way as the Algarve or Costa del Sol. And now we are pushing further into the Paris region, the Loire valley, and it’s an open book.
Golfers disembark with the promise of superb golf at Seve’s home club of Pedrena (above) and the likes of Seignosse and Moliets easily accessible
I notice that Robert Von Hagge’s sublime creation at Les Bordes – Continental Europe’s No.1 ranked course – is also now back on the ‘specials’ menu?
Yes, after several years being off limits Les Bordes is accessible to visitors and, I have to say, it really is one of those ‘Bucket List’ courses that every serious golfer should play. An hour and a bit south of Paris and you really are in a different world here. The conditioning of the layout is incredible (the course doesn’t see a lot of traffic!) and it’s one of the most challenging tests of its kind. Not to mention one of the finest clubhouse restaurants anywhere in the world. With the Ryder Cup in Paris next year we are putting together bespoke tours to the region with Les Bordes just one of several exclusive venues that we include on the itinerary.
Pictures really cannot do justice to the magic of Les Bordes, consistently voted the No.1 course in Europe and now happily back on the rota for golfers in search of the ultimate experience
You have the flexibility to offer bespoke tours according to budget?
Absolutely. We have over 100 courses contracted and the expertise and local knowledge on the ground to include many other terrific courses. France is a big place and so we design tours and itineraries based on travel time and flexibility. It’s all down to planning. Most are two or three nights, 2/3 rounds. Overnight crossing with cabin and you’re fit and ready to go the following morning. We can have you on the golf course within an hour of leaving the ferry. So your first game is when you arrive – you’re up and running. By travelling overnight you maximise your time on holiday playing golf or sightseeing.
What’s the Brittany Ferries/Ryder Cup connection for 2018?
We have an approved tie-up with European Tour and Ryder Cup Travel Services and Brittany Ferries will be heavily involved. We will operate packages for those who wish to book and purchase a ticket and we will also offer a service for those who hold a ticket and want hassle-free travel and accommodation. Some of the packages are very special, with access to some of the private exclusive golf clubs around Paris. France is a funny destination in many respects, it’s not widely regarded as a great golfing country and yet some of these private members clubs are extraordinary and the golf courses are among the finest in the world. There's a price to pay, obviously, but an unbelievable experience. Just getting access to some is very difficult but when you do get on the experience is memorable.
Golf National has been purpose-built for the Ryder Cup, looks a little undressed without a tournament but it’s a cracking test of golf.
I’ve just returned from a European Tour inspection visit. The course is polished. The speed of the greens is up there at 13+ on the Stimp....a lot of people are surprised not only by the quality of the design but by the way the course can be set up to really turn the screw. The fairways are well defined, narrow in places, and so it’s all about position off the tee to give yourself a shot and an angle into firm, undulating greens. Throw in a bit of water – actually quite a lot of water! – and you get a sense of the drama Le Golf National is going to produce at a Ryder Cup. The real triumph here is that it has all been created on reclaimed land, there's nothing pretty around it, and with fine-tuning over the coming months the course will be in great shape.
The countdown is well and truly on to what promises to be a fabulous Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, a purpose-built stadium course on the outskirts of Versailles
If you had to put together the perfect package where would you be headed?
That’s a tough question. I think I’d have to break it down into regions. If I was headed to South West France/Aquitaine, I’d have Seignosse and Moliets at the top of the list – simply fabulous golf. I would also plan a day at Biarritz Le Phare, an old English resort with a great feel about it. When it comes to Brittany you simply cannot go there without playing Dinard and, for my money Golf de Pleneuf Val Andre. Then you have a selection of lovely resorts, St Malo Country Club, Golf Des Ormes. Southern Brittany St Laurent, Golf de Baden. Normandy you have Golf de Granville on the Cherbourg peninsular. But if you really want to treat yourself then you would head to Les Bordes and add on Les Aisses – a course that evokes comparison with some of our great heathland layouts – and you could easily bring the Albatross Course at Le Golf National into that grouping. Motoring enthusiasts will also spot Le Mans and Golf de 24 Heures, located near the legendary Hanauddieres straight of Le Mans, a wonderful course cut through a pine forest. You actually drive on part of the race circuit to get to the golf club – that's quite an experience.
Chic doesn’t even begin to describe the set up at Club de Biarritz
Simply put, golfers get a better deal booking with you than going direct?
Absolutely. We buy for less than the public can buy for. Hotel, golf and that really is it - we take all the hassle and aggro out of the organisation. When people try to do it all themselves they might get one or two elements right but after that it all becomes time consuming and they often walk away from what would have been a great trip…we deal with all of these elements on a day-to-day basis. The clubs sometimes don’t recognise the efforts we make to get golfers to the front door. We deliver a lot of valuable business – and that doesn't happen overnight. Because we are bespoke we are focused on individual itineraries. Our focus is not necessarily on resorts, we are trying to give groups a true golfing experience based on our in-depth knowledge – believe me, there are a lot of great golf courses out there few have heard about. The bottom line is that our clients are going on holiday and it’s our job to ensure that they enjoy the whole experience, start to finish. Nothing is more stressful than arriving somewhere and you’re not expected. That simply doesn’t happen – everything is prepaid and clients receive a travel pack containing tickets, vouchers, etc. We also keep up to date with any maintenance – nothing worse than finding the greens have just been hollow-tined! My golf team is experienced enough to act immediately and there have been instances where we have switched courses on the day to guarantee the best playing conditions.
And the flip-side of the coin is the uplift in the number of Europeans visiting the South West, benefitting courses across Devon and Cornwall?
Absolutely, the channel crossing works both ways and nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing French golfers arrive into Plymouth and experience the golf we have to offer. The feedback in recent years has been phenomenal. In Brittany they have very few links courses so they rave about places like West Cornwall and Perranporth as well as loving the experience at the courses everyone's heard of at Saunton, Trevose & St Enodoc. The inbound part of our business is growing at an alarming rate at the moment – of course the exchange rate is helping them. The bookings for 2018 are something like 20% up on numbers this year.
You were in London recently at a function to mark the official countdown to the Ryder Cup – this is going to be some event – and transformational for golf in France.
Yes, this has been very exciting and I have been quite involved with Atout France attending several planning meetings and having some positive input. Naturally the Ryder Cup has been the main focus however our longer term view is how this exposure is going to draw attention to France as a golfing destination. We expect to see a healthy increase in visiting golfers in the years after 2018 and this is really why we have become so involved, as the number one operator into Brittany and a major player in the French golf market we recognise this is a wonderful opportunity to continue to grow our business.
To give you an idea of the all-inclusive cost of return trip by ferry, accommodation and golf, here are three typical packages available in 2018
PACKAGE ONE • St Malo • Sail from Plymouth to Roscoff overnight • 2 nights in the Univers in the Old Walled City of St Malo twin rooms B&B • 3 rounds of golf Dinard, Des Ormes and Val Andre • Return afternoon sailing from Roscoff to Plymouth • Based on 4 in a car with overnight cabins travelling in April • From £303pp
PACKAGE TWO • Deauville • Sail from Portsmouth to Caen overnight • 3 nights in Hotel du Golf Lucien Barriere in twin rooms B&B • 3 rounds of golf Omaha Beach, New Golf Deauville and Champ de Bataille • Return overnight crossing from Caen to Portsmouth • Based on 4 in a car travelling in April • From £380pp
PACKAGE THREE • Versailles • Sail from Portsmouth to Caen overnight • 2 nights in Hotel le Versailles in twin rooms B&B • 3 rounds of golf at Golf National, Golf de Bethemont and Golf de Courson • Return overnight sailing from Caen to Portsmouth • Based on 4 in a car with overnight cabins travellig in April • From £575pp
For more detailed information call the Brittany Ferries Golf Desk on 0330 159 5418 brittany-ferries.co.uk/golf