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|In Finland, you can stay in a castle that dates back to 1300s. (Courtesy Vanajanlinna)|
Finland golf might not immediately come to mind when you think of heading for a European golf vacation, but this Scandinavian nation of 5.2 million has some of the most unique golf courses you'll find anywhere, and, in the right months, nearly endless sunlight to enjoy them. It's never too early to start thinking about where to golf next summer.
Imagine an exotic European golf destination where you can golf among towering firs at midnight and stay in 4- and 5-star resorts for around $250 a night.
Not bloody likely, right?
What's your next dream Peter Pan, world peace and beer that tastes like a milk shake?
Don't laugh too hard. This golf destination exists. Say hello to Finland, a place you've probably never considered for golf or thought of period. This Scandinavian nation of 5.2 million that is the sixth largest country in Europe in land size does not exactly have golf fever (only 120,000 Fins play). But it does boast some of the most unique golf experiences in the world, and more than 100 golf courses overall.
Go, say, next summer and you can tee off a midnight. In bright sunshine. In the height of the summer, southern Finland gets 21 hours of sunlight a day.
Sleepwalkers unite! And bring some Pro V1s.
"How many times do you get to golf at midnight?" asked Tim Hurja, a longtime PGA pro who's taken several golf trips to Finland. "It's just one of those things you have to do. You're never going to forget that round."
Finland golf offers more than just a quirky nighttime lark though.
There are rolling hills, spruce and birch trees leaning over fairways and green, green everywhere. "It's a lot like Michigan," Hurja said. "You're surprised by the variety of the terrain."
Hurja became so enchanted by Finnish golf and Finnish culture after his visits that he's put together a trip there for the summer of 2008 for a group of regular vacationing golfers. A Finnish golf pro summed up the country's outlook to Hurja this way, "If you're in Finland, it's not a country, it's a club."
Having so much room helps put people in a good mood. Finland boasts the lowest population density of any country in the European Union and there's a real love for Mother Nature there.
And what better way to appreciate it than cursing your driver under a beautiful midnight sun?
Finland is not packed with traditional golf resorts. Its courses tend to stand more on their own, rather than being packaged with a hotel and a spa.
The resorts it does have could be among the most unique you've ever stayed at, however. Take Vanajanlinna, a castle that dates back to the 1300s that's been converted into a luxury hotel and golf resort. About an hour from the capital of Helsinki, Vanajanlinna has a dinning room scene that often looks like the setting of an elegant middle ages royal feast with long, long tables, its own wine cellar dinning room and three different sauna facilities.
And oh yeah, you're sleeping in a castle. A real one without any Mickey Mouse ears in sight.
"That really just pumps people up," Hurja said. "To be staying in an ancient castle with all the modern luxuries. Again, it's something that you might not ever get to do anywhere else."
At Vanajanlinna, you can also play golf in the shadow of that castle. Linna Golf & Country Club weaves around the hotel grounds, taking you through a pine forest, up and down hills and across rocks. It measures in at 7,224 yards (don't be fooled by the frequent listing of its length in meters - 6,624 - and think it's a short modern course). Its slope rating is a whopping 145.
Linna comes from the mind of Tim Lobb of European Golf Design - the same company behind the 2010 Ryder Cup course in Wales - Celtic Manor. It's designed to be a bear more than capable of eating through your supply of golf balls.
Consider that Linna's been deemed tough enough to serve as the host of the Finnish Open, the most prestigious tournament in the country. Linna Golf officials hope its Finnish Open success will lead to it landing a full-fledged European Tour event by 2011.
That would be a big step for Finland, a country that's often been regarded as behind the Scandinavian golf curve, slower than most countries in the region to embrace the game. Finnish golf officials have reported a 10 percent annual increase in golf participation for several years now. And for this country, that 120,000 golfers figure is no small figure.
Only a decade ago, it was closer to just 50,000 golfers in Finland.
Of course, a golf vacationer might not mind that so much. You will not be stuck on traffic-jammed tees in Finland. Despite this, it's not all that hard to find golf courses.
There are six within 45 minutes of Vanajanlinna resort.
Hurja figures that's enough to last golf tourists a good week to 10 days with the other sights they are likely to want to visit in Finland.
Finland's golf season comes and goes quick. It lasts six months in a good year (May through September is typical) and once it's gone temperatures soon plummet below zero. But during the time it's here, you can enjoy a number of different water sports around Helsinki, the city by the sea.
Fishing is huge in Finland, much bigger than golf. Tourists seeking that Zen moment with a rod have been coming here for generations. With over 180,000 lakes and everything from salmon to sea trout and pike, it's easy to see why.
When you have 21 hours of daylight to work with, you can cram a lot into one trip. For some tourists, that means long days and nights on a boat. For a few, it equals endless golf. Every summer, Finland has marathon golf tournaments that consists of four rounds on four different courses in the same day.
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