Royal County Down TRAVEL FEATURE

These golf cruises
are really all
about the golf

By Cynthia Boal Janssens,
Contributor

NEWCASTLE, Northern Ireland -- This is one of the thrills of my golfing lifetime. I am overlooking the town of Newcastle in Northern Ireland from the 18th tee of one of the greatest golf courses in the world, Royal County Down.

It has been a stern test of my skills all the way, not only because the holes are so challenging, but also because it is hard to focus on your game when you are surrounded by incredible beauty, golf history and feisty caddies.

I fully appreciate that this is just one of seven courses we will play on this 11-day cruise to the British Isles run by Kalos Golf.


Carnival golf cruises
Ireland golf destination
Ireland's European Club
Course review: The Old Course

Unlike most so-called golf cruises, where rounds of golf are included as shore excursions, Kalos' cruises are all about the golf. Owner and president Jim Lamont charters small ships and plans the itineraries so as to pack in as much first-rate golf as possible. To please non-golfing spouses, or those who do not wish to play all courses, he puts on a full program of tours as well.

On this particular trip we are traveling on one of the finest sailing ships at sea, the Sea Cloud II. Our mid-summer adventure begins on July 28 in Dublin, where many arrive early so as to play the fine course at our hotel, Portmanock. The weather is as expected: cold, rainy and dreary. Forewarned, we have all packed plenty of foul-weather gear.

We sail out the famed River Liffey scarcely an hour after boarding. No time will be wasted getting to our first destination, the town of Portrush in Northern Ireland. There is much gaiety at the welcoming reception as more than half the guests aboard have something in common: All are members of the Bonita Bay golf community near Naples, Fla. Their head golf professional, John Oyler, is escorting the cruise and will give clinics.

But Bonita Bay is a very big place and except for couples who signed up together, most don't know each other. So they mix in fine with the rest of the guests, who include a few Europeans. Many are returning Kalos customers.

The next morning we discover that high seas have caused a change in plans. Instead of going to Portrush, we instead are anchored at the village of Linfoyle, where we are forced travel to shore in small inflatable boats rather than the usual larger tenders.

But here is where we experience our first taste of Kalos efficiency: All of our golf bags are taken ashore ahead of us. They are waiting at the courses when we arrive, arranged in order of our tee times. (While we are playing, all bags are stored under cover, in case of rain, and will be waiting for us as we come off the course.) We are handed lunches as we tee off.

Today the group of about 50 golfers is divided: half will play the Dunluce course at Royal Portrush while the rest play Portstewart. The tee times and pairings were posted the evening before, along with departure times. So we put on the raingear, pile into little boats and endure a rather wet ride ashore, but all are in good spirits and eager to play our first course in the UK.

Royal Portrush The courses do not disappoint. My husband and I play Royal Portrush, which proves to be a stern test. This classic links course is over 6,125 yards for women, and 6,425 for the men. The roughs are knee-high (at least), the fairways are narrow and rock hard and the greens are like glass. Our playing partners are Ilona and Dirk Gindorf, from Switzerland. All groups participated in the game of the day: One best-ball net of the foursome.

Fortunately, the skies clear, the sun shines and we dump all the heavy gear and play a glorious round in shirt sleeves. When we return to the ship we are greeted with hot toddies, hot towels and crispy chicken wings. Six golf courses to go.

When Kalos charters a ship, it works with the owners to design its own itinerary. In this case, the goal is to play as many great courses as possible located along the upper edge of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Many of these courses are hard to access by land, and would take hours of driving to reach. By traveling along the coast on a ship, we are able to visit one great course after another with no packing and unpacking. And all along the way, we will enjoy superb food and service.

Overnight the seas settle and so the ship has moved to Portrush and the next day we play the courses in reverse while the touring group visits the town of Londonderry. The previous day they had visited the Bushmills distillery and a famous land formation known as the Giant's Causeway. We particularly enjoy our day at Portstewart, which is a more beautiful course than Portrush and friendlier, too.

Back on board Sea Cloud II, most folks try to fit in a nap, some reading or sending e-mails (no charge) before cocktails and an elegant dinner, usually at 7:30 p.m. Most of us turn in early, despite the nap.

The third day we play our much anticipated round at Royal County Down. This is, of course, a trip highlight. The course is famous, as one guidebook describes it, as being "more beautiful than Turnberry, more spectacular than Ballybunion, more natural and more charming than Royal Dornoch and more punishing than Carnoustie."

CaddiesKalos and staff have arranged for caddies at each course if we want them. Although my husband and I had not originally intended to use caddies, we soon discovered that they are almost essential to understanding these unique courses, plus they add a dash of local flavor to any round. Some of the best caddies in the world work at Royal County Down.

Today, we are lucky enough to get senior caddies (the most experienced) and they opt to "double-bag" it, carrying two bags each. Our caddy is Jerry Feenan, while Vince Patterson (a former professional soccer player) was on the bag for Jim and Sheila Ware.

Hole after hole, we are impressed by this famous course, undoubtedly the toughest any of us have ever played. For women, it is 6,200 yards with plenty of forced carries over high rough and a number of blind shots. However, the views are well worth the stress and we particularly enjoy the freeways lined with gorse, which blooms yellow in the spring, and purple heather that was just coming into blossom...except when we hit balls in that dense stuff, of course.

The final hole is a heart-stopper. It is the longest on the course (547 yards) and has 26 bunkers. It was a fitting end to a spectacular round.

Day four is our first day at sea, as we sail from Ireland to Scotland. The time is largely unstructured and provides our first opportunity to enjoy the ship. Most days the ship travels under power in order to keep to the tight golf schedule, but on this morning the crew sets some of the magnificent sails by hand while an officer explains the process.

The weather is mild and so brunch is served on deck. Most people spend the day napping or reading. That evening during cocktails, Alan Koeneke and Jim Lamont (who happens to be staffing this cruise) give out awards for the winning foursomes over the past few days. The prizes are caps, golf towels and such, along with bragging rights.

Kalos sets up pairings randomly. However, if there are people you wish to play with on a particular day, you can turn in your request on a pairings form. The Kalos staff did an excellent job of mixing the players. Some days my husband and I played with other couples and some days we played in all-male, all-women groups. It worked out fine and enabled us to meet many of our fellow cruisers.

We all discover that while we played three days of fairly tough golf in a row, (walking, mind you, no "buggies" on these courses), we were all eager to play again the next day.

Our first course in Ireland was Machrihanish, which I liked almost as much for its spelling as for its aspect. This little course is way, way out there, at the end of the Mull of Kyntyre and really tough to get to. A tiny, seaside town has grown up by the course with a few B&Bs.

Scottish courses which do not have a regular caddy corps frequently use members when caddies are requested. At Macrihanish, my caddy was Douglas Bruce McKinlay, who was turning 76 the next day. Doug just managed to keep up, shuffling and pushing my bag on a cart. But at each hole he would hand me a club and say: "Trust me, hit this one. No, don't look at what club it is. Just hit this one." All I asked was "Whole or half swing?" Inevitably, he was right. What a hoot.

The next day was also at sea and then we played another classic: Royal Dornoch, the third oldest golf course in the world. Designed by Old Tom Morris, it was later worked on by Donald Ross, who was born in the quaint village of Dornoch and was the pro for this course for a short time. This is perhaps the northernmost course in the world, just four degrees south of the Arctic Circle, 600 miles from London. We luck out with great weather and another incredible golf experience.

Cruden BayThe next day takes us to Cruden Bay, often referred to as a "hidden gem" and then we finish up at Kingsbarns before the ship finally docks in Edinburgh, Scotland.

That final day, when we played Kingsbarns, was a tough decision for many. Those who were not signed up to take the post-trip to St. Andrews, or had been there before, played golf while most of the rest opted for the tour to the home of golf. We were going there on our own after the cruise so we played Kingsbarns, and I am surely glad we did.

Located just six miles from St. Andrews and only open since 2000, this course is already gaining fame. It combines classic links elements with some elements of American golf, like large greens and irrigated fairways. Our only disappointment here was that it was foggy all day thus we saw only a fraction of its world-famous views.

Sea Cloud IIThis British Isles itinerary is just one of Kalos' varied offerings. Next year will see golf cruises on the Danube and Rhine rivers, along the coast of Spain, on the Riviera, in Northern Italy and elsewhere. The trips run from April through late September. The ships being used are the Sea Cloud, the Sea Cloud II, the Chardonnay and the River Cloud. Sign up as soon as possible because some cruises already are booked.

Kalos Golf was founded in 1994 and sends at least four staff members along with each cruise to take care of all arrangements including tee times, pairings, transportation to courses, lunches, bag handling and any other concerns of its customers. The company relies heavily on word-of-mouth to sell its trips.

These cruises are very high-end and designed for golfers who are seasoned travelers. They are also particularly good for couples in which one is a non-golfer.

The 2004 prices include ship accommodations, all golf, all tours, all transfers, all meals with wine at lunch and dinner and shipboard gratuities. About the only thing you have to pay for are extra drinks at the bar, caddy fees ($35 to $50 per round) and port charges.

In 2004, Kalos offers this British Isles itinerary from June 26-July 6 and August 10-20. Prices are from $6,135 per person double. All cabins on the Sea Cloud II are luxuriously appointed.

If there is anything to be disappointed about on this cruise, it was that we could not fully appreciate the sailing capabilities of the Sea Cloud II, as she was pressed into motoring to get us to our golf courses on schedule.

But then these cruises really are all about the golf.

Just the facts

Kalos Golf
1504 E. Franklin St., Suite 200
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514
Phone: (919) 942-3464
Fax: (919) 929-3326
kalosgolf.com
E-mail: info@kalosgolf.com
For more information on the ship, check seacloud.com.
For more information about golf in Scotland, check out visitscotland.com/golf and send for a copy of "The Official Guide to Golf in Scotland."

For Ireland, check out discovernorthernireland.com/golf or golfingireland.com or golf.ireland.ie.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.

Scotland Golf Package
Dates: April 1, 2014 - December 31, 2014
Play golf at Turnberry, Glasgow Gailes, Dundonald and Western Gailes. Includes five nights accommodation at the Gailes Hotel Irvine. Option to book additional or alternative golf is available. Includes auto-transmission, self-drive minivan. A Carr Golf Travel executive will assist in booking caddies, restaurants, sight-seeing options, etc.
Price range: £795
Scotland Golf Articles