North Portugal’s Golf is a hit with Brits

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“Links that make you think, spectacular mountain courses and hospitality fit for a gentleman´s Club”

  • Ian Pemble finds value for money in Oporto, North Portugal”.

Although I went to North Portugal to play some golf, two of the best things about the trip had nothing to do with the Royal and Ancient game.

The first is that Ryanair fly there from Stansted. Not the most convenient airport for the West Country admittedly, but cheap as chips. At Porto the airline has made part of the terminal its very own, complete with cafe/bar, Duty free shop and so on.

The other reason is that my trip was arranged by an English businessman based in Porto called Peter Evens (pronounced Evans). His company is called PortGolf – but he can organise a complete itinerary, including sight-seeing, water sports, an equestrian centre, go-karting, trips to a famous port lodge (including tastings), dinner at a casino with cabaret, and much more. He also caters for the whole family and those who don¹t want to needn’t go anywhere near a golf course.

But I did; and not only were the courses great fun ¬they were practically deserted. Apart from weekends, expect millionaire¹s golf with the course to yourself.

I played at three clubs and, for those of you impressed by looks, let¹s get the beauty contest over with first.

Estela, the links course, is not the most attractive. Sadly the beach is masked by an ugly, wire-topped fence – few sea views here – and inland there is low-level agricultural land. Although there were plenty of pumpkins and water melons, it mostly reminded me of UK allotments.

The other two, both carved out of mountain greenery, are much prettier.

Amarante is probably the best designed, certainly in terms of using the space available, and offers a testing layout with lots of scenery to admire between holes.

There are scary blind shots off the first and third tees, a couple of lakes surrounded by greens (but it feels like the other way round) and a few other memorable challenges. The 18th is an up-hill monster par 5, and the fourth is a dogleg-right par 4 with a second shot to a tricky green.
This is nicknamed the volcano: it’s round with a flat top and any ball that doesn’t stop on the short stuff disappears off the front, back or sides.

The most spectacular course has to be Ponte de Lima.

The back nine is fairly traditional parkland with lakes and several ditches to contend with. But the front nine is a wonder to behold. The holes seemed to be individually carved out of the pine forest so that, although a glance at the map shows parallel fairways, they are so far apart any push or pull with leave you deep in the trees.

The signature hole is the par-4 ninth. The tee is at the highest part of the course and you have to aim for a landing area about 200 feet below you. From there it’s another downhill shot to a green guarded by water and, if your drive was too far left, it¹s a blind shot over some trees.

Which was the best course? Estela, funnily enough. But then I am a sucker for links golf.

On man-made courses such as Amarante and Ponte de Lima the architect has decreed that, on a par 4, you will aim your drive thus and so. If, like me, you are not a long hitter, you won¹t reach any fairway bunkers and your second shot will leave you short of the green, say about 70 yards. You then have no choice but to fly the ball over bunkers, or lakes, or both.

On a links course that 70-yard third shot might well be towards a green guarded by nothing more threatening than the grassed-over swales and hollows of the original dunes. So you can make a perfectly good case for using any iron in your bag, from putter to sand wedge. Do you roll it all the way, punch in a low one, or fly it to the edge of the green? You could even smack the ball straight up into the air and hope it drops, hops and stops by the hole.

With so many choices, I usually end up making the wrong one – or playing the right one badly. Links golf makes you think and that, for me, is the real challenge of the game.

All in all it was a memorable experience and I honestly believe that, if I hadn¹t played any golf at all, there were enough other attractions to made the trip worthwhile – and even better for the non-golfers in the family!

Accommodation: I stayed at the British Club, or the Oporto Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club to give it its full name. And it really is a little bit of Britain, founded in 1855 and tucked away behind big gates and a long drive, yet right in the middle of the city.

The rooms are comfortable and well appointed and the decor throughout is very Gentleman’s Club with wood panelling everywhere. The food is restaurant quality, with generous bar snacks (naturally there’s a full English breakfast on offer), and the bar serves drinks at very reasonable prices. The night I was there the expats gathered to watch the England vs. Austria football match on a big screen in the bar and I felt most at home.

However, Peter can arrange for accommodation from cheap-and-cheerful to five-star luxury. Everywhere you visit, he will have been there first to sample it himself and he prides himself on getting the best possible service for his customers.

For example, I had to skip my trip to the port lodge, so I gave him 30 euros and asked him to get me a good deal on some bottles of port. I was expecting him to come back with 30 euros worth of port. Instead I got exactly what I asked for: two bargain bottles and 15 euros change. I¹ve never before met anyone who is more careful with my money than I am.

The courses:
Ponte de Lima; 6,006 metres, par 71, mountainous forest, spectacular views, hotel at the course:

Amarante: 5,085 metres, par 68, mountainous parkland, spectacular views:

Estela: 6,017 metres, par 72, classic links, no views to speak of (so concentrate on your golf):

Please note: These are merely the three courses I had time to visit.
Portgolf can also offer trips to three more 18-hole courses, including one across the border in Spain, and several smaller courses with one in the centre of Porto itself.

Getting there: Ryanair seem to have the cheap-flights-to-Porto market sewn up. Be aware that hand luggage is strictly limited (coming back I put my laundry in the golf bag to leave room for a few bottles of port). My return flight was £43, with an extra £34 for the golf clubs. At least Stansted is easy enough to get to via the M4/M25/M11 or by train via London Paddington/tube/London Liverpool Street.

As for your trip, talk to Peter Evens at Portgolf. He will plan a trip (including giving you advanced warning of any cheap flights available) to match your own specifications and budget, meet you at the airport, ferry you around, and wave goodbye from the airport. Thoroughly recommended.

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