The broad plain of the Algarve occupies the whole of Portugal's southern coast, but as recently as thirty years ago the only golf courses on the premises were made of oil and sand. Portugal in the sixties hadn't yet been incorporated into the magic kingdom of late-twentieth-century tourism, and the hoteliers in the Algarve offered golf as mere amusement, a distraction as trifling as quoits or bumper pool for the holiday crowds enjoying what was then the cheapest beach vacation in Europe. The south coast was for the most part unimproved, the long shoreline--approximately 100 miles west to east from Cabo de São Vicente to the Spanish frontier--as empty as the winter horizon. Like the fishing quays at Albufeira and Portimão, the picturesque towns of Lagos and Sagres looked much as they had when they served as fifteenth-century ports of embarkation for the small wooden ships sailing in search of new sea routes to the Indies.
When the scenery began to change in the late sixties, the first rush of land speculation circumvented the nuisance of building and environmental codes. Within a matter of five or six years, so much construction was in progress that the directors of the region's tourist traffic began to worry about destroying the wonders of nature from which they fashioned their postcards and handsome returns on investment. What if the southern coast of Portugal turned into another vulgar ruin?What then?
Fortunately for all concerned, somebody mentioned golf. Golf was a game played by rich people, and if the Algarve could be reconfigured as a golfer's garden of earthly delights (something along the lines of Peter Pan's Neverland or Henry Adams's "banker's Olympus"), maybe the money could be made at the high end of the tourist trade. Sir Henry Cotton, a retired British Open champion, had designed the first of the region's courses at Penina in 1966, supervising its construction while seated on the donkey that he also employed as his caddie. The success of Cotton's enterprise encouraged the authorities to think of the game as a means of aligning environmental concerns with commercial interests, and the golf architects began with the advantages of a warm sun, exotic birds and the same flowering trees--orange, fig, oleander, almond--believed to have bloomed in Eden.
By 2000 they had completed twenty-odd courses. On being given the chance recently to review them, I came first to the question of what constituted a fair measure of judgment. So many golf courses have been set up in so many parts of the world over the last thirty years (advancing different principles of design, different intimations of immortality) that it's hard to know how to rate the several theories of the good, the true and the beautiful. Before leaving New York, I looked through a number of books on the subject. Because most of the Algarve courses had been built by Englishmen, I thought it fair to rely on the authority of Dr. Alister MacKenzie. He published a slim volume in 1920 under the simple title Golf Architecture (reprinted in 1987, with a foreword by Herbert Warren Wind and an afterword by my father). MacKenzie believed in the supremacy of mind over matter and regarded a well-made golf course as "largely a question of the spirit in which the problem is approached. Does the player look upon it from the 'card and pencil' point of view and condemn anything that has disturbed his steady series of threes and fours, or does he approach the question in 'the spirit of adventure' of the true sportsman?"
Taking the doctor's point, I also took his book to Portugal. This proved to be a lucky choice, for on the early-morning plane from London to Faro I found myself seated across the aisle from a British golfer whose home course was the one that MacKenzie had designed at Moortown. The man busied himself with his newspapers during the first two hours of the flight, clearly indicating that he didn't wish to be disturbed.
But when he saw that I was reading MacKenzie's chapter titled "Ideal Holes," he extended me the privilege of his acquaintance. As a general rule, he said, he didn't speak to Americans--too many of them turn out to be the kind of people who talk too much about wedge shots gone missing in a pond --but anybody who knew enough to know MacKenzie clearly could be trusted to bear in silence the misfortune of a dead stymie behind a eucalyptus tree.
"One's own damned fault, of course," he said. "Like a poorly played marriage."
"Stroke and distance," I said, and then, after a pause of maybe two or three minutes, long enough to signify disdain for the card-and-pencil point of view, ". . . same as an expensive divorce."
The economy of the remark enlisted my companion's confidence, and before the plane reached Faro he'd named the golf courses in the Algarve that he thought worthy of an approach in "the spirit of adventure." He owned a property at Vilamoura, had played a round at Vale do Lobo with Cotton and the donkey, and thought that the real estate speculation on the coast had inclined too many of the natives toward the corrupting worship of Mammon.
"The Portuguese know three hundred and sixty-five ways to cook a codfish," he said. "A different recipe for every day of the year. They also know three hundred and sixty-five ways to stuff a tourist."
Knowing nothing about the several hotels that I'd seen illustrated in the travel brochures, I had arranged to stay at Hotel Quinta do Lago on the assumption that the expense ($195, out of season) guaranteed a view of the Algarve from one of its more favorable points of vantage. The road from the airport at Faro turns off the highway at Almancil, wanders for a few miles among rows of signs--in German, English and Portuguese--advertising properties at bargain rates, passes a number of campgrounds and threadbare restaurants, and in a matter of no more than thirty minutes comes to the entrance of a two-thousand-acre estate similar to the upscale resort communities in the States.
The hotel is recently renovated, owned by Orient-Express (which also owns the Cipriani in Venice and 21 in New York City) and built in such a way that it agrees with the lie of the land, the architecture fitted into the face of a steep embankment fronting on the beach, almost all of the glass and cantilevered concrete impossible to see from the road. (Most of the hotels in the Algarve stand within the boundaries of similarly large plantations.) The management goes to considerable trouble to make good on its promise of an escape from the world of death and time with a spa and heated swimming pools, an Italian chef in the two restaurants, the stillness of polished marble and the reassurance of burnished wood, and a view of fishing boats on the horizon that might have been painted by van Gogh. The young ladies at the golf desk discuss the fine points of the many courses in the region, arrange tee times, provide transportation, complete foursomes. Basically, they do everything except line up the putts.
Heeding The Words Of My Companion on the plane, I first played the three courses that he thought deserving of MacKenzie's approval. They proved to be the best of the eight courses that I saw over a period of four days, each of them so arranged that in reply to the doctor's leading question, "What kind of difficulties make interesting golf?" they presented three splendid variants of his own answer:
"We can, I think, eliminate difficulties consisting of long grass, narrow fairways and small greens, because of the annoyance and irritation caused by searching for lost balls, the disturbance of the harmony and continuity of the game, the consequent loss of freedom of swing and the production of bad players."
The San Lorenzo course lies within both the Quinta do Lago estate and the Ria Formosa Natural Park, which encompasses around 45,000 acres of wetlands protected by the Portuguese government as a refuge for migrating birds. Designed by William "Rocky" Roquemore and Joseph Lee and rated among the three best on the European continent, the course makes wonderful use of what MacKenzie would have recognized as "the innocent and natural undulations of the ground," the fairways wide enough to suggest alternate routes to the bottle-shaped greens, the distances from the back tees not oppressively long. The justly famous home hole borders the far shore of a lake, which presents itself as a hazard to the golfer but not to the birds that rest among its reeds. I saw sultana chickens, egrets and purple gallinules. The gentlemen in my group mentioned prior sightings of storks, hoopoes and an Egyptian vulture.
The Vilamoura plantation spreads across more than four thousand acres and provides the conveniences of a yacht basin, a small airport and a gambling casino. Of its four golf courses, the best is The Old Course, completed in 1969 and designed by Frank Pennink. The feeling is that of an English park, graceful and calm, the umbrella pine trees now grown to stately heights and the bunkers placed in such a way as to bear out MacKenzie's observation about the like-mindedness of the golf architect and the camoufleur: "Surprise is the most important thing in war, and by camouflage you are able to attain this not only on the defence but in the attack." The pine between the tee and the green at the 178-yard, par-three fourth forces the player to carry the ball directly over it and so deploys an otherwise "innocent-looking feature of the landscape" in a manner likely to "give pleasurable excitement to the golfer" and restore "confidence and improvement in the morale to the solider."
The third course that I thought exceptional is the one Cotton built in 1968 on the edge of the sea at Vale do Lobo. The adjacent real estate development has since been greatly enlarged, allowing for the construction of another eighteen holes, myriad holiday villas and the Le Meridien Dona Filipa. The two golf courses have been formed with combinations of older and newer holes, but those designed by Cotton--most magnificently the par-three sixteenth on the Royal course (a carry of 224 yards across a precipice of honey-colored cliffs)--satisfy MacKenzie's definition of the ideal hole: "One that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, gives the fullest advantage for accurate play, stimulates players to improve their game, and never becomes monotonous."
Within the span of a week I managed to play another five courses, all but one in the eastern Algarve. On the Quinta do Lago course, most of the approach shots must be played uphill to a blind green, and despite some fine effects on both the front and back nines, the steepness of the fairways forces the use of a cart, which, as MacKenzie would have guessed, disturbs "the harmony and the continuity of the game." The courses at Vila Sol and Pinheiros Altos also present a number of fine holes, but not enough of them to warrant the doctor's unqualified praise.
By the end of the third day I discovered why I never had any trouble arranging a tee time and why I seldom needed more than three and one-half hours to play a round. Because the weather in late November and early December can turn wet and cold, the agencies that book golf tours send their clients to the Caribbean. But if it so happens that the skies stay blue and warm (as they did when I was on the coast), then the fortunate traveler from the land of death and time stumbles, "from a golfing point of view," into the best possible world. The starters greet the new arrival as if welcoming a long-lost friend, and the golfer who hits a poor shot from a fairway or a tee can recover his faith in a just Providence with the playing of a second ball.
The local attitude toward tourists, however, didn't need much explanation. If the Portuguese know 365 ways to prepare a codfish, they also know 365 ways to cook mullet, prawns, lobster, tuna and bream, and they don't make fine distinctions between the different species of golfer that comprise the day's catch at the airport in Faro. All are welcome; all can be accommodated. For those who don't play golf, the Algarve offers the full complement of lesser attractions (hang gliding, horseback riding, tennis), as well as shopping, arcades, discotheques, Roman ruins and an assortment of restaurants famous not only for fish but for the native wines and sweet desserts made with eggs and almonds.
On Friday I Drove The Entire length of the two-lane highway from Faro to Cabo de São Vicente with the hope of maybe playing the courses at Palmares or Penina. A few miles west of Portimão the road begins to look as if it is running backward in time. Fishing villages take the place of hotels; the trees on the parched hillsides dwindle into gorse bushes; at the outdoor tables of the roadside cafés, old men in wool caps drink coffee and play dominos, their donkeys tethered to the signs promising miracles of real estate development as yet unseen in Heaven or on earth. Between Portimão and Lagos I stopped at Penina, the original Sir Henry Cotton course (now equipped with a first-class Le Meridien hotel). A tournament was in progress, but from what I could tell by looking at the map on the card, the design resembles Vale do Lobo's Ocean course, with its similarly treacherous arrangement of bunkers and multiple angles of approach on the long, doglegged holes.
Another thirty miles west, I came upon Parque da Floresta, a golfing plantation built in 1987. I played the round with Gary Silcock, a Scotsman employed as the resident teaching professional who hoped to become a golf architect. An admirer of MacKenzie's precepts, Silcock thought that despite two fine finishing holes, the steepness of almost all of Parque da Floresta's slopes asked the player for "too much walking between greens and tees."
After our round, enough light lingered in the sky to warrant the fifteen-mile drive west to Cabo de São Vicente. I don't remember ever having seen a more majestic sight, the sea surge bursting into tumults of white foam and rising to heights of two hundred feet against the somber headland at the westernmost edge of Europe. Slightly to the south and cast in poetic outline by the angle of the setting sun, I could see the fifteenth-century castle on the cliffs at Sagres, where Henry the Navigator commissioned a college of mapmaking astrologers to find the way to the Indies and the Americas.
Five hundred years later, the cartographers of the Algarve have come up with a different set of coordinates for the location of the earthly Paradise--man-made instead of God-given, the province of greenskeepers instead of a promise from priests. The wind shifted into the north as the last light dropped below the horizon, and by the time I again passed through Lagos, it had begun to rain. In the darkness on both sides of the road, at least five new golf courses were under construction. On the evidence of what I had seen during four days of extraordinary luck with both the wine and the weather, I thought it safe to infer that the builders had in mind the same prescription against age and mortality once recommended by Dr. MacKenzie:
"How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, have I seen them in my consulting-rooms again!"
The Algarve lies west of Spain at the southwestern tip of Europe. It averages three hundred sunny days a year. Fly into Lisbon or London and change planes to Faro, the provincial capital; Continental (800-525-0280), British Airways (800-247-9297) and TAP Air Portugal (800-221-7370) have connecting flights. For more info, visit www.algarve-golf.com or portugal.org, or call the Portuguese Golf Federation at 011-351-214-12-3780, or the Algarve Office of Tourism at 011-351-289-80-0400.
Where To Play
All of the Algarve's courses insist on proper dress and proof of competence (handicaps often no higher than twenty-eight for men and thirty-six for women). Most clubs don't supply caddies, but some will provide one with advance warning. Algarve Golfe (011-351-289-39-1030), a regional association, offers a thirty-day "passport" for reduced green fees at select courses; numerous hotels also offer discount golf packages.
Quinta do Lago, Vale do Lobo, 8135 Almancil.
T&L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
On the Quinta do Lago estate, the San Lorenzo is among the top courses in Europe. Par/Yardage: 72/6,822. Green fees: $117 public; $34 Dona Filipa and Penina guests. Architects: Joseph Lee and William Roquemore. Phone: 011-351-289-39-6522.
The Old Course, Vilamoura, 8125 Quarteira.
T&L GOLF Rating: ****
Host to the 1979 Portuguese Open, the classic design is situated over gently sloping hills, with pinewoods lining the narrow fairways. Par/Yardage: 73/6,839. Green fees: $85 public; $53 resort. Architect: Frank Pennink. Phone: 011-351-289-310-341.
Vale Do Lobo
Ocean and Royal courses, Vale do Lobo, 8135-864 Almancil.
T&L GOLF Rating: ***1/2 (Ocean)
T&L GOLF Rating: **** (Royal)
The Ocean's a tight, scenic layout; the Royal is set more inland and is more difficult. Par/Yardage: 71/5,932 (Ocean); 72/6,616 (Royal). Green fees: $75 (Ocean); $93 (Royal); lower for some resort guests. Architects: Ocean, Sir Henry Cotton; Royal, Sir Henry Cotton and William Roquemore. Phone: 011-351-289-39-3939.
Quinta Do Lago
Quinta do Lago Course, Quinta do Lago, 8135-024 Almancil.
T&L GOLF Rating: ***
Host to seven Portuguese Opens, the course winds through umbrella pines and around water hazards. Par/Yardage: 72/7,095. Green fees: $84 public; $55 resort. Architect: William Mitchell. Phone: 011-351-289-39-0700.
Meia Praia, 8600 Lagos.
T&L GOLF Rating: ****
A combination of beach views and mountain landscapes makes it one of the more scenic courses. Par/Yardage: 71/6,519. Green fee: $47 public. Architect: Frank Pennink. Phone: 011-351-282-76-2953.
Le Meridien Penina Golf & Resort, 8501-952 Portimão.
T&L GOLF Rating: ***1/2
The Championship course was the first built in the Algarve. Par/Yardage: 73/7,042. Green fees: $72 public; $28 resort. Architect: Sir Henry Cotton. Phone: 011-351-282-42-0200.
Where To Stay
Most resorts have restaurants, swimming pools and tennis courts, and will book anything from tee times to massages. Prices vary by season, and promotional packages and discounts on golf are available.
Hotel Quinta Do Lago
Quinta do Lago, 8135-024 Almancil; 011-351-289-35-0350 (www.quintadolagohotel.com).
With 132 rooms and nine suites, this is luxury at its finest. Surrounded by 1,700 acres of forest, the hotel has a reserved beach area, a gym, a spa and baby-sitting. Rooms: $168-$355. Suites: $234-$1,871.
Hotel De Lagos
Rua Antonio Crisogonos dos Santos, 8600 Lagos; 011-351-282-76-9967.
This first-class hotel is set in its own gardens on three hilltop acres. Amenities include health club, live music and beach access. Rooms: $75-$123. Suites: $112-$171.
Le Meridien Dona Filipa
Vale do Lobo, 8136-901 Almancil; 011-351-289-35-7200.
Set on 450 acres, this is Vale do Lobo's flagship--tasteful furnishings and beautiful grounds. It has 154 rooms and a fabulous children's club. Rooms: $145-$350. Suites: $275-$1,400.
Le Meridien Penina Golf &Amp; Resort
8501-952 Portimão Codex, 011-351-282-42-0200.
The 196-room Penina is set between the old fishing town of Portimão and historic Lagos. Amenities include Penguin Village, a delight for children. Rooms: $99-$205. Suites: $178-$365.
Where To Eat
Portugal is known for its seafood. You simply can't leave without sampling the sardines (charcoal grilled with sea salt) and tuna (grilled in thick steaks). Another regional specialty is white bean stew, a delicious combination of seafood, bacon, sausage and white beans. As for drink, be sure to sample the port, as well as the vinho verde (green wine).
Quinta do Lago; 011-351-289-39-4983. $$$
Once a century-old farmhouse, it sits on a hillside overlooking a lake. Offerings include shellfish soup, smoked ham patanegre and rack of lamb.
Marinotel, Vilamoura, 8126-901 Quarteira Codex; 011-351-289-38-9988. $$$
This elegant drinking and dining establishment offers a variety of grilled fish and meats with a French emphasis.
Estrada Almancil, Vale do Lobo; 011-351-289-39-4329. $$$$
This cozy place also occupies an old farmhouse. It serves international entrées such as open ravioli filled with lobster.
Rua da Ribeira N91, Ferragudo, 8400 Lagos. 011-351-282-461-592. $$
Specializing in seafood, Sueste offers excellent grilled fish, as well as clams and shrimp doused in garlic sauce.
Horseback Riding: Many hotels will arrange rides for you. Also try Centro Hipico Pinetrees at 011-351-289-39-4369.
Beaches: In Vilamoura, Praia da Marina is at the Marinotel; the other is Praia da Falésia. Twenty-seven miles from Faro is Armação de Pêra.
Also: Fishing, waterskiing, windsurfing, sailing, scuba diving and hiking are available (ask at your hotel). And the Algarve is home to three casinos: Vilamoura, Monte Gordo and Praia da Rocha.