Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017

Looking out onto the Northumberland Strait, Cabot Links is a true links course with fast fairways and plenty of deep pot bunkers.

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A Celtic swing

From Canada's only true links course to Scottish shindigs and local whisky, Cape Breton offers golfers a Highland experience

My pal Shirley and I have just returned from our annual gal’s golf getaway. This year we chose Cape Breton Island where we played Cabot Links, the only true links course in Canada. Cabot Links alone is worth the trip, but there are plenty more stellar fairways and, along with fantastic golf, we also enjoyed friendly maritime hospitality, lip-smacking lobster suppers and kick-up-your-heels Celtic music.

Up until this summer if you wanted to play a true links course you had to fly to the British Isles or to Oregon’s Bandon Dunes. How fitting that the game that was born in Scotland has taken root in Inverness, Nova Scotia, first settled by Highland Scots in the 1800s and still a place with strong Celtic traditions.

What is a true links course? There is no definitive definition. It is the original golf course design, dating to the origins of the game, found in such courses as St. Andrews and Turnberry. Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland boast most of the planet’s links. Traditionally they were built on nonarable sandy oceanfront exposed to the salt and wind. Some links have minimal views of the sea and are as flat as pancakes; others run along towering dunes.

Authentic links constitute less than one percent of all courses on earth, yet this small collection includes nearly half of the best courses in existence.

Linked in

Whatever your definition, there is no doubt that Cabot Links (15933 Central Avenue, Inverness; tel: 855-652-2268; cabotlinks.com) is the “real McCoy.” It occupies a sandy coastal site that drains well, resulting in firm, fast fairways. Trees are few and far between allowing it to be scoured by wind. There are plenty of deep pot bunkers, and in almost all cases, approaches to greens are unobstructed, promoting bump-and-run shots. Greens are firm and hard to hold with lofted shots. The back nine has a dune-like landscape.

The par-70, 6803-yard course, designed by Albertan Rod Whitman, offers views of the sea from every hole. Looking out onto the course with the blue Northumberland Straits and Margaree Island with golden fescue rustling in the breeze, you’d swear you were in Scotland.

In keeping with links traditions, Cabot Links is planted from tees-to-greens with 100 percent fescue. Drop your first putt and you’ll be rewarded with the sound of it clinking into a tin cup. You don’t have to hire a caddy but I highly recommend it. Ours gave us lots of valuable tips, especially on the cleverly contoured greens.

Unless you have a medical condition, you do have to walk the course. And what a joy that is, especially around numbers 10 and 11 that play around MacIsaac’s Pond where lobster and crab boats bob in the harbour. Numbers 12 to 16 play right along the beach. With luck you’ll spot dolphins or whales while you practise your bump-and-runs, plus every other shot in the book. Number 14 will likely be the signature hole. A nod to the famed seventh at Pebble Beach, it’s a short 90-yard, par-three with a downhill pitch to a peninsula green jutting into the water.

Dining at the resort’s Panorama Restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the 18th is especially memorable as the sun sets into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Chefs John Haines and Tracy Wallace, a husband-and-wife team, make everything from scratch using the freshest local produce. Cabot Links recently won a Wine Spectator Award for its comprehensive list of vintages from around the world. There’s also an ample selection of single malts from the Highlands, Islay, Orkney and the Glenora Distillery (13727 Route 19, Glenville; tel:800-839-0491; glenoradistillery.com), just 10 minutes away.

Glenora, opened in 1990, is North America’s first single-malt whisky distillery. They too have a very good dining room and a lively pub where you can enjoy fiddle music most nights. True to the island's Scottish roots, you’re never far from some lively jigs, step or square dancing or a ceilidh (pronounced key-lee, it's Celtic for "gathering" which translates to kitchen party).

Acadian fairways

The next day we drove along the Cabot Trail through the French Acadian pocket on the west side of the island. We played the scenic 18 holes at Le Portage Golf Club (15580 Cabot Trail Road, Chéticamp; tel: 902-224-3338; leportagegolfclub.com), which was recently redesigned.

With its 60 bunkers and several ponds, Le Portage is a solid challenge that will require every club in your bag. Dave Deluzio, director of golf, explained that the coarser than usual bunker sand was brought in to withstand the up to 200-kilometre winds, called suêtes that sometimes funnel in through the Highlands.

Thankfully there were no gales the day we played. If fact, as we approached the ninth green, we looked across the Chéticamp Harbour to a communal pasture and saw cows wading by the shore. Deluzio explained, “if the cows are in the water, it’s going to be a scorcher.”

It was just six o’clock that night when we joined a steady stream of cars rolling toward the Barn at the Normaway Inn (691 Egypt Road, Inverness; tel: 800-565-9463; thenormawayinn.com), owned by Dave and Theresa Macdonald. Locals know you have to arrive early to get a seat at Dave’s Wednesday night ceilidh.

Such local talent as Ashley MacIssac and Rita MacNeil have filled Dave’s barn. After the fiddling and folk songs comes the dancing. It was well past midnight when we finally left the floor and the joint was still jumping.

En route to Highlands Links, we stopped off at some of Chéticamp’s craft shops. At the Sunset Folk Centre (15856 Cabot Trail, Chéticamp; tel: 902-224-1831; sunsetartgallery.ca) I met wood folk artist, William Roach, who carves whimsical pieces such as a purple moose wearing yellow rubber boots. Next door at the centre's Frog Pond Café we bought coffee and fresh pastries made by some local Buddhist monks and sat on a patio where a local gent strummed the harp.

In Pleasant Bay, we took a two-hour whale-watching excursion with Captain Mark (tel: 888-754-5112; whaleandsealcruise.com) on his 42-foot research vessel. Squadrons of pilot whales swam within feet of the ship. The captain turned on the sonar so we could hear their cries underwater. Some locals recommended that we stop at picturesque Neil’s Harbour for our daily fix of shellfish at The Chowder House (Neil's Harbour; tel: 902-336-2463). They make a mean lobster club.

Highland views

If you grew up in this countryside you’d be forever homesick for it, I thought as we entered Cape Breton Highlands National Park and followed the Cabot Trail — nature’s masterpiece of windswept coastlines, rugged highlands, steep canyons and craggy cliffs. We were en route to Highlands Links (147 Keltic Inn Road, Ingonish; tel: 800-441-1118; highlandslinksgolf.com) which was rated number one in Canada in 2006 by SCORE Golf Magazine and one of the world’s top 100.

No golfer within driving range of Highlands should miss this national treasure, even though it's not a true links course. The late Scotsman Stanley Thompson (also the architect of the Banff Springs and Jasper courses), claimed that God designed Highlands and that he merely discovered it.

Each memorable hole on Thompson’s so-called “mountains and ocean” course bears a Scottish name. Highlands is ingeniously routed from rocky headlands to secluded wooded glens with stunning mountain and sea views, brilliant bunkering and rarely a flat lie. Number 16, Sair Fecht (Hard Work) is an uphill battle on a fairway full of baby moguls.

Highlands Links was the first Audubon Certified Course in Atlantic Canada, so don’t be surprised if you spot a bald eagle overhead or a fox takes off with your ball.

For whom the ball rolls

Next stop, Baddeck and the Bell Bay Golf Club (761 Highway 205, Baddeck; tel: 800-565-3077; bellbaygolfclub.com) selected as the “Best New Course in Canada” by Golf Digest in1998), named after the village’s most famous resident, Alexander Graham Bell. Both high and low handicappers love the generous fairways and meticulous manicuring, exactly what Canadian architect Thomas McBroom intended.

McBroom saved the most dramatic terrain for his final four holes: 15 is a demanding 470-yard par-four; 16 requires precision as it plays though a densely wooded fissure; 17 is an intimidating par-three across a ravine with a sloping green; 18, the signature hole, is a long par-five with a tee shot view of the village of Baddeck, the Great Bras d’Or Lakes and Bell Bay where Alexander Graham Bell and his family lived.

Just down the hill, at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site (Baddeck; pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ns/grahambell/index.aspx) we learned more about the man and his amazing inventions that include the telephone, man-carrying kites, a hydrofoil boat and his experimental airplane, the Silver Dart. Being a true Scotsman, Bell built a par-four and two greens on his estate.

Later, we followed our noses to Baddeck Lobster Suppers (17 Ross Street, Baddeck; tel: 902-295-3307; baddecklobstersuppers.ca), where maple planked salmon was sizzling over an applewood fire. I ordered a gigantic lobster and all-you-can-eat seafood chowder, mussels, rolls, salads and desserts. Some local experts at the next table gave me a crustacean-cracking lesson and invited us to the nightly summer Baddeck Gathering Ceilidh (Main Street, Baddeck; tel: 902-295-0971; baddeckgatheringceilidh.blogspot.ca) at St. Michael’s Parish Hall. The snug room, hung with quilts was packed. Two local musicians, a fiddler and a piano player, regaled us with toe-tappin’ tunes and local lore. We also got a square dancing lesson from manager Nancy MacLean before the break when we sampled oatcakes and a strong cup of King Cole tea, the preferred brew of Cape Bretoners.

The Lakes and lobster

Last but certainly not least, we hit Cape Breton’s newest course, The Lakes Golf Club (5101 East Bay, Highway 4, Ben Eoin; tel: 902-828-4653; thelakesgolfclub.ca) at Ben Eoin (pronounced yawn). Opened in 2010 and designed by Graham Cooke, this 6970, par-72 beauty confirms my opinion that there are no cookie-cutter courses on Cape Breton.

Slopes and elevations changes take golfers on a merry romp over several brooks and plateaus. From the hugely elevated tees on number six, you’ll have marvellous views of the sailboats on the Bras d’Or Lakes. The tees are dotted with colourful Muskoka (or should I say Cape Breton?) chairs in case you want to pause awhile and soak up the vistas.

We stayed next door at the Birches and dined in their Malcolm’s Dining Room where young chef, Ron MacNeil, dazzled us with such creations as lobster sous vide with vanilla-infused mashed potatoes, a velvety saffron lobster bisque and coconut-lime cheesecake.

In Cape Breton, Shirley and I discovered the ideal recipe for a serendipitous golf vacation: play a new course every day and don’t keep score, consume lobster at least once a day, take in a local ceilidh every evening and hit the sack with happy tunes dancing in your head.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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