By Karl Doyle
Golfers the world over are constantly yearning to find that one elusive thing – the perfect golfing holiday destination.
You work hard all year, and sometimes that focus on a little jaunt with pals to kick back and enjoy the game in sunny climes is the only thing that keeps things ticking over, keeps us sane.
But that promise of a variety of challenging layouts coupled with ideal temperatures – you know, not too hot, not too cold, almost NEVER raining – often appears slippery and uncatchable. Throw in the fact that you might also be searching for somewhere with excellent food options, decent infrastructure to help you get around and a place that is easily accessible and it becomes very rare indeed – almost like a Holy Grail for golfers, in fact.
Which is where a golfing pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Valencia comes in – which, as it happens, is where the real Holy Grail is purported to reside (more of which anon).
The climate here, we were reliably informed by almost everyone we met on our visit, is almost perfect all year round. Spring and summer? Sure, it IS Spain after all – but November through to March too? Apparently so – although you ‘might need a light jumper in the throes of January’s coldest days’, we were warned.
Being Irish, I could scarcely believe this was the worst that the winter weather could bring! Valencia is the country’s third largest city, and it somehow seems to like it that way. It’s as if Barcelona and Madrid are too big, too showy, too well known – and Valencia prides itself on being a little bit more cool and hip.
With good reason, it would seem. Later in the article I’ll talk about what the golf product on offer here is like, but you simply can’t mention the Valencia region without taking into account its unique cultural scene.
Ciudad de Las Artes
It’s truly an innovative place, with accomplishments such as diverting the city’s river to the outskirts and using the riverbed as a swathe of green for the denizens to enjoy typical of their ‘outside the box’ mindset.
The futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias dominates one part of this green space and is symbolic of the fresh, contemporary vibe that permeates the region. It is liberally festooned with eye-catching buildings, from Modernista designs to old-town structures that resemble classic paintings – and a stroll around the old quarter with its museums, cathedrals, local markets such as the huge Mercado Central and palette pleasing eateries might make you forget about taking on the links for a while.
Jamon in the local market
On the top of the list of these establishments is the magnificent, Michelin-starred Riff restaurant – where course after course flows seamlessly, each one accompanied by a glass of the appropriate wine for the delicate, individual flavours of each dish prepared by head chef Bernd Knoller – a gastronomic wizard if ever there was one - and his team. It’s a real treat dining here, and it’s as if the your meal is part of some grand dramatic culinary experience, in the best meaning of those words, rather than just being something to sate your appetite.
Before you head towards some of the magnificent courses in the region, it is certainly worthwhile taking the chance to see the aforementioned Holy Grail – yes, the real one - in the gothic masterpiece that is Valencia Cathedral.
The official papal chalice of many popes – most recently used by Pope Benedict XV1 in 2006 – it is revered almost worldwide as the true grail. Adorned by Arabic inscriptions and dating from early first century, who are we to argue the veracity of claims about this tiny chalice? Quite simply, don’t visit Valencia without seeing it.
Golf, however, is something we do know a bit about here at Destination Golf – so the next day we visited the wonderfully welcoming La Sella Golf Resort & Spa in Denia on our own particular pilgrimage.
La Sella Hotel
Warmly greeted by the managers of both the superb hotel and golf course on arrival, these two gentlemen clearly enjoy their job far more than is allowable. This air of friendliness and enthusiasm seems to permeate through every pore of the resort, and it made for one of the most enjoyable, if unfortunately brief, stays that I’ve had in recent years. Everyone from the bartenders to the restaurant and greenkeeping staff were clearly passionate about what they do. Working here is not a job, it seems, it’s a vocation.
After a look around the fabulous hotel, lunch was next on the menu (if you’ll excuse the pun) and there really was only one thing for it: paella.
Paella in La Sella Clubhouse
The dish is a Valencian speciality and everyone seems to have their own take on the ingredients to be used, but if you ever get to taste one like the dish served to us on the buzzing clubhouse terrace, well… the argument should be settled right then and there.
Delicious and authentic, I have dreamt about it since.
For dining options elsewhere, don’t miss a chance to sample the sumptuous fare on offer in La Tasca in nearby Jesus Pobre – a delightful, off-the-beaten-track, traditional town quite close to the resort, and a superb place to while away an evening with the locals.
So off to the course we went on our fleet of golf boards (possibly the future of golf course transport), relishing the challenge ahead - as envisioned by Jose Maria Olazabal himself.
It is situated in the idyllic Natural Park of Montgo – a lush, verdant area of dense forestry in Denia – so nature doesn’t hold back its charm here.
La Sella Golf
The course has three nine-hole layouts, each with varying degrees of difficulties and challenges. Coupled with an excellent choice of tees it can be varied to suit all levels of golfer, and the fact that it recently hosted the Ladies European Tour ‘Rookie Event’ is proof, if it were needed, that it can challenge even the very best ball strikers if a true test of mettle is warranted.
The first nine, Llebeig, takes its name from the warm Sahara wind and offers awesome views of the natural park through the tall pine trees framing the fairways. It doesn’t offer up any easy holes and will keep your mind concentrated firmly on the task at hand.
Gregal is the second nine and, while decidedly flatter and more open, brings substantially more water into play. Mestral, the third nine, takes its moniker from the famous cold wind that occasionally blows down through northern Europe – but it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. Its highest peaks provide you with exceptional views of the surroundings and the fairways and greens are a touch more accessible than the other nines. Its forgiveness can be a welcome change if you’re ‘A Game’ hasn’t travelled with you. Mine occasionally gets left at the airport baggage carousel.
A little seafaring jaunt on a catamaran with Catamarán de Mundo Marino around the Javea coast got our adventurous juices flowing again, and so we travelled onwards to take on La Galiana Golf while our take-on-the-world spirits were flowing. We had been warned we would need it.
La Galiana simply has to be played if you’re in the region. It is a roller-coaster thrill ride carved into the side of a mountain that nevertheless wears its eco-friendly badge proudly.
La Galiana Golf
It rises and falls all through a valley that has once again become a refuge for the local wildlife that called it home before its previous incarnation as agricultural land.
The course is a riot of colour and undulating, rocky terrain dotted with trees and shrubs, and the local flora and fauna can be distracting – such is its beauty. But those natural distractions must be banished from the golfer’s mind here – the course can be brutal if your concentration is lacking in any way.
La Galiana Golf
The array of tee set-ups can soften the edge a little to provide higher handicap golfers their chance to sample this superb design without intimidating too much, but whatever level you play at you just have to pick your target and commit to it. The eye-catching beauty all around you won’t help you totting up your score as you walk of the 18th hole, but it will certainly leave an indelible imprint in your memory.
Undoubtedly, the stand-out hole is the Par 4 15th, where you tee off from a height of 50 metres above green level to what looks like a narrow fairway (it’s actually quite wide but features a lake on the left and OB on the right). Feeling brave? Why not give the driver a rip and go for the green. However, the sensible play is a long iron to safety before tackling the well-protected green – that is, if you have managed to reach this far after factoring in the wind from the elevated tee. It really is a jaw-dropping hole.
Now if it’s the perfect marriage of beach holiday and golf that you’re looking for you might find just what you’re looking for at Oliva Nova Golf & Beach Resort. Designed by the late, great Seve Ballesteros in 1995, the course promises much of what you would expect from the Spanish golfing genius – but it is relatively flat and is therefore a pleasure to walk.
The tee-shots, for the most part, offer you a bit of comfort. This is a little unsurprising, as it was the one element of Seve’s game that he struggled with, but after that things require a bit more guile when approaching greens – actually, a LOT more guile. Again, that’s unsurprising - when you consider the great man’s wizardry when it came to the short game.
Oliva Nova Golf
The nearby sea is never spotted while you amble and plot your way around this perfectly maintained and gently undulating layout, but its soft breezes most certainly determine a great deal of your strategy.
And you won’t be found yearning for glimpses of water as you plot your way around – the 10 lakes dotted around the course may look pretty and oasis-like, but they are also hungry for errant golf balls. Steer clear of them and the perfect round of ‘holiday golf’ can really give you something to brag about over cocktails in the 19th or at the hipster beach bar after the game.
The stunning Oliva Nova Beach & Golf Resort calls itself ‘the resort of experiences’, and it is very hard to argue with that. Apart from treating yourself in the elegant Spa, you could also choose to try your hand at horse riding, football, tennis and paddle tennis, a cycle through the dunes or even rugby. (OK, rugby is not exactly the relaxation of choice for most of us, but such is the lure of Oliva Nova that many international rugby teams use this as an off-season base to locate to before the rough and tumble really starts).
Oliva Nova Clubhouse
The huge complex also offers a variety of accommodation options – from apartments, bungalows and stylish villas to the 205-room four star hotel overlooking the lagoon swimming pool – and all only a short stroll in your flip-flops to the gorgeous beach that the complex straddles.
It is no wonder the resort is hugely popular for those tying the knot – and as I previously mentioned it’s a match made in heaven for golfers looking to combine their hobby – their passion - with some serious R ‘n’ R.
Just say ‘I do’.
La Sella Golf Resort - http://www.laselladenia.com
La Galiana Campo de Golf - http://www.lagalianagolf.com
Oliva Nova Golf & Beach Resort - http://www.olivanova.com
Riff Restaurant - http://www.restaurante-riff.com
Catamaran boat trips - http://www.mundomarino.es