I’ve encountered some strange things on golf trips to South Africa – from the longest and highest par 3 in the world at the Legend Golf & Safari Resort, to a stray hippo bathing in my hotel swimming pool. This really is a country that makes a golf holiday a true adventure.
Wherever you go to play you will return with a hatful of talking points to share with friends in your own club’s 19th hole.
If you have returned from the Legend, for example, you will be able to tell the tale of your daredevil exploits in teeing off on the unique Extreme 19th hole.
After a round on its championship course, where zebra and antelope wander across the fairways, you can take on the Extreme, the longest and most scary golf hole in the world played from a tee perched 400m up on the side of a mountain reachable only by helicopter.
It’s anecdotes like these that make the long flight so worthwhile and it is not surprising that golfers from all over the world are travelling to South Africa in increasing numbers to enjoy the holiday of a lifetime. The largest number visit from the UK, most taking advantage of the great weather between November and April, as well as the relatively inexpensive golf and cost of living.
Most visitors tend to travel around, either by self-drive or in organised groups, following the numerous scenic routes combining fantastic golf with visits to wine farms, gourmet restaurants, and safari parks.
Golf tourist specialists say South Africa appeals to their more adventurous clients. David Sledmere, director of golf travel at Elegant Golf Resorts said: “South Africa is a destination many people have never had the chance to experience. While it may seem a step into the unknown and perceived as ‘out of the comfort zone’ it is a destination that rewards those who take this exciting leap. It appeals to the adventurous person who likes to explore on their holiday, travel not just to one venue but three or four.”
Guy Brown of Supertravel Golf says the reasonable prices makes touring a good option. He said: “A big advantage of a holiday to South Africa is that the Rand is one of few currencies whose exchange rate has actually improved for British visitors over recent years which is welcome news as no South African holiday would be complete without experiencing the quality and variety of the country’s food and wine to the full. This value also extends to the golf courses, as the vast majority of clubs offer green fees far below the levels found at many other popular destinations around the world.”
It appears that Nelson Mandela’s death in December hasn’t put people off visiting the country.
Scott Edkins, director of Ascot Tours, South Africa’s leading in-bound tour operator believes the reverse will be true. He said: “The legacy of Mandela is probably stronger now that it has been. South Africa should see a mini boom of ‘Mandela Tourists’ over the next 12 months and the spin off of this will be felt in all sectors including golf.”
The game is very well established in the country and there are plenty of courses to choose from. They are generally very well maintained, fairly priced, extremely varied and usually situated in drop-dead gorgeous locations. It is customary to have a compulsory short stop at the halfway house on most courses and lunch is sometimes included in the green fee. Some courses also insist on players taking a caddie (£15 maximum including tip, plus his lunch). It is worth noting that many reserve Saturdays for members.
Cape Town and the Garden Route on the edge of the Indian Ocean to the east are the most popular destinations. A road trip, combining the two, offers a little bit of everything providing a wonderful golf touring holiday.
If you have 12-14 days an ideal circular road trip would start and finish in Cape Town, with the tour taking in winelands; Knysna, in the heart of the Garden Route; George, the home of the fabled Fancourt resort; Mossel Bay and Hermanus.
This provides the opportunity to play some memorable golf courses, enjoy fantastic mountain scenery, sample a game drive, admire some awesome beaches – and depending on season – spot whales and penguins.
Cape Town itself is a city of surprises. Everybody who visits this old colonial trading post is overwhelmed by its beauty, cultural interest and vibrancy. If you stay on the reclaimed V&A Waterfront staying at a top class hotel such as the Table Bay or the Victoria & Alfred you will be able take in the shops, restaurants and be able to walk around safely at night.
While you are there – between two to four days is recommended – you must ensure you take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain to take in the wonderful views.
You can get your first taste of golf by playing on one of the several courses within easy reach of the city.
Just 20 minutes drive to the south with fine views of the Table Mountain range is Westlake, the most popular members’ golf club in the area. Visitors however are welcomed pay about £38 for a round and it is flat enough to walk. Scott Edkins recommends this as a starter course after a long flight, but do not be lulled into thinking it is a push-over despite its easy natured parkland layout, with little trouble apart from the trees.
From here you should drive to the winelands, and there is plenty of choice. The nation’s primary wine growing areas including Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek are all within an hour’s drive of Cape Town and they have nearby golf courses. Framed by stunning mountain scenery they support small historic market towns packed with gourmet restaurants and independent shops. Most of the wineries offer tastings, so an overnight stay allows you to play golf in the morning, taste wine after lunch and then sample South African dining at its best.
Golfers can head to Ernie Els Wines near Stellenbosch to view Ernie’s bulging trophy room and enjoy a steak lunch with wine tasting for about £10 a head.
Those with a sweet tooth would find an irresistible tasting at the nearby Bilton estate whose wines are paired with chocolate to demonstrate how well they work together.
Close to the posh suburb of Constantia lies the Steenberg Estate, complete with its exclusive and extremely well manicured course running around a mountain stream, vineyards and some very expensive properties. Designed by Peter Matkovich, it is fun to play and is consistently named one of the best-conditioned courses in South Africa Golf Digest’s annual Top 100. Priority and special green fee rates are given to hotel guests and members but it is also open to the public. The estate’s hotel and restaurants are stunning and its winemaking is legendary.
Not far away to the north east is De Zalze Golf Club, nestling in the heart of the Stellenbosch winelands. Another Peter Matkovich course, with wide fairways, excellent greens and several challenging holes it is a very welcoming venue where the holes are named after local wines. Beware of the large, mature oak standing on the left hand side of the 18th fairway – it is aptly named after former Liverpool FC goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar for its unerring ability to catch balls! De Zalze is the first Fairtrade accredited golf club in the world, employing local people and using local products. Visitors can stay in self-catering golf lodges situated by the side of the first fairway, allowing them enjoy the local wines from Kleine Zalze to best effect.
The road trip could then take you out towards the Garden Route along the N2, an easy-going, well maintained dual carriageway passing ostrich farms and delightful scenery.
To break the journey I would recommend spending the night at the private Gondwana Game Reserve, just 25 miles from Mossel Bay. It’s the only fynbos reserve in the world that’s home to the free roaming Big Five as well as endangered species such as Cape mountain zebra and black rhino.
The pretty seaside town of Knysna is the furthest point away from Cape Town on this trip and its time for some more golf. A few days spent here will be rewarding and golf at the Pezula Championship Course and the Simola Golf & Country Estate is a must. Both resorts have stunning panoramic views and each feature excellent, high quality hotels.
High on a promontory overlooking Knysna lagoon is the luxurious Pezula Resort, complete with a rolling golf course and a stunning Conrad hotel. Golf here is an absolute delight. The views of the Indian Ocean are to die for and the course is varied, featuring plenty of interesting holes. One unusual hazard is the resident baboons. While providing a talking point they can be a menace. Golfers are advised not to take food on their cart or bag as the pesky creatures may steal it. I must admit on the two occasions I have been there I haven’t seen a single baboon.
Simola Country Estate features a Jack Nicklaus designed course which is a stunner. Perched in the hills above Knysna it is immaculately maintained and has a feel of maturity. The view from the elevated second tee is among the best in South Africa and with five par 3s and five par 5s you will need both your long and short games to be in good order.
After a couple of days in the Knysna area drive along the N2 towards George and stop off to enjoy the luxury of Fancourt, the region’s first internationally acclaimed golf resort which has recently undergone a multi-million pound renovation. The three beautifully maintained Gary Player designed courses here are excellent and varied. The Montagu is a challenging parkland course featuring large trees, elegant plantings and plenty of water. Regarded as the better of the two parkland layouts, it features a memorable, tricky finishing hole. The Outeniqua is regarded as the easiest of the three although it is hardly a push over with water coming into play on 11 holes. In 2012 the greens were renovated including a new seed mix to produce perfect putting surfaces while a few subtle slopes were added to make them an equal to any in the country. The Links is a masterpiece of design. Gary Player and Fancourt owner Dr Hasso Plattner wanted to create a true links course on the site of a former airport and had to import thousands of tonnes of earth to recreate the dunes, humps and hollows. While it may be artificial, this is a fantastic golf course, the second best rated in South Africa behind Leopard Creek. It is pretty difficult and you need accuracy and reasonable length off the tee, but it is a joy to play. Follow the advice of Fancourt professional Neil Walsh Tucker who says: “Play it as if you haven’t a care in the world – just go for it.” Green fees at the parkland courses are very reasonable £50 a round, cheaper if you are staying at the resort, but caddies are compulsory (about £12 plus tip). Play at the Links is reserved for the 63 members and their guests and a restricted number of resort and hotel residents. A round here will set you back about £100 in green fees, plus caddy but it is well worth it.
Along the route back to Cape Town you could take in the Pinnacle Point course on the clifftops overlooking the Indian Ocean above Mossel Bay.
Golfers are not the first people to have walked the cliffs of Pinnacle Point with clubs in their hands. Excavations in the area revealed it was home to Stone Age cave dwellers attracted by the plentiful shellfish. It is now a heritage site of international importance. However it is a course to divide opinions. It has spectacular views and many golfers rate the course highly. I am less convinced. The extreme slopes dictated the course design, which is too radical for my liking although some players better than me would disagree. It has an excellent clubhouse and good accommodation with great views. A buggy is essential and it’s a very difficult course when the wind blows.
Heading back, a visit to the lovely town of Hermanus, the centre of whale-watching between April and December, should not be missed.
While you may miss the whales during the South African summer, the town is close to the superb course at the Arabella Country Estate and the small but excellent pinot noir and chardonnay producing area at Hemel-en-Aarde.
When Peter Matkovich designed the Arabella course in 1999 he created a stunning masterpiece. The course has consistently been ranked in South Africa’s Top Ten (currently ranked 4 by Golf Digest magazine). The signature hole is considered by many to be the long par 5 8th, which runs downhill to a large green jutting into the Bot River lagoon, but to my mind it’s the 9th that truly stands out. A risk or reward hole, big hitters will fancy their chances of cutting off the left hand dogleg and going for the green. Anything short meets a watery grave. Running through the foothills of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve the course is as famous for its breathtaking scenery as much as its pristine fairways and immaculate greens. This is a must-play course and one of my all time favourites.
With your trip almost complete, resist the temptation to rejoin the N2 and instead follow the R44 coast road to Cape Town taking in the Jackass penguin colony at Betty’s Bay. A perfect end to a remarkable tour.
South Africa The Details
Where to stay:
Cape Town has plentiful hotels, many situated by the popular Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
They include The Table Bay Hotel www.suninternational.com/table-bay/ and the boutique Victoria@Alfred Hotel www.newmarkhotels.com/accommodation/hotels/victoria-alfred-hotel/
The Fancourt resort features its own recently-modernised hotel www.fancourt.com and the Arabella Hotel & Spa overlooks the course www.africanpridehotels.com
Where to play:
Great variety, sublime scenery and value for money on excellent courses are the hallmarks of golf in South Africa. Check out:
Near Cape Town
Westlake Golf Club www.westlakegolfclub.co.za
Steenberg GC www.steenberggolfclub.co.za
De Zalze GC www.dezalzegolf.com
Near Knysna, Garden Route
Pezula Championship Course www.pezulagolf.com
Simola Country Estate www.simola.co.za
Near George, Western Cape
Near Hermanus, Western Cape
Off the Course:
See the Big Five at Gondwana Game Reserve, near Mossel Bay, Western Cape, www.gondwanagr.co.za
Ernie Els winery, The Big Easy has a beautiful winery with restaurant near Stellenbosch www.ernieelswines.com
British Airways www.britishairways.com and Virgin Atlantic www.virgin-atlantic.com fly direct to Cape Town from the UK.
Ascot Tours is the biggest inbound golf tour operator with a wealth of experience and informative website www.ascottours.co.za
Elegant Golf Resorts is an experienced UK based tour operator with a range of up market options. It offers a 15-night Cape Town, Safari and Garden Route Special Tour including flights and five nights at the Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town, two nights at the Gondwana Game Reserve & seven nights at Fancourt on bed & breakfast (full board at Gondwana) car rental, meet and greet by Ascot Tours, 10 rounds of golf on Westlake, Milnerton Links, Steenberg, Pearl Valley, Pinnacle Point, Fancourt Outeniqua x 2, Fancourt Montagu x 2 and Fancourt Links and three game drives at Gondwana. Prices June to October 2014 from £2,679pp and from £2,789pp November – May from £2,789pp www.elegantgolfresports.com