New Jersey. Affectionately known as the Garden State. Famous for singers like Sinatra and Springsteen. Also home of Pine Valley GC, but never mind. For the uninitiated, New Jersey conjures a hopeless tangle of thoroughfares and shopping plazas west of the Hudson River where the driving scenes are enough to send even experienced road warriors directly to a bus stop or a train station.
However, there is another New Jersey far removed from the densely populated settlements clustered in the vicinity of the bridges and tunnels that connect the state’s bedroom communities to New York City. Tucked away in the state’s northwest corner is the little-known “Sussex Skylands” region, a rural oasis marked by glacier-carved lakes and wooded mountain ridges where black bear sightings are common. Here, a mere 50 miles from the George Washington Bridge, is Crystal Springs Resort, a far-flung complex totaling 4,000 acres with a diverse array of seven golf courses totaling 117 holes, a new David Leadbetter Golf Academy and a handful of restaurants that could hold their own in Manhattan.
First, the golf. The top track course at Crystal Springs and arguably the finest public-access course in the state is Ballyowen, a links-style layout stretched across a plateau surrounded by rolling farmland and craggy knolls. Built by Roger Rulewich, Robert Trent Jones’ man in the field for over 35 years, this nearly treeless layout proceeds through massive fescue-covered dunes near the Wallkill River. Ballyowen takes on all comers, but on a breezy day the course asks better players to shape shots and cheat the wind. A Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, the course is home to many bird species. The birds chirp cheerfully, but for me the highlight of a recent round was watching a pair of black bear cubs climb a tree below the second fairway. I kept my distance: momma bear was probably close by. As the only venue at Crystal Springs that permits walking, Ballyowen, the first choice of serious players, has an excellent caddie program. Tee off after lunch and be regaled at sunset by a kilted bagpiper who performs outside Ballyowen’s Irish-style pub.
Wild Turkey, unveiled 10 years ago, is a sturdy 7,202-yard layout with a multiple personality. Course designer Rulewich artfully fused links, parkland and quarry styles into a seamless whole at this well-liked venue. Sharp elevation changes and fine long views of the Delaware Water Gap characterize the layout. The putting surfaces are enormous, but reaching the green a regulation is only half the battle. Depending on pin position, two-putting is a major accomplishment on many of them. Wild Turkey’s most memorable hole is the par-3 seventh, which calls for a forced carry over a quarry lake to a shallow green perched on a rocky cliff.
Crystal Springs, the resort’s best-established 18, is a Robert von Hagge layout with more mounds and moguls than the nearby Mountain Creek ski area. Ranked among the nation’s toughest public-access courses, this penal test has narrow corridors, vast waste bunkers and wickedly contoured greens. Crystal Springs is a good match-play golf course, which is a nice way of saying that the layout’s looming train wrecks can shred a scorecard pretty quickly. The signature hole at Crystal Springs is the par-3 seventh, its clifftop tees set 80 feet above a green fronted by the former Windsor Quarry, which is now flooded.
In 2008, Rulewich returned to build a third nine at Crystal Springs, called the Cascades. Blasted from a former gravel pit, the 3,627-yard Cascades drops into a valley at the start but climbs to higher ground at the sixth hole, a gargantuan par 5 that stretches to well over 600 yards. Cascades is the perfect choice for an “emergency nine.” It also features a set of junior tees at 1,538 yards intended to make the game more enjoyable for novices.
The resort’s least heralded course is the 27-hole layout at Great Gorge Country Club. While attributed to George Fazio, resort owner Gene Mulvihill says a young Tom Fazio (George’s nephew) did most of the legwork on this low-profile design marked by broad fairways and inverted saucer greens. Opened in 1970 as an amenity to Hugh Hefner’s famed Great Gorge Playboy Club, the layout boasts three distinct looks. The Quarry nine rambles around impressive rock outcrops; Lake drops 100 feet to gently rolling holes routed beside Black Creek; and Rail brings players to an eroded remnant of the railroad era at its par-3 third hole. The Playboy bunnies may be gone, but the golf course is a poignant reminder of a simpler time when architects tended to fit their designs to the existing landscape.
Another of the golf options at Crystal Springs Resort is Black Bear, a short, sporty layout intended for pleasure that juxtaposes a player-friendly front nine with a more challenging back nine.
Traveling with children who want to try their hand at the game? Minerals Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones-designed executive nine-holer set at the base of Hamburg Mountain, has two holes cut in every green: a large one for kids and a regulation cup for adults.
With so much golf on tap, it came as no surprise to see a David Leadbetter Golf Academy make its debut at the resort earlier this year. The academy’s one-, two-, and three-day mini-schools are the most popular offerings, with sessions conducted in relaxed group settings designed to establish a blueprint for on-going improvement. Private instruction is also available, as is a Ladies Two-Day Golf & Spa Retreat.
Lodging options abound at Crystal Springs. Families tend to gravitate to Minerals Resort & Spa, which offers comfortable accommodations and casual restaurants. The big draw is the Mineral Sports Club: seven indoor/outdoor heated pools, a 6,000-square-foot fitness center and multiple sports courts. Elements Spa offers treatments featuring indigenous minerals (the region was a major mining center years ago).
Golfers and couples usually lean to Grand Cascades Lodge, a 250-room condo hotel that serves as the resort’s golf hub. Commanding a ridge overlooking Wild Turkey and a beautifully landscaped 18-hole putting course, the Adirondack-style lodge has studios as well as fully-equipped one- and two-bedroom suites. With its copper accents, exposed stone and burgundy color scheme, the décor is decidedly masculine.
Attached to the lodge is the Biosphere Pool Complex, a 10,000-square-foot translucent glass conservatory that is heated year-round and has indoor/outdoor pools, a spacious hot tub, a water slide and tropical gardens designed to simulate a rain forest. The lodge also offers Reflections Spa, a haven of relaxation where several of the treatments tap the resort’s wine cellar for essential ingredients, from the Chardonnay Vinotherapy Massage to the Pinot Noir Signature Body Glow. The entrance to the spa is alone worth a visit. Dangling from the ceiling are 8,000 quartz crystals “containing healing powers from the earth,” according to the spa’s literature. Red is not often used as a dominant color in spas, but the fire-inspired art glass throughout the interior of Reflections Spa somehow works here. And what other spa offers guests a complimentary hot salt foot soak, chocolate truffles and pink champagne after every treatment?
Of the 11 restaurants and cafes at Crystal Springs Resort, one bears special mention. On the top floor of the clubhouse adjoining Grand Cascades Lodge is Restaurant Latour, a 40-seat dining room offering panoramic views of the distant Kittatinny Mountains. Locally grown produce is taken from the resort’s gardens and local farms, while breads, cheese, meat and fish are sourced from the Hudson and Delaware valleys as well as the resort’s organic ranch in Colorado. The three-course table d’hote menu and seven-course tasting menu split the difference between classic French and regional American cuisine.
Rated ‘Excellent’ by the New York Times, Restaurant Latour has a wine list as thick as a telephone book, a veritable oenophile’s bible listing over 7,000 labels and more than 100,000 bottles at every price point. Mark-ups are moderate and bargains abound, but for masters of the universe who are feeling masterful, there are more than 100 vintages of Chateau Latour dating back to 1863 (many in large format), plus all the best vintages from all the great chateaus of Bordeaux and Burgundy, not to mention hard-to-find California “cult” wines and Italy’s most sought-after labels. The resort’s temperature-controlled, catacomb-like cellar is a stellar showcase for a wine collection that has earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award since 2006. Very few private collections in the U.S. can match it. Afternoon tours are available.
For a more casual dining experience, authentic northern Italian fare is served in Springs Bistro in Grand Cascades Lodge. In the summer months, guests can dine al fresco at The Chef’s Garden, which is set within an organic garden filled with vegetables and herbs. Fresh Sangia and well-chosen Argentine wines are paired with delectable entrees cooked on the Rodizio grill.
Jersey is the butt of many jokes, many of them courtesy of New Yorkers. But for players who want to truly relax at a full-service resort with great golf and an exceptionally friendly staff, Crystal Springs Resort rises well above the stereotypes.