Canadians have heard the jokes from visiting Americans a thousand times. About the brevity of their golf season. About the moose outnumbering the people. About the frequency with which sentences are ended with the interrogative “eh?” None of it fazes them. Because they’ve got a secret — one that revolves around the unbelievably high quality golf that exists in the Land of the North. Truth be told, the top Canadian golf courses and resorts rival anything you’ll find anywhere on earth. They’re a source of national pride, maybe not on a par with hockey, but damn close.
Not only that, but Canada may just offer the best deals in all of golfdom. If you’ve shopped the price of a trip to Scotland or Ireland lately, you know it can require a second mortgage to play the best courses. Not in Canada. You have to work hard up here to find anyplace — even the best courses — that’ll want more than a C-Note to tee it up.
My (much abbreviated) list of top resorts takes us from one end of Canada to the other, from the rugged Atlantic coastline all the way out to breathtaking British Columbia. There are oceanfront resorts, mountaintop resorts, and everything in between. Pick your favorite and go.
Banff Springs, Banff, Alberta
Banff Springs gets the nod as my top pick for a number of reasons. Yes, the Stanley Thompson-designed course here is magnificent. And yes, it’s set in a beautiful valley tucked away in the mountains northwest of Calgary. But it’s the hotel here that puts the whole package over the top.
The century-old Fairmont Banff Springs was originally built by the Canadian-Pacific Railway Co. and it’s a magnificent structure with luxurious rooms, superb restaurants, and views of the surrounding mountains and rushing Bow River that will wear out your camera.
As for the course’s design, there may be none finer. Because the course is located within the confines of the Banff National Park, it isn’t manicured and fertilized within an inch of its life as many courses are, and you will occasionally find elk prints in the turf, but Thompson’s layout will delight you at every turn. Because the course is set in a valley, surrounded by the towering, granite-faced figures of Mounts Rundle, Sulphur and Tunnel, it’s a mountain course without severe elevation changes. But you still have to think your way around this track, because Thompson’s design constantly tempts you to hit the perfect shot, even when discretion should point you in a different direction. Then there are the bunkers. Thompson is known for putting them in just the right places, and they don’t tend to be shallow affairs, either. You’ll definitely come off this golf course knowing you’ve been tested.
While you’re in the neighborhood, there are two other outstanding courses to check out, both offering severe mountain golf at its best. Silver Tip, named for the species of grizzly that calls this area home, is both beauty and beast. Dramatic elevation changes abound, putting a real premium on club selection. At Stewart Creek in Canmore, elevation is again a built-in hazard. Your first tee shot, for example, plays straight downhill to a wide fairway with an old mining shaft off to one side. From then on, Stewart Creek throws one memorable hole after another at you. And by the time you’re done, you’ll be an expert on uphill lies, downhill lies and sidehill lies; you’ll also have had a crash course in the natural beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
Highland Links, Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia
From Banff we move east to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, where Thompson worked his magic again in another park-based setting, the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Here you’ll find Highland Links, a true masterpiece that isn’t overly long (6600 yards) but tests every aspect of your game nonetheless. The course has a traditional links routing — nine holes out and nine back — and some of the most un-level lies you’ll ever find on a seaside course, with humps, hollows and swales literally from tee to green. If elephants were indigenous to these climes, you’d swear that entire herds of them had been buried beneath some of the fairways here.
The holes at Highland Links all have Gaelic names, but one hole in particular, the 7th, has also earned a local nickname: “Killer.” This 550-yard, double-dogleg par 5 threads its way through towering pines and maples to a multi-tiered green that’s protected by a cavernous bunker. It’s a thrilling hole, and only a taste of what’s yet to come. It’s seaside golf at its very best.
As for accommodations, the Keltic Lodge, located adjacent to the course on Cape Breton’s northeast coast, is without equal in these parts. Here in the shadow of Mt. Franey looking like a white clapboard vision out of yesteryear, Keltic Lodge offers an elegant blend of luxury and simplicity. True to the area’s Scottish-Gaelic roots, the staff here (including the Lodge’s trademark bagpiper) is outfitted in kilts; if you detect a trace of a Scottish brogue, rest assured that it’s not an affected one.
Chateau Whistler, Whistler, British Columbia
The village of Whistler, a charming ski town nestled between the Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is packed with serious skiers between the months of November and March. But in the summer, golfers pick up where the skiers and snowboarders left off. This is true mountain golf, with towering snow-capped peaks overlooking every tee shot year-round. The course at Chateau Whistler, voted Canada’s best new course in 1993, features 400 feet of elevation change, beginning with the very first hole. The course winds its way up, down and around a series of wildflower-covered hills that make the idea of walking the course all but absurd.
There are good holes here — and great ones. The par-4 17th is one of the best. A brawny, downhill two-shotter that doglegs to the right before sweeping up to a slightly elevated green, it calls for two near-perfect shots to reach the putting surface in regulation.
The Chateau itself is perfection. Located snug at the foot of the mountains, just steps from the slopes, Chateau Whistler is another Fairmont property. Which means, simply put, that you’re in for a luxurious time. Plus, the hotel is within easy walking distance of downtown Whistler, where you’ll find galleries and boutiques, restaurants and bars, and lots of friendly locals whose idea of a good time at night is a decidedly energetic one.
Other must-play courses nearby include Nicklaus North, a true shotmaker’s track, and Big Sky, where towering Mt. Currie looms over every shot. Play them all and you may want to trade in your passport for a Canadian one.
Links at Crowbush Cove, Morell, PEI
Three thousand miles east of Whistler, in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island, there’s a seaside resort that has become one of Canada’s favorite golf destinations. The island, a cozy 175- by 40-mile oasis from the ills of modern-day living, is about as charming and romantic a spot as exists in North America. Winters are long, hence summers are celebrated. It’s an idyllic place, where fresh seafood is king and golfers find a bounty of treats for them.
The best of these is the Links at Crowbush Cove, an award-winning Thomas McBroom-designed course owned by the provincial government but located within steps of the Rodd Crowbush Golf & Beach Resort, a 5-star enclave that has pampered visiting golfers (and beachgoers) since the day it opened.
McBroom’s course here is stunning, with nine water holes and eight set upon the dunes fronting the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many holes evince the links golf courses of Ireland and Scotland, with pot bunkers, fast greens, and trademark bumps and swales leading to uneven lies galore. It’s a good test, and you’ll find the amenities and service at the Rodd Crowbush resort to be equally outstanding.
While you’re on the island, you’ll have several other good opportunities to tee it up. Mill River, Brudenell River and Dundarave are all fine courses located next door to other Rodd resorts. Green Gables is an old Stanley Thompson-designed track in Cavendish; from the 11th fairway, you can see the former home of “Anne of Green Gables.” Two newer courses, The Eagles Glenn and Glasgow Hills, are also well worth a visit.
Jasper Park, Jasper, Alberta
Venture west from Banff Springs, past ancient ice fields and mountaintops so vast you could park entire cities on them, and you’ll come to the venerable Jasper Park Lodge, another Fairmont property. On the one hand, you could say that Jasper Park is in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, you won’t find a better place to get away from it all than this very western golf and leisure resort. Want to ride a horse? Eat buffalo steak? Do some fishing or canoeing? Spend a few nights in a rustic but luxurious lodge? You’ve come to the right place.
It’s also a first-rate place to play golf. Since its opening in 1925, this Stanley Thompson-designed gem has brought golfers to Jasper in herds. Not only did Thompson design a great test of golf here, he routed the holes so that each affords players spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The 14th hole, for example, plays across a corner of Lac Beauvert, before rising to an uphill green beyond which stands one of the mightiest mountains you’ll ever lay eyes on.
Thompson routed the 9th hole in the same way, to lead one’s eye toward another mountain off in the distance. This 251-yard par 3 plays sharply downhill from a tee set 80 or 90 feet above the heavily bunkered green. Called “Cleopatra” (purportedly because of the way Thompson sculpted the hole’s curvaceous mounding), it’s as tough a hole as it is beautiful. Bunkers left, bunkers right, a steep drop-off behind the green, and even more bunkers lurking down there make it a tough tee shot and a great hole. Like the rest of the course, and the rest of the resort, it’s unforgettable.
The Algonquin, St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick
Picture a golf course located in a place called St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick. You wouldn’t expect it to suck, right? It doesn’t, and it’s even better since this 100 year-old gem was redesigned in 2000 by Thomas McBroom. The crown jewel of the Fairmont Algonquin Resort, McBroom’s course is a delight — especially the back nine, which plays along the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay.
Here you’ll see osprey soaring overhead, while birdies at ground level are a bit more difficult to come by. The course measures over 7000 yards from the tips. From different spots on the course, you can see St. Croix Island, site of the first French settlement in the New World. The history of Canada’s First Nations people (native Canadians) is everywhere, too. “Joe’s Corner,” The Algonquin’s answer to Amen Corner, is comprised of three particularly good holes, the 11th-13th. You won’t soon forget them.
The Fairmont resort here is one that will create a lasting impression, too. And the Bay of Fundy area is teeming with natural beauty — if you can force yourself to leave the luxurious confines of the resort itself.
Mont Tremblant, Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Mont Tremblant has been one of eastern Canada’s favorite ski resorts for years. The resort grew up as an upscale ski village, and its location just north of Montreal has made it a favorite with urban Quebecois. Summer visits are easily rivaling winter ones, though, ever since the resort opened its two outstanding golf courses. It should tell you something that the easier of the two courses is called Le Diable, The Devil.
Le Diable, the work of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, is billed as an “Arizona-style” course. It’s not clear where that came from, but there is a target-golf aspect to playing it. The tree-lined fairways can be narrow; the red-sand bunkers and waste areas, tricky to escape. It’s tough, but not as tough as its brawnier sibling.
Le Geant, The Giant, is 6800-plus yards of mountainside challenge. The views from this course are stunning, but you’d be well advised to keep your mind on your game here. Le Geant is another McBroom creation, with two large lakes and more than 50 white sand bunkers. Do yourself a favor and choose the shortest set of tees you can coerce your ego into playing. Played from the wrong markers, some of the par 4s can make grown men cry, particularly if they’re not adept at hitting high, soft-landing long irons and fairway woods.
One word of warning: in the month of June especially, insects can be ravenous in these parts, so be prepared for them. Also prepare yourself for superior accommodations and service: the resort here was named Canada’s best in 2003., when it also was heralded as having the “best décor” of any Canadian golf resort. You’ll enjoy this place, both inside and out.
And you’ll enjoy golf in Canada, for sure.