Golf’s Hottest Island Has the Nation’s Two Best Courses

Highland Links features three distinctly different 6-hole stretches, but the common theme is excellent par-3s throughout, like this one.

The nation is Canada. The island is Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. And if it is not already on your golf travel radar it should be – and it will be, because it just keeps getting better and better – with more to come.

Cape Breton Island occupies the northernmost part of Nova Scotia, and last year was named the “Top Island Destination in the Continental US & Canada” by Travel + Leisure magazine. Its claim to fame has long been natural beauty, abundant seafood – especially lobster, served every which way – and Scottish heritage. It is home to tall jagged mountains, vast expanses of beautiful interior lakes and stunning coastline. The Cabot Trail, its scenic byway, is consistently rated among the best drives in North America the land teems with moose, bear, and even lynx, especially within Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

But suddenly Cape Breton Island is becoming famous for something else: golf. This newfound hoopla is mainly due to Cabot Links, a course that opened less than two months ago and is already being called one of the best in the world by just about every major golf publication, and is certainly THE biggest new golf course opening of 2012, anywhere. Departures magazine called it the only true links course between Ireland’s Ballybunion and Bandon Dunes in Oregon, a swath that covers about a quarter of the globe. The Wall Street Journal called it “a true seaside links,” making it the first anywhere on the East Coast, while Score Golf, Canada’s biggest golf publication, described it not only as Canada’s best but the best course its editor had ever experienced, anyplace. The list of accolades goes on and on. And there is more to come – the owners are already clearing land on dramatic clifftops next door for a second links course, expected to open in 2015, by the high-powered design duo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

But the best golf in Canada is nothing new here on Cape Breton Island, which has been home to what is typically the top ranked public course in the nation, Highland Links, since it was built in 1939. But you probably have never been, like most U.S. golfers, because the island is a bit tricky to reach. Now, with the addition of Cabot Links, a second must-play, it’s worth getting on the plane. Even high-end tour operator Perry Golf has added Cape Breton to its littany of world class destinations. I finally went, and was wowed by what I saw. I also discovered that it isn’t really that hard to get to Cape Breton Island. My non-stop from Boston to Halifax took just an hour, and there is also non-stop service from New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. It’s about a three hour drive from Halifax to Cabot Links. You can also change planes and fly into the closer regional Sydney airport. At the end of the day it takes about the same time to get to the tee from NY as it would to get to Scottsdale or Vegas.

Highland Links is owned by the Canadian government and sits within Cape Breton Highlands National Park, right on the Cabot Trail. Like the grand lodges of Yellowstone and other big national parks, the government operates an upscale resort hotel here, the Keltic Lodge, and the front desk is a short walk from the first tee, making it a perfect and easy place to base yourself for both golf and the exploration of the beautiful park and surrounding region.

The course is the seminal work of Stanley Thompson, aka “The Toronto Terror,” easily the greatest Canadian golf course architect in history and part of a cadre of famous names like Raynor, MacDonald, Mackenzie, and Tillinghast who dominate the design discussion. Thompson rules the public (and private) course rankings in Canada long after his death, and early on got access to the nation’s most beautiful sights in and out of National parks, including legendary courses like Banff Springs and Jasper Park, both of which I have played, and both of which are undeniably impressive. But Highlands Links is the best of the bunch, and not surprisingly, has typically been rated Canada’s top public throughout the decades.

The best word to describe the course is tumultuous. There is nary a flat lie out there, and the fairways resemble a sheet of newspaper that has been crumpled into a ball and try as you might, you can never again get it smooth. This promotes an interesting and non-stop sequence of challenging lies, above and below your feet, even in the center of the fairway. Thanks to this, its prodigious length, tough greens, and often steeply uphill or steeply downhill approaches, the course is a formidable challenge. It is also beautiful and neatly divided into three 6-hole sections. It begins close to the ocean, hugging the coast and incorporating some salt water marshes. After the sixth it cross a bridge over a river and takes a decidedly mountainous turn, playing through a series of stunning valleys, so while the fairways are not canted, the major deficiency in most mountain courses, they are flanked by steep slopes and every approach is framed by impossibly majestic towering mountains. In fall, these slopes, which contain a mix of trees very similar to Vermont, explode in a natural fireworks display of colorful changing foliage. After twelve, Thomson purposefully installed a hefty quarter mile walking path along a river before the next tee, so that the player could “collect his thoughts” before tackling the final third of the course, which returns to the coast. You can take carts at Highland Links and if you do, be prepared – I have walked hundreds of rounds and this is the longest and most physical walk I have ever experienced in golf. It stretches over seven miles, which is two to three more than average.

There are lots of great holes on this course, and several were named to Golf Magazine’s compendium of the 500 Greatest Holes on Earth. The par-3s are especially strong, all stunners, including two in the first five holes. But what makes it truly special is how different every hole is from every other. It is almost cliché for courses to disclaim a signature hole by saying “they are all so good and so unique,” and that is rarely true, but it is at Highland Links, a very special eighteen.

Because it is part of the park the course suffers from the double edged sword of amazing value and affordability, the downside of which is a rough around the edges approach to maintenance and facilities, The clubhouse is essentially a snack bar and the grass is not exactly manicured, but then again, with rates that are always below $90, afternoon fees of $65, and  a Sunday-special for two with cart at $65 a head, it may well be the best dollar for dollar golf in North America. In fact, golf is ludicrously cheap throughout Cape Breton Island, including Cabot Links, which commands about a third of what it could elsewhere, and there are several other golf courses on the island, many offering packages combing rounds and lodging through the official tourism entity, Golf Cape Breton.

Next I will take an in-depth look at the Cabot Links, the hottest new golf course on earth.

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