LOCH & HOLES
Add a unique dimension to a Scottish golf tour, and journey by barge through lochs and along the scenic Caledonian Canal. Our correspondents take their golf clubs aboard the Scottish Highlander.
Add a unique dimension to a Scottish golf tour and journey by barge through lochs and along the scenic Caledonian Canal. Our correspondents take their golf clubs aboard the Scottish Highlander.
Golf by hotel barge in Scotland, it’s an interesting concept. Travelling by this mode of transport harkens back to a bygone era, one of romance and adventure. Combine this with four rounds of golf, on courses ranging from quirky Highland nine-hole tracks to top notch links such as Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart, add in some mouth-watering cuisine, worldclass single-malts and convivial company, and it may just be the recipe for the ultimate ‘golf, leisure and lifestyle’ experience.
Keen to give it a try, we join the crew and other guests aboard European Waterways’ Scottish Highlander for a week-long cruise tailor-made for golfers – a journey from Fort William to Inverness (110km to the north east) along the scenic Caledonian Canal, with views of snow-capped Ben Nevis, across mysterious lochs where ancient castles perch on heather-clad hillsides, home of golden eagle and red deer. This is some of the finest inland cruising scenery in Europe.
“Welcome aboard the Scottish Highlander and help yourself to glasses of champagne,” says skipper Dan Clark, as introductions are made, golf clubs and luggage loaded aboard and cruising golf guests shown to their cabins. One of four crew, easy-going Dan is an experienced barge master who knows these waterways like Phil Mickelson knows the contours of Augusta National’s greens. He impresses not only with his ability to guide the 117-foot (35-metre) vessel into the smallest lock with only inches to spare but is also a dab hand at playing the accordion.
Other crew members include housekeeper and deck-hand Melissa Ho, a friendly New Zealand
lady, who assists with the lock work and beavers away keeping everything ship-shape. Next up, with an accent as thick as a Highland mist, is tour guide Moshy, who chau eurs guests to the golf courses. And finally there’s chef John Baxter, an eccentric personality with a single-figure handicap, who is like a cross between cook-show host Keith Floyd and comedian Stephen Fry. John is an expert on local recipes, cheeses and fine wines, and one of his passions is late night golf conversations over bottles of red. “Help yourself to the wine, beer and whiskies,” he says, disappearing into his floating kitchen with ever-changing views, where he will begin to rustle up one of many exquisite dishes fit for a king.
There’s no question of roughing it aboard the Scottish Highlander.
Built in Holland in 1931 to carry grain and converted into a hotel barge in 2000, the spacious eight passenger vessel has the atmosphere of a Scottish country house with subtle use of tartan furnishings and landscape paintings. Every conceivable comfort for year-round cruising has been thought of including: cabin heating, ice-maker, pressure showers, a cosy saloon, library, fishing gear and bicycles.
Powered by a 120-hp Gardiner diesel, the Scottish Highlander cruises along at a steady 3 knots. “She never misses a heartbeat,” says Dan, as we motor along the Caledonian Canal towards Gairlochy on the morning of our second day.
The majestic Caledonian Canal was built in 1822 to provide a speedy link for sailing boats and freight vessels between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is 60 miles (96.6km) in length, of which about a third is a man-made cutting which links a chain of natural lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.
Our golfing trip afloat quickly develops into a relaxing lifestyle. There’s plenty of opportunities to watch the scenery unfold from the barge’s sundeck, observe lock operation, visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery and of course play golf.
First up is 18 holes at Newtonmore, a parkland track that is renowned for its number of lefthanded players. Beautifully situated amongst the Monadhliath and Grampian Mountains with the river Spey bordering its side, it’s a good opportunity to get into the swing of things before the more demanding links tests that lay ahead.
On day three, we moor up in historic Fort Augustus right beside the five-lock staircase that forms the centrepiece of the village, bordered by quaint cottages, a fish and chip shop and the appropriately named Lock Inn, a popular spot for a canal-side pint. After a hearty lunch of Navarin of Lamb with thyme, parsley and bay leaf, Moshy drives the group to the village outskirts where the quirky component of our ‘golf-and-barge’ experience awaits.
Situated on moorland ground, on which crofters grazed their stock, the nine-hole layout of Fort Augustus established in 1930 is as raggedy around the edges, as the wiry heather that lines the fairways. For starters, the course layout diagram on the scorecard is so di¡cult to understand it would confuse a geometry professor. There’s more sheep on the fairways and greens than at shearing time on a New Zealand farm. The local rules make interesting reading: ‘A ball lying on sheep wool, or made dirty by sheep droppings, may be lifted and
cleaned without penalty.’
The course record is a 63 currently held by ‘Big Peter.’ “Not a lot is known about him except he’s big and he’s a long hitter,” says one member with a wry smile. Fort Augustus is still great fun though, but be careful not to slice your tee shot on the par-5, 6th and 15th, appropriately named Canal.
Each evening, around the time when everyone is pouring themselves their 19th-hole tipple of choice, John emerges from the galley kitchen and announces the dinner menu.
“Tonight we’ll be having highland pie, which is made of ground beef, mashed potatoes, beer, and ‘a little bit of that stu from the top shelf’ all marinated overnight,” he says. “Then we’ll finish of with baked apple and some Lady Jane, a handmoulded cheddar from the Hebridean Island of Gigha.” All the produce is sourced locally – such as delicious lamb shanks, venison, salmon and award-winning haggis from the butcher in Fort Augustus. The cheeses are a culinary highlight – from Orkney Smoked Cheddar, and Scottish Brie to goat cheese made by Donald John, the lock keeper at Dochgarroch, all paired up with a selection of quality French and New World wines.
Meal times are an opportunity for guests to get to know one another. “My kids bought me this golf trip as a surprise birthday gift and I didn’t know what to expect. I never thought I’d enjoy it so much. It’s so relaxing,” says Rich Colfer, a sprightly and funny gas meter salesman from New Jersey.
Staying in the Cameron double suite is Harriet Wolfe, a lawyer and single-malt connoisseur from Connecticut. Completing the guest list in addition to our good selves are keen golfing couple Walt and Margi Schmick from Denver, who are treating themselves to this golf cruise for their wedding anniversary. The conversation and wine flows freely and invariably involves golf – laughing about the sheep at Fort Augustus Golf Club, discussing the highs and lows of the day’s round and what would Nairn, our third course be like?
Nairn’s Championship course is home of the famous Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup victory in 1999, and one of the finest links courses in the country.
Founded in 1887 and added to and extended by Archie Simpson, Old Tom Morris and James Braid, Nairn is a classic “out and back” par-72 links course with a strong Scottish ambience. The 1st hole, aptly named Sea, gives a hint of what lies in store as the course threads its way along the southern shore of the Moray Firth with spectacular views over the water to the Sutors of Cromarty, Ben Wyvis and the hills of Sutherland beyond.
The par-4 holes tease and confound and all four short holes are cunningly angled, with the 4th a little gem and the 14th a classic played from an elevated tee-box. All three of the par-5 holes are more than 530 yards long, which is a test for all. With crisp fairways, deep pot bunkers and punishing rough and gorse, it makes it very di£cult to post a respectable score, which we all discover. But it’s the speed of the billiard table-like greens, some of the best in the country which will prove to be the biggest challenge. Several decades earlier, having played the Championship Course, James Braid commented on their quality – “The texture of the turf and character of the greens is unrivalled,” he said.
After leaving our mooring at Fort Augustus
THERE’S MORE SHEEP ON THE FAIRWAYS AND GREENS THAN AT SHEARING TIME ON A NEW ZEALAND FARM.
we cruised across the mighty waters of Loch Ness. At 22 miles (38km) long and up to 1.5 miles wide (2.4km), its surrounding mountains enter the water dramatically enough to form sheer underwater clis. Nobody knows for certain if monsters inhabit the near 300-metre (1000-ft) depths, but certainly its peat-darkened waters would be the perfect place for such a legend to hide. Incredibly, ‘sightings’ of a creature are recorded as far back as the 7th Century, and carvings of this unidentified animal made by ancient inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands some 1,500 years have also been found. We joke to ourselves that there’s probably a better chance of spotting ‘Nessie’ than shooting under our handicaps at the final course of our golf cruise – the remote and testing links of Royal Dornoch, about an hour’s drive from our mooring at Dochgarroch.
“You’ll need a six-inch nail to keep your hat on today,” says the starter, as a four-ball made up of Rich, Harriet, Margi and Walt prepare to tee o on Dornoch’s 331-yard par-4 1st. Paul and I follow behind as a two-ball, and as sure as the quality of John Baxter’s cooking, the wind is up. I quickly study the course guide and nervously draw a 4 hybrid from the bag. Royal Dornoch throws down the gauntlet right from the opening tee shot.
“After the second hole, you round a corner, pass a hedge and golfing heaven breaks loose.” These words on the club’s website are temptation enough, but once we go around the said corner, everything about this heralded links is right in front of us. Framed between the hills and mountains to the left and the wild North Sea, is a rich tapestry of undulating fairways and greens interspersed with flowering yellow gorse.
Golf was first played here at least as far back as 1616 when the Earl of Sutherland ordered clubs and balls to take up the game that was becoming so popular further south. This makes Royal Dornoch, the third oldest golfing community in Scotland. It was also the home course of Donald Ross, the famous golf architect who created some of America’s finest layouts including the famed Pinehurst No.2.
The layout is classic links with the first eight holes following the natural slants and humps of the old dune embankments while the remainder skirts the sandy beaches of Dornoch Bay. Plateau greens are characteristic as well as raised tees, and on the par-3s, these saucer-shaped greens prove daunting. The 163-yard 6th known as Whinny Brae has to be one of the toughest par-3 tests with no favours for those hitting left into the gorse or right down a steep bank where double bogeys are routine.
Although the front nine is delightful, it is the back nine where the real examination begins. Harry Vardon reckoned that Foxy, the 445-yard par-4 14th hole was the most natural hole in golf, with no bunkers and a succession of hillocks running up to the green on the right. The closing holes over the barely covered bones of the links, and the thin turf can throw a ball in any direction no matter how well struck.
Five-time Open Champion and links aficionado Tom Watson probably summed up Royal Dornoch the best when he said “This is the most fun I have had playing golf in my whole life.”
And Mr Watson’s very same words could easily be applied to a week’s gourmet golf cruising on European Waterway’s Scottish Highlander.
The itinerary featured in this story is a sample golf trip and other trips o ered by European Waterways may di er from the one featured. They could include other golf courses (such as Castle Stuart) and could start in a reverse direction. www.europeanwaterways.com
WE JOKE TO OURSELVES THAT THERE’S PROBABLY A BETTER CHANCE OF SPOTTING ‘NESSIE’ THAN SHOOTING UNDER OUR HANDICAPS ...
Flowering gorse and heather at Fort Augustus Golf Club
A golfer heads towards the green of the par-3 (7th & 16th) at quirky Fort Augustus Golf Club.
A luxury twin cabin on the Scottish Highlander.
A scenic view towards the green of Castle Stuart’s par-4 3rd hole.
Leaving the Scottish Highlander with clubs for the next 18-holes
The view towards the green of the par-5 18th at Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness.
The Scottish Highlander cruising on the beautiful Caledonian Canal.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club with the gorse in full bloom.
The outstanding par-3 6th hole at Royal Dornoch.