Around the World in 18 Holes

Here are the latest developments taking place on the golf scene outside the United States, and the meeting- and incentive-quality hotels and resorts accompanying them.

North America
In Canada, the resort towns of Whistler, Banff, and Jasper have many of the country's golf jewels, and each has a Fairmont property, plus other upscale properties nearby. But there are many more quality offerings throughout Canada that meeting and incentive planners can use. For instance, the Muskoka Lakes Region, a two-hour drive north of Toronto, has become a resort-golf hotbed in recent years. And on the Atlantic coast, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick are known for the unforgettable scenery of their resort golf experiences.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, whose golf course was rated tops in Canada by Conde Nast Traveler, has an intriguing golf-and-meetings package for 2008. The Golf 'Fore' Free program includes single-occupancy accommodations, meeting room rental, continental breakfast, coffee break, boxed lunch, and an afternoon round of golf at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club. The package is available Sunday through Thursday in May, June, and October. Rates start at about $260 per person.

Mexico is quickly developing courses throughout the country, says Kevin Devanney, president of Charlotte-based Incentive Travel Solutions, who conducts almost all of his events internationally. He notes that "on the Pacific coast, Cabo San Lucas has three of the best courses: Cabo Real, Cabo Del Sol, and Palmilla," which have Westin resorts nearby. Further, the St. Regis Resort Punta Mita will open in October, 35 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta, right on the ocean. That resort will offer 120 guest rooms and suites, each with its own outdoor shower, plus 65 luxury villas. The resort will also include Punta Mita's second Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course as well as a 10,000-square-foot spa and 7,000 square feet of meeting and function space.

On Mexico's Caribbean coast, the Riviera Maya, just south of Cancun, has several courses currently in development. Right now the region has a Jack Nicklaus-designed course open at the Moon Palace Resort Golf Club, plus several others within easy driving distance of most resorts. These complement Cancun's oldest, most prestigious golf club: Designed in 1976 by Robert Trent Jones Jr., Cancun's Golf Club at Pok-Ta-Pok artistically incorporates hundreds of meters of dramatic shoreline and ancient Mayan ruins into a truly unique golfing experience.

In Oaxaca, championship golf is available in Huatulco, on the coast. The jungle-like setting of the Tangolunda Golf Course sets this one apart from most others.

Central America
In Central America, a few venues have popped up with excellent golf. For instance, in Costa Rica, the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort has 201 rooms and suites, 11,900 square feet of meeting and outdoor function space, and a golf course with a rainforest along its edges. Also in Costa Rica, the JW Marriott Guanacaste Golf Resort & Spa, set in the Pinellas region of the country, is set to open by the end of 2008.

South America
Argentina has more golf courses than any other South American country and, as a result, most destinations there have golfing facilities. Buenos Aires, the capital, and Bariloche, in majestic Patagonia, offer interesting golfing experiences for the visitor. Iguazu and Tierra del Fuego are also excellent locations to enjoy Argentina on and off the golf course.

Some of the best golf courses in Argentina can be found in Buenos Aires. World-renowned courses are as near as a 20-minute drive from city center. The Jockey Club, with its great tradition, leads the list of Buenos Aires' best golf courses. Bella Vista and Olivos Golf Clubs have enticed numerous golfers and hosted major tournaments.

In Brazil the best course is the Comandatuba Ocean Course at the Ilha de Comandatuba Transamerica Hotel in Bahia. The 18-hole course, designed by Dan Blankenship, is totally integrated into the local landscape. The most notable feature is a mangrove swamp dominated by centennial coconut trees. Among the animals of the region golfers may find along the course are capuchin monkeys, a variety of birds, foxes, anteaters, and jupatis.

In the Caribbean, the convention-friendly Sheraton and Westin properties at Our Lucaya Resort on Grand Bahama opened a few years back, with 1,227 rooms, 90,000 square feet of meeting space, plus two well-regarded golf courses. And this year, the Greg Norman-designed Blue Shark Golf Club opened in Nassau, not far from the Atlantis Resort & Casino. On the east coast of the Dominican Republic, the Punta Cana region has recently opened several golf courses, some of which are affiliated with nearby Sol Melia resorts.

Meanwhile, Anguilla has just opened an 18-hole layout called Tenemos that is "outstanding," according to Devanney; he also notes that there are fine golf options in Puerto Rico, Nevis, and Turks & Caicos as well as Aruba, whose Tierra del Sol is a world-class golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.: an 18-hole par 71 course, with a clubhouse, restaurant, pro shop, locker rooms, and swimming pool.

In Puerto Rico, the El Conquistador golf course is an Arthur Hills design set on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and El Yunque Rain Forest. The Westin Rio Mar offers two courses: Tom and George Fazio's Ocean Course features a classic, with four sets of tees, numerous bunkers, and elevated greens; and Greg Norman's River Course rolls along the Mameyes River, framed by vistas of mountains and sea.

Finally, on St. Kitts, a 513-room Marriott resort with 38,000 square feet of meeting space and an adjacent casino also boasts a refurbished golf course that's received glowing reviews.

Naturally, "Scotland and Ireland are still the fan favorites when it comes to international golf destinations," says Devanney. Even the birthplace of the 600-year-old game, St. Andrews, boasts a fairly new resort property in the 209-room St. Andrews Bay Hotel, just a few miles outside of the medieval town and with two of its own seaside courses. In addition, the nearby Kingsbarns course, built just seven years ago, is considered one of the world's best. Over in Auchterarder, the Gleneagles Hotel has just debuted a long-awaited refurbishment that has added a 20-treatment room ESPA spa, 10 suites, a children's playroom and a teen center, a hair salon, a food emporium, and the only gun dog school in the world.

In the Irish region of Cork, the Sheraton Fota Island Hotel & Spa opened in 2006 with an 18-hole course. Elsewhere on the island, Killeen Castle, a Starwood Luxury Collection property, will open in 2010 with an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature course, plus a Dave Pelz Golf Academy.

Lastly, June Farrell, Marriott's vice president of international public relations, notes that the company has "a sizable portfolio of country-club estates in the U.K. that have not been extensively promoted in the U.S. But they have undergone major refurbishment and are now repositioned in the market."

On the continent, Portugal is the most recent hot spot for golf, says Devanney. "There are courses just outside Lisbon and in the Algarve region to the south that rival top U.S. courses." One Algarve golf resort set to rebrand is the existing Vila Sol Spa & Golf Resort in Vilamoura; it will become a 239-unit Renaissance property by year's end. With 6,000 square feet of meeting space and 27 holes of golf, the resort is 20 minutes from Faro International Airport and a five-minute drive to the coast. Marriott also has in Portugal the Praia Del Rey Golf Resort, while Ritz-Carlton has a picturesque course at its Penha Longa property, 25 minutes outside Lisbon.

In Spain, the latest golf-related development is the Sheraton Bonmont Golf Resort & Spa, a new hotel located in Tarragona adjacent to the Bonmont Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. The resort is scheduled to open later this year.

On the Mediterranean, The Monte-Carlo Country Club is located on the lower slopes of Mont Agel, at 810 meters (2,657 feet) above sea level. The course offers a panoramic view of the Principality of Monaco, the Cote d'Azur, and the Italian Riviera. The Four Seasons Resort Provence has two courses and a David Leadbetter Golf Academy. (An intriguing fact: The land was once owned by Sean Connery, who planned to build a golf course on it, but never got around to it.)

Beyond these, however, "Most other countries in Europe still lag behind in terms of what our golf-savvy attendees are used to and what they expect," says Devanney. But that is changing in some areas. For instance, within a few hours of Athens, Greece, and 35 minutes from the Kalamata International Airport on the Peloponnese, there's the new Westin Navarino Resort and the Navarino Dunes Resort in the scenic town of Pylos. The resorts will feature a Bernhard Langer-designed course with sea and river views. A second course on neighboring Navarino Bay, this one designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., is under construction.

Throughout Europe, if attendees want a truly local experience and are willing to bring along their own clubs rather than take a chance on securing decent rental sets at the destination, there are many golf opportunities even around large cities like Rome, Munich, and Vienna. For instance, groups using Starwood Luxury Collection's Hotel Imperial or its Hotel Bristol in Vienna occasionally use two well-maintained courses that are just a 40-minute drive from these center-city properties.

Middle East
In the Middle East, Dubai is fast becoming the top name in resort accommodations as well as golf. Most notable is Dubai Golf City, scheduled to open in 2009. The project will comprise five themed signature golf courses, a golf academy, and a five-star resort hotel and spa. Elsewhere in the region, though, Egypt has a fine venue for golf-seekers in the JW Marriott Cairo Golf Resort.

As for the Far East, China has jumped with both feet into the golf-resort market with the Mission Hills Golf Club. Just 35 minutes from the Hong Kong border crossing and a little more than an hour from casino-resort-heavy Macao, Mission Hills touts itself as the "World's Largest Golf Resort," with a whopping 10 courses designed by notable pro golfers. The three-year-old resort has 219 rooms at Mission Hills Resort and another 90 in the adjacent Savannah. There are 35 meeting rooms and three function rooms in the huge Dongguan Clubhouse, plus function rooms within the several other clubhouses.

In Thailand, less than three hours south of Bangkok, the Hua Hin region is known as the home of that country's best golf courses. The Sheraton Hua Hin Resort and Spa opened there on August 15, 2007. This 240-room resort surrounds a unique, 660-foot-long, lagoon-style pool, and offers 8,000 square feet of convention space.

Hua Hin and nearby Cha-Am are renowned for their many championship golf courses, endowed as they are with lush vegetation and mountain views. Within 25 minutes of the Sheraton are five courses, including one designed by Jack Nicklaus.

In Vietnam, the recently formed Vietnam Golf Association (VGA) markets the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail. Routed north to south through Vietnam, the trail pairs up improved courses with higher-end resorts.

"Tourism here is increasing, and golf interest is increasing, so it's vitally important that the quality of Vietnam's courses increases with it," says Thomas Benefield, a member of the association and manager of Kings' Island Golf Club, comprising two courses 25 miles west of Hanoi. "[American and international] visitors want certain standards, and they want it all to mesh—the lodging, the attractions, and the golf. So all of the VGA's courses will leave no stone unturned. There will be irrigation upgrades for better grass, new sand for the bunkers, and even more will come after that."

In addition to Kings' Island, golfing stops along the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail include six other courses in areas of cultural significance.

Originally published April 01, 2008

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