Costa Navarino: Greek golf hits the sweet spot
Will the luxury resort lure golfers to the Peloponnese? James Cusick thinks so
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 14 September 2012
With both mainsail and foresail full of Navarino Bay's best wind, and the sun doing its best to make the blue waters off the Messinian coast shimmer and sparkle, the local skipper offered his best throwaway line of the day. "Maybe the English and French should come to our rescue again," he said. Having been told in advance where we'd be sailing and what to look out for as we passed the tiny island of Helonaki, I knew exactly what I'd just been told.
In 1827, the combined fleets of France, Britain and Russia, under the command of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, sailed into Navarino Bay. In the last major sea battle involving great sailing ships, they defeated the Egyptian fleet that was aiding the Ottoman occupation. Greece, as anyone in this part of the world will tell you, was back on the road to independence.
That's maybe too much history for one sunny day. Nevertheless, each October the Royal Navy sends a representative to a small service on Helonaki that honours the British role in "saving" Greece. Greece today doesn't need any more well-intentioned admirals. It needs, as the skipper suggested, the pounds and the euros of English, French and any other tourists. With our yacht safely berthed back in Pylos, the main harbour town of Navarino Bay, the answer to how Greece might entice a new generation of tourists who look no further than Spain or Portugal was just a half hour's drive north up the coast.
Months back when I mentioned to friends that I was off for a few days of sun-filled golf with my 16-year-old son Sebastian, the reflex quizzing centred on the Algarve or Andalucia. Greece didn't figure. Its tourism signature remains focused on ancient Olympia, Apollo and white-painted villages perched above the sea. It's Byron with a side order of philosophy and mythology. Golf – the game invented by the same people who think good music comes from bagpipes – isn't served with the mezze. Well, it is now.
Professional golf arrived at the Costa Navarino resort in 2010 when US Masters champion Bernhard Langer's Dunes course opened for play. It's a pristine five-star experience, the kind that spoilt American CEOs routinely expect to be waiting for them when they take a travel break from their manicured country clubs. Visually strong and big in ambition, the Dunes' fist-full of great holes instil an almost immediate desire to return.
Langer's course ended 20 years of unfulfilled golf promises. I'd listened for years to Greek tourism bosses anticipating investment in 20 courses by the early 21st century. It didn't happen. This year Costa Navarino's second course – The Bay – completes its first full season of play. And it's a game-changer. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and located about 10 minutes' drive south of the main resort on a parcel of seaside land that has been in the owner's folio for years, its links-like signature holes hug tight to the Ionian bay. Others journey through and over old olive groves and mountain canyons. Views out to the sea are everywhere. Shots fired up and into the hills are followed by a welcome-back feeling as you return down to the shoreline.
Off the white championship tees it measures 5,614m. That isn't long by any means. (The Old Course at St Andrews is more than 1,000m longer.) But the understated drama of The Bay lies not in length off the tees, but in its sheer beauty and in the accuracy of approach shots required to out-think Mr Trent Jones Jnr's well-placed Matisse-shaped bunkers. It's a joy to play.
At the moment there is no clubhouse. However, there are plans for a Banyan Tree-branded boutique hotel to be built into one of the hillsides. Until then, staff at the 18th will welcome you home with ice-cooled towels and chilled water.
Navarino's two courses – with a third, Navarino Hills, in the early stages of planning – means Greece now has a world-class golf destination on its Peloponnese western coast. With Athens struggling with a relentless recession, Costa Navarino isn't necessarily the miracle answer. But it asks uncomfortable questions of a country that has all the natural resources required to become a serious player on Europe's golf map. The thing is, who is listening at the moment?
Costa Navarino's two five-star hotels – the Westin and the Romanos – are operated by the Starwood group. There's a good tennis centre and an indoor sports hall most colleges would be proud of. I should at this point admit to having an immediate Prisoner anxiety when the term "golf resort" is mentioned. I imagine myself as "Number 6" refusing to conform to orders for breakfast by the pool at 7.45am, or avoiding any travel in quiet electric carts because "I am not a number, I am a free man!". Though I have yet to be chased by a large weather balloon, the uniform tidy architecture of resort "villages" unnerves me. Thankfully the relatively spacious layout of the Romanos and the big apartment Sebastian and I stayed in, which came with a large plunge pool and infinity view out over the sea, caused no surfacing of Number 6 syndrome.
The resort makes a big play of its "bio-climatic architecture", designed to keep its carbon footprint to a minimum. Air-conditioning is augmented by a geothermal installation. Even the water used by the courses is delivered by two specially built reservoirs in the hills above the resort that claim to use only 3 per cent of the winter run-off from local rivers. The results of research partnerships with Stockholm University, the Academy of Athens and the Hellenic Ornithological Society, which evaluate the resort's influence on fauna and flora, are on show in the impressive Navarino Natura Hall. This is the kind of visitor centre you expect to find at a UN scientific interest site, not a golf resort.
We were even encouraged to leave the resort occasionally, hence the yacht in Navarino Bay. I also explored the down-at-heel Fortress of Pylos, which at various points in Greek history has lodged the Venetian governor of the area, been captured by the Turks, and was briefly run by the Russians. It would also have been the perfect spot to catch all the action in 1827.
Out of the resort and riding south on mountain bikes along the coast, we found Voidokilia, "Ox belly" beach. Near this perfect crescent of sand and shallow blue water, Hermes is supposed have stolen an ox from his brother Apollo and hid it in a cave above the shore. His apology involved making a lyre from the shell of a turtle, hence the reason for loggerhead turtles still laying their eggs on the beach today. Makes perfect sense.
However, I couldn't understand why Athena and Telemachus, while searching for Odysseus, accepted an invitation by King Nestor to a picnic lunch on the sand. They would have missed their 1pm tee-off time on the Bay course. Big mistake.
The writer travelled as a guest of Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040; en.aegeanair.com), which flies daily from Heathrow to Athens, with connections to Kalamata. Golf equipment is carried free. Alternatives to Athens include British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow, and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Patras.
The Romanos, A Luxury Collection Resort, Costa Navarino (00 30 272 309 6000; romanoscostanavarino.com) offers doubles from €315 per night, room only. A round on the Dunes Course starts at €40.
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