Golf clubs with class in the Azores

The courses rival Augusta, the landscape looks a bit like Surrey - golfing in the Azores can be an odd experience. After a hard day on the fairways, Tim Glover heads for the 19th hole. Isn't that Lord Lucan?
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The Independent Travel

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Travel to the Azores, that intriguing archipelago of islands in the middle of the Atlantic, before hopping over to another archi-pelago, Madeira and Porto Santo. The term "whistle stop" would not do the itinerary justice, and what we discovered is that no man is an island-hopper.

Nine islands, ranging in size from smallish to specks in the ocean, form the Azores, which is described as the window to the Atlantic between Europe and the New World. The Portuguese discovered them in the early 15th century and managed to hold on to them despite a series of volcanic eruptions and periodic attacks from the English, including Sir Francis Drake, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch, not to mention Algerian pirates.

They were worth holding on to. In a shrinking world, the Azores (combined population of about 250,000) are unique. One minute you might imagine you were in the Falklands, the next the Home Counties; turn a corner and the view could be of the Irish coast or even the Scottish Highlands. Not so much nine islands as nine countries.

Then there is the weather. They say that because of the influence of the Gulf Stream they have a temperate climate all year round. The land is lush, greener than envy and fertile. The Portuguese National Tourist Office are opening up the window to the Atlantic to more travellers, and one way of doing it is to dangle golf as bait.

By and large, tourism likes golfers, because they travel and have money. Another golf stream, another Alg-arve? No way, said Jose, our tour leader. "Any development will be small-scale and high-quality. Conservation and the environment are top of the agenda. The Azores will never be just about golf." Indeed. There is whale watching, which, mercifully, has replaced whaling on the islands.

Funnily enough, nobody mentions the rain. Our first port of call is Terceira, and at the airport - think Biggin Hill in the Fifties - one of the first things you notice is the umbrellas, rows of them, lined up for public use. Are you listening, Manchester?

Having flown from Gatwick via Lisbon we got to the hotel, Terceira Mar, later than expected because a number of bags went walkabout. The hotel is a modern, four-star complex with stunning views of the Atlantic. A 10-minute walk away is Angra do Heroismo, the capital of the island and a Unesco World Heritage city, which had to be rebuilt in 1980 after the latest earthquake. There are 60,000 people here, one for every cow and bull. Between May and October they hold 250 "bullfights". The bulls are tied to long ropes and run through the cobbled streets, taunted by spectators. No blood is spilt, but it still seems a bloody stupid way to spend an afternoon.

At 08.00 we were out of there, flying to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel for a swift transfer to Campo de Golfe da Batalha. Our party consisted of Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, a Finn, an Austrian and a solitary Frenchwoman from Cognac, as well as a sprinkling of English, Welsh and Scots.

Jose has had the bright idea of turning the golf into a sort of European version of the World Cup. In the first round at Batalha, an excellent woodland course that would not have looked out of place in the Surrey stockbroker belt, we, that is Wales, were outgunned by a powerful German/Austrian axis. Oskar the Austrian, who takes his golf very seriously indeed, never lost a ball, for patrolling the fairways up ahead was his trusty partner Eva.

Despite being a cele-brated athlete - she won the bronze medal in the javelin at the Mexico Olympics of 1968 - Eva had tried golf and found she didn't have the patience for it. "I do not want to play a game at which I'm not very good," she explained, a sentiment with which I had every sympathy.

That evening at the bar I became convinced I had spotted Lord Lucan. The character in question looked like him, albeit with a facelift, and sounded like him. Perhaps it was the drink, but I have to say, if you're looking for a bolt hole the Azores would do very nicely.

Next morning we were off for another round, this time at the Campo de Golfe das Furnas. It bucketed down. Most of the Brits took one look and told Jose there was no way they were going to leave the clubhouse. The Germans and the Swedes ploughed on, and nearly six hours later reported that Furnas was as fine a test of golf as they had ever seen. We took their word for it.

In the world of professional golf, the Portuguese are like the British at tennis, in that champions are thin on the ground. Why is that? I asked the pro at Furnas. "Because we're far too lazy," he replied.

Laziness was not on our schedule. A dash to the airport for a flight to Funchal in Madeira and another late night, then check-out at 07.00 for a transfer to the Palheiro course and another round in the World Cup.

Palheiro is an absolute stunner. The course is carved out of a pine forest, has a fantastic view of the bay of Funchal and boasts some of the best par-threes in the world. In some respects it is on a par with that masterpiece in Georgia, Augusta National. A shorter version maybe, but Palheiro is the sort of course you'd like to take home with you.

This time Wales were undone by a formidable Swedish pair. It didn't help when I hit the wrong ball from on the 18th fairway. Anna, a five-handicapper from Stockholm, was not at all amused. In fact, by being distractingly attractive, she was partly to blame for the mix-up.

A quick dash to the airport to board a twin-prop island-hopper for Porto Santo, Portugal's answer to the Isle of Wight. I'd lost track of what day it was, I'd run out of golf balls and I couldn't remember the last time I cleaned my teeth. Another late night followed by an early-morning round at Porto Santo Golfe, a course which, in parts, hugs the coastline and is des-cribed by none other than Seve Ballesteros as "truly unique". Seve designed it.

This time, Wales were up against the Finn, Lassi, and the woman from Cognac, Bernadette. Lassi's hip replacement caused him to limp, but he found succour in the form of his partner, who may as well have had a little barrel of brandy around her neck. How could Wales compete with Lassi and a St Bernadette?

For the record, the Swedes pipped the Germans for the World Cup, and we never had time for whale watching. As an alternative, of course, there was Wales watching, but that was not a pretty sight.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

Sata International (00 707 227 282; sata.pt) offer a direct weekly service from London Gatwick to various airports in the Azores. Return fares from £250.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Campo de Golfe da Batalha (00 296 498 540/559/560; verdegolf.net). Campo de Golfe das Furnas(00 351 296 584 651; verdegolf.net). Palheiro (00 351 291 790 120; palheirogolf.com). Porto Santo Golfe (00 351 291 983 777/8; portugalgolf.pt).

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