‘No Tax’ Relaxation With Puerto Rican Tree Frogs

February 13, 2017

The most recent, non-important, non-urgent vacation realization to dawn on me did so on an evening walk back to my room from the Plantation House at the Bahia Beach St Regis in Puerto Rico. Replete from off-duty amounts of tenderly braised octopus and truckloads of mofongo at the resort’s flagship restaurant Fern, the warm winds […]

Wanna Eat Sushi Off My Garage Floor?

October 6, 2016

Sleeping 15 feet above a continually cracking garage floor for over 20 years finally produced one too many radon nightmares for me to ignore any longer. Structural dreams that ended with my dogs waving at me from a slowly detaching concrete iceberg on their way to “the wild” were starting to affect how I felt […]

Happy 250th Birthday, Homestead

November 19, 2015

With its birthday celebrating a quarter of a millennium rolling around next year, the Omni Homestead is considered America’s first resort, which began as a lodge in 1766. It makes me feel proud to be an American and a Virginian that it existed before the American Revolution.

Daily and monthly theme-oriented activities involving fireworks, speakers, concerts, historic menus, and a lot of cake will commemorate the year. I am eagerly awaiting some kind of major ghost activity announcement. I could feel the excitement building on a fall visit this year, as I watched every employee on grounds group together for a fly-over photo.

The Homestead is one of the most timeless places I have ever been, and the drive to Bath County from Washington, D.C., is a sunroof and radio proposition. Showcasing smaller and smaller Virginia settings at progressively slower lifestyles until you finally wind between and amongst the Allegheny Mountains to arrive there, the drive gives you just the right amount of time to decompress and close down shop before you lose cell coverage, the air thickens, and you make the jump to historical hyperspace.

The main dining room is a trademark affair and should not be missed. Elegant dress, outstanding employees and traditional food greats make a wrong turn unlikely. That being said, on this visit Jefferson’s Restaurant was the culinary hand that just plain smacked me around and left me laughing on the scale the next morning … twice. A group of us ate one of every appetizer on the menu the first night, and my friend had a mouthwatering steak that was so big that even after he was done they cut it up into two sandwiches for golf the next day. A visit is not complete without a meal at Sam Snead’s Tavern, just to pay homage to the slamster himself. Stories of Sam Snead’s ability to kick the tops of door frames from a dead stand still, even into his seventies, are fun and factual.

The old saying that there is “something for everyone” has never been more true than at the Homestead. I focused on food, golf, foot massage and exploring creaky hallways, but I could have shot stuff and fished, too. I strongly encourage a tour from the historian on grounds, who entertained us with his present tense accounts of notable guests from different eras. Men and women have kicked off their shoes and had a good time at this place. The period photos really show it, and they are fun to peruse.

The Old Course, designed by Donald Ross, has America’s oldest continuous tee still in use, and many presidents have played it. This course is picturesque against the Homestead, is forgiving, and the perfect round to enjoy with a spouse or friend. The Cascades Course is one of my all-time favorites. I played it three times during this visit. Heralded as perhaps the best mountain course in the country, the fall scenery here is Virginia’s finest. The last round we walked with caddies, and a finer day of golf I have not had. I love Virginia: so walking through the mountains with a friend and playing the game I love would be a win-win, no matter the score. The added bonus of having Bart as my caddy to stop me from tripping over myself was great extra “day enjoyment” insurance.

The people at the Omni Homestead are what make the place special. I was lucky enough to play a round with the recently retired Director of Golf at the Homestead, Don Ryder. He took the time to introduce me to J.C. Snead, Sam Snead’s nephew and PGA Tour winner, who happened to be hitting some balls on the range. Retiring after 43 years of service at the Homestead, Don has had over a hundred relatives work at the resort, at last count. His cousin Barry Ryder took over as Director of Golf, while Don will still play a role as Director of Golf Emeritus. Bob Swiger of Raspberry Falls Golf Course, upon my mentioning the round with Don, stated, “A finer ambassador of the game does not exist.”

Don and I were approaching a tee box on the Old Course in separate carts that day, and all of a sudden out of nowhere he roared off down the hill at top speed. I looked around for what I was sure would be poorly behaved guests, or an emergency of some magnitude, only to see Don racing a hedgehog across the valley, through the fairway. Watching him outdistance the hedgehog, and then turn the cart around to block the animal’s forest entry with a series of right and left dance moves, just left me laughing out loud. Upon his return to the tee box, I asked him who won, and he replied, “Just visiting an old friend. I used to just reach down and grab ’em.” What can I say? This kind of catchy enthusiasm, interest, and energy speaks for itself.

I highlight my experience with Don as one example of the quality of people that make the Homestead work. It truly is an exceptional family within this small community in southwest Virginia. Celebrating 250 years is a big deal and is worthy of a place on your calendar in 2016. I always look forward to going there. The anticipation of a trip there will cause me to take pause when deciding what shirts to pack and what music to bring. I rarely use a cell phone there, and I always take the time to wash and wax the car before the trip. I laugh a lot there. My ghost will hang out there sometimes.
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Wandergolf: Touring South Africa with Pro Golf Safaris

August 25, 2015

While the flight was long and Table Mountain was huge, it wasn’t until a South African native waitress clicked through some Zulu expressions that the waves of delightful unfamiliarity washed over me and far-awayness kicked in. The April trip to South Africa with some other writers and tour operators was with Pro Golf Safaris, the most noteworthy golf and safari tour operator in South Africa. Making bogeys taste good is this group’s specialty, and the seemingly endless depths of South African resources available to them in this undertaking made this an enchanting trip and introduction to the country.

Topping the New York Times list of places to go in the world in 2014, Cape Town has something for everyone. Twelve hours after my arrival, I was staring into the wide open mouth of a 17-foot great white shark as it banged itself against the wimpy and bent up cage I was diving in, an experience I will never forget. We saw the wobbly little penguins by the hundreds at Boulder’s Beach, which was (there is no other way to describe this) totally cute. Reaching the top of Cape Point, I was laughingly disabused of the notion that I would see a jagged and watery line where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.

The Cape Town waterfront offers multitudes of excursions involving helicopters, whales, wine and other activities — the most famous probably being the trips to Nelson Mandela’s former prison on Robben Island. Fresh eateries and local markets are around every corner, and we consumed local biltong by the pound the whole trip. Biltong is a 400-year-old South African snack similar to beef jerky, but chewier and prepared differently, featuring every type of game meat conceivable. Not having yet picked up a golf club or gotten over jet lag, I was already wowed by South Africa.

The most distinctive golf in SA lies along the Eastern Cape and Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. De Zalze, a parklands course on a 300-hectare estate boasting substantial vineyard and farming efforts, was a great example of just how much golf and wine scratch each other’s backs in the SA economy. A visit to the picturesque Ernie Els Winery and his nearby Stellenbosch restaurant, The Big Easy, culinarily hammered this point home. Farther down the road and voted #5 in SA, Arabella Golf Course was an absolute treat to play. Nestled amongst the hills of the Palmiet Mountain Range above the Bot River Lagoon, the course was a sanctuary of bird life and beautiful views.

South of Mossel Bay, the caves directly beneath Pinnacle Point Golf Course, are a heritage site, which are believed to be one of the first places that humans used heat to make stone tools. Forty thousand years later, I was hoping to reap karma benefits from using forged irons at the breathtakingly stunning course. Halfway between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, Pinnacle Point reminded me of an elevated Pebble Beach, and the views from above the blue waters of the Indian Ocean may be the best I have seen in golf.

The Links at Fancourt, designed by Gary Player, was recently voted #34 in the world. The caddied round here was special and portrayed traditional golf in a way conservatives would toast as near perfect. The two other courses at the resort, Montagu and Outeniqua, along with the exemplary dining facilities and accommodations, rate this a destination by itself. We stayed three days, but many retire there and do not leave the premises. The massive grounds are a botanist paradise. We stayed an evening at the Conrad Pezula after that, dined in Flintstonian proportions, and in the morning drove the impressive Pezula Course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

The game drives over the next few days at the Kichaka and Pumba Reserves on the Eastern Cape were amazing. The highlight of my Kichaka experience was a quiet sunset tailgate in the bush, punctuated by the velvet pattering of giraffe pillow fights less than 100 yards away, as they whipped their gangly necks at each other’s torsos. The unexpected baby rhino sightings at Pumba were thrilling, and on the last evening there we stumbled upon a family of white lions and watched the cubs play with each other as we sat in silence. Wildebeests just look weird, and watching them run in circles was interesting. The tendency for startled warthogs to scatter and then immediately return to where they were startled was Darwinistically interesting. Monkeys are always a welcome addition, as long as all of your food is within reach. Nighttime hippopotamus noises were new to me, once you figured out they didn’t come from someone in your own crowd.

I like to think of myself as a contrarian, a non-cruise-ship guy, someone who makes their own plans and comes out ahead. But I was overwhelmingly thankful and appreciative for Pro Golf Safaris by the end of this trip. It’s too hard to be in the know this far from South Africa, and good operators have a finger on the pulse of their specialty areas. Most tour operators get roughly 30-percent discounts on almost everything, especially outfits like this that do a large volume business with the places you want to go. The skill that results in good times and cultural education for me now seems to be in communicating with folks like this about exactly what you would like to do, because it’s all available.

This was a lifetime experience, and I will go back. The last conversations with my travel friends all concerned bucket-list amendments and revisions to include repeats and further research. There is golf everywhere, and certainly closer, but what about the penguins and biltong? What about the wines they don’t ship and the plants that don’t grow here? What about the Indian Ocean? What about Zulu? Knowing the answers to these questions makes up for the truth: that I will never play on the PGA Tour.

You may contact Pro Golf Safaris at 1-800-701-2185, or go to progolfsafaris.com. [gallery ids="102273,128233,128225,128251,128243,128240" nav="thumbs"]

A Sunny Christmas in the Turks and Caicos Islands

January 29, 2015

Famous for its salt production in the 1600s, now it’s the potcake-puppy culture, pirate shipwrecks, pink flamingos and Keith Richards that all thrive on the powdery white sands that make up the Turks and Caicos Island chain in the British West Indies.

The popular but uncrowded beach town of Providenciales, TCI’s largest city, where I stayed in December at the Ocean Club Resort, seemed to have the perfect ratio of condos, resorts, restaurants, and shopping venues, with just the right amount of nothing thrown in. Nobody tried to sell me anything on the beach once.

The original Turks and Caicos Islanders lived in peace for 700 years until the European arrival in the early 16th century eradicated the population through the introduction of disease and slave recruitment. After a vacant period of 150 years, the salt industry, and later cotton, demanded the use of slaves who, after being emancipated in 1834, really formed the basis of the population there today. Americans form the majority of tourism now, and many snowbirds from Canada and the East Coast spend substantial parts of the year or retire here. Tourism, offshore banking and fishing account for most of this British Overseas Territory’s industry.

Thanks largely to an extremely comprehensive talk and music demonstration at Ocean Club West by Turks and Caicos Islands Culture Director David Bowen, I felt like I understood for the first time some of the challenges associated with historically interrupted areas like TCI, when it comes to recognizing, defining and promoting its own culture. Bowen demonstrated “Ripsaw” music, indigenous to TCI, which is made from scraping a bent saw with a knife or screwdriver. He has personally collected poetry and stories from the Islands’ elders and can recite them at will, which was mesmerizing. I valued this immensely and believe it is this type of undertaking by native locals that will distinguish and elevate the travel experience in a part of the world that seems in danger of becoming too homogenized.

The night of my arrival I had an almond-crusted fried grouper with coconut sauce right on the beach at the resort that was phenomenal. A dinner at the resort’s signature restaurant Opus was also a culinary bull’s eye, where I gleefully inhaled the crudo fish tasting and coconut curried conch.

Since Ocean Club has two locations a mile apart on Grace Bay, both of whose amenities were available to guests, I had an extremely pleasant dinner at the Seaside Café West location as well. The resort was three for three in the kitchen department. The two-location set-up works well. The east spot was nice and quiet, while the west one was closer to downtown shops and good for my ADHD loud fixes.

Off-campus dining favorites included Da Conch Shack, an open-air compound devoted to showcasing the conch from the water to the table in every way possible, and the weekly Wednesday night Island fish fry. With at least 20 restaurants there hawking their chewables, I spent a small fortune wolfing down grilled spiny lobster, varieties of jerked chicken and pork, enough plantains to fill a Fiat, and some little red pepper things that were great. If you suddenly find yourself needing a hand-painted tin gecko of any size or a chiseled coconut face, this is the venue where your tchotchke thirst can be quenched. A TCI-style Junkanoo featuring “The Conch Man” was fun, while attempts at an open-mike type format served as a reminder why you went on vacation in the first place. The three dentists I golfed with swore that Coco Bistro was a landmark eating establishment not to be missed, but I did.

The Provo Golf club was an expensively watered oasis on the limestone island, and I ended up playing two rounds of golf here during my short stay. A first for me was a golf course that had pink flamingos on it that were there by choice. Conversations with club pro Dave Douglas were representative of the interactions I had with almost all activities management in Providenciales: friendly and story-abound, affirming of the small island’s obvious network of friendships. While it may be the only game in town, it was clear from talking to other golfers that it was a focal point activity for many of the repeat travelers and condo owners on the Island. A second first was the introduction of Moringa to me by Douglas. Moringa is the newest protein leaf on the rise that he swears will soon be in every North American supermarket. He and his sons have planted them on the course. I can’t tell if my glass of Moringa Tea helped me hit the ball any farther than usual, but it tasted good.

Jumping at the chance to go saltwater fly-fishing with the resort’s game-fishing partner Silver Deep, I was channeling Hemingway, while whipping line back and forth from the skiff’s bow, but the elusive bonefish remained elusive and I had to settle for a small barracuda in its place. Shark sightings in crystal clear water and the countless bird species abound were amazing. An afternoon sailboat excursion was beautiful and the snorkeling colorful. I spent a relaxing evening touring the mangrove flats with a knowledgeable tour guide who showed me how to pick up jellyfish at rest and told good glow worm stories. I had a locally hand-rolled cigar each evening on the porch, while I listened to the warm winds blow through the palm trees. I had a really good time.

More information about this resort can be found at www.oceanclubresorts.com. Maps and facts about the Turks and Caicos Islands can be found at www.gov.tc.
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Wandergolf: Home, Sweet, Homestead

January 16, 2015

The colors of fall made their debut in the trees of southern Virginia this past weekend. Nature’s annually renewable color wheel turned out rustic-red, campfire-orange, and squash-yellow leaf swirls for our viewing pleasure, as my wife and I meandered through the Allegheny Mountains to arrive at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. This was my first visit to this resort, and the timelessness that met me here in Bath County ensured that it will not be my last.

While the picturesque drive there, hassle-free check-in and plushy sleeping situation slowed things down, the breakfast buffet delivered the final pulse-lowering blow. The pre-hibernation feast available quashed all ideas I had of walking the Cascades Course.

Always in the “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” list, the Cascades is the textbook mountain course, ensconced by natural surroundings that showcase it well. Man, I love playing a golf course with room. When you have a fairway lined with 150-foot hemlock trees and a backdrop of a mountain five miles away, who cares where your ball lands? Well, me, but I shouldn’t.

Highlights of the round for me included the approach shot to the slightly inclined, elevated shelf-like green on #4, and the tee shot into the deep left side of the soup-bowl valley on #7. No matter if it was your second or third stroke (or fourth, fifth or sixth), the approach shot over the pond on the par 5 #16 hole was spectacular, and the uphill tee shot over water to the 18th green ended the round on a high note. I also appreciated the mountain-inspired acoustical smack of the flag being dropped to the green by far away fellow golfers being audible from a great distance away. At this time, I would not recommend using orange or yellow balls.

The Canyon Ranch Spa services that my wife availed herself of were reportedly luxurious, and she almost overslept for dinner. The post-treatment outdoor lounge with natural springs and wood-burning fire pit, surrounded by satisfied “spadets” in white robes, could have passed for a Roman marshmallow roast. In less opulent surroundings, the men-only natural springs five miles away that Thomas Jefferson once soaked in provided me warmth and humor, as I listened to a fellow bather lament upon the color choices of the “noodle” flotation devices that were available to us grown men.

A jacketed affair, complete with late-era live band music, dinner in the main dining room lasted about as long as a good movie. Starring roles were pheasant and strip steak, with cameos by crab Louis and oysters Rockefeller. The menu at Jefferson’s, the other upscale restaurant at the Homestead, looked equally appealing and will have to wait for our next visit.

The Old Course at the Homestead, built in 1892, is home to the nation’s oldest first tee in continuous use. Last Sunday morning it was home to 30-something degree weather, as the first cold snap appeared out of nowhere. The cold burned off to become a crisp, beautiful, sunny mountain day with spectacular views making an appearance once again. The Old Course, while not in the same league as the Cascades, is the best kept example of resort golf I have ever seen. This is a perfect course for a couple or a family to play. The back tees might keep a seasoned golfer happy with yardage and difficulty, but a seasoned golfer would never think to complain about either because of the available views. Memorable golf moments for me were the tee shot at the par three #5 against the “double-mountain” looking backdrop and the five minutes my wife and I marveled at the views down the #13 fairway from the tee box. I really enjoyed playing the Old Course with my wife and will file this in the “Special Round” category.

Whichever activities I chose to participate in on my visit to the Homestead, I was still going to be left with a list for future visits. Falconry is not something you see every day, and learning how to fly fish in the mountain streams surrounding the Homestead are two things on my list. The hiking trails and horses may see more of my wife in some future trip. When we first pulled into Hot Springs and I saw the Jeffersonian brick and white grounds of the Homestead, and when we later exited onto Sam Snead Highway to leave, I found myself thinking roughly the same thing: How cool is it that something like that exists in Virginia? [gallery ids="101514,150884,150886" nav="thumbs"]

Wander Golf: Groundhog Day at Pawleys Island, South Carolina

September 10, 2014

One way a truly exceptional golf course distinguishes itself from its rivals is through the quality of excuses it makes available to golfers for poorly executed shots. Post-shot outbursts last weekend at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in South Carolina of “Both alligators surfaced closer at the same time” and “That heron stabbed a fish in my backswing” once again confirmed this course to be one of my all-time favorite layouts.

Caledonia and its sister course, True Blue Plantation, have been Myrtle Beach itinerary favorites for years, and every year on the way home someone says, “Man, we should just play those courses every day!” Last weekend, we played the same 36 holes of golf at Caledonia and True Blue at the same times for four days in a row to put it to the test. Is too much of a good thing wonderful?

These two courses, both designed by Mike Strantz, differ from each other so greatly that they make a great pairing.

Caledonia is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of flowers, wildlife and Spanish moss draped from massive century-old oak trees. This golf course has more energy than any other golf course I have ever played. Wing-drying cormorants line the banks, where alligators sun and white snowy egrets fly over southern fox squirrels at play. Fish jump when you are actually looking. The course feels like a Disney-animated, closed-circuit ecosystem. Caledonia showcases landscaping in a way that even the wildlife seems to appreciate.

The rolling, expansive and immaculate fairways of True Blue stand out amid what feels like 60 percent of the course that is made up of waste bunkers and has the opposite feel of being landscaped. It has a natural feel to it like Kiawah or Pinehurst. It also has a natural feel to it like a beach. The sheer amount of sand on some holes leaves open the possibility of getting so lost that your fellow golfers forget who you are by the time you get to the green. The trees and wildlife seem totally different at True Blue, and, once again, this makes for a great pairing with its big brother course. If Caledonia is the Who, then True Blue is Dire Straits.
Staying at True Blue in Pawleys Island, right next to both courses, was key to enjoying this many rounds at them. While Myrtle Beach has more than 100 courses, staying in the middle of it and running around to play golf all over has a cafeteria feel to it that I don’t like. I really liked getting to know the two courses well. I looked forward to improving on my play from prior rounds. There is a reason sports franchises compete with each other in a series. Look at the pros: they play the same course every day for five days, week in and week out. The downside to being afforded the ability to improve upon prior play is that you have no place to go but down after playing well, which can be tough. Repetitive play has a way of sucker punching the eternal optimist in every golfer.

Having the same golf schedule every day also makes it easier to plan meals, which — along with water, suntan lotion, and anti-inflammatories — become important factors in finishing rounds every day. Both courses have grill rooms with solid options and finishing hole views. Nosh and Bistro 217 are two excellent restaurants nearby for anyone left standing at the end of the day.

Golf magazine just came out with its 2014 list of “Top 100 U.S. Courses You Can Play,” and Caledonia was #27 and True Blue made the list for the first time at #77.

Architect Mike Strantz unfortunately died young in 2006 at the age of 50, or I am sure we would see a lot more of his courses in the spotlight. He worked under Tom Fazio before breaking out on his own with Caledonia in 1993. Virginia favorites Stonehouse and Royal New Kent are Strantz designs also. Tobacco Road in North Carolina is also one of the nine courses he designed.

Riding to the eighteenth green for the last time, around what is left of the former rice plantation at Caledonia, I was feeling dismayed at not having a breakthrough round on the trip. At that moment, a giant seabird spread its wings and took flight across our path, while a rabbit darted the opposite direction. While an alligator circling the green was leaving a quiet wake, a fish jumped three times in a row so close that I could see the spots on its side. Exiting the course for the last time, the starter appeared out of nowhere at our window and said, “You fellows make sure to come back and visit us again, ya hear.” In my last backward glance, I swear I thought I saw a bluebird on his shoulder.
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Pin Hunting on Penobscot Bay: Samoset Resort

July 16, 2014

The analogies between bacon and golf might escape the neophyte leisurist, but any expert loafer in the wild at this moment may have already casually surveyed the frying pan rack, mentally reviewed the contents of his trunk and will soon be pressing #1 for the pro shop. Eating little blueberries and slurping up lobster can only shine brighter when bacon shows her face, while Andrew Wyeth paintings and puffin sightings are truly more appreciated when bookended or framed by a few rounds of golf. Nestled along the Penobscot Bay in Maine between the tidal water towns of Rockland and Rockport, Samoset Resort was my vacation bacon.

Celebrating a centennial of golf in 2002, the course underwent major renovations in the 1970s, and many recent tweaks and additions have landed the resort in the pages of Conde Nast Traveler and Golf Digest for its resort amenities and beautiful views. One hundred and seventy-eight rooms and three cottages are crowned by “The Flume,” a moat surrounded, majestic oceanside residence for rent along hole #15, where actor John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston supposedly spent their honeymoon night. More recent and weighty geographical significance has surfaced in its cameo role as the house behind the sand trap that I chipped in from to make birdie.

Highlights on the front nine are made even higher by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean on every single hole. Lobstermen dropping traps in the water, puffy white sailboat triangles and Rockland’s Breakwater Lighthouse Trail all come together in bad-shot-erasing panoramic views that put the exclamation point in time already being well spent. Definite front nine favorites for me were holes #3 and #4. The third hole’s uphill tee shot to a green beneath a watercolor-worthy copse of trees could be the textbook case for clubbing up, and the blind shot to reach the #4 green in two could be one of many ways to play the hole. I consider the number of times a golfer has to consider risk and reward in a round a good measure of course architecture, and Samoset has had good architectural input over the years.

The course’s only four non-oceanside string of holes starts out with a very nicely laid out par four on #10. The challenging approach shot over water can only be made harder if you manage to hide behind the one three-inch wide sapling in the middle of the fairway (I did). Hole #11 is a good-looking, spicy little par three with pleasant water fountain white noise to even out swing tempo. The accolades from me for the back nine belong to holes #13 and #14. The spicy little par three’s bar brawling uncle with tattoos makes up the wicked thirteenth par three; it’s a 230-yard shot over water. Any separation anxiety stemming from lack of ocean is more than quelled by the water’s stunning return at the end of the lengthy lounge-chair shaped par 5 number 14 hole, easily my favorite hole at Samoset.

Maine’s humidity-avoiding, transient, late summer population is represented well at Samoset, and it was very easy for me to find people that felt obligated to let me join them. As happens over a round of golf my new friends Bob, Dave, and Fred soon became Bobby, Davey and Freddy. The staff at the club was extremely welcoming, and while I had plans of playing some other nearby courses, it just seemed natural to store my clubs at Samoset when asked. Club professional Gary Soule was very welcoming and fun to talk to, and 94-year-old starter Ray Fogarty, a 34-year course veteran, recently had “Ray’s Creek” dedicated to him for years of service. When I met him at 7 a.m. the other day, he was munching on a Danish with a cartful of empty beer bottles he claimed were just collected for recycling. Having worked at the Samoset as early as 1934, Fogarty remembers when the club had barracks for visiting baseball players that would play exhibition games for guests.

Lobster, organic farms, bird watching, kayaking, biking, hiking, little blueberries, lighthouses, country roads, watercolors, music festivals and gas stations that serve award-winning soups are all reasons I will be back in Maine next summer. This summer, I added golf at the Samoset to the list. [gallery ids="101808,139919,139914" nav="thumbs"]

Mission Hills Resorts: Mainland China and Hainan Island

June 27, 2014

Whether your arrival is straight from a knee-crunching, 20-hour airline experience or a shuttle over the border from the space-starved city of Hong Kong, the welcoming 20 square kilometers that comprise the world’s largest golf resort at Mission Hills promise plenty of leg room, long irons and lady loopers. Mission Hills Dongguan and Shenzhen edged out Pinehurst in 2004 for the Guinness Book of World Records honor, boasting a total of 12 championship courses. Combine these with the ten additional courses located at Mission Hills Haikou Resort on Hainan Island, and you can see where an eight-day trip there might be an option-wrenching experience for a golfer. No one has expressed anything like real sympathy for me as of yet.

I played my first round of nighttime golf — readily available at all Mission Hills Resorts — at Dongguan. It turned out to be an eerily cool way to deal with jet lag. Time became confusing while sleepily wandering around the fluorescent-filled fairways, sporting oxygen-deprived swollen ankles. Golf balls began resembling Atari asteroids as they rocketed from my clubs and disappeared off screen.

Having arrived skeptical as to how a resort could uniquely differ from so many neighboring golf tracts, I left overwhelmingly impressed. The thick forest-lined Norman course weaved in and around the Mainland China Hills and was probably the most challenging course at Dongguan. The meandering layout promoted solitude, and my inability to speak Mandarin prompted a fun practice of miming out shot intentions to my caddie. Knowledgeable caddie notwithstanding and appreciated, I very much enjoyed playing by myself and will remember this quietly pleasant Norman walkabout for some time. The number of sand traps on the famed Olazabal Course necessitate the creation of greenside outdoor showers and a name change to “Playa Del Iraq,” but make it an outstanding test of shot placement skills.

Mission Hills Shenzhen, a short shuttle away, was no less expansive or inviting. While waxing golf is something I am partial to, no account of time spent here would be complete without addressing the magnitude of activities besides golf that are available to the “golfed-out” and non-golfer. If world-renowned spas, eco-friendly trail hikes, curvy swimming pools or optical illusionary “Trick-Eye Museums” become old hat, guests can go buy new ones in Hong Kong. Culinary possibilities featuring Chinese, Japanese, American and Korean menus are available in venues, ranging from your bed to private dining rooms. A golf course science and technology museum is available for kids (and held my attention), while life-size dioramas espousing resort responsibility for green and responsible growth are educational and captivating. Just walking through the grand ballrooms is fun. Visiting celebrities have all left cement handprints in walkways throughout the grounds, and finding your celebrity match is a popular pastime. Algebraically, I learned that: My Hands < Nick Faldo’s Hands < Yao Ming’s Hands. It was a special treat to play a Pete Dye course in China, where the trademarked railroad-tie designs came complete with the exotic three-noted chimes of emerald doves overseeing play. The highlight round of Dongguan and Shenzhen was the World Cup Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Made famous when Fred Couples and Davis Love III won here in 1995, it remains one of the most famous courses in China. I flew into Mission Hills Haikou on Hainan Island, having no idea what to expect, and I was wowed all over again. Hainan Island is generally referred to as the “Hawaii of the East,” as it has the same tropical climate and volcanic rock. I was even necklaced with a flowered lei upon hotel arrival. Mainland Chinese flock here for the relaxed attitude and recreation it provides. The golf courses I played at Haikou were unbelievable. The Blackstone Course, which hosted the exhibition match between Rory and Tiger last October, featured a contrasting trio of lava rock, white sand and green grass in a sharpness that I have never seen before. International awards and competitions litter its pedigree. If Blackstone were the heavyweight, then the Lava Fields Course would be a barroom-brawling cousin. These two courses were more alike than any others I played at Mission Hills, and this was not only forgivable but desirable. I saw the sun rise at Mission Hills Haikou from the Blackstone Course my last day because I had to play it a second time. The amenity base at the Haikou Resort already surpasses anything I have ever seen at a golf resort, and future expansion plans are no less promising. A Lan Kwai Fong shopping, dining, and concert venue to sister the existing one in Hong Kong is set to deliver late this year (think East Asian Times Square), and an entire movie-themed town is also just wrapping up. Hyatt and Hard Rock are under construction. Mission Hills may have most of its golf courses situated, but the Mission Hills brand is just getting underway. Home to the world’s largest spa and mineral springs, the resort is also the largest tennis facility in the world. The vast real estate holdings that make all of this expansion possible could hide a million people, and yet it would not feel crowded. If you want to feel crowded, you can visit nearby Haikou City. Not only did I wander off campus to do this, I even undertook an evening “Hainan Impression” show, showcasing the history of the island. A seafood dinner expedition in town allowed me to pick out whatever I wanted to eat from hundreds of fresh seafood tanks. There are more than 600 golf courses in China, and that number is growing monthly. The sheer numbers associated with the breakout of the Chinese upper middle class is something the world has never seen, and the number of golfers there are predicted to eclipse their American counterparts inside of ten years. Mission Hills Resorts will be there to cater to them, and a family or group trip to China to experience them will round out any American golfer’s resume. The inability to portray the monumental number of experiential possibilities available to me on this trip in a single column leave me no choice but to leave you with this simple directive: Google Mission Hills, and go there. I definitely will be going back soon. [gallery ids="101775,141125,141128,141134,141138,141149,141146,141142" nav="thumbs"]

Wandergolf: Getting a Grip

April 11, 2014

The last false start to the end of miserably wretched seasonal affectation disorders that have prohibited Washingtonians from golfing may finally be water under the bridge. While Mother Nature’s final green light to swap out the snow shovel for the sand wedge may mean the season is ready for you, are you ready for the season? Consideration of the age-old basics, a little cash, some good karma and a new tuna recipe may be just what you need to break into the seventies this season. So here we go:

Size matters and flash inspires. Have someone industry-knowledgeable confirm you are using the right clubs. It makes a difference. Buy a shiny new bag, sporty new shoes, some Pro V1’s with a picture of your dog on them and replace cadaver-ready golf gloves. Replace the nine iron you cleaned the gutters with, and ditch whatever you were hiding in your golf bag all winter in the garage.

Bust a move. Exercise will ensure a safe couch-to-course transition, and low poundage correlates to low golf scores. Walk, do push-ups, ride to work, do backyard tai chi in your underwear, but do something. Pre-golf movement will spike your moods and help with injury avoidance.

Want birdies, eat bird food. Stop eating poor bratwurst imitations and buffet tacos at the clubhouse. Go to the bulk food section at Whole Foods and design your own nut and berry mix for the season. Google spicy Asian tuna fish on the internet, and finally use that insulated pocket on your bag for something other than warm beer. Have wasabi-flavored almonds for a snack after the seventh hole.

“Wax on, wax off.” Seek out wise and enlightened counsel to design a three-lesson plan that smooths out some rough edges in your game and gives you some direction for practice time. The cost of a few lessons is probably a hundredth of what you spent on the game last season and will pay dividends.

Know a 97 from a 79. The rules of golf read like a 33-part real estate transaction between three generations of four non-NATO participating countries, but there are crib notes available almost everywhere, and you should read them and know them. You do not have to always play by them but you should know how to. When you do shoot a 70s game, it will mean something.

Home on the range, home on the course. You are what you do, so squeeze in meaningful range time. Sequentially practice shots that mirror your favorite golf holes, and spend equal amounts of time on the putting and chipping greens. Sometimes take only two clubs to the range. Putt for quarters. Have the humility and diligence to play a par three course to work on your short game, but make it a competition.

Carrier pigeons are obsolete. Embrace technology and computerize a list of all the people you know that play golf, complete with phone numbers and emails, then send it to every one of them. This says you are open for business. Pulling off the Tuesday afternoon ad-hoc game becomes an easy reality. Having a co-conspirator on the fly will diminish “helpful suggestions” from others about how you spend your valuable free time.
Get out of Dodge. Be a leader and plan a long golf weekend for later in the season. Do it now, get it on the books. Myrtle Beach, Kohler, Bandon Dunes and the U.K. are all a phone call away. A healthy, natural, competitive fear will force you to play enough to pass muster on the trip. Who cares how many people go? You will have fun. That one phone call may turn into your club’s annual event.

Pass it on, pay it forward. Introduce the game of golf to a young person by taking them out to play a round or to hit some at the range. Somebody did it for you. If the idea of footgolf (or any other multi-land use ideas for golf courses) nauseates you, than man up and teach the incoming generation to appreciate the status quo. This advice nugget can be the one on this list that doesn’t even necessarily have to involve golf. Spending an afternoon a week in an old folks’ home cheering people up will put your poor golf shots in perspective.

Crack a book. Read a golf classic by John Updike, Jack Nicklaus or Dr. Alister MacKenzie. If you have attention-span issues, then just replace whatever magazines are in your bathroom with the golf classics organized in “snippets of sense” fashion. Harvey Penick, Hogan and Bob Rotella books are all ideal for ADD golfers, and the haphazard lessons will find a way into your game.

Have a stake in the game. Throw a hundred bucks at a fantasy golf league. Pick one that doesn’t require a statistician’s background to play. This participation will prompt phone calls, emails and wisecracks about the game, making for pleasant white noise during the work week.

Man vs. himself. Go play by yourself once in a while. The same foursome all the time will eventually suffer from “cellmate mentality” issues. One-word jokes, out-of-date bathroom humor and obscure music and movie references might creep into your professional vernacular or domestic conversations. Fun people play golf. Go meet them.

Record outstanding occurrences. A golf diary or journal is not necessary, but if you hit an outstanding shot on a sunny day in a cool place, write it down. An encounter with someone memorable, a treeful of rare birds, mid-fairway solutions to a problem or the end of a midlife crisis may all surface during frequently scheduled four-hour activities – and are worthy of remembrance. Paragraph them on three by five cards, punch holes in them and keep a flip chart of noteworthy thoughts nearby to remind you of the little things that make life worthwhile.

I hope this year’s golfing season brings you much joy, and that the rocks, trees and greens conspire to send your balls bouncing in their intended directions. I hope you remember to tell your spouse and family about the wildlife you saw on the course and the interesting people you met (not just all about which irons went where). I hope to see you as you trudge the happy fairways of destiny. Most of all, I hope you play fast.