VALE DO LOBO, PORTUGAL | I am lost again, and I’m starting to get hot. Hot as in steaming mad, because I don’t see any street signs on the roads in this bustling coastal town on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Nor can I find any numbers on the buildings that line the thoroughfare. I curse under my breath as I try to read a crumpled road map and rue not getting a GPS for my rental car.
I seem to have spent a goodly portion on my week here getting lost, and I am so agitated I’m about to lapse into a Tommy Bolt temper tantrum. But then I quickly think of a conversation I had at an oceanside bar the night before with a native of this sun-soaked land of only 10 million people.
“We are a very relaxed country,” he explained after listening to me describe how my navigational challenges were stirring my ire. “So, it helps if you are relaxed, too.”
I chuckled when I reconsidered those words, because my new-found friend was right. Portugal is most definitely a place about relaxing, and the best way to fully appreciate and enjoy it is to relax, too. So, I took a deep breath, stopped a pedestrian to ask for directions and then found my way to my destination in fairly short order.
I first learned about the institutional imperative of kicking back almost as soon as I set foot in this Iberian nation. Portugal was in the midst fiscal crisis so serious that a group of bankers and bureaucrats from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union had come to see about renegotiating the country’s massive debt. And the ruling government’s response to that visit, which came just before Easter, was to give all federal workers an extra day off before the holiday weekend. So, while the financiers tried to work out relief for a country that has long been living beyond its means, its citizens heeded the call of its leaders and deserted their jobs in droves.
I am sure that one of the reasons Portugal is such a relaxed place is that there are so many places where people can go to take things down a notch. One option is lingering in a traditional coffee bar, or pasteleria, where the caffeine and camaraderie set a soothing social tone. Another is to venture to the beaches along the country’s more than 1,100 miles of coastline, which seemed always to be bathed in sun.
The vineyards of the Douro Valley are also a pretty good place to decompress, especially when glasses of wines made from grapes like Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca are being poured. And so are the island getaways of the Azores and Madeira. Few places in this world are as good at washing away the worries of modern life than the port houses of Porto, the country’s second largest city and the place after which this nation, which was founded in 1139, was named. Leisurely walks through the charming, hillside barrios of Lisbon are quite good at bringing down the blood pressure as are evenings in the fado bars of Portugal’s capital, listening to mournful songs about the sea.
Then, there is the golf. The royal and ancient game is a fairly new addition to Portugal’s vast menu of recreational activities. But in the years since British transplants like the three-time Open champion and Ryder Cup stalwart Sir Henry Cotton introduced golf to that land in the 1950s, it has grown into an important diversion.
Today, there are more than 80 courses in the country, many of which were designed by architects like Robert Trent Jones Sr., Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. And they range in style and feel from rugged mountain layouts like Penha Longa to newer, scenic tracks near and along the cerulean Atlantic, such as Oceania Victoria and Oitavos Dunes. And developers continue to add to the country’s golfing inventory, hiring other top architects, such as Tom Fazio and David McLay Kidd, to build new courses.
To be fair, golf is not the primary reason to make a trip to Portugal, for while this is a nation with golf it is by no means a golfing nation. But the game certainly ranks among the most calming things to do on this land. Followed, of course, by several hours spent on the beach or by the pool with a book and a beverage. And as my near meltdown had just demonstrated, I needed to relax.
Golf is concentrated about evenly in Portugal in two primary areas: the Algarve coast that runs along the southernmost portion of the country, and Lisbon, along the Atlantic to the north and east.
The first courses to be laid out were mostly in the Algarve, a coastal region where people long made their living farming the land as well as the sea. Tourism is now the economic engine, and the area boasts a number of tight tracks that wind in and around red-roofed, white-walled houses and apartments, most of which are winter homes for northern Europeans (who treat this area the way Americans use Florida).
Like San Lorenzo, which Joe Lee created in the late 1980s. The course runs through a section of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve and along a tidal estuary that empties into the Atlantic. Its ample fairways are lined by stubby umbrella pines, and a round there not only features terrific ocean views but also the chance to hit a variety of shots from an array of angles. I was especially taken with the stretch of holes by said estuary, Nos. 5, 6 and 7. And I loved the vistas from the 12th tee of a sea salt farm, with piles of that dietary staple being harvested the old fashioned way, by shirtless men wielding wooden rakes in shallow rectangular pools.
The Royal Course at nearby Valle do Lobo is not nearly as roomy as San Lorenzo and more heavily lined with housing. But I find it as challenging and as fun, especially when we come upon the Atlantic on the 15th and 16th holes and get to watch and listen to the waves breaking against the rocky shore as we stand over our shots. Valle do Lobo was one of the first tracks built in the Algarve, which comes from the Arabic word meaning “the West” and harkens back to the time when the Moors ruled this part of Europe. And the course has a bit of an older feel to it, which made me think of Henry Cotton as I walk it and the trails he blazed in this area.
Oceanico Victoria is a completely different scene, and represents another, very Americanized version of golf that can be found in the Algarve. Located in the village of Villamoura and designed by Arnold Palmer, it is the site of the Portugal Masters, which Lee Westwood won a couple of years ago. The course opened in 2004 and is flatter and brawnier than the others I played in the Algarve. And while it definitely has the ability to challenge the touring pro, it also gives the visiting golfer another way to enjoy the region. Especially if he picks the right tees. I played from the Medal markers that measure about 6,600 yards on the par-72 course, and not only used every club in my bag in my round but also delighted in the different shots I had to play to say nothing of the sights of the olive grove off of the fourth green and the handful of horses I saw grazing on the grounds.
Outside Lisbon are the courses of the area known as the Estoril, just west of the nation’s capital. One of the newest and best of that bunch is Oitavos Dunes in the seaside town of Cascais. Designed by Arthur Hills and opened in 2001, it is a links-style track overlooking the Atlantic to the south and the hilly forest of a national park to the north. The course provides stunning views as well as an opportunity to play the game in its most traditional form – on the ground and in the wind. Purple and yellow wild flowers growing amongst the scrubby dunes enhance the visuals, as do the small coveys of perdiz, a sort of local partridge, scurrying across the fairways.
About an hour’s drive from that layout is Penha Longa, a Robert Trent Jones design in the Sintra hills with 27 holes. A true parklands layout set on a sumptuous estate that once housed a monastery as well as a palace that was a favorite retreat for the Portuguese royal family, it runs through shaded valleys and along rugged slopes dotted with groves of olive, eucalyptus and cork trees. A 700-year-old aqueduct borders the sixth green, and the cupola of a 14th century chapel is visible from the 18th tee. Penha Longa, which translates into “Long Rock,” is a frequent host of the Portugal Open, and I found it as challenging a golf course as it was scenic.
Thankfully, I also found a round there to be pretty relaxing.