A Holiday Planning Guide for Golf in Portugal in Spain: An Insider’s Perspective on Golf in Spain and Portugal
As boutique providers of luxury golf travel to exceptional destinations around the world, we take the opportunity from time to time to share our findings regarding some of the great new courses in our footprint, which spans the US West Coast, including the Pacific Northwest, Europe, and Argentina, among other dynamic destinations. Care should be taken when booking golf holidays outside of the US. As you may encounter with hotel accommodations, you simply cannot believe everything you read in a travel guide or on the Internet. Have you ever been to a hotel or resort that didn’t live up to your expectations or that lived in faded glory? Probably! That’s why we play and check out the courses we recommend to our rich clients.
In the past year, we have played or inspected more than 40 golf courses in Spain and Portugal. While golf experiences in Spain and golf experiences in Portugal are the pinnacles of the continent, what we found was surprising. In particular, we discovered some very strong new courses that we had never heard of, both in golf-rich regions and counties not known for golf. In addition, we found some highly acclaimed courses that, in our professional opinion, no longer make the grade. Your golfing vacation in Spain or Portugal can be a great memory if you plan well and get help from experts.
So here are the candid reviews of what we consider to be the best destination golf courses in Spain and Portugal. Based on an American perspective, we tailor our courses to meet the needs and abilities of our guests, and we place the highest value on the following course attributes:
Spain Golf-Destination Golf Courses:
When Americans and Brits think of golf in Spain, they naturally think of the Costa del Sol, which stretches along the Mediterranean coast from Malaga to near Gibraltar. Yes, some of the best golf courses in the world are in this year-round resort area, but golf in Spain is about much more than just the Costa del Sol. One can experience championship golf in the Barcelona area, in Seville, and we have even found very strong courses in the Basque region (the most notable being Izki Golf, designed by Ballesteros, and Jose Maria Olazabal’s Golf Artxanda). Here’s our take on the best of the best of golf in Spain:
RCG El Prat is a private, yet accessible, Greg Norman-designed 45-hole complex in the chic western suburbs of Barcelona. Because all nines were designed and built simultaneously by the same architect, players can forge ten different 18-hole combinations that fit together seamlessly. As expected from Norman, most of the fairways are fairly wide, but trouble lurks beyond their limits, and approach shots will test your iron skills. When you experience the Real Club de Golf El Prat, you will feel like a member for a day. This is a beautiful area and a very relaxing escape from the energy of Barcelona.
PGA Golf de Catalunya is one of several properties owned and operated by the PGA European Tour, and is the only one in Spain. It’s easy to fall in love with this place on the Costa Brava (“Wild Coast”), just 75 minutes from Barcelona. There are two courses on the site, green and red, with the green being the longer and stronger of the two. The Green is a large, tournament-ready course in the woods a little inland from the coast of the Costa Brava. Ripe “umbrella” pines and cork oaks line the well-maintained fairways, and the smooth but undulating greens will test anyone’s short game. De Verde is challenging and fun at the same time. There are quite a few elevation changes on these tracks, and the scenery is excellent. Golf on the Costa del Sol
Valderrama is arguably the most beautiful course in continental Europe. The course is located in the chic Sotogrande project, which includes some of the best golf courses in Spain. Sotogrande is about 45 minutes from Marbella, the pearl of the Costa del Sol. Valderrama is quite literally a legend in mainland Europe, hosting the 1997 Ryder Cup, the World Golf Championship and numerous Volvo Masters tournaments. That tournament elevated the status of golf in Spain to completely new heights. This little gem by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. is a must for the serious golf enthusiast touring the Costa del Sol. It’s easy to be distracted by the spectacular scenery and enchanting cork oaks that line the fairways, but this course demands your undivided attention. You can measure yourself against the best players in the world as you take on the infamous 17th hole. The service is excellent, the design is challenging, and the conditioning is nothing short of world-class. This is European golf at its best and is a must for any golfing holiday in Spain! Maximum handicap: 24 men, 36 women.
Sotogrande is the grandfather of golf on the Costa del Sol and perhaps of golf in Spain. Sotogrande is Valderrama’s older and less threatening sibling, located at a lower elevation than most other golf courses on the Sotogrande property. She is about ten years older and offers wider landing areas and a less intimidating green complex. Nevertheless, the ever-present breeze is enough to add to the challenge on this nearly coastal path. Valderrama is often thought of as the best golf in Spain, but Sotogrande is still one of the top five places to play in Europe.
Reserva is an immaculately maintained and relatively new private club on the grounds of Sotogrande. This Cabell Robinson design extends over 7,300 yards from the rear tees. Fortunately, there are four additional sets of tees to choose from, so choose the right one! The length of La Reserva is softened somewhat by careful grooming and generous fairways and greens, so relax and enjoy the beautiful Costa del Sol setting. Few courses offer such incredible appeal. The course stretches over the rolling hills of the western Costa del Sol, making it one of the most beautiful golf courses in Spain. The view from the driveway to the clubhouse alone is worth the trip.
Santana Golf is a golf course that you don’t read much about because it is new, but rest assured that it is one of the most talked about new golf courses in Spain. Set in the hills above the coast in a beautiful former avocado orchard, Santana is the young entrant to the Costa del Sol golf scene. This course combines beautiful surroundings, quality design, attentive service, and excellent conditioning to create a great golfing experience in Spain. Santana Golf is easily walkable, makes careful use of water hazards and bunkers, and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. The par-72, 7000-yard Cabell Robinson design offers four sets of tees, so you can bite off as much or as little as you like from this wonderfully varied layout. If you are on the Costa del Sol, experience Santana while it is young and relatively undiscovered.
Finca Cortesin is another newcomer to the Costa del Sol. The course is near the mountaintop “white village” of Casares, which looms like a beacon amid the majestic Sierra Bermeja Mountains. This new golf course in Spain opened in early 2007 and is quickly establishing itself as one of the best golf courses in all of Spain. The Cabell Robinson design offers a challenging variety of holes, as evidenced by the scenic par-4 13th that confronts the player with two water hazards but softens with an eye-pleasing green complex. As a bonus, the route remains untouched by development, the modern practise facility is quite extensive, and the customer service is definitely some of the best we’ve come across in all of Spain. We recommend playing these before anything gets out about one of Spain’s best new golf courses!
Portugal Golf-Destination Golf Courses:
As with golf in Spain, there is much more than a whole series of golf courses in one location, in this case, the Algarve, in Portugal. Of course, the Algarve has long been known for its great golf courses and great beaches! Quieter and less built-up than the Costa del Sol, the Algarve is experiencing a bit of a wave of golf course construction. There are no fewer than 10 golf courses in the Algarve, either under construction or on the books. But there are also some very strong golf courses on or near the coast of Lisbon. Here’s our take on the best golfing experiences available in Portugal:
Vilamoura-Old Course is the oldest and most stately golf course in the Algarve. This historic course, owned by the Oceanico consortium, was built in 1969 by Frank Pennink and has been consistently renovated over the years. However, it has not lost its original and classic park-like charm. The many umbrella pines that line the fairway corridors are certainly in play. The rolling countryside will challenge your club selection and the undulating greens will test your short game, but any difficulties are mitigated by careful care. Add to this, the soothing view of the surrounding hills down to the coast. We love this property.
If it hasn’t already come to your attention, Monte Rei is a course that you are sure to hear a lot about. Set in an unspoilt natural setting in the Eastern Algarve, not far from the border with Spain, this beautiful new Jack Nicklaus design will capture the hearts of all who play it. The first of two Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses, Monte Rei North, opened in 2007 to rave reviews. The second is in the advanced stages of construction. Nicklaus has used the natural landscape to create a unique layout of approximately 7,200 yards with eight par 4s, five par 3s, and five par 5s. Of these eighteen holes, water comes into play on eleven. Monte Rei is a must-play on the Portuguese golf scene, especially if it is somewhat undiscovered. That won’t take long!
The San Lorenzo Golf Club is located in the central Algarve, the most developed part of the region. This Joe Lee design is arguably one of the best golf courses in Portugal as it combines a fabulously diverse layout with beautiful surroundings. You’ll probably use every club in your bag as you traverse this course of just under 7,000 yards, and you’ll believe the scenery can’t get any better until you reach the 17th and 18th holes, which are in the serenity of a bird’s-eye view. On the other hand, San Lorenzo does get quite a bit of slack, but once you experience it, you’ll understand why.
Golf near Lisbon:
Praia d’El Rey is links golf at its best and is near the top of Portugal’s list of best golf courses. In 2003, Golf World ranked it as the 13th best course in continental Europe, and we’re not disputing the point. Cabell Robinson has done another masterful job of creating a golf course in Portugal that exemplifies tasteful diversity. Ten holes snake to the left along the coast, while the other eight wind their way through a sparsely wooded section. To top it off, all holes offer strategic bunkering and fast greens with plenty of movement to keep your attention. Real estate has recently been built around the perimeter, but not in a way that has changed the feel of the place.Praia d’El Rey is the golf of Portugal at its best!
Oitavos Dunes is a newcomer to golf in Portugal, having opened in 2001. This Arthur Hills design is one of the most intriguing you’ll find anywhere, and it kind of reminds us of Bandon Dunes in Oregon. The design itself is excellent, as the par-71 layout can stretch to over 7,000 yards and the fast, undulating greens will challenge even those with the best short games. Add all this to spectacular ocean vistas on one side and mountain vistas on the other, and you get a very special property. You may not want to worry about your score here, at least not after your first round, as the challenges of the trail and distracting scenery can earn you high marks. Oitavos Dunes is a great addition to the Portuguese golf scene and is worth every extra shot!
So that’s our take on the best of the best of golf in Spain and Portugal. The Ryder Cup in Valderrama contributed in part to a wave of golf courses in the Iberian Peninsula. Luckily, we’ll be back there soon to check out new courses, such as the second course on Monte Rei and Nick Faldo’s Oceanico course, also in the Algarve.
Gene Holland is a director of Cork & Tee, a boutique tour company specialising in bespoke Epicurean Golf Travel, combining championship golf with insider wine and interactive culinary experiences. He has over 15 years of experience in the golf industry. He spent 11 years as a club professional and was also a member of the varsity golf team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, playing with such notables as Davis Love, III, and Jack Nicklaus, II.