Surf ’n’ turf

Cruising the Med goes with a real swing when it’s gingered up with a few rounds on the Côte d’Azur’s most intriguing and challenging golf courses, says Minty Clinch.

July 04 2010
Minty Clinch

Golf off a yacht? It’s an enticing idea – but in the absence of an invitation from Roman Abramovich to join him on one of his luxury vessels, I had to find a suitable alternative. My choice was SeaDream I, a similarly sized cruise ship with a week’s cruising agenda out of Nice to ports that included St Tropez, Le Lavandou and Cannes – prime access points for the top courses on the Côte d’Azur.

I stepped on deck to a captain’s greeting and a foretaste of the one-to-one service that would characterise the next week. A glass of champagne, a cold flannel, wreaths of warm smiles. Then it was time for the reality check: the SeaDream fleet of two is owned by the Norwegian former king of cruise, Atle Brynestad, but geared towards the American market. We queued to have our photos taken and received personalised key cards that allowed us into our state rooms and on and off the boat. Without them, we were non-persons.

As the ship headed out of Nice at dusk and the passengers trickled towards the main restaurant, I learnt with relief that dinner jackets don’t feature on the Brynestad agenda. Women can strut their stuff as much as they like, but wealthy Americans have no interest in dressing up with nowhere to go, so the code is barely smart casual. Rather than lording it at the top table, Walter Berg, the Norwegian captain, issued invitations to have dinner with him as he thought fit, taking a small table to suit the group he’d invited, understandably sneaking the odd night off.

As a lone traveller, I was walked too obtrusively through the restaurant on the arm of Rico, the German “hotel manager”, an unco-ordinated journey between tightly spaced tables that left me feeling like a dog on too short a leash. “Would you like to join some of your fellow travellers?” he enquired. No way. Even a first-timer knows that it’s better to allow adoption to occur naturally rather than fall among thieves on day one.

The remote approach gradually revealed a mixed bag of cruisers from Brazil, Australia, America and far-flung parts of Eastern Europe. Later in the week, I found intriguing if slightly unexpected companions: Wayne, a jockey for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed in Dubai, and his wife Jackie; “Bill Clinton”, as fellow guests nicknamed him, a high-flying journalist and one-time professional pianist from Los Angeles; Scott, a cheeky chappie with a bright future as a stand-up comedian; and Steptoe and Son, sparring partners since Son was born 51 years ago. Presumably the distance between their respective homes in Grosvenor Square, London, and Sydney, Australia, ensures their survival under normal circumstances, but a week of cheek-by-jowl contact triggered such mesmerising cut-and-thrust that we fought to sit near them at dinner.

The company’s mirror-image boats take a maximum of 112 passengers each on cruises in the Mediterranean between May and October and the Caribbean between November and April, with 12-day transatlantic options sailing between Malaga and Puerto Rico as the connecting link. In the 1980s, Brynestad tapped into his Norse heritage to build three smallish ships for his newly formed Seabourn company. By the 1990s, he ruled Cunard among other shipping lines, dispatching the likes of the QE2 to exotic destinations. In 2001, he left Cunard to set up his own company, buying the Sea Goddess twins from his former employer.

By 2001, they’d been refurbished and reinvented as SeaDreams. “My wife Linn and I set the yachts up the way we’d like them for our own holidays,” he explained, “then we invited people to share them.” As the couple and their eight children spend eight weeks a year at sea, this was only sensible. However, the company motto, “yachting, not cruising”, suggests a tendency towards self-delusion. “Marketing,” said Berg, a blunt seaman’s assessment of a boat without sails. “Exclusivity,” purred Brynestad, a sophisticated peddler of romantic Viking dreams.

Among these is the notion that SeaDream can improve your golf. With this in mind, I headed for the simulator, housed in a damp room at the far end of the top deck. I was looking forward to swing assessment and helpful tips, but the designated crew member was neither a golfer nor remotely interested. Maybe experience had taught him that passengers rarely enjoy hitting golf balls randomly at a large blurred screen. Under his speculative gaze, I tackled the first hole at Pebble Beach, the blue riband of simulator tracks, though the choice of 40 included Valderrama and the Old Course at St Andrews.

First off, I whacked my real ball into the rough. Well, that’s what the machine said, though my screen ball remained invisible, making it tricky to know where to aim next. Short of the green seven shots later, I threw the club at the screen in disgust – no R&A official to observe this breach of etiquette – not even the crew member, who’d known when to beat a silent retreat.

“Yeah, I thought it was rubbish too,” said Wayne in the bar later. Then again, why practise indoors when the real deal is ready and waiting on the shore? The Mediterranean game plan is an overnight chug between destinations and a long day – 9am to 10pm or 11pm – at anchor off a tasty resort with a port rapidly accessed by the super-efficient SeaDream motor tender. At evening cocktails, Meredith, our perky Texan events co-ordinator, promoted paid excursions to inland attractions, apologetically massacring their names beyond the point of recognition. Fortunately, there were no French on board to wince. Alternatively, the concierge could arrange golf.

As I stepped ashore in St Tropez on day one, a sleek black Mercedes stood ready to whisk me off to Barbaroux, a 45-minute drive into the hills. By 11am, I was teeing off on an inspirational course designed by leading American architect Pete Dye, but intelligently geared to the Provençal landscape. This is an unusual challenge: transatlantic in its emphasis on precise targets and large stretches of water, but European in its heavily cambered fairways and tee shots over vineyards.

The tone is golf sauvage, never too aggressively manicured, ready to bite back and ruin a promising score card at any stage. The newly refurbished Brasserie and the Terraces overlooking the 18th green serve classy lunches and, in non-yacht circumstances, the simple on-site rooms would make a wonderfully peaceful and very affordable golf-gourmet hideaway.

Unexpectedly, morale survived Barbaroux, making me all the keener to head out of Le Lavandou to Frégate the next day. The journey took me along the coast towards Toulon, again ending among vineyards supplying grapes for the local rosé industry.

As the French have a cautious relationship with golf and minimal experience of course design, developers in charge of prime stretches of the Riviera during the boom in the 1990s preferred American architects. Frégate, which opened in 1992, chose Ronald Fream, trained by the celebrated Robert Trent Jones Sr. The on-site hotel is aggressively geared towards conferences, society days and real-estate sales, but the course is well insulated from raw commerce, a hilly layout with expansive views over the Mediterranean and picturesque crags intruding on sloping fairways.

Cannes offered three good options. First was Cannes-Mandelieu Golf Old Course, designed by Harry Colt in 1891 and barely changed since. Then there was Cannes-Mougins, the élite choice when it opened in 1923 and still prestigious following a redesign by Peter Alliss in 1978. But the course I picked was Royal Mougins, the new kid on the block. Again the concept is extremely American, with attendants on hand to transport clubs from car to tee almost before your vehicle has stopped. High handicappers may suffer on Robert von Hagge’s tricky track, with its unpredictable fairways, subtle greens and prominent water features; but the clubhouse, its interior designed by Kelly Hoppen, is an irresistible mixture of contemporary elegance and posh Provençal food at the top of its game.

Picking up the lunch tab there underlines the fact that one of SeaDream’s selling points is that so much is included. The ship provides privacy and conviviality as required, with an open-air pool and hot tub, secluded deck spaces for lounging on Balinese sunbeds or sleeping under the stars, alcove tables for sipping cocktails, entertainments that include a library, DVDs to watch in your cabin and loads of toys, including Jet Skis, water-skis and a banana boat to frolic with off the platform at the stern.

And drinks flow 24/7, with champagne corks popping as the antidote to any minor inconvenience. “A glass of bubbly, Miss Clinch?” The deck steward slipped in the offer almost before I realised I’d missed the tender. It was 10am.

International cuisine masterminded by Norwegians to satisfy the American passion for big meat and long-clawed seafood is not at the top of everyone’s wish list, but no one could complain about the quantities, the massive fry-ups at breakfast nor the number of choices at lunch and dinner. Too many for excellence, perhaps, but executive chef Sudesh Kishore is a real enthusiast, escorting passengers ashore to introduce them to fish markets, regional charcuterie and wine tastings.

The rowdier post-dinner entertainment focused on the top deck, the venue for open-air movies and dancing to disco music. Sophisticates headed for the Piano Bar, with its versatile pianist and a lone blackjack table masterminded by Elena, the lovely Romanian croupier. As her hands snapped out the cards, her eyes and her smile beamed in on the players, most of them men, with singular charm and subtle flattery. Small wonder they rarely left until she’d cleaned them out. She must be worth her weight – admittedly, not much – in gold.

After Cannes, SeaDream I headed for Calvi in Corsica and Portofino, to the south of Genoa. Meredith suggested hikes in the hills and went on them too, but accompanied only by her cousin. There were mountain bikes on board as well, ready to be transported to the shore and ridden to vineyards or secluded beaches. Again, no takers: cruisers prefer a leisurely stroll around chic shops, a bathe, and a long lunch on the quayside.

For me, it was back to the black Mercedes, this one with Italian plates, for the short ride to Rapallo golf club, which may not be quite as upmarket as its Riviera rivals but is big on Italian charm. Built on inland hills for holiday-makers in the neighbouring seaside towns in 1930, it has neither the terrain nor the will to develop further. It’s not long, but the dry river crossings, narrow wooded fairways, massive overwatering and baffling greens can result in big numbers on the score card. In high humidity and heat, few walkers completed the course, prioritising pasta and gallons of ice-cold San Pellegrino on a vine-shaded terrace over the full quota of vertiginous ascents from green to tee. That answers the buggy question: take one. And golf off a yacht? Oh yes, take that too.