Bucket List Review – Part 2 – Nova Scotia

Bucket List Review – Part 2 – Nova Scotia

This is the second of 10 posts that will look back on the current status of my bucket list.  Focusing on all 10 provinces, I’ll share links to courses played and remaining on my list, along with some new courses for consideration.  I’ll share some pictures, stories and wishes for future travel.  Canada is an amazing country for public golf, go play (once the snow is melted, of course).

Bucket List Courses PlayedCabot Links, Highlands Links, The Lakes

Bucket List Courses RemainingGlen Arbour, Bell Bay, Cabot Cliffs, The Links at Brunello, Fox Harb’r

Other Courses PlayedOsprey Shores

Bucket List ContendersDigby Pines, Penn Hills

Other Courses of NoteLe Portage, Northumberland Links, Bluenose

capebreton

 

Overview

Nova Scotia hosts some of the greatest golf courses in Canada and the World.  Yes, they’re that good.  The development of the two Cabot courses in Inverness has placed Nova Scotia at the epicenter of the golfing world with global media reports praising the courses, the resort and the community.  And while Cabot holds its rightful place as a powerful magnet for golf in eastern Canada one needs to look well beyond the their seaside courses – Links and Cliffs – to see other golf offerings which together make Nova Scotia a cherished golf destination for all golfers.  To me, this is one reason why Nova Scotia makes for such great golf; there is something for everyone.

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You may recognize this picture if you’re a regular to my blog.  The 6th tee at The Lakes course.  An incredibly tempting risk-reward par 4. (photo credit – Andrew Stoakley)

Acknowledging the grandeur of Cabot, I’ll start with a focus on fun and value.  Osprey Shores may be the most fun I have ever had golfing, be it as a single seeking to play as many loops of 9 as I could in a day, or, part of a group of 12 on a five day getaway (golfing in a kilt was a memorable experience, too).  Osprey brings breathtaking views, sensational maritime hospitality and an unpretentious nature which all golfers will appreciate.  A 9 hole course, I would recommend it for players to get their legs under them before heading north to tackle the wonderful courses of Cape Breton.  My experience golfing in Nova Scotia is focused mostly on Cape Breton.  So with apologies to courses on the mainland (and there are several on my bucket list) I will focus for now on Cape Breton.  Highlands Links is my favourite course in Canada.  Designed by Stanley Thompson, this course carved from the forests of the Highlands, with some seaside meandering, takes me back in time.  I love everything about it.  It hosts the greatest par 5 I’ve ever played and if I could only play one more round of golf it would be there.  Contrast to this is the beauty of The Lakes at Ben Eoin.  Set along Bras D’or Lake this course is cut along the hillside; creating stunning vistas on many holes.  Well designed and framed, this championship course has hosted the Mackenzie Tour Cape Breton Open (then Celtic Classic).

Highlands_Andy2

Highlands Links – the 15th hole

This is not to forget the golfing perfection that is Cabot.  Links is the best course I’ve played and Cliffs is tops on my bucket list now.  I would advocate for a shoulder season trip to Cabot to get the full experience in terms of weather (could be amazing or raw…and either would make for a great story).  Fact is, the fall season stretches nicely in the Maritimes and can combine beauty and value.  Links is a course where the superlatives just don’t do it justice, though I tried in one of my first reviews on my blog.

Cabot, Highlands Links and The Lakes made for a great golf loop in a 2014 golf trip.  But with Bell Bay and Le Portage as options and a new course at Cabot, you can (and should) stretch your trip out to Nova Scotia longer than I did.

Osprey_Andy2

Osprey Shores

Travel Notes

Researching your options for travel and play are very easy using Golf Nova Scotia or Golf Cape Breton.  The two offer excellent access to course information and links to additional details to help plan a trip.  But Nova Scotia is the kind of place you almost want to get lost and explore.  The TransCanada highway provides great access from PEI (via ferry) or New Brunswick and runs efficiently to Halifax and north to Cape Breton.  But sometimes the journey is just as fun as the destination.  Unlike PEI, where you can play days and days of 36 a day (trust me on that one), the distances between courses allow for a relaxed pace and some beautiful drives between communities.  Distractions abound with hiking, food, wildlife, culture, spirits.  It’s all there…not to dismiss the golfing of course.

Cabot Links 16th

This is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links.  (photo credit – Cabot Links)

The Cabot Trail may be one of the greatest drives in the country, looping around the north and central part of Cape Breton Island.  But Nova Scotia hosts many other amazing coastal drives.  The drive from Guysborough (where Osprey Shores is located on the gorgeous shores of Chedabucto Bay) to Halifax following the Marine Drive route is stunning and underrated.  The proximity to the ocean in many cases is staggering and the small communities and hamlets which dot the coast are lovely.

Similarly, the Sunrise Trail on the north shore from Antigonish to Amherst is just as relaxed.   Stopping along the numerous beaches to dip your feet in the surprisingly warm ocean and seeking that perfect bowl of chowder are two quests to add to your own golfing bucket list.

Traveling to Nova Scotia on a number of occasions now, the consistent take away for me is that I never spent enough time and left with things I wish I had done and seen.  In closing, do your research; take your clubs; tack on a few extra days; take the scenic routes; and do, by all means, order the chowder (better yet, explore the Chowder Trail).

Penn Classic 2014 at Cabot Links

The excitement of playing Cabot with good friends at the 2014 Penn Classic.

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Cabot Cliffs – Anticipating a Sequel to Golf Purity

#15+approach

I’d argue the 15th Hole at Cliffs is the real show stopper, but my sense is it’s only one of many signature holes. (Photo Credit – Integrative Golf Company)

Cabot Cliffs – Anticipating a Sequel to Golf Purity

Reading the reviews and inevitable accolades piling in it is clearly an exciting time to be affiliated with Cabot Links.  The course; correction, courses, are located in Inverness, Nova Scotia. It has quickly become the mecca of golf in Canada; a true golfing destination now with 36 holes and a completed resort facility, restaurant, and practice facilities.  And while I could argue that Cabot was the crown jewel of a pre-existing golfing destination – Cape Breton Island itself – Cabot’s 36 holes will hold allure on its own for golfers across Canada and around the world.  Both courses are well positioned within the Golf Digest Top 100 List, so there’s no arguing their quality.

But having played the Links course in 2013, it is the golfing experience which was new and so pure.  And it is these memories which stoke my anticipation about a return trip and visiting the new Cliffs course.  While I have written about my golf experience at Cabot Links, in almost three years I have never experienced a golf course like it.  I was forced to play shots I never experienced.  The course, unlike any other, seemed so well suited to the land and the sea.  Add to this, genuine maritime hospitality (and lobster sliders, I mean, c’mon) and it was the most authentic golf experience of my life.

But now there is a new course, arguably better than the original.  Building on the excellence of Links, the Cliffs course brings some unique elements – 6 par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s.  Signature holes?  The stunning 16th is getting a lot of love.  But in seeing the pictures when the course was originally shaped I can think of about 10 signature holes.  This embarrassment of riches creates a level of anticipation I have not experienced since the opening of Links.

Penn Classic 2014 at Cabot Links

A day at Cabot with good friends creates memories to last a lifetime.

I would be remised if I did not follow up on an earlier point to mention the proximity of Links/Cliffs to other outstanding experiences and golf on Cape Breton Island.  Scotch aficionados will need to make their way south to the Glenora Inn and Distillery.  There is the world class Cabot Trail, one of the country’s best driving experiences.  For an authentic seafood experience travel to Baddeck for the Baddeck Lobster Supper.  While in town get 18 in at Bell Bay Golf Club, which is hosting a Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada) stop.  Cape Breton Highlands National Park hosts the iconic and perennial top 10 course in Canada, Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson gem.  You could also visit The Lakes Golf Club and round out your golf experience.  If you’re traveling to Cape Breton, take advantage of the opportunity to experience more than just Cabot.

But for this Canadian Bucket List dreamer, Cabot Cliffs now assumes a rightful place on top of my list.  Anticipation is a wonderful thing and will only make the experience of eventually teeing it up at Cliffs (and Links again) as a highlight among many fabulous golf experiences across this country.

There’s just something about Cape Breton Island, the Maritimes overall really, that just does my spirit good.  Congratulations on your successful opening and continued success to Ben Cowan-Dewar and the entire team at Cabot.

Cabot Links 16th

This is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links.  Will Cliffs offer a challenger to this majestic golf hole?

Cabot Links versus Highlands Links

Cabot Links versus Highlands Links

I’m always fascinated by the search queries which bring people to this blog. Recently, I noticed someone arrived after typing in ‘Cabot Links versus Highland Links’ and it made me pause and reflect that is a fantastic query. I have been fortunate to have played them both, most recently Summer 2013. I have course reviews for Cabot Links and for Highlands Links and have also developed a regional review of golfing on Cape Breton Island. Most publications place both courses high in their top 10 publicly accessible courses in Canada. Canadian Golf Magazine has Cabot Links as #1 and Highlands Links as #3.

I’m resisting the urge to take this post on a different tact and avoid the ‘versus’ and implore people to consider them both as options for an extended golf experience on Cape Breton Island. After all, you’re only about 2 hours from the 18th green of one course to the 1st tee of the other. And that drive along the northwest portion of the Cabot Trail is absolutely sensational, one of the best in the country I’d contend. But no, I will address the query as is.

Cabot Links is the best course I have ever played golf on. It is the most unique golf experience I have ever had and is quite possibly Canada’s only true links course. The 16th hole which runs along the ocean is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played. That said; if I could only play one course for the rest of my life it would be Highlands Links. There is no other layout I have experienced which brings the natural features of the land, and its’ incredible diversity, so close to a player. I’ve cited often my love for Stanley Thompson designed courses and this is beyond a doubt his crown jewel.

I do not mean to firmly place myself on the fence here. I’m not trying to avoid the question. I sincerely feel I am providing you with unique answers that are grounded in important context. The character of Cabot Links despite being less than five years old will not allow one to view these courses around a ‘new’ versus ‘old’ argument. Cabot looks like it’s been around for ages and in some ways it really has as the manipulation of the land to create this course was relatively minimal, in my understanding. In fact, with recent renovations which are aimed to bring Highlands Links back to its former glory, one could argue that Highlands is a newer design. Removing trees along some holes on the back nine and working hard to support the oceanfront holes which have historically been susceptible to flooding has really improved the play and the look of Highlands.

Perhaps one needs to view these courses as one would two boxers with a ‘tale of the tape’ but numbers truly belie the character, beauty and absolute uniqueness of them both. The fact that both have ‘Links’ in their title is also cause for possible confusion; Highlands Links was originally meant to be titled The Mountains and Ocean Course. That, to me, is more accurate a representation of the course.

Character? Cabot has an active caddy program and the greatest sound you’ll ever hear when your ball falls into the cup, as it hits a metal plate below with a hole in for the flag (which is also now the tone I get when receiving text messages). The 10th and 11th holes run adjacent to MacIsaac’s Pond and are stunning in their own right. Highlands Links has each hole named in Gaelic and the Clyburn river is a prominent early in the back nine and this gives way to the impressive views of the ocean on the par 5 15th. The 7th hole, Killiecrankie, may be the greatest par 5 I’ve ever played. I won’t even try sharing pictures of my own. The pictures available on the Cabot and Highlands site will provide breathtaking images that may have you booking flights to Sydney or Halifax tomorrow morning.

I hope you’re able to experience both courses for yourself at some point. To me, with my limited experience golfing throughout Canada, these are my top two courses in the country…by a wide margin.

The Stunning Cabot Trail

The Stunning Cabot Trail

The Lakes Golf Club – A Cape Breton Gem

http://www.thelakesgolfclub.ca/

The assist on this has to go to SCOREGolf’s own Bob Weeks, who introduced me to The Lakes through a SCORE Golf TV promotional spot on Cape Breton Golf. Only fair to offer credit where it is due. This course was a surprising gem within a trip to Cape Breton in August 2013. In fact, the header image for this blog is taken from the 6th tee looking over the Bras D’Or Lake.

I felt fortunate, the course was hosting the inaugural Cape Breton Celtic Classic, a PGA Tour Canada stop only 4 weeks out. The sense of pride which staff had about the course was evident; the grounds were pristine and they made note in a courteous and professional manner to have our foursome take care of keep the course which seemed in tournament shape. This Graham Cooke design is only 4 years old, cut on the side of a hillside which in the winter is used as a ski hill. Most unique was their use of the terrain; having players hit range balls into the hillside! Very clever.

My first impression was positive, as the staff were very polite, courteous and helpful. The starter took time to share with us some local knowledge along with a brief history of the course. Tee boxes are well spaced to accommodate golfers of different skill. The holes were spread out very well over the grounds, avoiding congestion and minimizing risks of errant shots (they converge nicely on the 17th tee; look back over the 16th green and out past the 17th green, wow). It is recommended that players use carts, walking would be possible but the elevation changes from hole to hole is significant in spots. In surprisingly few instances does the slope affect play in a difficult or challenging way, but it is leveraged in to take advantage of the natural beauty and spectacular views north over the lake. There are only three holes to me which seem somewhat pedestrian; 1, 9 and 10. All others set higher up in the hills provide breathtaking scenery.

The course has fair landing spaces off the tee but penalizes errant play.  Greens are generous and fair, but too will challenge approach shots with strategic bunkering.  Accuracy is more of a premium than length. That said a prevailing wind from the west will make some holes play long! Greens were running fast and firm, demanding respect and an awareness to leave the ball below the hole. Slope ratings are high, representing the need for solid ball striking!

Pace of play was consistent and not an issue. I really enjoyed the experience to play this course. In my opinion, it is a hidden gem set amongst world class courses of Cape Breton Island and worthy of a stop within the golf trip rotation of the Island. Located close to Sydney, it provides some convenience for travelers but is set in a quaint, rural location. This course is not on a top 100 list in Canada that I am aware (yet) so will remain a reward for those who come play.

Aura – 8 out of 10 – The fact it was hosting a PGA Tour Canada stop justifies this ranking. The scenery and quality of the course cemented it.

Value (cost / experience) – 8.5 out of 10 – Green fees are very reasonable for a course of this quality, but explore stay and play options to maximize value (see below)

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – The course was already gearing up for their tour debut. The efforts of staff to prepare the course, including details like fairway conditioning and surprisingly few ball marks on greens reflect the high mark – 9 out of 10

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – Visually impressive, with a quality of play to match. This course held its own in the opinion of playing partners in relation to Cabot Links and Highlands Links; unique, complementary and not the signficant drop off we had expected. Memorable in its own way, with many positives! – 8 out of 10

Highlight (what is great about the course) –Stand on the 6th tee on a sunny day and you will struggle to identify a more beautiful golf hole in Canada. Drivable par 4’s have their own mystique but this maybe one of the best. Certainly part of the conversation in terms of most scenic golf holes I’ve ever played!

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – 5th hole may have the most abrupt slope on the fairway…nothing unfair, but does require some attention on your approach! Do yourself a favour, play one tee box ahead and enjoy the round! Minor issue, but surprised the pro shop did not have swag out for the PGA Tour Canada event when we were there…though my bank account may have appreciated it! Watch the SCOREGolf video; it will help cement your decision to play there!

Just So You Know – It is highly recommended that you explore a stay and play package through The Birches Country Inn. Quality accommodations, sensational homemade breakfasts and a true commitment to service which extends to providing carts for golfers in their back lot, a 5 minute cart ride to the course clubhouse! And yes, they can help take care of securing your tee time for you as part of your booking! Take time to enjoy breakfast and watch the hummingbirds! Thank you again, Mr. and Mrs. MacPherson!

My Best Shot – Hole 1, an errant drive in the bunker off the tee meant a GIR was not possible. My 4th shot a sand wedge, bounced once and struck the pin, leaving the ball 4 feet away. A slippery left to right par putt dropped in the hole. Nerves settled and scorecard unscathed…a great start to a great day!

Highlands Links – A National Treasure

http://www.highlandslinksgolf.com/

I had written Cabot Links was my favourite course in the country, but if there was only one course I could play for the rest of my life it would be Highlands Links.  This is a majestic beauty of a course, set in the scenic highlands of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Ingonish, Nova Scotia.  The history of the course is as interesting to me as it was to play.   From the subtle variation of rolling terrain (one playing partner identified on #15 he did not feel he’d had a level lie yet) to the mix of holes set near the ocean, river, hillside and within the forest, every round would be a unique experience.  And while there is much conversation about the reclamation and return to glory of this famed course, I will focus now on the golfing experience.

15th Hole - Tattie BogleThe clubhouse is very quaint and understated (and for some possibly understocked) and the staff are professional and courteous.  Adjacent to the clubhouse is the first tee, and a short game practice area with bunker and chipping green and a separate putting green.  No range, but enough space to get loose after a long car ride (for us, it was Guysborough, almost 3 hours away).   If you’re fortunate to catch nice weather on your drive there along the Cabot Trail, you’ll be relaxed and ready to play!    The first tee will do nothing to calm traditional first tee jitters as it seems cut from the forest with little room for error.   Hole 4 is aptly named, Heich O’ Fash (meaning Heap of Trouble, from its Gaelic name).  All holes are named in honour of the Gaelic culture which is influenced throughout Nova Scotia.

Highlands Links is an unusual layout but one which can make you feel you’re the only people playing the course.  Course conditions did tend to vary, representative of the restorative work which is being undertaken.  Overall, they we’re consistently good, greens were well maintained, not excellent, but very good.  It is not a lush private country club, yet it is not a neglected municipal track.  The natural terrain dictates much for the condition.  Elevation change is used well to create vistas for driving, subtle yet appreciated.

Wind can make this a challenging course in some places; nasty in others, but the greatest requirement is an exceptional short game. The greens, while not small, are well protected with bunkers, elevation change or proximity to other defenses.   Hole 7, Killiecrankie is the most challenging par 5 I’ve played, a double dog leg behemoth playing 570 with a challenging green area.   Your approach shot on Hole 8, Caber’s Toss, is breathtaking.  Bring your camera, and if you choose to walk be ready as the course traverses out and back.  The walk alone between holes 12 and 13 is almost 500 meters.  You’ll walk a good 10 km and will earn the post round beer available in the bar on the upper floor of the pro shop.

3rd Hole - LochanPlaying this course made me feel like I was at church; there was a reverence and solemnity to the experience.  Maybe it was the scenery, possibly the wildlife (can’t believe a crow or raven stole half my sandwich…which was terrific).  Hole 15, Tattie Bogle offers the most majestic views of the course overlooking the ocean and Ingonish Island.   This will be a perennial top 3 course in Canada for me.

Aura – 9 out of 10 – I felt like Stanley Thompson may come out of the woods to accompany me, the history here is impressive

Value (cost / experience) – 8 out of 10.  The round is reasonable; it is the travel to get there.  If part of a Cape Breton golf loop, this is a must play providing excellent value.  Do check their specials page, the 5 round pass was a winner for our foresome.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – I acknowledge the inconsistencies, but prefer this style of golf.  Fairways are seldom flat, greens are challenging and a commitment to restoring bunkers make it challenging – 8 out of 10

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – Breathtaking and inspiring – 9 out of 10

Highlight (what is great about the course) – Holes 3, 6, 7 and 15 are stunning golf holes.  (* extensive work was taking place on 6 to reduce annual flooding cycles).  The Gaelic names are a treat.   Check out the live webcams of the course, sometimes you may see moose!

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – Private ownership with a commitment to continued historical restoration.   The government has (recently) played a strong custodial role.  Getting Hole 6, Mucklemouth Meg back to aesthetic shape, it is clear that flood damage has been extreme.  More swag in the pro shop please!

Just So You Know – You can get an annual membership with unlimited play for $1043.48 + taxes.  And yes, you read that correct.

My Best Shot – Hole 5, Canny Slap, a par 3, 158 yards from white tees.  A superb six iron pin high, fed over the ridge and around to about 4 foot.  Drained the birdie!  Playing partners averaged bogey on a hole that needs the ball placed below the hole.

Cabot Links – ‘Memorable’ does not seem to do justice.

http://cabotlinks.com/

This is without a doubt the most unique golf experience I have ever enjoyed:  a true links course which required more imagination than any other course I’ve played, putting on fescue greens, and too many postcard holes to identify.  And while the superlatives of the scenery, links layout and its impressive placing in the top 100 golf courses in the world are all appropriate, I was impressed with their staff commitment to professionalism, service and honest east coast hospitality and care (I mean, fresh cookies on the first tee?).  For travelers, the staff are responsive year around, able to help coordinate your bookings (we did not stay in their accommodations, but I wish we had).

Cabot Links 16thWith any breeze this is a stout test and wind is clearly the strongest form of defense for this course.  However, bunkers and large greens are a close second and third.  Cabot utilizes a caddie program which, according to my friends playing in the group ahead was a sound investment.   Forecaddying, reads on the undulating greens, and local knowledge on when to play run up shots along with some great stories of the course and community provided the scope of service they said helped make the round more enjoyable.  It’s an experience I will gladly pay for next time I play at Cabot Links, but not having had experience with a caddy you don’t miss what you don’t know.

If this course has piqued your curiosity, you’ll be excited to know plans are well underway for a complementary (and I agree with Robert Thompson that it’s a potentially exceeding) 18 just north of the current layout, to be called Cabot Cliffs.  With an affinity for the east coast I have read for many years and with great interest the story of Cabot Links, how it has helped to transform this former mining town into a Canadian (and now global) golf destination.  A second course will garner much interest – a la Bandon Dunes – but if you’re willing to make time to travel to Inverness, this course will be a crown jewel of an experience that could (and should) include other Cape Breton golf and the legendary Cabot Trail.

I can’t wait to get back.  This is a world class golf course, and should be on every avid golfer in Canada’s Bucket List.  You’ll be well taken care of, and will enjoy a golf experience which you will not soon forget.  Of course, my experience was slightly different than Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella, who traveled to Cabot Links and played with Cabot Cliffs designers Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore (talk about a priceless experience)

Aura – 9 out of 10 (I am saving 10 for the prospect of Cabot Cliffs)

Value (cost / experience) – 7 out of 10.  This is not an inexpensive round, or trip for that matter, but the experience and memories alone place this as solid value.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – playing firm and fast, the fescue greens and clever undulations and bunkering make it challenging – 9 out of 10

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – I forgot about my score and relished the unique and enjoyable nature of the golf – 10 out of 10

Highlight (what is great about the course) – Leave the pro shop to the first tee area and just smile…your next 4.5 hours are going to be good.  My favourite hole is the par 4 16th, looking northward to the Atlantic.  Even the sound of the ball hitting the cup is amazing!  The 11th is a unique and beautiful hole playing along the harbour.  At the turn, get the lobster sliders.

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – warm-up facilities – hopefully something that Cabot Cliffs can address.   Driving over 2.5 hours to play with no substantial practice facilities is unfortunate, but a very minor blemish on an otherwise spectacular experience.  If you like single malt scotch, just south of Cabot Links is the Glenora Distillery.  Sampling tours are available!

Just So You Know – Great social media presence; excellent website and active twitter account @cabotlinks (which proprietor Ben Cowan-Dewar operates); if you’re willing to take a chance on their shoulder season, great value is possible for 36 holes a day mid fall (late fall weather can be very nice in Cape Breton).

My Best Shot – With a drive barely missing the far right bunker my approach to 16 was legendary, a high draw with a soft landing and gentle release left to the back of the green.  Settled nicely about 8 feet from the hole (and no, the birdie putt did not go down, lipped out).  But for my favourite hole on my favourite course, a tap in par was a memorable treat!

Playing Partner Notes – “I wouldn’t change a single thing about the course.  Except maybe if my caddy looked more like Kate Upton”