A tourist wanting to play an emergency round of golf during a vacation in Spain or Portugal won’t have far to look; golf courses of some sort exist almost everywhere in Iberia. There are only three Iberian regions, however, with concentrations of golf courses good enough for a golf-focused vacation: the Sintra area on the outskirts of Lisbon; the Algarve on the southern coast of Portugal; and the Costa del Sol stretching east from Gibraltar in Spain. These three golf destinations are near enough to one another to be visited conveniently by ground transportation alone. From Sintra south to the Algarve is about 200 kilometers or three hours by car. From the Algarve east to the Costa del Sol is about five hours drive with the enticing city of Seville slightly more than half way.
There are fine hotels and golf in all three regions, but the three best golf courses of the lot are Oitavos Dunes near Sintra, San Lorenzo in the Algarve and Valderrama on the Costa del Sol. All three are or have been ranked amongst the world’s top 100. The very best touring is the Sintra area. It includes all the wonderful attractions of Lisbon plus the National Palace, some delightful fishing villages and considerably more. The next best touring is the Costa del Sol with Seville on the way, Gibraltar next door, Granada nearby and Morocco a ferry ride across the Mediterranean. The shopping, beaches and restaurants in the Algarve are good but enticing touring attractions are virtually non-existent.
In the Algarve, we prefer staying on the eastern side amid the Vale do Lobo (“valley of the wolf”) and Quinta da Lago (“farm by the lake”) gated communities of luxury villas near San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo has actually been rated more highly than the better-known Valderrama. The Vale do Lobo Royal Course by Sir Henry Cotton features a splendid stretch of holes in the middle of the course and spectacular, cliff side #16-the most photographed golf hole in Europe and one of the most difficult as well. Vilamoura Old by Frank Pennick reminds us of Pinehurst. Ria Formosa, named after the adjacent nature preserve, is both scenic and demanding.
On the Costa del Sol, we find much of the region avoidable as it is rather like the least appealing aspects of Myrtle Beach. The Sotogrande development that contains Valderrama, on the other hand, is quite luxurious and the golf is well worth the trip. Though we do like the San Roque hotel where both Ryder Cup teams stayed in 1997, we now prefer the more luxurious Hotel Almenara, which opened in 1999 on the hills above the courses or Finca Cortesin, a posh boutique hotel just minutes away. Valderrama was a fitting venue for the first Ryder Cup played on the Continent and for the world championships it hosts. Its older sister course, Sotogrande Old, is another ingenious Robert Trent Jones work that takes full advantage of its surroundings. San Roque is the excellent outcome of collaboration between Englishmen Tony Jacklin and Dave Thomas. Finca Cortesin is now the worthy venue for the Match Play Championship which was contested for so many years at Wentworth near London.
Whilst one could visit all three regions in just eight days on holiday, we think that a bit too aggressive. It would be far more relaxing and enjoyable to concentrate on two of the three regions or to extend one’s stay to ten or more days. If a stay cannot be extended, then the two regions best for a specific traveling party depends upon the party’s travel priorities. And unless your Spanish is passable, we highly recommend a driver/tour guide.
Major Basil Haversham, OBE
Your guide to the greatest golf holidays in Spain and Portugal