’m staying at the Romanos, a Luxury Collection resort backed by rolling, olive-groved hills, the azure Ionian Sea a mere pitching wedge away and verdant views of the Dunes Course from my 6th-storey bedroom balcony.
Better known for Souvlaki and Ouzo, Greece has never been associated with golf. But what’s outside my bedroom window and what’s about to unfold here at Costa Navarino will change all that!
For those-in-the-know, Costa Navarino is already a firm, full-facility favourite with two luxurious hotels, the 'Romanos' and the 'Westin' each offering a heady array of fine dining, shopping and leisure options. With endless miles of golden beach and two incredible golf courses coupled with some of the best service I’ve experienced, I'd say it is one of the best golf destinations I've chanced upon in a long while.
The history of Costa Navarino and how it came to be perhaps goes some way in explaining the fine details of this destination, the dedication of the staff (or 'associates' are they prefer) and the outstanding service they provide.
Vassilis C. Constantakopoulos, better known as “Captain Vassilis” grew up in this area and from humble beginnings navigated his career as an unpaid deckhand to becoming the owner of the largest, independent private shipping company in the world.
Pictures of the dashing Captain Vassilis put me in mind of a young Ernest Hemingway. In the mid-1980s, the already successful Vassilis began acquiring parcels of land in his home region of Messinia. It took him nearly 25 years but by 2010 he was able to open Costa Navarino with two hotels and the Dunes golf course quickly followed by the Bay course. Vassilis died shortly after the opening of the Bay Course but his dream was realised!
THE EXISTING COURSES
The Dunes course, set next to the Romanos resort was designed by Bernhard Langer. It’s highly playable with a diverse, Pyrenean terrain that keeps you on your toes. There are sea views aplenty as you ascend the rolling hills and dunes. Although close to the sea and shaped like a links course, the turf isn’t linksy. Olive trees line the generous fairways but rarely get in the way and if you find rough, you’ve hit a real bad shot. There are significant, well-positioned bunkers, strategic but never penalising but, it was the large, undulating greens that took their toll on our group. The challenge of the greens' seaward-sloping angles and deceptive borrows is magnified by their superb condition making it even harder to avoid those dreaded 3-putts.
The Bay course is just slightly younger and more forgiving than its stablemate. Designed by Robert Trent Jones II, it’s fun from the start with water skirting the 1st, tempting you to bite off as much of the watery dogleg as you dare; not the easiest prospect for the first drive of the day!
You come closer to the water on the subsequent 'Seaside' section especially at the 4th, a tempting Par 3. Within the ‘Canyon’ section you play from more elevated tees as the course turns inland. The last 4 holes of the Bay are planted in the Olive groves, some of the trees more than 500 years old with mountain views more in command.
The Bay offers a nice contrast to the Dunes and I’d say, both are a great combination for a few rounds. But perhaps another couple of courses could complete the experience? The Greek Gods must have been listening…
THE NEW ERA
José María Olazábal is at the helm of the new course design at Navarino Hills and we had the chance to scale the hills to survey what he and his team had been up to.
The newly established fairways are still strewn with ragged rocks so this looks like a challenging landscape to work with. But the rewards will be worth it as these holes, set high above the Bay are certainly going to be spectacular! The dramatic routing will give golfers outstanding views of the surrounding countryside backed by the sparkling Ionian Sea. We took a walk close to the edge of what will be the 16th on the yet unnamed 'western' course to get a better impression - and indeed, the views could not be more thrilling. There will be a series of sea-facing holes that 'terrace' their way back and forth including the Par 3, 16th which looks like it will be a stunning hole. Apparently, there will be nine holes on the western course and nine on the east all enjoying this sea frontage.
The shorter 'eastern' course will provide a slightly more leisurely experience through beautiful valleys and rolling hills, the mountains in the background coming into view on a number of occasions. To compete the development, a huge practice and driving area will exist next to the clubhouse with everything in place by 2021.
THE BAY COURSE CLUBHOUSE
For our final little indulgence, our little band were the first 'official' visitors to enter Navarino Hill's brand new Bay Course Clubhouse. The 'earth-sheltered' structure sounds more like an air-raid shelter or hobbit hole. It's anything but! The ultra-chic Bay Course Clubhouse scans over the Bay course towards the sea and is perhaps the sleekest, most architecturally pleasing clubhouse I've had the pleasure of quaffing a post-round cocktail. Adding to its appeal, in July or August 2019, the Bay Course Clubhouse will feature a 'pop-up' restaurant run by 2-Michelin star team from the Funky Gourmet Restaurant in Athens. If there's a bar in this clubhouse, as per the rest of this destination, it's been set incredibly high!
NEW ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS
Captain Vassilis’ vision continues to unfold with several more accommodation options being added close to the new golf courses. 'Navarino Bay' will be an ultra-luxury hotel with pool villas embedded into the natural environment as part of the first 'earth-sheltered' architectural resort in Europe.
Adjacent to Navarino Bay will be ‘Navarino Waterfront’, a boutique-style property with lagoon-pools and beachfront townhouses, featuring a variety of dining, shopping and entertainment options including an outdoor cinema.
Captain Vassilis’ legacy lives on and expands! By 2021, Costa Navarino will be, by my prediction, one of the best, most inclusive golf destinations in Europe.
Aegean Airlines flies direct from Edinburgh to Athens; for more information, visit: www.aegeanair.com