You get a similar reaction if you catch them after a round of golf. “Wow, these courses are top-class!”
Where did this magical new golfing Mecca spring from? Back in the early 1990’s, the Turkish government decided to converted a stretch of scrub forest between the village of Belek and the Mediterranean Sea into the golfing equivalent of Las Vegas. With a deep, sandy subsoil and miles of unspoilt beach overlooking a sparkling sea, the region was a gilt-edged gift from the Gods that look down from nearby Mount Olympus!
Now there are 14 top-class championship golf courses and no less than 55 five-star hotels all conveniently configured within a 14km stretch. The Turks, it’s safe to say have outdone themselves - and indeed most of Europe’s traditional winter golfing bolt holes in creating the ideal off-season escape for chilled Northern Europeans.
A Golfing Shangri La
The cosmopolitan city of Antalya is the gateway to this golfing Shangri La with daily flights from most European hubs. Belek, its hotels and courses are a half-hour drive from the airport. When you arrive a ground-handling company usually meets you (no one hires cars here – it’s not worth the hassle - and it’s expensive). Cordial young chaps dressed in company livery pick up your bags & clubs and whisk you off in modern, air-conditioned minibuses. All you have to worry about now is your game!
It's worth mentioning the standard of service here. Turks don’t make any effort in this department! They don’t have too! They relish looking after guests; it’s part of their national culture! This aspect of Turkey has never failed to impress me even in busy tourist towns like Belek.
With a handful of world-class championship tracks recently added to an already more than acceptable mix this Turkish golf Mecca is clearly not messing about. Here's how we see the lay of the land.
Antalya Golf Club
The PGA Sultan at Antalya Golf Club is the best course out of all 14 offerings. It's not easy to say that as the offering is so good and there really isn't one poor course in the area. Sultan however offers something special. There’s nothing quirky or tricked up about it. It's a pure, honest challenge that will satisfy the most efficient player. Tall Mediterranean Pines and long stretches of water force you to take care off the tee. Holes such as the 9th, 16th and 18th present obvious watery threats but its the more subtle factors like the placement of those Mediterranean Pines that coerce you into pulling out your best drives and metered irons. Sultan throws a lot of well-considered questions your way and you need to think clearly all the way round to get the right answers.
Montgomerie Golf Club
Like its namesake, the Montgomerie has endured a fair bit of criticism; a tad antsy, difficult and sometimes downright unfriendly. All censure went out the window when The Montgomerie hosted the 2013 Turkish Airlines Open which 'Golf Passport' was fortunate enough to attend. Although the track took a drubbing from the tour elite with the leader Frenchman Victor Dubuisson carding 24-under, the presentation and quality of the venue stood high against a first-class field. If you study each hole and take out the long waste bunkers that line many, The Montgomerie is a rewarding round on a course that is currently the best presented in the area.
Talking of presentation, Lykia Links has undergone a few minor updates to a course that only opened in 2008 but these were enough to make it the third of our top three.
Perry Dye (Pete’s boy) set out to create a slightly unusual links course on the edge of the Mediterranean. The site was ideal with a sandy base and open ocean only a few yards away.
What resulted could not really be considered a natural links as so much sand was shimmied, shaped and shored-up with old railway sleepers to create a rather exaggerated appearance.
But having played it three times, once with Perry Dye when it first opened and again recently just after its improvements, we can say that Lykia has settled to become a must-play for Belek golfers. It is a little out of the way in that you have to travel around a half hour to get to the property (which would only be 5 minutes away if the government had built a bridge.
Again, I really don’t mind it but some folks find it a bit over-the-top! There are also a few holes that are a serious stretch of your striking prowess, I’ll grant that. The 1st is a prime example! The bunkering is also a bit, shall we say over-exuberant!
Beyond all that… it’s a good outing. Perhaps if its designer had stuck to a more conservative vision he would have attracted more praise from golf’s more conservative quarters. But it’s good to be different and try new thinks. Oh yes, there’s one other problem. Lykia Links is only 5 minutes away from Belek’s main golf/hotel strip but… due to a river you need to drive for about 40 minutes - back up to the motorway, across the river then all the way down to the coast again. Why don’t they just build a bridge? Hey, I know where there’s a load of old railway sleepers!
Carya Golf Club
Next on the favourite’s list might be Carya Golf Club opened late in 2008 although I have heard conflicting reports of late. Designed by Australia’s five times Open Champion, Peter Thomson, this precocious, Surrey-style heathland is reminiscent of Wentworth, Sunningdale or Walton Heath. Prominent, heather-topped sand traps cradle dazzling white sand, lovely to look at but a bit daunting to play over. In spite of its youth, Carya’s already displaying great golfing character and I believe it will come on over the next couple of years to vie with the Sultan for top slot.
Meanwhile, back in the main Belek conurbation, Cornelia’s Faldo course gathers a lot of good comments – but in this case I’m the one that’s not convinced! It presents three tough loops of 9 that will keep you on your toes all day long. There are a few great holes, mainly doglegs but… the cambered fairways on some holes repel well-struck drives into the sandy side-strips and thick scrub. You just don’t have any choice in the matter! Now that just isn’t fair! Ok, it only happens on two or three holes but that’s just bad design and a little cavalier for Sir Nick to rubber-stamp it. Cornelia’s Faldo course is co-host to the Eisenhower Trophy next year (2012) so it will be interesting to hear what the world’s top amateurs have to say.
Gloria Hotels & Resorts is the big outfit here in town with 3 hotel complexes and 45 holes of golf all neatly interlinked. Gloria Serenity is indeed a classy place to stay, the ‘Gleneagles’ of Turkey. Gloria Old Course to my mind is need of a facelift and there are rumours that Ian Woosnam had been scheduled to do the operation. Gloria New arrived in 2005 and was a welcome addition, a sporty, equally challenging concoction, more undulating with a little less woodwork and a fair bit of sand and water. Gloria Verde, the 9-hole layout is surprisingly challenging. I’ve played it two or three times when I couldn’t get on the other two and found it great fun.
The Old Guard
That just leaves the original courses, those that opened away back in the dark mists of Turkey golf time – the 1990’s. Let’s start with the one claims to be ‘the first and still the best’. That is National Golf Club’s logo and who could argue with them! Opened in 1994, National still is a superb layout. From start to finish it is a tight, demanding test calling on you to work your way through each hole. If you like shaping shots or risking it all in the hope of that fabled reward, this is the place to play. There’s an old fashion flavour about the layout and even National’s clubhouse is a traditional chip off the colonial block.
The remaining courses tend to be suited best to higher handicap players but that doesn’t mean they’re in any way inferior. Robinson Nobilis Golf Club is run by the German division of a major travel company and the clientele tend to be German but the course is very much open to all and actually quite good. Off the white tees, it’s much more of a challenge and due to its good year-round condition, most enjoyable.
Tat Beach Golf Resort at the far western end of the area has possibly the best piece of golfing real estate on the Turkish Riviera. With open vistas to the Taurus Mountains and several holes running down to the sea, Tat’s 27 holes have great potential. The three loops of 9 and clubhouse were due for a major revamp this past season which I haven’t seen inspected yet - so hopefully things have gone well and it’s now back in good shape. Kaya Eagles is actually a good little test, short but with lots of water and tricky greens as is National’s Pasha course.
Wonders of the Ancient World
If you can tear yourself away from the fairways for a few minutes, you’ll find the Antalya area rich in history, scenery and non-golf pursuits. The ancient city of Perge is one of the ‘must see’ visits in the area. This site is absolutely incredible and so well-preserved, it doesn’t take much to transport your imagination back 2000 years and envisage senators and centurions strolling along its ancient avenues. The city was established and developed by Greek settlers from Argos sometime after the Trojan War, probably around 1000 BC. Rumour has it that beer was first brewed here and for this reason alone, you should consider a pilgrimage to Perge!
The main attraction at nearby Aspendos is the remarkable semicircular amphitheatre, considered one of the best-preserved examples of architecture from the Ancient World. Much like Perge, Aspendos was established around 1000 B.C. as a trading port then becoming a thriving city. The Romans arrived in 190 B.C. and gradually developed Aspendos into a leading 1st century metropolis.
The city of Antalya is awash with waterfalls. The rivers of the region tumble from the high Taurus range down to the sea either overland or underground with some force especially during the spring-melt months. At several points along Antalya’s rocky plateau these great, turquoise rivers leap towards the sea with marvellous effect. There are 20 different waterfalls within a short drive of the city of Antalya so it’s worth scheduling a visit to one or two.
A day out in the city of Antalya is as good a cultural excursion as any. Antalya is currently the fasted-growing city in Turkey thanks to its idyllic climate which has boosted tourism and created high levels of employment. Turkey’s young people have migrated here also to enjoy the city’s more modern, vibrant lifestyle. It’s a modern, welcoming city with exciting restaurants, bars and nightlife so you can visit Antalya both during the day and in the evening.
Antalya’s old harbour is a natural place to gravitate. Surrounded by the Old City walls, it is one of the loveliest marinas in Turkey with plenty cafes and restaurants. The harbour is crowded with boats of all sizes many inviting you for a sail. Some offer longer trips with a meal included. Antalya's historical Old Town area known as the Kaleici offers beautiful harbour views and is surrounded by medieval fortified walls, which date back before both the Roman and Byzantine periods and have been restored many times.
You can see Mount Olympus from Antalya looking southwest across the bay, the most prominent elevation on that side of the Taurus Range. It’s a bit further to drive than most of the area’s cultural offerings - 2 hours from Belek to the top of the mountain which can be driven up to. This is one of 19 mountains with the name Olympus between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus with a four more in the USA. There’s even one on Mars so it’s hard to say which is the Olympus of Classic Greek mythology.
When to Go
Come the summer months, July & August temperatures frequently hit near 40 centigrade – too hot & humid for golf. Spring and late autumn are best although winter days can be bright and often sunny. The last week in September, October and first two weeks in November are ideal. December and January can be wet although it’s potluck as I’ve had great weather in December.
Flights: Turkish Airlines round trip fares are available from Edinburgh to Antalya starting from £255.81. Go to: www.turkishairlines.com
Cornelia Diamond caters for golf and sunshine breaks. Go to: www.corneliaresort.com
For golf information contact Bilyana Golf at: www.bilyanagolf.com
For information on Turkey contact the Turkish Culture and Information Office at: www.gototurkey.co.uk
Clubs: We hired golf clubs from ClubstoHire.com who deliver a new set of Taylormade Rocketbalz to your hotel in Belek.