A few years ago, I received a call from a colleague of mine to tell me he was planning a golf trip to celebrate one of life’s milestones. He was turning fifty later that year and wanted my opinion on where he and three of his closest friends should go to experience a golf trip of a lifetime.
After asking a few questions the perfect destination came to mind. “How would you like to go to a place that has great links golf courses, fabulous seafood, plenty of single-malt whiskey and lively Celtic music?”, I asked.
“That sounds exactly what I’m looking for,” my colleague responded. “I’ve never been to Scotland before but have heard great things about it.”
“Scotland?”, I replied. “I’m not talking about Scotland. I was referring to Nova Scotia, the only golf destination in Canada that has everything I’ve described and a whole lot more. It’s ideal for you and your friends,” I said with confidence.
Needless to say my colleague was surprised by my response but it didn’t take long before he decided that Nova Scotia was the place he and his three pals were going to celebrate their 50th birthdays.
Nova Scotia, or “New Scotland” when translated in Latin, is home to approximately one million people. Almost 80% of the population can trace their ancestry back to Scotland, England, Ireland, France and Germany. It is Canada’s self described ocean playground as this maritime province offers a plethora of outdoor activities for adventure seekers of all ages. Tourism is a leading industry as thousands come from across Canada, the U.S and Europe every summer to indulge in all that Nova Scotia has to offer.
The focal point of the province is the city of Halifax, the region’s capital and economic engine. Overlooking one of the world’s largest natural harbours, Halifax is eastern Canada’s largest city with a population of approximately 400,000.Take a walk along the historic waterfront and visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic where you’ll see the world’s finest collection of wooden artifacts from the Titanic; Pier 21, Canada’s Immigration Museum which was once the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants; the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site and Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery. There are many great restaurants to enjoy as well, and if freshly-caught seafood is your preference, you have not only come to the right place, you have come to “the place”. Depending on the time of year, it is here in Halifax that you’ll be able to savour the freshest seafood entrees comprised of lobster, snow crab, mussels, oysters and scallops.
Having travelled to Nova Scotia, the one thing that rivals the splendour of the province’s divine seafood cuisine is its collection of great golf courses. As they are with their food and wine, Nova Scotians are passionate about their golf and boast one of the highest per capita participation rates in the country.
There are more than 60 golf courses scattered throughout the province, the best conveniently located a leisurely day’s drive away from Halifax on Cape Breton Island. While in Halifax, I recommend checking out the city’s best layout – the Glen Arbour Golf Course, a 6,800-yard championship course designed by Graham Cooke. Derived from the Scottish phrase “Valley of Trees”, Glen Arbour opened in 1999 and has hosted several prestigious events including the BMO Canadian Ladies Open in 2005 and the TELUS Skins game in 2012. Fortunately the fairways are generous but it’s important to play from the proper tees or you will find some of Mr. Cooke’s carries from tee to fairway to be more than you can handle.
From Halifax, Cape Breton Island is several hours away. I suggest a slightly more indirect route that leads you through the middle of the province to Truro en route to Wallace and the Fox Harbour Provincial Park. Having bisected the province, what lies before you is the Northumberland Strait and the sandy shoreline of Prince Edward Island.
It is here in Wallace along the north shore that you will find the Fox Harb’r Golf Resort and Spa, the brainchild of Tim Horton’s founder and Canadian billionaire Ron Joyce. Fortunately, in addition to his passion for coffee and doughnuts, Mr. Joyce also indulges in the occasional game of golf. For this reason he decided several years ago to build a golf course of his own in the community of Fox Harbour, not far from where he grew up in Tatamagouche. Now a local celebrity with rock-star status, Mr. Joyce has been generous with his fortune, having established one of his Tim Horton’s Children’s Camps for kids in the area.
The Fox Harb’r Golf Resort and Spa is first class and five-star in a very tasteful and quietly elegant way. Beautiful gardens greet you at the entrance as you await the gate to slowly open welcoming you to the property. Manicured gardens line either side of the winding driveway en route to the clubhouse and golf course. Another Graham Cooke design, the course was voted Best New Canadian Course in 2001 by Golf Digest. The golf course measures 7,253 yards from the back tees and is really a “tale of two nines”. The outward nine is parkland-style featuring tree-lined fairways and wetland areas. It is not until you make the turn that you experience what a great ocean-side course this is as the Northumberland Strait can be seen on every hole. The three finishing holes in particular are especially memorable. When you get to the 16th hole, walk to the back tees to the rocky outcrop that juts out into the strait. Take a more than a minute and enjoy this moment in time. You are on rarefied ground as there aren’t too many other golf courses in Canada, or anywhere for that matter, that provide you with this kind of ocean golf experience.
From Fox Harbour, the journey continues east along the shoreline of the Northumberland Strait towards the Canso Causeway and Cape Breton Island. This drive is known as the Sunrise Trail because of its solitude and understated beauty. Depending on the time of day, you’ll likely be treated to either a spectacular sunrise or sunset.
Cape Breton Island is one of those special places that stir the senses the moment you arrive. The Cabot Trail is the name of the highway that loops around the northern perimeter of the island and is widely regarded as one of the world’s best scenic drives. Named after Italian explorer John Cabot who arrived here in 1497, the trail is a circular route that encompasses the communities of Baddeck, Margaree Harbour and Ingonish. In between is the Bras d’Or Lake, a partially landlocked inlet of the Atlantic Ocean renowned for its unspoiled coastline, sailing, sunsets and bald eagles. It doesn’t matter which direction you go, the most important thing to remember is to take your time. Plan on at least two or three days to enjoy and explore the 300 km drive making intermittent stops along the way in the various Scottish, Irish and Acadian communities.
If, however, you’ve come to play golf on the island, plan on staying at least a week. It is here on Cape Breton Island you will find a collection of golf courses as good as anywhere you’ll find in Canada and one of the best links courses in the country. Among my recommendations is the 7,037-yard Bell Bay Golf Club, a course designed by Thomas McBroom overlooking the Bras d’Or Lake. Located in Baddeck, Cape Breton’s centre port of call, and home of the Alexander Graham Bell museum, the golf course is one of the best in the province having been consistently ranked among the Top 100 Courses in Canada by SCOREGolf.
From Baddeck, I suggest heading north along the east coast of the island to Ingonish, the eastern gateway into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Plan on staying at the rustic Keltic Lodge and playing Highlands Links. Designed by Stanley Thompson, Canada’s patriarch of golf course architecture, the course opened in 1941 despite the pending threat of World War II. Today Highlands Links is owned and operated by Parks Canada. The course measures a modest 6,592 yards but remains a Stanley Thompson jewel and one of Canada’s best golf courses. In 2000, Highlands Links was ranked the number one golf course in the country by SCOREGolf and was designated a Certified Audubon Cooperative sanctuary. The best way to play Highlands Links is on foot so you can enjoy some special walks from green to tee, especially between the 12th and 13th hole along the Clyburn River. In true Scottish links form, each hole has been christened with a Scottish name like “Killiecrankie” (meaning long and narrow pass) used to describe the Par 5, 570-yard 7th hole, or “Hame Noo” or Home Hole, the name Stanley Thompson bestowed upon the 18th hole after stating he had given it his “special Scottish touch.”
As you depart Ingonish, you are about to experience the most breathtaking stretch of the Cabot Trail – the 110 km drive through Cape Breton Highlands National Park that cuts across the northern tip to the island’s west coast. There are numerous turnoffs to panoramic viewpoints with interpretive displays explaining the geology, ecology and history of the area. Take advantage of them all because every view will take your breath away. For nature lovers there are plenty of hiking trails but I would recommend looking at this rugged coastline from the sea.
On the west side, stop in either Pleasant Bay or Cheticamp and embark on a Zodiac whale watching excursion where you are likely to see pilot whales, grey seals, eagles, and gannets. Cheticamp (population 1,000) is the western entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and hub of Acadian French culture. It is also the home of the 6,777-yard Le Portage Golf Club, a golf course worth playing if time permits.
From Cheticamp your next destination is Inverness, a former coal mining town that has experienced an economic resurgence thanks to Canada’s newest golf course – Cabot Links. What was once a coal mining site is now the 6,854-yard Cabot Links golf course, a name now synonymous with exceptional golf. The land was acquired by visionaries Mike Kaiser and Ben Cowan-Dewar who recognized the opportunity of turning once discarded land into a true authentic links golf course. Architect Rod Whitman was retained to sculpt this seaside gem in 2005 and today what exists is Canada’s number one golf resort. According to Scottish journalist and links golf expert Malcolm Campbell who recently published a book called True Links, there are only three true links golf courses in North America – the two courses at Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links. It’s likely not a coincidence that Mike Kaiser owns them all.
Playing Cabot Links is like taking a ride on a roller coaster in the dark. You never know where you’re going to end up after your ball completes its journey along the crazy bumps and humps it encounters along the way. But that is the beauty of links golf. Sometimes the end result is kind to you, sometimes it’s not.
If you think Cabot Links is outstanding, mark 2015 on your calendar because that is when the second half of this links masterpiece is scheduled to open. Kaiser and Cowan-Dewar have already commissioned the dynamic design duo of Bill Coors and Ben Crenshaw to sculpt the next windswept landscape into what will be known as the Cabot Cliffs.
After your round at Cabot Links visit the Glenora Distillery, home of Canada’s first single malt whiskey. The distillery is minutes from the golf course and a fitting complement to the Canadian version of your day in Scotland.
The final golf course I recommend playing on Cape Breton Island is the 6,904-yard Lakes Golf Club in Ben Eoin. Although somewhat removed from the Cabot Trail, it is worth the drive to play this Graham Cooke-designed course. Overlooking the Bras d’Or Lake, the course has received rave reviews since opening in 2010 when it was awarded “Best New Course in Atlantic Canada” by SCOREGolf. The city of Sydney, Cape Breton’s largest urban area is located just 15 minutes away.
While Nova Scotia may have more than 60 courses to choose from, the seven I’ve listed will certainly not disappoint. Two in particular, Highlands Links and Cabot Links are among the top five in Canada – and the destination is only going to get better with the introduction of Cabot Cliffs less than a year away.
It wasn’t long after my colleague returned home from his 50th birthday golf getaway that he called to tell me about his trip. “The next time someone asks you where to go to play great links golf courses, drink single malt whiskey, eat fresh seafood and enjoy lively Celtic music tell them to call me.”
“What will you tell them?”, I asked.
“To pack your bags and golf clubs and head to Nova Scotia of course!!”, he replied emphatically. “Where else would I have said?”
Nova Scotia Snapshot:
Visit Nova Scotia Tourism at www.novascotia.com
Both Westjet and Air Canada provide regular daily flights from Toronto and Montreal to Halifax.
Glen Arbour – 1-877-835-4653, www.glenarbour.com
Fox Harb’r Golf Resort & Spa, 1-877-257-1808, www.foxharbr.com
Bell Bay Golf Club, (1-800-565-3077, www.bellbay.ca
Highlands Links Golf Course, 1-800-441-1118, www.highlandslinksgolf.com
Le Portage Golf Club, 1-888-618-5558, www.leportagegolfclub.com
Cabot Links, 1-855-652-2268, www.cabotlinks.com
The Lakes Golf Club, (902) 828-4653, www.thelakesgolfclub.ca
Top Things to Do (other than golf)
- Visit one of Nova Scotia’s award winning wineries. Jost Vineyard’s L’Acadie Blanc or any of the Tidal Bay wines are excellent.
- Visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax
- Visit Pier 21in Halifax
- Visit Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery in Halifax
- Visit Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
- Tidal Bore Rafting Park
- Visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck
- Attend a celidah (pronounced caylee) and experience traditional Nova Scotia music. In the summer, there is a celidah in Baddeck most nights around 7:30pm.
- Go whale watching with Captain Mark in Pleasant Bay, 1-888-754-5112, www.whaleandsealcruise.com
- Visit the Glenora Distillery, 1-800-839-0491, www.glenoradistillery.com
- Visit the Fortress of Louisbourg and experience the Beggar’s Banquet
Great Places to Eat
There are too many great restaurants to list in Nova Scotia but here are a few I recommend:
Ryan Duffy’s, Halifax, (902) 421-1116, www.ryanduffys.ca
Five Fisherman, Halifax (902) 422-4421
The Atlantic Restaurant, Keltic Lodge, Ingonish Beach
Purple Thistle, Keltic Lodge, Ingonish Beach
Panorama Dining Room at Cabot Links
Great Places to Stay
Westin Nova Scotian, Halifax, (902) 421-1000, www.westin.ns.ca
Fox Harb’r Golf Resort & Spa, 1-877-257-1808, www.foxharbr.com
Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa, 1800-565-0444, www.kelticlodge.ca
Cabot Links Lodge, Inverness, 1-855-652-2268, www.cabotlinks.com
Silver Dart Lodge, Baddeck, (902) 295-2340
Point of View Suites, Louisbourg, (902)733-2080