Kevin Markham visits Porto and finds that golf is only one of the sweet things on offer
Flying to any new destination to play golf always puts a spring in your step.
The possibilities, the beauty, the challenges, the excitement. As you head from the plane to collect your bags and then escape through passport control there’s the joy of what awaits.
Porto, in northern Portugal, is not at the top of the list when it comes to this country’s remarkable golf hubs and, given the depth of quality and quantity in the Algarve and around Lisbon, that is hardly surprising.
Yet Porto goes deeper and that makes it a destination for couples and groups of friends.
This is not a mad dash of golf, day after day until you wilt: This is culture and gastronomy and a welcome that flows from the city out to the surrounding regions. If you don’t spend a day in Portugal’s second city then you will miss much of what this charming place has to offer.
The Lello Library, the Crystal Palace, the tram rides, the walks along the River Douro with the bustling restaurants and cafes… all come together to deliver the sights, sounds and tastes of this charismatic city.
And let’s not forget Porto’s most famous export: Port wine. The producers line the southern quays, rising up the hillside, their names on full display. Sandeman, Taylor’s, Burmester, Offley… there are dozens of producers of this fortified wine and, if you wish, you can take a tour to the Douro Valley, to the vineyards and unique landscape through which the River Douro flows.
It has always been one of Porto’s main tourist attractions, even as the city expands its appeal.
The Lello Bookstore (Livraria Lello in Portuguese) was founded in 1869 and has been run by the same family since 1894. It is world famous and it is said that the famous staircase inspired JK Rowling.
It attracts a million visitors a year, with queues often stretching down the street. It is a beautiful piece of architecture that fools the eye as the wooden interiors are actually painted plaster. Not that it matters. Books are available in six languages, emphasising that this store is popular wherever you’re travelling from.
There are plenty more places to visit and one of the most entertaining ways to get around is on the tram, which was reintroduced a few years ago when the city’s popularity as a tourist destination began to grow. There are three lines dating back to 1850. If you wait around long enough, one will pass you with Jameson Whiskey advertising on its side.
It will take you to the Hotel Vincci Porto, along the riverfront before turning up into the city’s old heart just as the thriving stretch of restaurants begins under the Dom Luis I bridge. Upon seeing it, you will not be surprised to learn that the steel structure was designed and built by one of Eiffel’s disciples. Coincidentally, Eiffel himself designed the Ponte de Maria Pia, just to the east, which was completed a few years earlier.
The golf is farther afield and you will probably want to pick a central location (try the Hotel Vincci with its Sky Bar and its views over the towering Ponte da Arrabida) or head out of town where you can stay in Espinho, to the south, at the vast Solverde Hotel on the beach. It even has its own casino.
Two golf courses, near the Solverde, tee things off nicely, with Oporto Golf Club being the oldest course in the country and the fifth oldest in continental Europe.
The clubhouse is full of charm and history while the course is enjoying its third routing beside the sea since its 1890 foundation. It’s a low, flat course where gauging distances and challenges will vex you time and again. The nine hole links of Miramar is closer still, just four kilometres from the hotel, and it’s a terrific adventure that takes you into the dunes above the beach on several occasions.
Both courses are drenched with the Melaleuca tree, which are low and bushy and add considerable character with their windswept shapes. Few spots will beat the 7th tee at Miramar: it’s a short par four with an upturned saucer for a green, but it is the view behind you that is most captivating: The Capela do Senhor da Pedra, is a hexagonal-shaped chapel that has been perched on rocks amidst the Atlantic Ocean, since 1686. It is not large and it can be reached at low tide, but it comes into view so often you deserve to know what it is.
The golf courses around Porto are rarely close together which only emphasises that you should combine your trip with other activities. Then again, there are some wonderful golfing adventures here and you should pick which courses to play with care.
To the north of Porto is the young (1987) and highly-regarded links at Estela, where the battle with the sea is something experienced by many Irish links.
Two loops of nine fan out from the clubhouse along the coastline and with its narrow fairways and small greens you will be sorely tested in the winds. Most of the golf clubs in the region provide a buffet-style lunch where traditional dishes are to the fore. It is worth staying or arriving in plenty of time to enjoy them and the meal at Estela is highly recommended, as is the balcony overlooking the course and the sea. From there you can throw yourself into a wonderful test of golf.
Forty-five minutes north of Estela is Axis Ponte de Lima, a course that scales new heights — literally — in the heart of Vale do Lima. You won’t find many experiences like this anywhere and the front nine is a rollercoaster of epic proportions through dense woodland of pine, eucalyptus and sweet chestnut. There are vineyards, too, so pick a grape as you walk to the 4th tee… it’s not something you’ll ever do on an Irish golf course! Take a buggy for maximum enjoyment and throw yourself into the adventure.
Holes 7 and 8 are magnificent but this is a thriller from start to finish and there’s little doubt that you should take a buggy. You may not get past the 9th if you don’t.
And since you are here it would be a shame not to spend some time in the town below.
Ponte de Lima is the oldest town in Portugal (early 12th century), where a bridge that is Medieval on one side and Roman on the other crosses the Lima River. There’s also an avenue of trees to rival the Dark Hedges in Co Antrim, and this is home to one of Portugal’s largest country markets, which takes place twice a month.
To the east lies the magnificent five-star Vidago Palace Hotel, purpose-built by the monarchy back in 1910 in a village renowned for its thermal springs and, today, for its bottled water. The resort was refurbished between 2006 and 2011, at a cost of €60m, and this included a complete overhaul of the original 9-hole layout (1937).
Today’s 18-hole resort style course is both sedate and elegant and packed with eye-catching bunkering. It does, however, have a kicker of a finish as you head up the mountainside for an explosive closing stretch that turns the first 13 holes on their head.
The 18th is a par three hitting straight at the palace and measures over 200 metres. That is one tough way to finish. Staying here is an unforgettable experience, too, but a special mention should go to nearby Vidago Golf Club, which was inspired by the hotel’s refurbishment.
The former Vidago Palace members decided to create their own 9-hole golf course and this tumbles over chaotic terrain on the other side of the village. The layout never ceases to enthrall and it was designed and shaped by the members. It is maintained and loved by those same members.
On your way back to Porto, over the mountain passes and with views spilling in every direction from the motorway, try Amarante where the golf course boasts those same views.
It also has the steepest opening hole you’ll ever play. It is a par five and it may even be possible to go one shot better than an albatross. Hit your tee shot perfectly and who knows what that steep descent will lead to. Amarante plays half the holes across this somewhat vertical terrain, while the rest is routed through pine forest… where you will find one of the best par threes anywhere. It plays over a deep hollow to a green perched high and wedged in the pines.
The course only re-opened this year but the quality of that par three — as well as a few other beauties — is plain to see.
Alternatively, you could head south, out of the Porto region altogether to Portugal’s remotest golf course. Montebelo offers 27 holes and despite being beautiful, routed as it is over hypnotic terrain and through pine forest, this is a tough course where every shot is a challenge. The trees come close time and again as doglegs proliferate… so imagine what it must have been like a few years ago when it had 4,500 more trees.
These mature pines have been lost to fire and disease and many stumps are still visible, a reminder perhaps of the teeth this course once bared.
Porto is an unlikely place for a mad-dash escapade of non-stop golf, but there is more to grab you here. You’ll need to plot your way around the region and organise your time with care, visiting maybe only two or three courses as you go. But find your way into the heart of Porto and the surrounding region and the warmth of the north comes not just from the sun.