British Columbia: Spectacular on and off the golf course

No. 8 at Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club  Image courtesy Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club




With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” . . .

     Listen my children and you shall hear

     About a golf destination without peer. 

     One if by land, and two if by sea;

     And I on the opposite shore will be.

     Ready to ride and spread the alarm

     Through every B.C. village and farm.



Yes, I can now spread the news that the scenery and golf in British Columbia are as spectacular as anywhere you will see and play in North America.

And sometimes getting to the first tee can be half the fun.

Planes, trains, automobiles, ferries, ski gondolas and golf carts were our primary modes of transportation during a memorable 10-day odyssey through British Columbia this summer– from Vancouver Island to Vancouver to Whistler, with many breathtaking stops and photo ops along the way.

And sometimes the shots off the course were as unforgettable as those on the course. Ask Cathy, my better half, who took all of the photos and navigated all of the side trips.

O, Canada! So beautiful and free, indeed.

In addition to the tree-lined golf courses and abundant wildlife – yes, we spotted three black bears from the safety of the PEAK 2 PEAK ski gondola in Whistler — we saw the wondrous flowers and foliage at world-renowned Butchart Gardens outside Victoria, B.C.’s capital city.

We also enjoyed the views and azure-blue waters of the Straight of Georgia on our B.C. Ferry ride from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.

And we listened, learned and took in the jaw-dropping scenery during our narrated train trip from Vancouver to Whistler aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, a three-hour journey in the custom-designed Whistler Dome coach along the famous Sea to Sky corridor.

If you like views of cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, gargantuan granite monoliths and soaring eagles, you might not want to get off the train. (Did you know that Brackendale, B.C., is the self-proclaimed “bald eagle capital of the world,” because thousands of them descend on the area every winter to feast on the spawning salmon in the glacier-fed Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers? Now you do.)

The Rocky Mountaineer also takes you places you can’t see by car, such as directly over the famous island-green 14th hole at Furry Creek Golf & Country Club, a Robert Muir Graves design regarded as B.C.’s most scenic golf course. (Much of “Happy Gilmore,” the hilarious Adam Sandler golf flick, was filmed at Furry Creek, and scenes from the Ashley Judd movie “Double Jeopardy” were filmed nearby.)

Golf, of course, was the main attraction on this expedition, and B.C. gets an ace as a vacation destination for chasing the dimpled white spheroid. The weather was sensational (only a day and a half of rain, which was much less than I feared), and the courses were visually striking and playable for all skill levels.

I played three of the 10 courses on the “Vancouver Island Golf Trail” – Bear Mountain Golf Resort and Olympic View Golf Club in the Victoria area, as well as Crown Isle Golf Resort in Courtenay – and all three courses in Whistler: Nicklaus North Golf Course, Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club and Whistler Golf Club.

I also drove by a few courses that I want to play the next time, notably Victoria Golf Club, a private seaside links course founded in 1893 and the oldest in North America; Arbutus Ridge Golf Club in the Victoria area; and Big Sky Golf and Country Club in Pemberton, about 20 miles outside Whistler.

Off the courses, the accommodations, hospitality and dining were exemplary, highlighted by a five-course dinner, with wine pairings, at araxi, an award-winning restaurant in Whistler Village. (First time for me noshing on an octopus appetizer and a saddle of rabbit entrée.) Also enjoyed the “Duck Two Ways” (sliced duck breast and crispy duck confit with caramelized onion jam) at Whistler’s Rimrock Café, saving room for sticky toffee pudding, which became my favorite dessert after a trip to Scotland. Makes my mouth water again just writing about these meals.

The Canadian wines were tasty, too, particularly the Mission Hill Family Estate wines from the Okanagan Valley. In B.C., you want to drink after you drive — a golf ball, that is — and sip after you chip. At least when you’re on vacation.

On this trip, I also learned that some Fairmont Hotel properties (including two in downtown Vancouver) offer free sets of rental clubs if you call ahead and reserve them. Nice perk if you don’t want to drag your own clubs across the border.

If you’re going to tee it up only once or twice on a trip, I usually rent clubs. But if I’m going to be playing several courses, I want my own bag, even if I have to pay an airline baggage fee. This was one of those trips, especially with club pros joining me at most of the tracks.

A closer look at the courses I played:

Bear Mountain Golf Resort, Victoria: Carved out of the rugged terrain in the foothills of Mount Finlayson, this is the only 36-hole Jack Nicklaus design in Canada. I teed it up with assistant pro Wayne Prusky on the Mountain Course (7,089 yards from the tips), which was co-designed by son Steve Nicklaus and in 2003 became the first of the two courses to open (joined by the Valley Course in 2009). Site of the TELUS World Skins Game between Mike Weir, Fred Couples, Retief Goosen and Ian Poulter, the Mountain features breathtaking elevation changes, uneven lies in the fairways and large undulating greens.

My favorite holes: the 152-yard, island-green par-3 11th (reminiscent of the famed 17th at TPC Sawgrass in Florida) and the 523-yard, par-5 14th, which plays uphill all the way to the green, the highest point on the course, where you are rewarded with spectacular views of the city of Victoria, the Straight of Juan de Fuca and the mountains of Olympic National Park in Washington state. Between the 14th and 15th holes, there’s also a bonus “money hole,” a 141-yard par-3 to enjoy the top-of-the-world views and/or settle bets. Rhetorical question: If there are 19 holes on the Mountain, does that mean the club’s Masters Lounge is the 20th hole?

The signature 17th hole at Olympic View GC in Victoria                                 Image Credit: Cathy Barnett

       Olympic View Golf Club, Victoria: As its name proclaims, you can see the Olympic peninsula of the state of Washington from the first tee at Olympic View GC, a Bill Robinson-designed championship course that opened in 1990. Four years later, it’s also where a skinny teenager from Cypress named Tiger Woods carded an eagle on the uphill par-5 18th to win the individual title in an amateur event in which his Western High School team finished second. “Three-wood, 4-iron, chip-in,” remembers Ken Langdon, associate professional and events coordinator at Olympic View, a witness that day and my golfing guide when I teed it up here.

Recognized as one of the top courses on Vancouver Island, Olympic View received a four-star rating in Golf Digest’s Best Places to Play and in 2011 made ScoreGolf Magazine’s list of Top 10 Best Public Golf Facilities in British Columbia. Nestled inside 550 acres of undeveloped forest, the course meanders through nature. On the course, you’ll see two waterfalls, 12 lakes, distant views of mountains and glaciers and wildlife such as the eagle we spotted soaring above No. 1 and the deer grazing a few feet away from a private lesson at the GBC Golf Academy on site. Signature hole is the spectacular 455-yard, par-4 17th, where a 60-foot waterfall beckons behind the green. “Tranquility and nature come together here,” Langdon said. No argument here.

     Crown Isle Resort and Golf Community, Courtenay: “Come for a tee time . . . stay for a lifetime.” I understand and appreciate the marketing slogan after staying and playing two days at Crown Isle Resort, an 831-acre, master-planned golf-centric community in the Comox Valley, a three-hour drive from Victoria up the East Coast of Vancouver Island. The hotel rooms received 4½ stars from Tourism British Columbia, and the villas lining several fairways have all of the creature comforts of home – and much more, including full kitchens and master-suite Jacuzzis to soothe the golf-weary muscles. The 48,000-square-foot clubhouse has a full-service pro shop, a pub, a restaurant, a fitness center, a cognac room and even a classic car museum.

The course itself, a Graham Cooke design that opened in 1992, is superbly manicured, landscaped and maintained, is playable for all skill levels and features 11 lakes and striking views of the Beaufort Mountains and Comox Glacier looming in the distance. It’s a resort-style course with wide, rolling fairways but isn’t as easy as my host, director of golf Rod Prieto, made it look. On No. 1, a 526-yard, dogleg-right par-5, he bombed a drive down the left side, knocked it on the green and drained the 25-foot eagle putt. And if you’re into cross-promotions, there were eagles soaring overhead that day. And deer everywhere. Small world, too. Prieto grew up in Southern California, attended Whittier Christian and Orange Lutheran, and later worked at the San Diego Golf Academy, for the Southern California PGA and as an assistant pro at Indian Wells Golf Resort in the desert. How did he end up on Vancouver Island? “Married a Canadian,” he said, smiling. “She’s from the area here.” Another way to stay for a lifetime.

Suffice to say, we didn’t want to leave when it was time to head to Nanaimo to catch the ferry to Vancouver. The next day, we took the train to Whistler, often hailed as the top mountain resort in North America and proud host of the skiing events in the 2010 Winter Olympics. It might not be as well-known for its golf, but it should be. Conde Nast Traveler has ranked it the No. 1 Golf Resort in Canada; Golf Digest, the No. 1 Golf Destination in Canada.

      Nicklaus North Golf Course, Whistler: All you need to know about this course is that among the nearly 300 that Jack Nicklaus has designed, it is the first – and only one of two — that he has the 12th hole at Nicklaus Northagreed to attach his name. Five minutes from the Whistler Ski Resort, Nicklaus North opened in in 1995 to rave reviews and was the venue for the 1997 TELUS Skins Game won by Greg Norman, the 1998 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf TV match between Fred Couples and Ernie Els and the 2005 TELUS Skins Game won by the Golden Bear himself. The layout is nestled at the base of the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and plays along the shores of glacier-fed Green Lake. The setting is so spectacular, I’d want my name on it, too.

The par-71 course (6,961 yards from the tips) features generous fairways, large undulating greens and a magnificent set of five par-3s, including the signature 12th and 17th holes. It’s no secret that No. 12 resembles No. 12 at Augusta National, one of Jack’s favorite holes, including a bridge that resembles the famed Hogan Bridge that carries golfers across Rae’s Creek at Augusta. Except No. 12 at Nicklaus North plays 225 yards and 200 yards from the back teeboxes, much longer than at Augusta. No. 17 is another long par-3 (226 yards), with Green Lake guarding the left side of the green. According to GM Michael Zuccolin, my golf guide on the day I played, Couples stuck his tee shot 2 feet from the cup on the way to a 66 in the 1998 TV victory over Els. The food at “The Den” restaurant was great, too.

Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club: If I were forced to choose a favorite among the Whistler courses, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design would get the nod, even though I had to play it in a steady rain. The par-72 layout is only 6,635 yards from the tips, but that is misleading because it climbs up the slopes of Blackcomb Peak and features elevation changes up to 400 feet, tight fairways, dramatic doglegs and uneven lies galore. Trumpeted as “mountain golf at its finest,” it is ultra-challenging, but I still wish I could play it every week. That must explain why Travel & Leisure Golf ranked it the best resort course in Canada in 2006 and why Golf Digest called it “Canada’s Best New Golf Course” after it opened in 1993.

There are so many memorable holes, including the uphill 399-yard 3rd (a dogleg-left par-4 in which you have to hit your second shot over a ravine and the Horstman River) and the signature downhill 212-yard par-3 8th (elevated tee, lake on the left and huge rocks to the right). The course follows nature, traversing creek and lakes, past majestic Douglas fir trees and over rugged terrain that is home to beavers, deer and black bears. Was told that Slumber and Amy are among the resident bears here, and most often are spotted on No. 10 or No. 11. No such luck on the day I played.

Whistler Golf Club: This is the first course that opened in Whistler, in 1983, so it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It is also the first Arnold Palmer-designed layout in Canada, and it’s not difficult to see why “The King” selected the location. “Three things make a great golf course: scenery, challenge and fun, and my course has them all,” Palmer once said of Whistler GC.

This course is visually spectacular, with snow-capped mountains everywhere you look and ancient cedar trees and towering fir trees lining the fairways. There also are nine lakes on the course fed by two winding creeks. The signature holes are No. 7 (“Deception Pass,” 384-yard par-4), No. 13 (“Bear Island,” 404-yard par-4) and No. 16 (“The Gallery,” 460-yard par-4). And Ro Davies, the golf club’s longtime sales manager, notes that it’s “a great walking course.” The course also is teeming with wildlife: coyotes, beavers, deer and the occasional bear ambling across the fairway. Maybe it’s a good thing that on the day I toured Whistler GC, all I saw was a pile that a large furry one had left behind.

But there’s always next time, and there definitely will be a next time.  One if by land, two if by sea . . .  and I on the opposite shore will be. See you in B.C.?

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