The Local Knowlege

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A Florida resort tries to restore its historic charm (and its Donald Ross course won't hurt).

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel & Course, the venerable Florida tourist stop on the state's gulf coast, has been in the news ever since it opened in 1897. The news in 2015, however, hasn't been of facility's transition to a 21st century destination.

Not familiar with one of the grand ladies of early resort locales? Henry B. Plant was one of the pioneering Florida developers who were key to the infrastructure and growth of the state as a tourism locale. The main mode of transportation in the late 1800s was railroad, and Plant, who had developed a transportation system to the South after the Civil War, used the rails to build up the west coast of Florida as Henry Flagler would do for the east coast. Plant City, east of Tampa, is named after the developer. One of the hotels he built was the Belleview Biltmore in Belleair, on Clearwater Bay, and Plant, who died in 1899, had private railroad cars pull right up to the front door (see photo below) to drop off elite, wealthy and famous clientele, even presidents.

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If only the delivery of guests had stayed so simple, the hotel might not be in the precarious state it currently finds itself. Starting in the 1970s, various events and ownership changes began the hotel's decline. Threats to demolish the hotel were met with pleas to preserve and renovate it, even as it had been shuttered for several years. But in April, the Tampa Bay Times reported a sale was made of hotel that's on the National Register of Historic Places to St. Petersburg-developer Mike Cheezem and his JMC Communities for $6.2 million. In May, demolition began of the structure, known as the White Queen of the Gulf. By most accounts, the plan is to retain perhaps 10 percent of the hotel, or 36,000 square feet, as a classic inn and build condominiums on the rest of the old grounds. The inn (the name Belleview Inn is tossed around) would be the focal point of the new development and have 33 rooms, the original lobby and a grand living room.

The good thing for golfers still looking to experience the Donald Ross/Biltmore feel is that golf has never stopped being played there. Six holes were built in 1897, three more in 1899, and by 1909 the West Course was made into 18. The hotel is considered to have the first course in Florida. Then by 1915, a second 18 was done, by Ross, with both the East and West courses considered to have been done under his influence.

In 1959, the hotel bought a 1926 Ross course built very close to the Biltmore -- Pelican Golf Club -- making it a 54-hole resort. In the 1990s, the East & West courses went fully private as Belleair Country Club, and the Pelican layout continued as a resort course under the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club name to keep that heritage alive.

So while there is no more Belleview Biltmore hotel to stay at, you can play a Belleview Biltmore Ross layout (727-581-5498). Green fees range from $40 to $65, depending on the season, and you can dine at the Pelican Restaurant. If you play after Sept. 1, you can see the results of a complete bunker renovation.

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Deal of the Week: Check out the American Home of Golf in North Florida

We don't have 450-year-old monument to the founding of the game like the Old Course, but the American game is certainly well represented in the Ponte Vedra-St. Augustine area in North Florida.

Not only is Ponte Vedra the home of the PGA Tour (and TPC Sawgrass), but the World Golf Hall of Fame is just down the road, outside St. Augustine. 

When you make the pilgrimage, you can do more than just look at the displays. The resorts affiliated with the Tour and the Hall of Fame are terrific, but for a more of a classic Florida feel, book a stay the the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. 

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Built in 1920s as a way for employees of the National Lead Company to blow off steam, it transitioned into a getaway for the well-heeled in 1928, when Herbert Strong was brought in to design a "serious" 18-hole course. 

His 6,800-yard Ocean Course is still a test almost a century later, and its ninth hole is the first island green ever built. Book one of the Inn's Family Golf packages and two adults can play unlimited golf each day on the Ocean and the Robert Trent Jones-Joe Lee Lagoon Course, kids can go to a daily instruction clinic and all rental clubs are covered for rates starting at $491 per night, with a minimum two-night stay. You'll even get a complimentary family photo, so be sure to bring sunscreen and lay off the matching outfits. 

Summertime in Florida scares off some potential visitors, but Ponte Vedra's location on the water provides consistent breezes, pegging daytime temperatures in the low 90s and nights in the high 60s and low 70s. The Inn is also located about 45 minutes from Jacksonville's excellent international airport, which offers direct service from just about anywhere in the eastern and central part of the country -- Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Denver. 

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Deal of the Week: Find vintage luxury outside Toronto

Lake Simcoe has been the close-but-not-too-close getaway for urban Toronto dwellers since before cars were around to drive people the 50 miles north from the city. 

Of all the rental cottages, inns and resorts around the lake, The Briars is the most charming and historic. It started life in 1840 as a mansion in the country, and was transformed into a resort in 1942 when it linked up with the private nine-hole Stanley Thompson-designed course in Jackson's Point. Thompson protege Robbie Robinson added a second nine in 1971, and it works seamlessly into Thompson's original, winding through mature trees and across the Black River. The combined course is a manageable 6,285 yards from the tips, with wide fairway targets but enough greenside water to make you pay attention.

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The resort is made up of the original manor house inn, plus a variety of lakeside and forest cottages that can be rented by families and groups. If you have the flexibility to stay midweek, you can book a golf package that includes an inn or one-bedroom cottage room, a round of golf and a $25 food voucher for rates starting at $129 per night per person -- or about $100 in U.S. dollars. For rates starting at $449 per person ($350 U.S.), you can book a deluxe two-day package that includes two nights accommodation, two rounds of golf, breakfast and dinner. 

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When you aren't playing golf, the resort offers complimentary cruises on the 280-square mile lake, tennis, kayaking and a full service spa. It's an easy hour drive up the 404 from Toronto to Jackson's Point, and even Buffalo, Detroit and Rochester are within reasonable road-trip range. 
  

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Deal of the Week: Explore golf on one of the best of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes

Gull Lake in Central Minnesota is one of those places in-state visitors hope nobody ever hears about. 

The Brainerd area has been a go-to summer vacation spot for the rest of the state for nearly 100 years. Gull Lake's 38 miles of shoreline are lined with a dozen resorts and hotels of various sizes. Two of the biggest, Madden's and Cragun's, each have a variety of courses that take advantage of the lakefront, hills and mature trees. 

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At Madden's, you can pick from the championship-length Classic, the sportier Pine Beach East and Pine Beach West, and the beginner-friendly Social 9. All are meticulously maintained, and better yet, they all offer a different kind of challenge -- from the Classic's broad-shouldered, PGA Tour-style looks to the East's 1930s-era charm. 

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At Cragun's, Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the Dutch Legacy and Bobby's Legacy 18s with distinctly different feels. The five-star Dutch has a collection of fierce 450-yard-plus par-4s, while the Legacy offers a more charitable experience for players who don't carry the ball quite so far. 

July and August are prime time in Minnesota, with no-humidity days in the low 80s and nights in the 60s. You can still find some good golf package rates at either place -- or book a trip that combines the best of both. The two properties sit about two miles apart on the southern tip of Gull Lake -- 150 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

The Madden's Classic Deluxe package offers a round on the Classic and any of the other resort courses, lodging and breakfast for two for about $520 per night in a deluxe king room. An equivalent package at Cragun's -- two weekend nights with two rounds of golf, plus breakfast and dinner -- is $359. 

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Deal of the Week: Play unlimited golf at Donald Ross' New Hampshire masterpiece

Summer takes longer to get to New Hampshire than most places, but when it does, there are few better places to be. 

Right now, you can take advantage of the intersection of spring and summer and get great weather and pre-season deals. The Omni Mt. Washington Resort in Bretton Woods is New Hampshire's largest luxury property, and it features one of the oldest courses in the state -- Donald Ross' Mount Washington layout. 

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Until June 31, you can book an unlimited golf package for two that includes a room in the townhomes on the property, unlimited golf on both the Ross 18 and the Mount Pleasant Course and full breakfast each morning for $497 per night. 

If all you want to do is play, you can out this weekend for $79 before 1 p.m., and $69 after. Starting July 1, those rates go up to $99 and $79, but you can also book an unlimited golf day for $129. 

The Ross course has one of New Hampshire's finest pedigrees. Opened in 1915, it has played host to numerous state and regional tournaments, and is widely considered the best course in the state. Brian Silva supervised a sympathetic renovation in 2007, restoring it to Ross' original specifications. But unlike many Ross designs, Mount Washington doesn't play to 1920s yardage. You'll need everything in your bag from the 7,000-yard back tees. 

The resort itself opened in 1902, and it retains the class and charm that made it one of the premier properties in the country when it opened. It sits in the middle of the White Mountain National Forest, and features a 25,000-sqft spa, conference center and a host of food options -- including The Cave, an underground bar that operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. 

Bretton Woods is located in North Central New Hampshire, 160 miles north of Boston. It is a world class road trip from anywhere in the Northeast, with gorgeous mountain and lake views. The closest big airport is in Manchester, N.H., 100 miles south, which operates as a regional Boston hub. That means you can easily get direct flights in from Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Orlando and New York City. 

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Deal of the Week: Don't just watch the golf in Washington state next week

All eyes will be on the Seattle-Tacoma area and Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open this week, and if you're lucky enough to be attending, your dance card is probably pretty full. 

But if you decide to take the sticks and try to wedge in 18 on one of the tournament days, you're making a wise decision. The wild topography and mild weather that help make Chambers Bay so special also gives it some fantastic public course neighbors. 

Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton is 30 miles north of the U.S. Open venue, and doesn't share the same advantageous position right on the water. But the two courses that make up the property are both among the strongest in the Pacific Northwest.

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The John Harbottle-designed Olympic Course opened in 1996, and has hosted the USGA twice before, for the Junior Amateur and Amateur Public Links. The Ken Tyson-designed Cascade Course is the original one on the property, from 1971, and offers a spectacular trip through mature stands of fir trees. 

The club normally runs a cross-promotion with Chambers Bay that lets you play all three courses over two days, but the tee times at Chambers are otherwise detained. You can still book the 36-hole special, though -- 18 holes at the Olympic and Cascade for $150. The regular green fee is $100 for each round. 

Bremerton isn't a bad jumping off point for a last minute Open trip, either. You can still find hotel rooms there in the $100-$200 range per night during the week, and you'll be shuttling down to Chambers Bay in a different direction than all of the Seattle-Tacoma traffic. 
 

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Deal of the Week: Tee it up in Larry Bird's neck of the woods

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The town of French Lick, Indiana never got more attention than it did when native son Larry Bird was in his prime. 

The "Hick from French Lick" retired from the Boston Celtics in 1992, and now has a lower-profile role as the Indiana Pacers team president, working 100 miles north in Indianapolis. 

That leaves plenty of room in the spotlight for the French Lick Resort, a 3,000-acre Southern Indiana destination with two historic hotels, three golf courses and a 50,000-sqft casino. The French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel were each built in 1901, when the French Lick area was a therapeutic destination for its sulphur springs. 

The property added a Donald Ross-designed course in 1917, and Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship there in 1924. Pete Dye was commissioned to build a brawnier sibling, and the eponymous Pete Dye Course at French Lick opened in 2009. The PGA returned for its Senior PGA Championship there last month, when Colin Montgomerie successfully defended his title. 

With the resort's Hall of Fame package, you can experience unlimited daily play on all 8,100 yards (!) of the Dye Course and the restored splendor of the Ross Course for about $569 per night per person, based on double occupancy. 

If you aren't too tired, there's plenty of other things to explore around the resort's twin hotels. The Power Plant Bar & Grill in the French Lick Springs Hotel features the gigantic switchboard which once served as the electrical nerve center of the building. The casino has a complete offering of table games (blackjack, craps, mini-baccarat) and slots, and 10,000 square feet of non-smoking gambling space.

And if you just can't get Larry Legend out of your head, head to downtown French Lick and eat lunch at 33 Brick Street, where a collection of his jerseys and championship rings are on display.


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Deal of the Week: Add golf to the full Branson experience

Travelers on the coasts sometimes sniff at Branson, Missouri as a potential vacation destination, but nearly 10 million people visited the Ozarks entertainment hub last year for shopping, shows, fishing and golf. 

The problem with heading to a place that has more than 50 theaters, some of the best bass fishing in the U.S. and a collection of natural attractions like Marvel Cave is parsing out the time to see everything. 

With its Platinum Experience package, the Thousand Hills Golf Resort aims to solve that problem. For rates starting around $200 per night, you get a two-bedroom condo adjacent to the Bob Cupp design and $750 in coupons for a laundry list of shows, attractions, activities and restaurants. Golf costs $49 per player, and isn't included in the price. 

The coupons range from practical (free rental clubs for four at the course) to the prosaic (see Yakov Smirnoff live!), and cover virtually every cultural taste, from Mickey Gilley to the Osmonds.

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Using Thousand Hills as a base, you can branch out and play some of the area's other strong tests. Buffalo Ridge is one of Tom Fazio's toughest tests, and played host to the Champions Tour's Legends of Golf last year. Payne Stewart Golf Club was designed by Chuck Smith and Bobby Clampett as a tribute to the PGA Tour star and Missouri native. Both courses are on the outskirts of Branson proper. 

The vast majority of travelers get to Branson by car and bus--it was the most popular charter bus destination in the U.S. last year--but air travel has gotten way easier in the last few years. The privately-owned Branson Airport opened in 2009, and has daily flights from Denver, Chicago, Houston and Baltimore. 

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Deal of the Week: Enjoy Northern Michigan's deep daylight at Boyne

Northern Michigan can hang with any American golf destination when it comes to both quality and volume of courses. 

Better yet, the approaching summer season--and Michigan's position on the west edge of the Eastern time zone--means a Scotland-like 15 hours of daylight to play a leisurely 36 holes, but without any haggis to endure afterward. 

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The best way to take advantage might be Boyne's Great Escape Golf Vacation. You can stay five nights at the Petoskey-area's Boyne Highlands Resort and play one of eight courses spread at three different resorts--four at Boyne Highlands, two at Boyne Mountain, Crooked Tree Golf Club and Hidden River Golf & Casting Club--for rates starting at $880 per person. For a surcharge, you can also get access to the award-winning Bay Harbor trio of nines, which are also owned by the resort. 

Among the eight "regular" courses available in the package, the Donald Ross Memorial at Boyne Highlands might be the most interesting. Executed as a replica compilation of Ross' most famous holes, it features examples from Seminole, Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills, among others. Taken together, they offer 6,800 yards of pure Ross intrigue. In the span of just a few holes, you can two-chip on one of No. 2's brutal tight collection areas and pick the wrong side of a split fairway. 

If your only Michigan experience is downstate, in Detroit, Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids, the northern part of the Lower Peninsula really is a different world. While most of the state is flat, the area around Traverse City and Petoskey has rolling hills and decent skiing--along with world-class frontage on Lake Michigan. 

It's also easier to reach than you think. Traverse City's efficient Cherry Capital Airport is serviced by daily flights from Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis by American, Delta and United. If you want to drive, it's 260 miles from Detroit, and 320 from Chicago.

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Video: Cabot Cliffs is opening for play soon and it looks stunning

If watching this video doesn't get you going you might not actually be alive. Cabot Links has been Canada's only true links golf course since it opened in June 2012 (it's third on our ranking of best courses in Canada and 42nd on our ranking of the World's 100 Greatest Golf Courses), and Cabot Cliffs, which will open for preview play in July, will be the country's second links course. It looks nothing short of spectacular. The resort, which is located on the northwest coast of Cape Breton, recently released a 43-second video that is complete with dramatic cliffs, rolling fairways and golf holes that jut out into rocky oceans. Oh, and it's narrated by Kiefer Sutherland (!).




Related: Golf Digest's Sneak Peek At Cabot Cliffs


If you need more reason to click play, here are three screen grabs from the video.

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The video and these images make Cabot Cliffs look fake. Thankfully for us, it's very real.

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