Exploring the Mediterranean with clubs is the golf adventure you didn’t know you needed
My idea of the perfect golf trip is unoriginal and goes something like this: four or eight buddies travel to the famous links of somewhere—Scotland, Ireland, maybe Oregon—pack full rain gear hoping not to use it, play 36 every day, then every night recharge with a substantive and sedative blend of beef and alcohol. Repeat. The style and comfort of any accommodation or transit is immaterial. It’s all about how much great golf can we cram in before returning home to our spouses, children and freshly depleted accounts of domestic credits.
With this prejudice I received a novel invitation to go on a “golf cruise.” Costa, the Italian cruising company whose ships run occupancies as large as 6,500, was launching a new package to coincide with Rome hosting its first Ryder Cup in 2023. Participants would play Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, the venue built for the Cup that several golf industry cranks predicted (wrongly) wouldn’t be finished in time, then sail counterclockwise around the Mediterranean Sea, stopping to play golf in Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Mallorca and Palermo.
To say nothing of ambitious logistics, the spirituality of the voyage seemed confused. Isn’t the mega-convenience sought by cruisers at odds with whatever golfers are after? Fast greens, thick rough, quirky hazards—we’re deviants who like just the right amount of pain. Not that I’m against the idea of kicking back on a chaise lounge with a beverage in hand watching a watery horizon slip between my toes, but add to this golf, plus the obligation to somewhat absorb the cultural gifts of one of the great seats of civilization, and, well, it all just seemed like too big a meatball.
Then again, I’d never once set foot on a cruise ship in my life, so what did I know? During the height of the pandemic, along with many others I had predicted (wrongly) this was one industry doomed for extinction. I’ve also held “touristy” as one of the worst words in the English language and usually go out of my way to avoid things and places that are popular, often to the detriment of my party. It also turns out the concept of a golf cruise isn’t entirely new. Perry Golf started running expeditions along the coasts of the British Isles in 1997. After some learning experiences, president and co-founder Gordon Dalgleish thinks the formula they’ve now honed partnering with the cruise line Azamara is on-point. Itineraries vary across the world, but a classic trip might connect Donegal, Royal Portrush, Portmarnock, Royal County Down and Adare Manor in 10 days. More often than not the ship would have just a few hundred people, and with such intimacy comes a premium price tag.
But as far as bringing golf clubs aboard the big volume ships that compose the heart of the tourism market, I could fancy myself a pioneer. So what the heck, I thought. Because none of my regular golf buddies are people I wish to sip Chianti with over electric candlelight, I asked my wife. She who plays at most nine holes per annum was skeptical, too, thinking I was tricking her into a golf trip by decorating it with everything else she really likes. When I promised we wouldn’t play golf at every port, she was in. With our four young kids and Prozac-prescribed Bernedoodle at home, my wife and I rarely get away together—or if you ask her, never.
WHEN THE TRIP COMMENCED WITH CHECK-IN AT Marco Simone and our tour guide was as surprised as we were to learn we were scheduled to play only nine holes instead of 18, I chuckled. Not trying to score a cheap point, but if you know the joke about the European nightmare being organized by the Italians, laugh with me. Kindly, the golf shop started us on No. 10 so that we could experience the side where future Ryder Cup dramas would climax. Built on rolling farmland, the broad-shouldered holes are amply designed to accommodate spectators and drain water down to fairways. The rough was (and allegedly always is) as healthy as arugula salad to favor the straighter-hitting Europeans. The tiered and curvaceous greens and the predominance of half-par holes (easy birdies, hard pars) should make for charged match play. Though the course was conceived for 24 of the planet’s best golfers, its future will be about attracting middle-handicap tourists from Rome to subsidize its private membership. No one mentions golf much when they talk about pleasure travel in Western Europe, but maybe they’ll start.
Jessica’s favorite hole was the short par-3 13th, where from the most forward tees she skulled a 9-iron out-of-bounds long into the backyard of a charming pink stucco farmhouse covered in ivy. Playing nine left ample time to savor the sensational eggplant parmigiana and bacon rigatoni in the new clubhouse that was so under-furnished that it echoed, and our guide was pleased that we would arrive at our ship well before it could take off without us.
To define “us,” with the exception of myself and one other writer and her plus-one, our intrepid group of 20 were all travel industry professionals eager to learn about the golf-cruise concept. Thus, it’s helpful to partially define a golf cruise as a number of people who fit comfortably on a bus. A tour might be a single large group, or patched together from various foursomes, twosomes and singles. It’s a manageable sub-group of people apart from the hoi polloi of the main ship who do things together like dine, disembark, and collect their clubs for excursions. It’s also a way to make new friends.
Our ship, the Costa Smeralda, was built in 2019, but because of the pandemic started sailing only in 2022. Twenty stories with swimming pools and a water slide on the top deck, and within her belly all manner of restaurant, bar, lounge, club, spa, retail outlet, theatrical stage, casino and a gym, she took two years and $950 million to build. The custom inlays of tile, woodwork and lighting fixtures would make any contractor go agape, and my impression was Las Vegas with life preservers. Smeralda runs on liquified natural gas and can switch over entirely to electricity in equipped ports, placing her in the highest echelon of energy-efficient cruise ships in the world.
When we first boarded, in Civitavecchia, Rome, we breezed through the giant dockside terminal in minutes. As soon as we zipped away our passports and proof of COVID-negativity, Jessica and I were clinking Proseccos on the private balcony of our cabin, wearing sunglasses. Of the 2,612 rooms on board, two-thirds have a balcony.
When it’s time to clean the exterior, the privacy barriers retract so that the ship can be scrubbed in fell swoops. As the writer J.C. Hallman once observed about the evolution of utopian thought, from Atlantis to about Star Trek, “A range of authors, architects and engineers first identified paradise as a floating island, then an island accessible by ship, and finally as the ship itself. Transport became destination.” So far, I couldn’t disagree.
IN THE SAME WAY OTHER GROUPS DISEMBARKED TO VISIT A VINEYARD OR TO GO SCUBA-DIVING, WE PLAYED GOLF.
It takes two days for Smeralda’s central bank of elevators flanked by stairs to become easy to navigate. On the first night we stuck close to the extroverted Laura De La Horra, a Cuban-born travel advisor for Cruise Planners, who demonstrated great leadership with the digital wine list when QR codes and funky Wi-Fi thwarted the rest of us. A veteran of more than 50 cruises after a first career as a controller for a national trucking company, she knows how big systems work. The vaguest outline of another cruise ship in the distance was all she needed to call out its name. As freely as she discussed the relative values of inclusive packages across cruise lines, she could cite their godmothers and godfathers, too. Modern cruise ships are mostly christened by pop celebrities—Pitbull, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson each have performed the honors with a champagne bottle—and it turned out the godmother of Smeralda was the homonymous Penelope Cruz.
After dinner that first night, our group attended a function billed as “Drinks with the Captain.” Although Captain Carmine Maddaloni didn’t have a drop, we did our part to render the statement factual. It’s possible I overestimated Maddaloni’s interest to hear about the time I attempted docking my father-in-law’s 24-foot Sea Ray, and all hell broke loose. When I asked if this social affair was distracting his command, he grinned and slyly pulled out an iPhone from his gold-buttoned navy lapel. The music mixed with nearby conversations made it hard to hear exactly what the captain said, but the impression was he controlled the 1,105-foot, 180,000-ton ship through an app. Then the person next to me asked if all golf-cruisers would receive the sleeve of Costa-logoed golf balls in their cabin upon check-in as we did. Yes.
I awoke thinking I was in a hotel room, then pulled the curtain. The sight of rippling seawater is a surprise that never subsides. Each ancient port city of the Mediterranean has a distinct skyline, and our arrivals were always timed with sunrise and the first dockworkers being up to receive us. Our cruise director, Scott Knutson, a Chicagoan-now-Floridian with a long career in the cruise industry, had a corny but inarguable line about the mode of travel: “You relax; we’ll change the scenery.” One morning coming into harbor we had a primo view of a crane unloading a commercial freight ship. I thought how much our four-year-old son would have been thrilled to see the heavy equipment in action, but more so about how nice it was not having him there.
Breakfast is a scene. Occupying both the port and starboard of Deck 8 is a symmetrical layout of stations devoted to coffee, pastries, fruit, grains, omelettes, eggs, bacon, and on and on, all fresh and delicious. I never saw things escalate to full battle, but make no mistake, you are tactfully maneuvering against light infantry of couples and families speaking a variety of languages. Be warned that beautiful European women of a certain age and entitlement are all remorseless line-cutters. Only five percent of Costa’s customers are American, which for me, stills any waves of agoraphobia. There’s something fun and cosmopolitan about watching the old Scandinavian man ahead of you in line get testy with a young barista from the Philippines as he tries to explain how he likes his cappuccino in Spanish, which he regards as his best linguistic crack at Italian. Or when you’re sharing an elevator with an extended family from Romania with matching Boss fanny packs, ready for their big day of cathedral ruins, and you’re dressed for golf, and everyone is smiling warmly thinking how ridiculous the other looks.
Golf Club Garlenda is an hour drive from the port of Savona. If you start to feel trapped inside the tour bus, look out the window at the scrolling vineyards and remember those grapes could be your table wine in a decade. We’d almost switched venues in an emergency, when the evening before our operative relayed that Garlenda might not have enough carts. Quicker than a snap hook, my hand shot up to volunteer Jessica and me to walk and carry. (I hate riding. Plus, part of my constant entreaty to my wife to like golf has always been it’s essentially a hike through nature, which she loves. For the record, I’m a staunch supporter of people enjoying the game in whatever manner they wish, be it with carts, music, alcohol, shirtless, in yoga pants, a live goat carrying their golf bag like a pack mule—yes, that’s a thing.)
EACH PORT CITY OF THE MEDITERRANEAN HAS A DISTINCT SKYLINE, AND OUR ARRIVALS WERE ALWAYS TIMED WITH SUNRISE.
However, my vision of strolling the fairway-foothills of the Ligurian Alps was thwarted. Overnight, magical Pinocchian strings had been pulled and waiting for us at Garlenda was a fleet of 10 all-terrain vehicles with fat tires, yellow and red body trim, meaty suspension coils, deep multi-chambered dashboards for storage, electronic controls, and firm racing seats. Their futuristic look was incongruous with the crumbling flower pots and barrel tile roof of the clubhouse archway, but so would have been a Ferrari.
As a solution to a misunderstanding not made clear, we had to start on hole No. 11, the distant route to which was a not-obvious set of turns down a steep cinder block path, across a trafficked road from a blind start behind tall hedges, along a gravel path to a bridge, and through a rugged patch of Cypress grove. The design of our vehicle was not superfluous.
Garlenda has hosted 17 professional tournaments in its history, including the 1971 Italian Open. Built in 1965 and tipping out at only 6,654 yards, its routing is inventive. High-terraced tee boxes, twisting doglegs along domestic tomato gardens and fruit trees, and fences of varying height and material gave us the sense of being in an Italian hill village, which we were. Several holes on the back nine crossed over the same concrete irrigation canal, which was bone dry from an arid summer. The people in our party who griped loudest about the thin turf conditions also happened to be the weakest golfers, and within this first hour was the strongest secondhand embarrassment I’d feel on the trip. As we would encounter elsewhere, Mediterranean golf culture is walking with pushcarts and having a drink after the round, whereas more Americans opt for riding and maybe a tipple of swing oil during. To eschew local customs is fine, but being a rude guest is something else. In defense of my fellow travelers, they were perhaps viewing the course through the lens of the expectations of their future clients who would be paying $150 to $250 per green fee, which includes transportation and lunch, depending on various packages. (The more people in a tour group, the lower your price and the greater your options of courses. Also note: Whether you book directly from a cruise line or through a travel agent, you usually pay the same. Agents purchase cabin nights at a bulk discount, which they then mark back up. The benefit of an agent is that in the likely event you need to make changes, it’s one phone call.)
As is usually the case, bad feelings about course conditions washed away in the end. Our 19th hole continued merrily with smuggled bottles of local Menabrea beer on the tour bus. As parting gifts, the head pro handed us each a hardcover copy of the club’s 50th anniversary book, of which there had obviously been too many published in 2015. The opening page features a cartoon monk standing over a knee-knocker, intoning, Taci o se parli di qualcosa che sia migliore del silenzio. Translation: “Unless you have something better to say than silence, shut up and let me putt.”
FRANCE’S GOLF SAINTE BAUME MIGHT HAVE THE worst set of par 5s in the world, which shouldn’t be a deterrent. On the contrary, to behold their unique grotesquery is worth a visit. The lowered green of the first hole is blocked by trees and plays scary short. At No. 7, unless you know to hit a big hook, the blind tee shot leads to certain marshy death, and the shallow green is perched 80 yards atop a steep burnt slope of rough where no round object will find a perch. The 12th isn’t bad except for the cross burn that takes driver out of your hands and the electric fence down the left that shocked my playing partner when he retrieved his errant tee shot. The 15th is a blind drive over the same diabolical slope as the approach at No. 7, and here the aiming pole can’t nudge you left enough. Luckily, I pulled my tee shot into the right rough (that’s not a misprint; I’m right-handed), which bounded across and down not one, but two elegant stone walls leaving only a 9-iron in, which I hit to eight feet and missed.
Jessica liked the course for its varieties of trees, flowers and butterflies. With all of its character and eccentricity, the course, I was surprised to learn, wasn’t built 100 years ago but 35. My other great learning was the true value of the cart with a beginner. Even for those who love taking walks, the easy zip of the accelerator prevents a round of tops and runners from feeling like a slog, the shoulder straps a prisoner’s yoke. In the idyllic countryside and weather of the Mediterranean, it’s never a bad time to sit out a hole, enjoy the view and ponder tomorrow’s golf outfit.
One of our favorite fellow cruisers was Evelyn Gruber, a golf-travel specialist from Austria. She could be The World’s Most Interesting Woman if a beer company ever decided to run such a campaign. Decades ago, she nearly died from snakebite when she was living in the Amazon rainforest with a photographer boyfriend. Certified as a skiing and fitness trainer, she has climbed several of the world’s high peaks. She has stories from medical school, lifeguarding, and mentoring kids in Africa. She has been on several golf cruises, including one in which she had to brace her clubs tightly against ocean spray as they motored a Zodiac dinghy ashore to Nova Scotia from an expedition ship.
“It’s all about correctly managing expectations,” Evelyn says about golf cruises. “There’s a difference between cruisers who want to play golf and hardcore golfers who want to experience the cruise concept.” She thinks the value and flexibility of the Costa package is tough to beat—the cost of a cruise with four rounds can be as low as $2,000 per person, or even $1,500 if you’re traveling with a group of 11 or more—and will appeal to women golfers, couples and certain segments of male golfers. “I do believe that there’s huge potential for the Costa Golf concept contingent upon improving operations, logistics and service, especially when targeting the American golfer.” Never quite like this had a cool, older woman made me feel like such a snowflake.
Although established golf-tour operators might turn up the volume on service—you’ll never touch your golf bag until the first tee and foursomes are thoughtfully prearranged—our golf had the more casual air of a shore excursion. In the same manner other groups disembarked to visit a museum or a vineyard or go scuba-diving, we played golf.
TAKING A WEEK OFF FROM WORK, KIDS, LIFE IS AN opportunity to reset on many levels, including physical. Even if we had walked every round, I still would have made the hollow resolution to use the gym every day. Smeralda’s exercise space on Deck 16, with floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the sea, was inspiring in pictures, but in the end, I went exactly twice and not for impressive lengths of time. Our flow of days tended to have us leaving for golf shortly after breakfast and returning close to cocktail hour. C’est la vie.
In hindsight, we should have skipped Real Club de Golf El Prat. Four rounds in a week is probably the breaking point for a married couple with divergent enthusiasm toward golf. Jessica suggested we drink Sangria and dance in the cobbled streets of Barcelona while I prattled back about the history of this course that Golf Digest once ranked as high as No. 4 in Spain. Founded in 1912, the club was forced to relocate in 1954 when the city expanded, then again in 1997 when a new airport was built. The third property—likely the last— has two championship courses designed by Greg Norman and counts Sergio Garcia and Pablo Larrazabal as members. The country’s most famous golfer, Seve Ballesteros, passed away the week the club hosted its ninth of 10 Spanish Opens. Showcases inside the clubhouse are filled with old-world treasures, like an antique chalk line putting-practice aid. Such history prepares you for hard and pure championship golf where you can’t take a shot off—unless you’re Jessica, and you take off the entire back nine.
The next day in Mallorca, while the rest of our group bussed to the Jack Nicklaus-designed T Golf Palma, Jessica and I took a cab to a remote beach. The salt content of the water here is so high that you see it harvested in white piles for sale. I’m a weak swimmer, but with the buoyancy boost from the salt I felt like I could doggie-paddle a triathlon. The other notable element of Mallorca beaches are the roving masseuses who offer 10-minute sessions for 10 Euros—a no-brainer. Because of a miscalculation in how long it would take to hail a return cab, we were not the last people to board Smeralda but the second to last. In cruising, when you miss the ship, it’s on you to sort airline tickets or hitch a ride on a freighter to catch up at the next port.
In Palermo we skipped golf again, and spent the morning hiking Monte Pellegrino to find the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia. The other reward from this holy summit is a panoramic view of Palermo, where that day the dominant feature was, without question, our white cruise ship. In the afternoon, we rented a single scooter to explore the city’s cafes, galleries and traffic circles. If you don’t want to look like a tourist, wear a smartly fitted suit and spend a chunk of the day smoking cigarettes and sipping espresso streetside.
FOUR ROUNDS IN A WEEK IS PROBABLY THE BREAKING POINT FOR A MARRIED COUPLE WITH DIVERGENT ENTHUSIASM TOWARD GOLF.
Will the 2023 Ryder Cup ignite a new wave of golf interest in Italy and the surrounding regions? Time will tell. Would I recommend a golf cruise? If you’re interested in compromise with a slightly less golf-mad partner, absolutely. These are not the greatest courses in the world, nor will you cram in all that many rounds, but it’s an adventure that crosses borders where you unpack and hang your golf shirts only once. Going by the long-term forecast in the Mediterranean, you won’t need rain gear.
As we bid goodbye to our cabin to head home, I witnessed a small gesture that filled my heart with hope. At the last possible moment, Jessica made room in her suitcase for the complimentary sleeve of golf balls.