Gentleman's Hot Rod
Like your own super luxurious high-speed train.
On the luxury car continuum (and in life, really), there seems to be a correlation between fanciness and the amount of activities the driver actually has to perform.
The seats in the newly redesigned 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL 550 coupe are Exhibit A. It goes without saying that driver and passenger don't need to control their own body temperatures: Heated and air-conditioned seats are de rigueur at the $120,000-plus price point. But the CL 550 takes "personal assistance" a step further with side bolsters that stiffen to counteract the g-force affecting the driver and passenger. Make an aggressive left turn into the lot at the club, for example, and the left bolster holds your upper body in place.
Leaning, apparently, is for the poors.
Making a three-day road trip from Connecticut to Virginia Beach, Va., for a wedding and a weekend of golf in a ride like the twin-turbo 429-horsepower Benz coupe is like having access to your own super luxurious high-speed train, without the dependence on preexisting track -- or the nuisance of other travelers. It quietly eats up miles of highway as you devote your attention to more interesting things.
The CL 550 literally and figuratively drives itself -- warning you when you drift too near a lane line and physically nudging itself back into the lane of travel if you start to cross a line without signaling. It's tempting to put on the set of wireless headphones that come standard with the car, let go of the wheel and lean over far enough to see the passenger's side of the magic split-view screen in the dash. From the driver's seat, the screen shows navigation and radio information, but from the passenger seat, the same screen shows your favorite DVD -- or, in this case, one Indiana Jones sequel too many. I'm convinced we could have made it at least 20 or 30 miles that way before we got into serious trouble.
For all the formidable pampering the CL 550 does, there comes a time when you do have to get out of the car. After a blissfully uncrowded drive down Route 13 through Delaware and Maryland and through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, we ended up at Tautogs, an old-school seafood restaurant in a vintage Victorian cottage in downtown Virginia Beach, for a pre-wedding dinner.
After rolling up in a glittering white coupe that costs more than some houses, the blending-in jig was up, so there was no reason not to order like an unrepentant tourist. Blue crab is the dish of the day around the Chesapeake, and we gorged on it: crab dip, flounder stuffed with lump crab and the hyperbolically named (but quite tasty) World Famous Crab Cakes.
Following an extremely orderly round of after-dinner drinks (our party included a fighter pilot, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue sailor and an FBI agent), it was time for bed. We would need the sleep for the Tradition Golf Club at Royal New Kent.
Bypassing the interstate connecting Virginia Beach and Norfolk, we threaded our way across the bay and up the Colonial National Historical Parkway and through Colonial Williamsburg. The town is an exhaustive simulation of 18th-century life in the Virginia colony, from the actors in period costumes dipping wax candles to the down-to-the-woodnails re-creation of the original Governor's Palace, where Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry managed Virginia through its early statehood.
If anything, the main tourist area in the town is a little too scrubbed. Our forefathers might have been inspired nation-builders, but there's no way the floor of the original iteration of the Raleigh Tavern was as sparkling clean as its Disneyfied "authentic reproduction" is today.
Continuing up the Pocahontas Trail toward Norfolk, Royal New Kent unspools all woolly and tumbling from the forest land surrounding Providence Forge, Va. Designed by Mike Strantz to recall minimalist Irish and Scottish designs from the start of the 20th century, Royal New Kent features the giant, rolling greens and waves of wheat-colored fescue that serve as the stereotypical "links golf" markers for those unconcerned about technicalities like proximity to the sea and soil composition.
For all the vintage, Old World design cues, Royal New Kent often plays like something out of Golden Tee. You hit from a dramatically elevated tee box into a narrow, V-shape fairway on No. 1, a 365-yard par 4, and then hit your approach (assuming you can find your tee shot in the threatening gorse and relentlessly penal fairway bunkers) back up to an elevated green protected behind by bushes and trees. It's hard to know whether to whistle in appreciation for the sheer scope of the place or curse under your breath because you needed four whacks to get out of the chest-deep bunkers that stud virtually every hole.
The 18th looks like something out of TPC Sawgrass central casting: a 386-yard par 4 with a lake down the entire right side and in front of the green and a gurgling waterfall warning you about the dangers behind the hole.
For my taste, No. 10, a 537-yard par 5, was the most entertaining -- and Emerald Isle-reminiscent -- hole on the course. It takes a 200-yard carry off the tee to completely avoid a set of pitch-out-sideways pot bunkers at the beginning of the fairway, and another vast, deep trap protects the inside elbow of the dogleg left and at the front of the green. I was lying two, 185 yards from the hole, and promptly buried my third shot deep in the sand left of the green. My next shot advanced the ball a foot, and put me right up against the lip -- a place from which even a squadron of butlers (or Mercedes-Benz Roadside Assistance) wouldn't be able to extricate me.
I jarred the next one to win the hole -- and three carryovers. Some things you have to do for yourself.
High-intensity halogen headlamps and brushed walnut on the dash are among the CL 550's luxe touches.