4 November 2017
With stunning hilltop towns, culturally rich cities, gastronomic delights, and 19 superb golf courses, including the showcase course of Pont Royal, the southern French region of Provence is packed with hedonistic pleasures to delight the senses
France’s south east region of Provence has plenty going for it was a year-round holiday destination, with long, hot summers giving way to cooler winters, while its stunning range of hilltop villages and culture-laden cities, such as Arles, Aix and Avignon, providing an irresistible attraction for generations of well-healed travellers coming to experience its uniquely relaxed Mediterranean vibe.
Provence makes a wonderful destination for golf too, with a variety of quality courses within one hour of each other, but with the bonus of a wide range of tourist attractions all in one package, making it more than a match for better known destinations in southern Europe. Provence evokes images of fields of lavender and sun flowers, olive orchards and vineyards, all of which inspired artists like Van Gogh and Cezanne with the back drop of sunlight and clear blue skies.
Provence has a history dating back before the Romans, who colonised the region and left an amazing legacy of architecture captured by coliseums at Arles and Nimes, which are still in use today. The Camargue on the Mediterranean coast is home to white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos, and inland you have the rugged Luberon and Alpille hills dotted with stunning hilltop villages.
It’s a region of heavily contrasting landscapes, and nowhere is this better reflected than in the choice of golf courses on offer, many of which have been designed by the game’s leading architects, who have worked in harmony with the natural beauty of the land to create some truly memorable layouts.
That can certainly be said of Barbaroux, which holds the honour of being first course ever designed in France by Pete Dye. It created quite a stir when it opened almost 30 years ago, and it’s still a talking point today, with its eclectic mix of architectural styles – part links, part US resort course – proving a somewhat strange, if enticing, combination. Heavily contoured fairways, punishingly deep bunkers, and severe elevation changes make this short, but challenging track a thrill from start to finish.
Another celebrated American architect, Ronald Fream, put his mark on the Provencal landscape when he built Dolce Fregate, a stunning 18-hole parkland course located close to the Mediterranean near Bandol. Set amid vineyards and olive groves, and with fairways flanked by pines, it offers stunning sea views from almost every hole and is must-play on any visit to the region.
The also applies to Servannes, a jaw-dropping layout located in the foothills of the Alpille Hills. With the scent of lavender and the sound of cicadas wafting across the lush green fairways, the course winds its ways around the base of the white rock of the mountains, before opening out into a valley of pines and olive trees, where several lakes and two island greens are among the hazards to contend with.
The 18 holes at Saint Baume Golf Club, located between Aix, Marseille and Brignoles, occupy a similarly spectacular setting, with the Saint Baume Massif providing a stunning background to a pleasant parkland course where beautifully presented raised tees and greens are separated by manicured fairways regularly interspersed by large ponds.
At the heart of Provence, between the dramatic port of Marseille, Avignon with Pope’s Palace and Aix en Provence, a city of culture and art, lays a hidden jewel of the golf world, Golf International de Pont Royal. One of the most revered clubs in the region Pont Royal, which opened for play in 1992 and enjoys the elevated status of being the only course in France designed by the late, great Seve Ballesteros.
Located in the pretty town of Mallemort, in the foothills of the Alps, Pont Royal was built on 75 hectares of ‘garrigue’, ancient hunting ground through pine woods and hills covered in wild herbs, with a superb backdrop of the Alpilles, the Luberon, the Durance Valley, and the Massif of the Trevaresse.
A former host of an Alps Tour event for a decade after it first opened, Pint Royal’s 6,327m course is a tight, demanding course that requires plenty of imagination and the kind of shot-making skills for which the legendary Spaniard was famous. With holes that regularly plunge and soar across a forested landscape, Pont Royal is what they call a ‘thinking man’s course’. A classic example of the challenge on offer comes at the 462·yard 7th, a dramatic par four which sweeps down from the tee and then up to the left on a thrilling rollercoaster fairway; or the par-three 11th, a 200-yarder that requires an all-or-nothing shot from an elevated tee across a wooded gorge to a distant green perched on top of a rocky outcrop.
Closing out the back nine lies Pont Royal’s version of ‘Amen Corner’, with holes 15 to 18 all presenting different challenges, with the last hole providing a dramatic finish, climbing up and over a hill before the fairway sweeps left down to a sloping green next to a large lake.
With the often-present Mistral winds, some severe inclines, numerous large water hazards, and notoriously quick greens, Pont Royal is not for the faint-hearted, but it rewards players with stunning views, and with no two holes alike, you’ll be kept interested until you’ve holed the final putt. The relaxed and stylish Provençal clubhouse offers an excellent choice of home-cooked Provencal dishes, while a glass of chilled rosé, grown from vines just miles from the clubhouse, always go down well after a round here.
For those looking to polish up their skills, the club also boasts a David Leadbetter Golf Academy, with practice facilities include a two-tier driving range, three greens for chipping and bunker practice and putting. There is also a six-hole academy course, which is ideal for beginners, as well as for better players looking to sharpen up their short game.
Although the club has no accommodation of its own, there are numerous villas and apartments available for rent nearby, while the five-star Moulin de Vernegues Hotel & Spa is situated just a lob wedge from the third tee, and is naturally a popular destination for golfers. A member of the Relais & Chateaux collection, it’s both traditional yet modern, boasting 100 well-appointed rooms spread out between a traditional old Provençal building and a more modern extension. Many rooms feature private patios looking out over the golf course, while a fine dining restaurant, a fabulous I’Occitane spa, and a large outdoor swimming pool, add to its many attractions.
For golfers looking for further challenges, there are 10 golf courses within a 30-minute drive of Pont Royal, with a Provence Golf Pass offering green fees at up to five courses for just €177.
BOOK YOUR GOLF TRIP TO PROVENCE
Pont Royal, €80 (April-Oct), €64 (Nov-Mar). A special low season deal includes lunch and afternoon tee time with a golf buggy for €60pp.
Barbaroux, €78/€56, barbaroux.com.
Dolce Fregate, €95/€70, dolcefregate.com.
Sainte-Baume, €76/€56, golfsaintebaume.com.
Servannes, €76/€58, golfservanes.com.
Provence Golf Pass: Play five or three of Provence’s 19 golf courses for €177 or €295 respectively. For details, visit www.golfpass.eu.
Le Moulin de Vernegues,****, www.moulindevernegues.com.
FLY: British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair offer a regular service from London airports to Marseille or Nimes, with a flying time of one hour 40 minutes. Pint Royal is 30 minutes away by taxi or hire car.
DRIVE: Pont Royal is a 10-hour drive from the Eurotunnel or ferry, taking the motorway all the way via Reims, Dijon, Beaune and Lyon, exiting at Senas 10 minutes from Pont Royal.