2002: Captain’s choice

Pwlihelli, Wales

Don’t even try to pronounce the name of this remote Welsh port, much less memorize how to spell it. Even the locals can’t agree. Just remember this may be the closest you will ever come to being in a James Bond movie and on “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” all at the same time. . . . Goldfinger vs. 007 meets Hogan vs. Snead.

It is 9:30 in the eventide. Under the cover of gathering darkness and at precisely the appointed time, you are met dockside by two Filipino sailors. Wordlessly, one of them hands you and your partner lifejackets. Then you are hustled away discreetly on the Zodiac, one of those swift but quiet hi-tech powerboats that more closely resembles a rubber raft on steroids. The Zodiac skims across the water like a waterbug on the surface of a double martini. And as the harbor opens to the sea, the looming spectral portrait of the anchored Sea Cloud II appears as a vision. Simultaneously and paradoxically, it takes your breath away and oxygenates your imagination.

The Sea Cloud II is a 384-foot luxury windjammer yacht captained by a German and crewed by almost 60 swarthy and buffed seamen carefully culled from 11 countries. On this particularly fine, warm night the ship is bathed in an electric white light that climbs from the deck and rises to the top of the main mast more than 180 feet above the water line.

“Streamed again a wonder of summer,” Dylan Thomas, the celebrated Welsh poet, once wrote.

Once back on board, you find the champagne is still flowing among your fellow shipmates and the anticipatory glow of another day of links golf in the British Isles has suffused all of those who have booked passage. The bottled beer of choice in the Lido Lounge is Lapin Kulta, a mild, golden lager brewed in Lapland, served ice cold, and wildly popular, you are informed, in Finland. Tomorrow promises a round at Royal St. David’s in nearby Harlech.

Par at Royal St. David’s turns out to be an enticing 69. But what you discover, the hard way, is the value of par is dear. “Nobody tears it up here,” says the pro, John Barnett, after your round.

Forty-eight hours earlier the venue was clear across the Irish Sea at Old Tom Morris’ seminal Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. The day before that you played H.S. Colt’s masterpiece, Royal Portrush, which may offer the most diverse and challenging first 16 holes of any golf course in the world.

The voyage had started next to a quayside pub in Dublin and ended in the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge. The whole experience was the golf cruise concept elevated to an art form.

There were eight rounds in 10 days. There was gourmet food and fine wines, on board, every night. There was round-the-clock attention to detail by the ship’s staff as well as the staff of Kalos Golf, the American company that chartered the German-owned Sea Cloud II and operated the golf end of the tour.

There was privacy in soundproofed staterooms that featured cherry wood paneling, climate control, VCRs, marble bathrooms, gold-plated fixtures, free mini-bar and an unlimited supply of full pressure hot water in a shower stall that a healthy 6-foot-4 male could actually enjoy without crouching to get wet.

All of this seemingly seamless efficiency didn’t boggle the mind so much as it made the imagination race like a sloop. There were even “tenders” at night from the Sea Cloud II into the harbor towns for those who cared to sample the local restaurants.

Which brings us back to Pwlihelli and this word of warning: Do not get the lasagna in any restaurant in any city under any circumstances in this otherwise charming and curious little country.

Savvy travelers in Scotland will tell you that you can’t go wrong ordering the cashew chicken in the local Chinese restaurants there. Even the smallest villages have one. The safe play in Wales is the garlic bread. You can always try the Welsh rarebit. (When in Rome . . .) Or you can just drink your dinner. If you do that, go for Worthington White Shield. Hell of an ale.

If you are smart, you will stick to the food on the Sea Cloud II. And if you need a day off from the golf, you can take advantage of the daily tours set up by the good people of Kalos Golf and Sea Cloud Cruises who work tirelessly together to make sure you are not tempted to think about the size of the check you had to write to get here.

Kalos is Greek for “beautiful and enriching.” Kalos Golf, with home offices in North Carolina, is run by a Duke MBA named Jim Lamont. He started his company chartering ships for general European sightseeing cruises.

Soon he saw the potential of mixing sailing with golf. Ireland, for one, is a country that can be difficult to navigate by car because of inconsistent roadways. To be sure, Lamont did not invent this niche. Perry Golf, another American tour operator, also offers golf cruises and is more widely known inside the sport than Kalos.

Both companies have figured out that “between courses” logistics in the British Isles can be overwhelming at times. And both have designed their golf cruises to take all the detail work out of the equation for their clients.

Meanwhile Kalos currently has staked out the high, high end of the golf cruise market. Amenities on the ship also include a library, a sauna and a fitness center that is more than just the usual random collection of free weights scattered next to a first generation treadmill.

This summer the stops on Kalos’ August and august 10-day golf and sailing odyssey included Northern Ireland’s famously brooding links, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down; two unremittingly tough but friendly tracks in Southern England, Saunton and Royal Cinque Ports; and a remote, Scottish gem called Machrihanish.

Passage in a “deluxe stateroom” priced out at a mere $7,670. That’s for one person. Or you could upgrade to an “owners’ suite,” complete with a walk-in closet and a bathtub, which (for two) went for $23,660. No worries if you didn’t know a bulwark from a caprail. This is not a sailing lesson. The tenders run on time. And the sails, when unfurled, measure 29,687 magnificent and photogenic square feet. You won’t be quizzed on any of this.

Attitude, however, is important. So is gear. If your personal makeup includes elements of the indefatigable, incorrigible, indomitable and insatiable, Kalos and the Sea Cloud II will provide a golf and travel experience that will be truly unforgettable. It will help if you have a Gore-Tex rainsuit, rain gloves, lots of golf balls, a strong umbrella and at least two pairs of golf shoes. A motion sickness antidote is also important. Triptone caplets are as good as any.

A typical day:

Tee times generally range between 9:30 and 11 a.m. You can find your time posted on board the night before. You also can find out what time your tender (the launch that transports you from the ship to the dock) is scheduled to leave. Once on land, you board a bus to the golf course. The bus rides run anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on the location of the course and the port availability for the ship. Your clubs are waiting at the course. After the round, they are transported back to the ship.

A full breakfast always is available in the main dining room before the tenders depart. And, blessedly, a lunch buffet table also is available at breakfast. This means that you can make your own sandwiches, wrap them and carry them to the golf course. Kalos even provides a small carrying bag with your name on it for these goodies. Most golf courses in the British Isles do not have cart girls or halfway houses. Having your own lunch stashed in your golf bag, ready to eat at any time, is a smart touch.

Once at the golf course, green fees are all taken care of and caddies provided when available. Players are expected to pay caddies fees, one of the few expenses not covered by the booking downstroke. On board a la carte expenses include drinks in the lounge (wine, red or white, at dinner is complementary) and incidentals like laundry or gift shop purchases.

Kalos officials draw up the daily pairings unless there are special requests by players to be grouped with other players. This never seemed to be a problem. Most of the time mixed golf is the order of the day. Scores are turned in and prizes awarded at the end of the day at a brief presentation ceremony in the lounge prior to dinner.

Caddies, on this trip, ranged from small boys, who did little more than pull bags strapped onto “trolleys” to graying veterans who, in some cases, were members of the clubs.

At Saunton, caddie Peter Gompertz handed out a card after the round with his phone number and the Web site of the “South West Golf Links Caddies.” One of his fellow caddies, a chap named Dave, actually said the word “blimey” out loud when his player mis-hit a shot.

At Royal St. David’s, a young Englishman named Chris showed up because a relative had said there might be work that day. Chris had never played golf or caddied. But he quickly learned how to pull a trolley and proved to have a keen eye for lost golf balls if not an ear for syllabic separation. “Tit-leist,” he proclaimed proudly when he found one on an early hole.

The caddies at Royal Portrush were tireless. And they needed to be. The rough was up and it was wet. Balls hit into the thick stuff disappeared like rabbits down a hole. Royal Porthcawl is a 4-hour round with caddies. In the wind, without caddies, make that 5-hours-plus. Porth(start ital)crawl(end ital. all one word)

Meanwhile if you ever get to Macrihanish, ask Billy, the caddie master, for Lee. Lee “plays off two” (2 handicap) and he never failed to provide the correct distance from the fairway or discern the proper read on the greens.

Nor did Lee feel the need to ingratiate himself or chat up his player, a habit that can become annoying. He was ready with the information when asked. And he was wry at the appropriate times. Like when one player hooked his drive into the junk left and another blocked his tee ball into the gunch right.

“You will have a 50 percent chance,” Lee informed the two players, “of finding one of those balls.” Lee is one of the best caddies in the British Isles.

George, one of the older caddies at Royal Cinque Ports and a native, was coaxed into talking about what is was like being 9 years old and diving into fallout shelters during World War II when Hitler’s Luftwaffe was terrorizing the Dover Coast with bombing missions that originated across the English Channel in occupied France.

Royal Cinque Ports, by the way, is less than two miles from Royal St. Georges in nearby Sandwich, the site of next year’s British Open. If you plan on attending Ernie Els’ defense, Royal Cinque Ports (also called “Deal”) is where you will want to play in the morning before arriving at the Open Championship in the p.m.

The Playing order for the eight courses on this particular trip was: Macrihanish, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Royal St. David’s, Tenby, Royal Porthcawl, Saunton and Royal Cinque Ports. Special arrangements were made at Portrush for players to get in an extra 18 late the same afternoon at nearby Portstewart.

The five most memorable holes on the trip were the fourth and 14th at Portrush; the ninth at Royal County Down; the third at Tenby and the 18th at Royal Porthcawl. They were, in order, the hardest, the scariest, the most enchanting, the goofiest and the coolest on the itinerary.

The storied first hole at Macrihanish turned out to be as underwhelming as the rest of the course was engaging. A seasoned golf traveler could book a B&B in the tiny town of Macrihanish and simply play the course every day for two weeks. It really is a great little members course. And outsiders, who know their golf, are welcome.

An elite American team of Navy Seals trains near Macrihanish and regularly swims three miles before breakfast in the icy waters. The Sea Cloud II, on the other hand, is a traveling show. Everywhere it stopped on the Kalos cruise, it became an instant curiosity for the local boaters.

The Sea Cloud’s passengers were more curious about their golf. They ranged in age from early 40s to mid-70s. Most belonged to at least one private club back home. The geographical distribution was wide but predominantly American. The determination to play was strong.

“There isn’t much attrition on the British Isles cruises,” says Kalos’ Pierce. “Our people tend to be golf lovers and appreciative of different golf courses.”

They also tend to be veteran travelers appreciative of the fact that there will be glitches. Pierce tells the Kalos story about the Danube River cruise where a private concert for all 80 passengers had been arranged at night in Vienna. The group arrived at the hall only to find it locked with no sign of life anywhere nearby.

Lamont stepped forward, apologized and declared an open bar back on the ship. “Many, especially the guys, were actually relieved,” says Pierce.

They were relieved because this meant more time for Hogan stories and drinks. And it provided the perfect mix: Ian Fleming meets Bernard Darwin. Martinis shaken, not stirred. Golfers stirred, not shaken.

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