2006: Cape Breton

CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA

by Jeff Barr

There are two ways to appreciate a golf tour of this mountainous Canadian island that juts so far into the Atlantic that it leaves the Eastern time zone an hour in its wake.

• Patient visitors to Cape Breton Island might think of the excursion as an opera, commencing with beautiful, sometimes soul-touching arias,

but understanding that it all is just a precursor building to a curtain-closing crescendo.

• Or, for the instant-gratification crowd, the trip can be considered a five-star, four-course meal in reverse – beginning with a delicious dessert and working backward through two solid main courses before finishing with a tempting appetizer.

• The extreme northern tip of the island, in the midst of a sprawling national park, is where dessert awaits, and Highland Links – considered by many to be the finest public course in Canada – is where this member of the instant-gratification circle began.

Highland Links is the diamond of the golf course consortium that markets itself as Cape Breton’s “Fabulous Foursome.” After playing Highland Links in Ingonish, working southward down the famous Cabot Trail from Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada, the tour stops include Le Portage Golf Club in Cheticamp, Bell Bay Golf Club in Baddeck and Dundee Resort & Golf Club in West Bay.

“It’s a fantastic mix of golf courses,” said Highland Links head pro Joe Robinson, who has been at the helm for 34 years. “You’ve got the classic design of Highland Links, the modern look of Bell Bay, the scenery of Dundee and the culture and mixing with the community at Le Portage.

“It makes for a very well-rounded golf experience if you get a chance to play them all.”

The Fab Four might become five if stories circulating around Cape Breton prove true. Word is the Nova Scotia government is working with a group of Toronto-area investors who would like to build a true links course in the town of Inverness in 2007 or 2008.

For now, however, the consortium sits at four, and it is no wonder Highland Links represents

the pinnacle. The course was designed by Stanley Thompson, the Canadian legend who built northern beauties such as St. George’s in Toronto and Banff Springs and Jasper a few hours north of Calgary.

In Highland Links, Thompson created a course that seems to change with the season. In the softness of spring, even though the course was built in 1939, it accommodates a semi-modern strategy of aerial golf. In the summer sun, Highland Links turns old-school hard and fast, calling for many bump-and-runs. And in autumn, before Cape Breton shutters its windows for the winter, birch trees go yellow, maples go red and golf goes vivid.

Perhaps the most scenic stretch, regardless of season, is Nos. 15 and 16. The 15th is a 540-yard par 5, and, if a signature designation is required, this hole would receive it for difficulty and photographic appeal. A draw to the left is required off the tee to reach higher ground, where an angle to the green becomes possible. Then comes No. 16, a 460-yard uphill par 5 dubbed Sair Fecht – appropriately, “hard work” – that also requires a left-side drive to go for an elevated green.

“We get a lot of comment about those two holes,” Robinson said. “Either people can’t understand why they’re back to back, or they think it’s a good idea because you have much of your round to prepare for it.”

The next stop is Le Portage, located in the Acadian fishing village of Cheticamp on the Cabot Trail, just south of the entrance to the Highlands National Park. Le Portage is publicly owned and run by a nonprofit board of directors.

“It’s a unique arrangement, but it keeps us closely tied to the community,” said Terry Burns, who has been a fixture in the Cape Breton golf community for 43 years and the head man at Le Portage since the first nine was built in 1987.

Burns was asked if running a golf course through fundraisers, taxpayer money and a high level of community input sometimes becomes stressful. His answer, simply stated, reveals not only the attitude at Le Portage and Cheticamp, but an outlook evident throughout Cape Breton Island.

“We don’t get excited here,” he said.

The people in this part of the world are a tad more laid-back than visitors from the United States might understand, but the folks at Cheticamp have reason for pride when it comes to their golf course, which is filled with mountain views on one side and the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the other.

It isn’t overly fancy, but it is earthy golf that somehow just feels right – especially when the wind is kicking.

Le Portage, as the name suggests, is located in one of the island’s French-speaking regions, a fact that’s obvious in the clubhouse, where lively fiddle music and traditional dancing accompany the fresh local seafood and Acadian cuisine.

Farther southwest toward St. Andrews Channel is the town of Baddeck, the former home of Alexander Graham Bell, which now houses a National Historic Site that celebrates his inventions. Baddeck is a haven for sightseers, history enthusiasts, yachters and lovers of Celtic music.

Also in Baddeck is Bell Bay Golf Club, a Thomas McBroom design that proved its mettle during the 2005 Canadian Amateur Championship. It was named best new course in Canada in 1998, and head pro Ted Stonehouse is the director of the “Fabulous Foursome” consortium.

“Obviously, Bell Bay is my pride and joy,” Stonehouse said. “But all of us understand that it’s wise to pool our resources and promote Cape Breton golf together.

“If someone comes here for a week, are they going to have a better time if they play Bell Bay every day, or get a chance to experience some of the other courses on the island? Of course, we want them to play Bell Bay, but we also want them to make their time here as enjoyable as possible so they’ll come back.”

Bell Bay sits high above Bras d’Or Lakes, offering inviting views and often biting wind. Baddeck is a saltwater port, and ships have been built here for more than 100 years. Bell Bay’s 18 holes are named after the most famous ships built in Baddeck, and Nos. 15-18 – dubbed Perseverance, Argyle, Banshee and Bradalbane – comprise one of the finest finishing stretches in Canada. Most memorable is the par-5 18th, with four tee boxes that offer sweeping views of Bras d’Or Lakes from distinct elevations.

“I like the whole course, but I must admit a great deal of the post-round conversation deals with the finishing holes,” Stonehouse said. “Like I said, we want to give them something to come back for.”

The journey ends at Dundee Resort & Golf Club, the southernmost track on the island, and perhaps the most nature-filled.

Dundee is on the outskirts of the secluded town of West Bay, and the course is a jaunt up the side of South Mountain. Distractions, other than the occasional sound of the wild, are nonexistent. Trees, birds and maybe even the occasional bear are part of the typical round.

“This is one of the most scenic golf courses in the world,” said head pro Paul Innis. “Obviously, I’m the head pro and I’m supposed to say that, but I hear it day in and day out from people who have played all over the world.”

It was difficult to argue with Innis’ words, spoken at the end of a peaceful morning round. The course was in brilliant condition, and the round took on a personality that went beyond a mere 18-hole experience. Dundee at 7 a.m. can be cathartic. And its golf holes, particularly the par-3 16th with its 80-foot drop into a cavernous circle of majestic pines, are sometimes breathtaking.

If you agree with the north-to-south, dessert-first choice we made, then a night at the Dundee Resort is a peaceful conclusion to a Cape Breton getaway. If you choose the build-to-a-crescendo route, you’ll end your trip at Highland Links.

But, in truth, the order of your stops is of secondary concern. No matter which option you select, Cape Breton is a trip worth taking and an island worth enjoying.

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