Cote d’Opale and Provence - quiet courses, low green fees and gourmet hotels
After the European Ryder Cup triumph in Paris, French golf is taking a bow. The first tournament to be staged near the capital city was a resounding success, with thousands of locals cheering non-French players. It provided a blueprint for the future, with Rome hosting the next European Ryder Cup in 2022. In the interim, a French golf road trip is an affordable adventure: think underused courses with low green fees and gourmet hotels. What’s not to love?
The most civilised approach to the coast of northeast France is an overnight Brittany Ferries crossing from Southampton to Le Havre. After a good night’s sleep, drive to Le Touquet, the regional star. Bought by a Parisian wannabe farmer in 1837, its sandy soil proved unfit for purpose so he planted pines that have kept magnificent dunes in place. The result? A stretch of pristine links terrain. La Foret opened in 1904, with prime minister Lord Balfour cutting the ribbon and playing the inaugural round. La Mer, designed by Harry Colt and Charles Alison, followed in 1930, with the future King Edward VIII testing their work before it was unveiled to the public. History doesn’t relate how he scored, but he was the first of many celebrities to take on a course now rated tenth in France.
In 1903, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, was hired to make a holiday hub out of a sleepy township. Le Touquet emerged as a playground for Parisians and Britons competing for architectural bragging rights. The editor of Le Figaro dubbed it Paris by the Sea – Le Touquet-Paris-Plage – and the name became official in 1912. After that it was my villa or yours, with art deco mansions lining leafy boulevards radiating from the centre. A flat cycle ride reveals homes owned or occupied by Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Wallis Simpson and PG Wodehouse.
Between the world wars, posh Britons flew their own planes into Le Touquet for golf and lunch in the Manoir Hotel within a five iron of the clubhouse. Drunken flying wasn’t such an issue in those days so it was often home for dinner. Single-digit golfer Ian Fleming was a prominent member of this coterie, staying in the Westminster Hotel to research Le Touquet’s tables for Royale-les-Eaux, the fictional town in Casino Royale.
La Mer has recently stepped back in time, thanks to young architect Patrice Boissonnas. By reducing trees and undergrowth, he restored several of the original Colt/Alison holes on the back nine and opened up the fairways to sea breezes – or gale-force winds. The striking modern clubhouse, new in 2016, exudes class and seaside light, with excellent food and a relaxed ambience.
Boissonnas has also been culling at neighbouring Hardelot, much loved by discerning Britons since it was founded in 1905. Twenty-five years later, Tom Simpson created Les Pins. Time took its revenge on his design, but Boissonnas, a member of the Open Golf Club family that now runs this and many other European complexes, has used old photographs to bring the original back to life. He removed 3,000 trees to widen the fairways, restored the greens to their intended dimensions and rebuilt bunkers in places where they strengthen the defence. Simpson would feel at home nowadays, as does the ever-welcoming Ken Strachan, the Scot who has masterminded Hardelot’s two courses – Les Dunes was added in the 1990s – for 20 years. On the other side of Le Touquet, Belle Plage, a layout that starts as a nature walk through the Marquenterre Reserve and ends among spectacular dunes, completes the magnificent Cote d’Opale triumvirate. Golfing classicists don’t get much luckier than this.
At the other end of the country, the Luberon is famous for sunshine, modern courses set in dramatic hills, Chateauneuf du Pape and the world’s most picturesque lavender fields. Pont Royal, easily reached from Marseilles airport, ticks all the boxes for golfers who enjoy white-knuckle risk-taking combined with a hotel that soothes the gloom of lost opportunity. You’ll get to know all about that on the only Seve Ballesteros course in France. We fans know that the maestro could hit pin-high shots from car parks and extract himself gracefully from hellish bunkers, but doing it his way is a rare gift from stingy golfing gods. Trust me: I joined his bunker clinic in Spain and I’m no expert when it comes to great escapes.
Ballesteros’s raw materials were craggy terrain split by deep ravines, random woodland and snaggling streams, his props unlimited sand, water and bulldozers. The layout acknowledges the pleasure an expert takes in narrow fairways threatened by awkward trees, artificial lakes and gnarly bunkers – a speciality on all his courses.
A quarter of a century on, commercial pressure has triggered wider fairways and friendlier sand. Golf’s Houdini might protest at this corruption of his work, but lesser players may breathe sighs of relief.
Stepping up to the plate, I appreciated hours spent in a verdant landscape with a backdrop of the Luberon and Alpilles ranges. There were par 3 nightmares, two all-or-nothing carries where an error ruined the scorecard. There were rocky outcrops mid fairway ready to rocket balls to perdition and shouts of “timber” after wayward shots. Then again all golfers need luck, so fingers crossed.
Over the centuries, a 13th century grain mill has evolved into the Moulin de Vernegues, a hideaway hotel within half a mile of the first tee – buggies collect guests and clubs at the front door. Its core is a 17th century stone farmhouse shaded by 300-year-old plane trees. After the French Revolution, it became a coaching inn and eventually a 100-room hotel with a Provencal ambience and a contemporary spa. Naturally lavender is the top massage pick. Les Voutes, a restaurant with stone arches that suggest a cellar, is on the same regional hymn sheet: local seasonals, menu touched by the Med.
In the neighbouring village of Mallemort, the Auberge du Vieux Village is a carnivore’s dream. The beef is matured on site in a temperature-controlled cave and cooked to perfection on command. The restaurant is a standout charmer, its arched entrance leading to a riot of flowers, the owners ready and willing to do whatever it takes: that includes fish and seafood.
Top up your Provencal Open Golf Club bargain trio with Servanes, gentler than Pont Royal but with the same dramatic backdrop, and Barbaroux. Pete Dye’s 1989 vineyard classic is an acquired taste, an example of golf sauvage at its most quirky. You’ll need a sense of humour but this is a course you won’t forget.
Le Touquet: La Mer 18 holes, 7,031yds, par 72; La Foret 18 holes, 6,317yds, par 71, Le Manoir, 9 holes, 2,880yds, par 35. +33 (0) 321 062800, opengolfclub.com/letouquet
Hardelot; Les Pins, 18 holes, 6,460yds, par 71, Les Dunes 18 holes 5,850yds, par 70. +33 (0) 321 837310, hardelotgolf.com
Belle Dune: 18 holes, 6,433yds, par 71, +33 (0) 322 234550, baiedesomme.com
Manoir Hotel: Le Touquet, b&b £118 for two, +33 (0) 321 062828, manoirhotel.com.
Brittany Ferries: 01752 648000, brittany-ferries.co.uk
Open Golf Club Pass: three member courses in the same area Le Touquet/Hardelot (not Belle Dune), from £135. +33 (0) 145 633718, opengolfclub.com.
Pont Royal: 18 holes, 6,952yds , par 72, +33 (0) 490 574079, www.golf-pontroyal.com/en/
Servanes: 18 holes, 6,606yds, par 72, +33 (0), 490 475995, golfservanes.com
Barbaroux: 18 holes, 6,620yds, par 72, +33 (0) 494 696363, www.barbaroux.com/en/
Moulin de Vernegues: Mallemort, rooms from £125 (two sharing), +33 (0) 490 591200, moulindevernegues.com.
Auberge de Vieux Village: +33 (0) 490 571966, aubergeduvieuxvillage.fr.