CARTAGENA, Spain - La Manga Club is a sporting oasis in the arid hills of Spain's Costa Calida.
The 1,400-acre self-contained complex attracts some of Europe's topsoccer and tennis players thanks to its extensive practice facilities andthe year-round warm and sunny climate of this southeast corner of theIberian Peninsula - Costa Calida means warm coast.
Such are its soccer facilities that the English national team used it as a training base before the last two World Cup championships. Leading European clubs - including star-studded Spain's Real Madrid and England's Chelsea - also regularly train there.
The tennis centre encompasses 28 tennis courts and has hosted Davis Cup and Federation Cup matches.
But it is golf where the resort really comes into its own, offering threechallenging courses which will leave any golfer wanting to go back formore.
OK, so its courses may be overshadowed by more illustrious tracks likeRyder Cup venue Valderrama - but they attract vacationing Brits, Germans andScandinavians by the plane load to nearby Murcia Airport.
And they are good enough for the German PGA to have made La Manga Club its winter training base.
Lord Deedes, former editor of London's prestigious Daily Telegraph, issaid to have declared: "If I had to choose one golf course to play before Idie, it would be the South Course at La Manga."
La Manga Club has had an illustrious, if somewhat chequered, history and, despite its relative anonymity in the United States, has strong American links.
The brainchild of Californian property magnate Gregory Peters, theinitial project in 1970 involved a 500-acre residential development and anine-hole course near the growing Spanish resort strip of La Manga.
That quickly grew to 1,400 acres and Californian designer Robert DeanPutnam was hired to create the two courses it then encompassed. They becamethe South and North courses.
In its early years the resort played host to the world's golfing eliteand the legendary Gary Player was its first director of golf.
The Spanish Open was held on the South Course for five years between 1973and 1977, Arnold Palmer winning it in 1975. He would return in 1993 toredesign the course. By then the resort was under the ownership of Britishshipping giant P&O.
At the end of the 70s the resort's holding company was in a financialcrisis and investment had dried up. That was to change when it was bought bythe Spanish subsidiary of British shipping company European Ferries in 1981,itself absorbed by P&O six years later.
Seve Ballasteros was taken on as touring professional and work begantransforming it into the top sporting venue it is today, including theexpansion of the 9-hole Princesa course into the resort's third 18-holer,the West Course, in the mid-90s.
P&O is plowing millions of dollars into renovating all three courses, the North Course, the South Course and the West Course.
There is also a newly remodeled golf academy, using the latest inhigh-tech innovations to help golfing duffers improve their game.
The revamped North Course is an infinite improvement on its previous reincarnation and the South Course promises to be a real Spanish sensation.
Although flanked by private villas and finishing next to the resort'shotel, the two courses are very open in aspect, unlike many resort tracks inAmerica. And the presence of many palm trees makes it feel as though you areplaying in a giant tropical garden.
Lakes and large, sculpted bunkers add to the visual delight of bothcourses while the criss-crossing of deep barrancas - storm gullies which aredry for most of the year - adds a challenging aspect requiring careful playto avoid.
The approaches to the 18th holes on both the North and South courses are protected by very testing barrancas, the one on the South being particularly tough because of its proximity to a green well guarded by bunkers.
This is the hole where Palmer made an astonishing eagle-3 to win theSpanish Open title.
The North Course is slightly shorter but makes up for that with tighter fairways and larger greens, all newly-built to USGA standard, with plateaus which will test the putting skills of every level of golfer. The short par-3 second has three tiers and often has players heading for the next tee in tears.
The West Course is completely different in character to its sistercourses, meandering through undulating pine-clad hills and following thenatural contours of the land.
It is a very short course by today's standards, but is no less of achallenge. Frequent blind shots and occasional double doglegs, with lakesthrown in for good measure are designed to catch out the unwary.
It is a course of two halves, the tighter barranca-guarded front ninegiving way to more open fairways on the back nine set among the woodedhills. The 18th will take your breath away as you stand on the towering,plateau tee with the resort stretching out before you and the Med glisteningin the distance beyond the hills.
The centerpiece of the La Manga Club development is the five-star 189-room Hyatt Regency La Manga (lamanga.regency.hyatt.com).
Private villas can also be rented, both within the La Manga Club resort -where you may find yourself rubbing shoulders with some of the Britishsports and entertainment stars who have made it their second home - andalong the nearby La Manga strip.
Telephone: (0034) 968 33 1234.
La Manga Club has more than 20 restaurants and snack bars with fareincluding Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Indian, a burger bar and English fishand chips - French fries to Americans.
There is also the obligatory Irish pub and a disco, as well as a loungebar, main bar with live bands and casino in the hotel.
La Manga is more than just a golf and sporting resort. It is more likesmall town with everything on site, so you don't have to venture beyond itsconfines. Given its size - as large as the principality of Monaco - that'sno bad thing. There is a shuttle bus which runs throughout the resort dayand night to help guests get around.
A rental car might be a good idea to give you more flexibility within theresort and to allow exploration of the rolling hills and Mediterraneancoastline.
The pebbly and secluded cove within the resort is a gem complete with acozy cliff-top restaurant, but if you want a real beach you need to leavethe resort.
There are some great beaches along the brash, action-packed La Mangaresort strip, flanked by the Med on one side and Europe's largest saltwaterlagoon, the Mar Menor, on the other.
Further afield are the fascinating historic cities of provincial capitalMurcia and Cartagena, with its a Roman amphitheatre.
Awards: La Manga Club bristles with accolades. Recent ones include Europe's Leading Golf Resort in the World Travel Awards of 2001 and 2003, and European Golf resort of the Year in the Hertz International Golf Travel Awards of 1999.
June 30, 2005
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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