|The 18th at La Bretesche finishes the round in front of the fairytale chateau. (Clive Agran/WorldGolf.com)|
Sitting hard by the Atlantic, just south of Brittany and Normandy, the Pays de La Loire region of France boasts picturesque chateaux - and numerous golf courses including La Bretesche, Barriere La Baule and Golf de Pornic.
France is the most popular holiday destination in the world and it's not hard to see why. It's un-crowded, the scenery is delightful, the trains run on time and the roads are both wide and, away from Paris at least, not too busy. The weather is tolerable in the north and improves steadily as you head south. The food is exceptional and the wine is - well, the best.
Although sometimes accused of being unfriendly, the French are actually rather charming and helpful. Naturellement it helps if you at least attempt to speak their language, even if that effort doesn't extend much beyond a grunt and Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
Proud of their heritage and traditions, the French fear that both their language and culture will be overwhelmed by the relentless march of English. Unmistakably an Anglo-Saxon import, golf has consequently been adapted to suit French tastes. The atmosphere in Le Clubhouse is very much more relaxed, the appointment of the chef is far more important than that of the greenkeeper, no one worries about jeans on the course and both women and children are made to feel very much more welcome than they are, say, on the other side of the English Channel.
By European standards at least, France is a huge country. Leaving aside Corsica and the four that are overseas, France is split into 21 regions. Pays de La Loire is next to the Atlantic Ocean just south of Brittany and Normandy and lies either side of the lower reaches of the lovely River Loire.
Whilst the chateaux are its most famous landmarks, the 28 or so golf courses in the Pays de La Loire are of more interest to golfers. I checked out the two most popular - La Baule and La Bretesche - to see what the fuss was all about, as well as Pornic, which I had been told was the French equivalent of a hidden gem (bijou secrete?).
After crossing from England on a luxury Brittany Ferry, my first port of call was a wonderful resort just three quarters of an hour from Nantes. Sadly, the picture-book chateau that sits in a lake, absolutely dominates the scene and lies on the edge of the course is not part of the Hotel and Spa de la Bretesche. But the 32-bedroom hotel sensitively converted from the restored stables and other chateau outbuildings is wonderfully luxurious and certainly need not feel inferior to its aristocratic neighbor.
More than half-a-century old, the golf course at La Bretesche (www.golf-bretesche.com) is carved out of the forest with the lake and associated watery hazards rarely far away. Although the trees are so back far from the fairways that they shouldn't really pose a problem, the frequent sound of a ball striking timber suggests otherwise. An easy walking course maintained in excellent condition, it's neither too long nor too tough and is a genuine pleasure to play. There's also a pretty, nine-hole, par-three challenge for the less competent and confident.
Rather busier is the popular golf resort at La Baule. Although its full name "Golf International Barriere La Baule" rolls off the tongue rather less quickly than a downhill putt at Augusta, it nevertheless suggests all manner of golfing delights. And with three golf courses offering a total of 45 holes, there is plenty here for golfers to sink their seven irons into.
The first golf course opened here more than 30 years ago. Since then, many putts have lipped out and many changes have been made. Only nine of the original 18 have been retained while the other nine have been hived off into a separate course leaving room for a new nine to be inserted. All this has happened to the Red course, which consequently displays a mix of styles but is still essentially parkland.
Fine trees, a sprinkling of water hazards and elevated tees and greens combine to create a rich golfing experience. Happily, the course this time was in much better condition that it was four years ago when an extended spell of dry weather had evidently affected the fairways. This time, however, they were back to something like their best, reviving memories of how they must have been when the course hosted the French Open and entertained legends such as Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.
The Blue, too, is a mix of styles. The first few holes wind through the woods and are really rather tight but the course then thankfully opens up. Generally regarded as the tougher of the two and slightly less popular than its neighbor, the Blue is nevertheless great fun, especially if you're straight off the tee. For more info on Golf International Barriere La Baule, see www.lucienbarriere.com.
Perhaps not wishing to frighten you too early in the round, Pornic begins with a gentle par five before taking you over a quiet road and into a wooded stretch where balls can be lost faster than you can say, "Ooh la la, c'est tres difficile n'est ce pas?"
With the compensation of a slightly lighter bag, you soon cross back over the road for the seventh hole and enjoy the rest of the round on the more open, links-like terrain where the principal threat comes from the occasional water hazard. For more information on Golf de Pornic, see www.formule-golf.com.
Don't leave without dining in L'Albatross restaurant in the clubhouse. C'est magnifique!
July 2, 2009
Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses.
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