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Speyside is a secluded part of the Scottish Highlands punctuated with spectacular scenery, superb golf and 28 of the world's most famous whisky distilleries.
Speyside is a secluded part of the Scottish Highlands punctuated with spectacular scenery, superb golf and 28 of the world's most famous whisky distilleries. (Courtesy of David J. Whyte/Linksland.com)

The Speyside Golf Whisky Trail: A marriage made in heaven

David J. WhyteBy David J. Whyte,

SPEYSIDE, Scotland -- Speyside is a serene and secluded part of the Scottish Highlands punctuated with spectacular scenery, superb golf and 28 of the world's most famous whisky distilleries! The fast flowing River Spey has the purest water in the entire British Isles, ideal for the creation of Uisge-Beatha, the "Water of Life."

"Golf and Whisky! What an ideal combination!" I mused as I sat in the bar at the Garth Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey, a charming Highland hostelry is a delightful village that epitomises all that is good about this part of the Highlands. I was nursing a 10-year-old Benromach with the flavours of dark chocolate, melted butter and sticky toffee pudding tickling my taste buds. As if by magic this mouth-watering melange transformed into a finish of sweet fruit -- or was it California raisins with a hint of Reggae-Reggae Barbeque Sauce? Wow! I was really getting the hang of this whisky-tasting business.

Boat of Garten Golf Club

That afternoon I'd played Boat of Garten Golf Club, a fine introduction to the Speyside Golf Whisky Trail. "The Boat" is surely one of the most delightful heathland golf courses in the UK, high up in the hills and high on many people's list of favourites! The view from the clubhouse over the first and second fairways to the Cairngorm Mountains is to die for! The turf is not unlike links as if nibbled by sheep, rough and ready and crisp to play off. The Boat navigates its way over rippling fairways edged by heather, gorse and silver birch. It offers an easy par 3 to start but wastes no time throwing you in the deep end on holes such as the fourth, fifth and sixth. The 12th, 16th and 18th are exceptional on the back nine -- but they're all exceptional holes here in an area that is scenically stunning -- not to mention the peace. Then there's the 'toot toot' of a steam train chuffing into Boat of Garten Station before the peace settles in again and you're left in Sylvain tranquility. Bliss!

Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club

The idyllic Speyside village of Grantown-on-Spey is only 10 miles away so you could conceivably play The Boat and Grantown in a day. Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club is one of those delightful dalliances where it doesn't really matter how you play, you're going to enjoy it! The first half dozen holes serve as warmers, open and fairly easy on the drives. Cross the road to the seventh and it's a different prospect, tree lined and heathery with marked changes in elevation. This is an exciting section where you'll find out just how straight you can hit that driver. Murdie's View is the ninth; a 275-yard par 4 so most will have a pop at the green from the panoramic high tee and quite a few roll on. One thing to add about the Grantown experience; be sure to stop for a meal at the clubhouse as it offers some of the best catering we've encountered.

Elgin Golf Club

My next golf outing was on Elgin Golf Club. I reckon this much under-rated course has some of the best par 4s in the country. Right from the start you are stretched! It really is a surprise (or at least it was to me) how good this course is, one of the unsung heroes of Highland golf that everyone needs to try. There are eight par 4s over 400 yards starting with the first and second. You get a bit of a breather on the third but its shape doesn't make it an easy green to find in 2. Elgin measures 6,449 yards with par of 69 and Standard Scratch of 71 so that gives you an idea of the degree of difficulty. Good golfers will definitely want to take this one on!

Moray Golf Club - Old

One of Scotland's most laudable links courses is Moray Old, golf-by-the-sea as it should be, an unadulterated track laid out by Old Tom Morris way back in 1889. (I don't think he had much designing to do here!) This is as natural a golf terrain as you will find. Moray Old plays out towards Covesea Lighthouse before turning at the 12th, tracing the beach back and catching the full effect of tempest and tide. The 18th is considered one of the finest finishing holes in Scotland. You might want to consider staying for the day as Moray's New course is as good in many ways except it's tighter with smaller greens. Their Day Ticket is a real bargain.

Forres Golf Club

In terms of golfing variety, the Speyside Golf Whisky Trail presents an eclectic mix. Forres Golf Club is an excellent heathland/parkland combination ideal for golfers of all persuasions. Each hole is different from the diving-board drop at the 1st to thought-provoking, risk and reward holes such as the 16th. Designed by two Open Championship winners, James Braid and Willie Park, Forres is not long by today's standards but there is a wealth of intricacy out there as confirmed by its regular appearance as a venue for the Scottish Professional Championship, the Northern Open, and the Scottish Young Professionals Championships. I also enjoyed Forres' tranquil location, a delightful woodland theatre surrounding some gorgeous holes with the occasional glimpse of the Moray Firth.

Lodging on the Speyside Golf Whisky Trail

The Speyside Golf Whisky Trail offers three different hotel options. You could spread your tour and stay in all three although any of them makes a good base for touring. The Garth Hotel (www.garthhotel.com) in Grantown-on-Spey is really relaxed, a typical Highland hostelry where you'll rub shoulders with tourists from every part of the world. The Garth, popular with walkers, fisherman and golfers and serves exceedingly fine meals. In Elgin, Sunninghill Hotel (www.sunninghillhotel.com) is renowned for its food, nothing pretentious, just good, hearty helpings and excellent service. It is the ideal base if you want to wander out and explore Elgin's pubs, clubs and visitor sites, as the hotel is only 5 minutes walk from the town centre. The Knockomie Hotel (www.knockomie.co.uk) in Forres is more upmarket and suited to couples or groups looking for that touch of added luxury. Their whisky bar is the perfect place to size up a fine variety of single malt whiskies before dinner and retire afterwards.

Sampling whisky

Talking of whisky, there is one shop that you really shouldn't miss where you can find everything the area produces in glorious abundance. Gordon and MacPhail's on South Street in Elgin, reputedly the world's leading malt whisky specialist has a staggering choice of 800 different malt whiskies. But it doesn't stop there; this gastronomic Aladdin's Cave is an iconic one-stop-shop for meats, wines, cheeses and chocolates. Bespoke tastings can be organised in Gordon and McPhail's shop for groups by booking in advance (Tel: 01343 545110 or e-mail: retail@gordonandmacphail.com ).

One of the best whisky distillery tours we found was Benromach Distillery in Forres, the smallest distillery in Speyside, particularly good if you book the Manager's Tour, an informative visit with distillery manager, Keith Cruickshank who brings the process to life followed by a detailed and highly enlightening tasting session. Booking is required (Tel: 01309 675968 - e-mail: info@gordonandmacphail.com). You can also 'Bottle Your Own Benromach' at the distillery, label it and cork it.

The Speyside Golf Whisky Trail is quite unique, possibly one of the best ways to encounter Scotland, or at least this particular valley, which has got to be one of the finest. When it comes to whisky, I'm not a fan of blends, but the Speyside Golf Whisky Trail is a blend of some of the finest aspects of Scotland, well worth savouring with a round or two - either on or off the golf course.

How to get to Speyside

By Air: Inverness Airport is only around 10 to 25 miles west of the region with British Airways (www.BA.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flying into Inverness daily. Aberdeen Airport is an hour's drive serving British Airways (www.BA.com), Easyjet (www.easyjet.com), Ryaniar (www.ryanair.co.uk) and KLMuk (www.klm.com).

By Road: The A9 links Speyside and Inverness to the main English/Scottish Motorway network. If you arrive from the south, Boat of Garten is the nearest stop followed by Grantown on Spey. The local A95 route follows the Spey Valley to the Coast near Lossiemouth. If you are driving from Aberdeen take the A96 towards Huntly then over to Elgin.

By Rail: East Coast Rail (www.eastcoast.co.uk) provides daytime rail services to Aberdeen and Inverness from London and the south. ScotRail's Caledonian Sleeper also operates from London Euston to both Inverness and Aberdeen, the advantage being you can sleep overnight and alight at Aviemore (7.45am) fresh and ready to golf. Hertz offers a car hire service at Aviemore Station. ScotRail also operates Scotland's local rail network. For more information contact National Rail Enquiries on Tel: 08457 484950 Web: www.nationalrail.co.uk

As one of the leading golf travel writers and photographers in Scotland, David J. Whyte regularly contributes to scores of golf publications around the world. David and his wife Susie operate www.go-golf.tv where you can view some of the world's finest courses in HD video and www.linksland.com, the Ultimate Golf Travel Blog.

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