Our golf cart is bouncing like a covered wagon heading over Donner Pass in the Old West migration.
This isn’t California, however, it’s Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island in far eastern Canada and the road way is a rumpled fairway on one of Stanley Thompson’s classic golf courses — Highlands Links, a grizzled, timeless masterpiece celebrating its 76th year.
But two and a half hours to the south on the opposite sunset shore of the island are two other new bucket list courses — Cabot Links (2011) and Cabot Cliffs (2015) — and that threesome makes Cape Breton Island one of the globe’s hottest golf destinations.
For years when asked what my favorite Canadian golf courses were I would say Jasper Park and Banff Springs. Now I have a serious challenge to that standard response.
All three of these CBI golf courses are ranked on the world stage. Highlands Links was No. 1 in Canada for years. And just recently Cabot Cliffs was named No. 1 in Canada with Cabot Links No. 2 by GOLF Magazine.
Let’s take a closer look:
Highlands Links, Ingonish, Nova Scotia
The bouncing ride at Highlands Links is courtesy of Thompson’s decision to cover a glacial rock field with top soil and seed instead of removing the boulders, and construction rock piles, which would have been quite a chore considering in those days the construction crew only had access to steam shovel four hours a day.
But despite the hanging lies, downhill slopes and crazy bounces you will experience all day, this “Mountains to Ocean” golf course, situated in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is stunningly beautiful, challenging, fun and a roller coaster once you are putting.
George Knudson, one of Canada’s best professionals (eight-time PGA Tour winner) called it the Cypress Point of his homeland for sheer beauty and “like driving up to heaven” every time he arrived on site. “There’s not a better walk in golf,” Knudson said.
Smoky Mountain, the highest point in Nova Scotia, looms high above the course and several holes climb up toward Mount Franey. The No. 1 handicap hole is the famous, “Killerkrankie” (Gaelic for long, narrow pass) that’s a 570-yard, par 5 that requires you to negotiate a narrow chute of boreal forest of spruce, fir, white birch and maples.
Once you start heading back downhill the beautiful, but deadly 240-yard, par-3 12th reveals the rock-strewn Clyburn River and once you reach the 15th tee the Atlantic Ocean is once again revealed with its seaside marshes.
“What Stanley Thompson accomplished at Highlands Links during the late 1930s is nothing short of genius,” said golf-course architect Jeff Mingay. “There is such a variety of holes there, the result is a brilliant routing that takes full advantage of the natural attributes of the property.”
My impression was it was an incredible collection of outstanding par threes. Another, however, on the same day might rave about the par fives.
That discussion tells you this is a must-play.
And another stunner: Highlands Links is a mere 6,592 yards long. That’s a dinosaur in today’s modern architecture.
As if your day couldn’t get any better your reward after putting the quick and deadly funnel of the 18th green is Keltic Lodge, where visitors have marveled at the view since opening on July 18, 1940 as the White Birch Inn, and your room was $6, including meals. It is a vintage throwback to the era of railroad hotels present in other National Parks.
Today’s hotel, with several options for rooms, cottages and suites, recently got a $5 million upgrade and includes breakfast buffet in The Purple Thistle Dining Room, spa, swimming pool, bar with live entertainment an opportunity to all kinds of outdoors activities. The evening lobster dinner comes with a unique “heads up” presentation.
Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, Inverness, Nova Scotia
From almost every spot on this magnificent property the Gulf of St. Lawrence is within view and the golf-course scenery ranks among the best anywhere. For decades the coal miners who conducted business on Main Street in Inverness couldn’t have envisioned what could come from that spectacular view and wind-buffeted shoreline, but the town fathers finally saw it.
It was the perfect transition of the land and when Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser hired Rod Whitman, a Canadian architect, to build Cabot Links, the golf ball was finally rolling. Four years later the evolution was enhanced with the opening of Cabot Cliffs, a Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore design.
“If Rod hadn’t created such a popular course, there would never have been a Cabot Cliffs,” said Keiser, on opening day to a small group of media.
“I think of Cabot as Cabot. Cabot has its own identity. It’s not trying to be Cypress Point. It’s not trying to be Pebble Beach. It’s not trying to be anything else,” said Coore in a discussion on Cabot’s website.
“The beauty of it is a strong individual identity, character, that was created by those land forms and our long-standing friendship with Whitman, and his involvement in both Links and Cliffs makes this project even more special.”
What makes it even more distinctive is that both courses are walking only with caddies on duty. This should be experience at a slower pace to take in all the land has to offer.
Cabot Cliffs (6,764 yards) begins with a benign par 5 and builds with views and inland holes that cross deep gorges, sweeps through dunes and climbs into gnarly woodlands before coming back to the sea. Broad Cove River also makes an appearance.
The crescendo comes at No. 16, a 176-yard par three skirting out on a jagged promontory, water seemingly everywhere. There’s only a single demand. Hit this protrusion in one or have a scramble from two deep, rough hewned bunkers setting below the green — or worse — reload.
But the 17th (331 yards) is even more of an adventure as you only have a line up and over a huge rise of land before diving downward and right toward the beach. Hit the line and you may be on the green in one putting for eagle. Amazingly, my foursome all found the line and we had this green surrounded.
“People will naturally be drawn to the 16th, 17th and 18th holes because they are close to the end of the round, spectacular, and there is danger involved with playing those holes,” Crenshaw said. “But holes appeal to us in different fashions, it’s how they fit together, their rhythm, that makes the course special. I must say too, that we would never start out with the idea of having six par 3s, six par 4s and six par 5s.”
Cabot Links (6,854 yards) started the whole frenzy with five holes that embrace the beach, takes in views of Cape Mabou, and includes a Pebble Beach No. 7 lookalike — the 14th that plays 100 yards with the Gulf of St. Lawrence backdrop.
Cabot Links Lodge
Designed by award-winning Nova Scotia architect, Susan Fitzgerald and celebrated interior designer, Alexandra Angle, the 72-room Cabot Links Lodge is inspired by its surroundings. There are also two-bedroom and four-bedroom Golf Villas. Particularly distinct is that every door is punctuated by a golf quote from tour greats or sports writing legends.
Cabot Dining — Panorama, Cabot Bar and Cabot Public House
Breakfast, lunch and dinner — upscale, refined or casual and rustic — that’s the superb experience at Cabot. My favorite was the seafood chowder and oysters. But there’s a bounty of fresh local seafood and naturally farmed produce.
Explore Cape Breton Island
Renowned for its spectacular landscapes and unspoiled coastal lands, Cape Breton Island is a gem. From hiking trails just outside Cabot Links Lodge to the famed, 186-mile long Cabot Trail, opportunities abound for explorers.
Heralded as one of “The World’s 10 Best Islands to Visit” by National Geographic Traveler, more than one-fifth of Cape Breton is preserved as a national park, making it hiker’s paradise. Fishermen from all over North America are drawn to the Margaree River, home to some of the world’s best salmon fishing.
Keiser, who also developed Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley and Barnbougle Links, once said “one great golf course is a curiosity, but it takes two to make a destination.”
How true, but now and forever when I think of Cape Breton Island I’ll add Highlands Links into that conjecture.
Do yourself a favor. Come here and play all three.
Story by David R. Holland