Travel Diary – Recommendations for a Scotland Golf Trip
Billy Dunham, Premier Golf’s Product Development Manager, recently traveled to Scotland on the ultimate Birthday bucket-list golf trip. He discusses some of the most captivating highlights and recommendations for golfers and non-golfers alike, but these are just the beginning;
Planning the Bucket List Itinerary
Our trip began as many of these things start, with the question, “What would you like to do for your milestone birthday?” It’s a common reference when clients reach out to us to book their next golf vacation. Sometimes it’s a wedding anniversary or to celebrate a birthday. There have been retirement gifts and surprise Fathers’ Day bookings. Possibly the most common one is the milestone birthday gift.
As my brother’s 40th birthday approached, we faced the same choice. He wanted to take a golf trip somewhere special, and he wanted the wives to join us. We went through the obvious bucket list choices available to us. It had to be a special trip with not only great golf but also great activities away from the course. It became quickly apparent that Scotland was the easy choice to cover all the requirements.
We knew no trip to Scotland would be complete without at least trying to get on the Old Course in St. Andrews. I would have never imagined just how difficult getting a tee time there would be, but we successfully balloted in advance and were on our way. (How to get a tee time at The Old Couse). Suffice it to say, when it comes to golf and accommodations, you are best served to leave that part in the hands of our travel experts.
This planning all occurred before I joined the Premier Golf staff, and as someone who planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip for four people, I wish I had just hired our specialists from the get-go.
Scotland is so much more than golf and I would highly recommend spending time away from the course and enjoying all that the land has to offer, be it scenic landscapes or historical landmarks, or truly great food.
Obviously, the golf
We were fortunate to get our games at the Old Course and Muirfield, but don’t limit yourself to just the known tracks. Within the surrounding area of St. Andrews, there are about a dozen courses you can play, all of them equally as stunning as the others, even if they don’t have name recognition.
Don’t be discouraged if your trip has to go the daily ballot route, and even if you’re unsuccessful, you are going to play amazing golf while in the country; they invented it, after all! Remember, you’ll still be able to walk the hallowed turf of the Old Course if your trip includes a Sunday, when the famous old links becomes a public park.
I would highly recommend the Ayrshire coast and check out Western Gailes or perhaps head over to North Berwick and try the West Links. If you make it to Nairn, ask the secretary if you can check out the archives, it will blow you away. In short, there are courses and history in an overabundance.
Speaking of golf
The wives had zero interest in playing the full-fledged version of the sport but loved visiting some of the putting courses that are just about everywhere. These courses are prevalent around the major courses in the country and are usually owned by the municipality and tend to be an inexpensive way to enjoy about an hour or so of golf-related activities. Think of Putt-Putt but without the orange rails and obstacles. They are played on mown areas and while the stimpmeter might register a tad low, they are loads of fun.
We started with the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club, known as the Himalayans. Located adjacent to the first green of the Old Course, the enormous green offers two 18-hole putting courses and severely undulating ground – hence the name. They even accept tee times, which I always recommend checking, and will provide a putter and golf balls if needed. After your round, head over to Old Tom Morris Bar and Grill for dinner and drinks.
Tell me about the food
One of our favorite things about traveling is finding great places to eat. We started our time in St. Andrews with a walking and eating tour of several eateries with our tour guide, Keith. We visited several local establishments to enjoy local delicacies, including our first haggis of the trip (believe me, try the fried haggis at Forgan’s, you’ll love it). During our tour, we were interrupted by the Kate Kennedy Procession, a big custom in April. This unplanned interruption is one of the great things about these tours, you never know exactly what will happen around town. They are available in most major cities and offer a glance into the history and culinary offerings available in a short amount of time.
One of our most memorable nights in St. Andrews was at the Keys Bar on a Tuesday night. Just a short walk from our apartment to Market St., the establishment is quickly identifiable by the bright red façade. They have employed an ingenious pricing system in which the price of a shot of whisky is indicated with ribbons and a key to decipher the price is on the bar. We found a table next to some local gentlemen, and even though our respective accents became thicker with each passing drink, the communication of friendship was clear.
If you can manage reservations, I would highly recommend “18” at Rusacks. Perched above the 18th fairway and green, enjoy a chateaubriand and souffle along with a glass of your favorite red wine. The balcony at sunset, overlooking the North Sea, is breathtaking. We were able to watch a few groups finish their game, giving them an unexpected gallery to appreciate the well-struck approach shots to the final hole. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
What about the sights?
From the snow-capped mountains in the west to the striking hills of the highlands, along with beautiful lochs (don’t call them lakes!) and miles of coastal areas, Scotland boasts a vast landscape to enjoy. We circumnavigated the coast, up to Aberdeen, then to Inverness, down to Troon, and back to Edinburgh, after leaving St. Andrews. It was a lot of driving, but well worth seeing most of the country.
Here are some of the highlights:
- While we were away playing Muirfield, the wives boarded the No. 95 bus and headed over to Crail, about 30 minutes from St. Andrews. They loved exploring the shops and cafes in the seaside town and had such a wonderful time using public transportation. The Scots are quite punctual with their buses and trains, so don’t be surprised if you miss one because you just had to get that pain au chocolate!
- If you are a Harry Potter fan, head over to Fort William and take the “Hogwarts Express” across the Glenfinnan viaduct across Loch Shiel. The Jacobite steam engine, operated by the West Coast Railway, leaves twice daily throughout the year and offers a roundtrip to Mallaig. We did the morning offering in the first-class cabin and enjoyed a great lunch in the quaint coastal town. There were hundreds of people at the viaduct waiting to take a picture as we crossed, just like all seven Harry Potter movies. The entire ride is along several of the largest and deepest lochs in the UK and is well worth the time investment.
- We went in search of what the locals call “hylan coos” or Highland cows. You know the ones, the cows with bangs. We found a great herd of them not too far from Loch Lomond and there were even some calves, which made my wife quite happy. They are more prevalent in other parts of the country, so we were lucky to have found ours.
- While the movie wasn’t exactly historically accurate, a trip to Stirling Castle and learning about the events that inspired Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” made for a fun day. The imposing castle is located high above the town of Stirling and you can see for miles. Parking at the castle is quite limited, so if you’re self-driving, be prepared for a small hike to get to the entrance. You can also visit the William Wallace Monument while in the area.
- One of the coolest things we saw was the Falkirk Wheel, a one-of-a-kind engineering marvel between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Connecting the Clyde and Union Canals, the rotating boat lift was a solution to replace a number of locks (not lochs, in this case) to help boats transition up the canals. Since it uses the principles of Archimedes, the amount of power needed to operate the lift is quite minimal and is quite an impressive sight. Get to the boat early so you can get a good seat at the front of the boat and take in all of the surrounding areas. There are plenty of other activities for the group on-site, should you wish to make more of your time there. Not too far from there are the Kelpies, two impressive modern sculptures depicting these mythical beasts.
What NOT to do
Our biggest mistake was renting an electric vehicle for our extended tour. While the features of these cars are incredible and the implied benefit for the environment by not purchasing petrol at £2 a liter, Scotland is not ready to facilitate tourists driving these cars. While there are plenty of charging stations around major areas, getting them to work with a foreign credit card was challenging and made the trip more stressful than it needed to be. I am sure they will get better over time, but for now, suck it up and drive the gasoline or diesel-powered versions.
Golf is certainly a big attraction to come to Scotland, but don’t settle for just time on the links. Find some time to explore the many offerings this wonderful country has to offer. Drink some whisky with the locals, find great pubs, eat the haggis, and explore the lochs. I tell my clients to take some off days and enjoy the truly magical place that is Scotland.