John Dean has been one of the driving forces behind the very popular GolfPunk Magazine. Now he’s taking a break to do what he likes best: traveling and playing golf . John goes on an Interrail trip through 9 European countries, playing golf in every country he visits. This is his story!
I am fresh out of Argentario Golf Resort & Spa in southern Tuscany, and now heading off on the next leg of my train journey. On my way to play golf in Switzerland, I have a stop-over in Florence for a couple of days of R&R; as if I need it you may say.
But 2,500 kilometres and 58 holes of golf in 4 days, and I do need a little downtime. Florence is just two hours by train from Grosseto and Argentario, so if you want to combine some golf with sightseeing, it is all doable.
Teeing it up at Florence Golf Club:
Florence is also the birthplace of golf in Italy, as Florence Golf Club Ugolino first opened its doors in 1889. The club as it now stands opened in 1933, and whilst not long is highly regarded.
But I am just passing through on my way north to the Engadine Valley, to play at the home of golf in Switzerland, and stay at the sumptuous, old-school Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina.
Today is very much a moving day, as I train it out of Florence’s grand central station to Milan. A quick change in Milan and I am off to Tirano in Northern Italy to catch the final train of today’s voyage which will take me high into the Swiss Alps and to the Grand Hotel Kronenhof.
And what a journey! From Milan, the flat central farmlands give way to the hills and then the mountains of Northern Italy.
The Bernina Express:
But the train journey from Tirano to Pontresina is quite something else. I’m on the Bernina Express, and it is truly the ride of a lifetime. It’s a single-track railway that links Tirano with St Moritz, and reaches a height of 2,253 metres (7,392 feet) above sea level.
In 2008, the Bernina Railway was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so this is a proper Worldie. Add it to The List right now!
The Grand Hotel Kronenhof may be a registered historical monument but it is a complete joy to stay in, and blends tradition and modernity in a fascinating way.
I am picked up by their leading front-of-house guy, Pablo, who is a live wire, and just an incredible ambassador for the hotel. He immediately takes the mickey out of me, by saying that the transfer will be an hour, when its only five minutes, and he is charm personified.
He’s a top guy, and the greatest frontman for what could be an intimidating hotel because it is so steeped in history and tradition, but I am immediately put at my ease as the BMW 7 Series cruises through the gates of the imposing property.
Dinner is served in their formal dining room, or perhaps salon would be the better word. I have been told to bring a tie, and it will be the one and only time that it emerges from my luggage but I am more than happy to go with the flow and enjoy the ceremony of the dinner.
There is an active debate still going on at the hotel about tie or no tie, and how you blend formality with relaxation. For now, the ‘keep the tie’ movement is winning, and I am all for it. It’s a little thing, but it just does add to the sense of occasion.
The service and food are all impeccable. It’s a privilege to dine here, and the cheese trolley hosts a collection of some of the finest cheeses I have ever had the pleasure to experience, most of which are sourced from local farms – though there’s still a bit of Stilton on offer, and I am assuming that was not from these parts.
Golfing it up at Engadine:
I have got a full day of golf ahead of me, and I am firstly teeing it up at Samedan, one of two courses under the umbrella of the Golf Engadin St. Moritz AG (Golfanlage Samedan), and the oldest golf course in Switzerland. The club, which celebrated its 125th anniversary just last year, is the sixth oldest course in the whole of continental Europe.
There are 90,000 registered people that play golf in Switzerland and 95 courses so this mountainous, landlocked country is tremendously well served for the game, even if it is not one of the most recognised golfing destinations. There is even that rarest of things in Europe, a Pete Dye course, at Golf Club Domaine Imperial on the shoreline of Lake Geneva.
However, when you tee it up at Samedan, you’ll know you have come to the right place. The scenery is utterly gorgeous and breath-taking. You are surrounded by magnificent Alpine mountains and big blue skies, and it is hard to concentrate at times – you just want to breathe it all in. Given that you are playing at 1,800 metres or 6,000 feet, you’ll find that your ball goes that much further! In UK terms, that’s a Ben Nevis and a half…
The course is relatively flat, so it’s a great walking course, and there’s absolutely no need to be a mountain goat here, quite the contrary as the course is laid out on the valley floor. The real hazards are the water, and there’s plenty of that on the course.
A par 72 layout and 6,239 yards of the white tees, this is a good challenge and you should be able to score well as the fairways are generous and the rough forgiving.
There’s also a second course that’s owned by the Engadine Golf Club, and that’s the nearby Zuoz Madulain, which is the work of the famous Canadian architect Les Furber, who worked with Robert Trent Jones Senior on numerous courses across Europe. This is a very different proposition to its sister course and there are undulating fairways and striking elevation changes.
In the afternoon, I head over to St Moritz and the famous 9-hole Par 3 course at the iconic Kulm Hotel. Jack Nicklaus has always been a great supporter of nine-hole courses and he’d love this one.
It will bring the mountain goat in you out, as it’s very up and down, but you’ll be rewarded with a variety of stunning views on each hole.
If you can crack this Par 27 course, then you’ll have a short game that you can take anywhere in the world.
Spa’ing it up at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof:
My perfect day is a round of golf followed by a great spa session, and that’s also on offer at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, which has a 2,000 square metre spa and wellness centre with to-die-for views of the Morteratsch Glacier.
The main pool is heated to 29 degrees, and there’s an even warmer one for the kids. There’s a full-on Finnish Sauna, a salt grotto, a stone grotto steam bath and a floatation pool, so all the spa boxes are firmly ticked.
After Hours at the Grand Kronenhof:
My day is still not done, and after another fine dinner, I’m off for a game of bowls, as the hotel has its very own, one-lane bowling alley, which dates to the 1960s. There’s also a snooker table to be enjoyed, and a luxurious smoking room for that late-night Cohiba.