Could Bulgaria compete with Turkey as a golfing destination in the southeast? Maybe, maybe not. Three major resorts and courses signed Gary Player and Ian Woosnam may give the country a push in the right direction.
We arrive in Varna, Bulgaria, south of the Romanian border. An hour long bus ride on crooked roads along the Black Sea provides a good picture of one of Europe’s poorest countries. Mile after mile with cultivated land, and not one farmhouse or other house in sight.
Suddenly a scattered collection of small houses appear as if they were thrown out in the midst of the agricultural landscape. Further away we see three modern apartment blocks gathered in a group.
— State Agriculture, explains the guide.
When we arrive at the point, which protrudes in the Black Sea, Kaliakra looks like any other golfing destination. Here, three millionaires, one from the pharmaceutical industry, one media mogul and one from the construction industry, have built a luxury golf resort with golf courses, hotels and apartments in addition to housing for employees.
The resorts Thracian Cliffs, Lighthouse and Black Sea Rama are situated one after the other along the coast. And are tied together with shuttle buses between clubhouses and hotels.
Held the Volvo World Match Play
Thracian Cliffs got their breakthrough in the media as they hosted the 2013 Volvo World Match Play , with several of the world’s best players in place. However, the question may be, if not the pictures of the course impressed more than the golfer’s performances. Gary Player has signed one of the most spectacular golf courses we have ever played.
The first eight holes are laid out on the cliffs towering over the Black Sea. Some of the holes go a little up the cliffs, but most go down. We tee off at a short hole down by the water, towards a green that is so low in the terrain that we have to drive a road that slings down the cliff to get there.
From another tee, built as an island, the ball must cross the ocean in hopes of reaching the fairway on the opposite side. On every single tee, we enjoy the wonderful scenery and the view. And will be dazzled by the white rocks of Kaliakra cliff a little further.
The last ten holes go parallel, and slightly above, the first eight holes. And is almost as impressive with rolling fairways and undulating greens. And all the time with the ocean in the corner of your eye. Golf cart is necessary, nature has made the distance between some of the holes quite long. Thracian Cliffs is as much an experience as it is a round of golf. And there will be at least as many clicks from the camera as from the driver.
Player went straight from the car to the course
When Gary Player visited the finished course for the first time, he left both his luggage and his South African travel companions at the car and went straight on to the golf course. What he saw then made him more than satisfied.
There is not much pressure on the course. We played behind a fast four-ball and got around in 4 hours and 40 minutes. While a group of Swedes, who had tee-off time just after 2:00 PM, were forced to stress the last nine holes. And ended up disappointed in the dusk.
The majority of the guests come from England, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. 30 percent come in groups, the rest are individual travelers. The 100 members of the golf club are mostly Romanians from cities across the border.
Gary Player has its own suite in the hotel, of course. The tour operator package includes suites with one to three bedrooms plus a combined kitchen and living room. There is a communal lounge with pool table, poker table and night club, spa and gym. Despite all the cliffs, the resort also has a proper beach with restaurant. There is no city here, but if you want a change, there are two hotels. Who has restaurants on a cliff a few hundred meters further up.
The owners have big plans for expansion. Among other things, with a wide selection of apartments and houses, which are projected on the slopes down towards the golf course.
Fewer cliffs in play
The Lighthouse golf course is completely different. It is a few meters further away from the rocky edges, where Ian Woosnam has designed a more traditional, quite easy playing, parkland course. Some of the holes are exposed to the wind while some are shielded from trees on one side. The holes have small hollows here and there, five holes have water in play, and the greens are undulated and elevated.
There are some fairly narrow fairways, with juicy, thick grass in the semi-rough, which requires precision from the tee. Besides, Woosnam has done something that Player often does: A long piece of rough between tee and fairway. Something that is not always as popular with short-hitting female players.
The hotel is a typical spa hotel with indoor pool, buffet restaurant, a la carte restaurant, a bar which is open all the time and billiards. The rooms are large, with king size beds and views either towards the golf course or pool area. In the restaurant Swedish, Finnish, English and German, were the languages we heard the most. Also here almost all members are Romanians.
Another type of resort
Black Sea Rama is both another type of resort and another type of golf course. The course is Kaliakra’s first, and also the first Gary Player designed in Eastern Europe. In 2009, a golf magazine nominated it as the best new golf course in the world.
The holes are laid out on a fairly even plateau, high above the Black Sea. It is completely open, and without trees, with large, soft mounds that partially define the holes. But the mounds are rarely in play. The fairways are very wide, almost like a driving range.
Only two holes have water in play from the club tees. However, the greens are hard to read, and with very nice roll. These are certainly not greens where you want down-hill putts.
The finish gives you a tickle. Hole 17 is a slightly curved par-5-hole at 450 meters, where you can beat the dog-leg. Behind the big green there is nothing but a giant leap down to the sea. Hit over the green, and you’re out.
On the other hand, the last hole is a par-3-hole of about 200 meters. For most golfers, it means using a driver up the hill to the green. With the clubhouse’s terrace on the first parquet floor. And the sparkling blue surface of the Black Sea in the corner of the eye.
Black Sea Rama has villas with hotel service rather than large hotels. Some villas are located next to the clubhouse, some along the edge of the cliff.
As with the other two resorts, weddings are a big thing here. In the small amphitheater in front of the clubhouse, with opening to the sea, 60-70 bridesmaids are seasoned per season, and up to three weddings per day.
You and the resort
What about Bulgaria then? Well, you do not see that much of it. These are golf resorts without nearby communities. The nearest town is Baltjik, with 10,000 people and is about 10 kilometers away. It costs 15 euros by taxi for six people, and of most interest in the city is a botanical garden.
In the city center, you can stroll along the ocean and find a dozen outdoor restaurants. There are some tourist shops and a mini-beach. Everything here is much cheaper than at the resort. A hot meal, including beer, costs 10 euros. During the weekends, the restaurants and sun loungers are filled by Romanians from the towns on the other side of the border. For them, Baltjik is a cheap weekend destination.
At the resorts, prices in gneral are lower than on typical golf travel destinations in the west. Seven nights with breakfast and unlimited golf at the Lighthouse cost us 594 euros in September. The salary for a maid at the hotel is about 300 euros a month, the reception staff 450 euros. It’s chirping by staff all over the place, and the service is absolutely excellent. One day we missed a transfer because the bus was full when we arrived.
“Wait, wait, I’m back in half an hour,” said the driver when we went to call for a taxi.
He was, and drove an extra trip just for the MigrantGolfer’s two emitters.
And the comparison with Belek? The courses can withstand the comparison well, the hotels also. The food is very good, the service is excellent. The cooperation on golf packages is a big plus. Baltjik may very well develop in the same way Belek has since the first golf course was built.
The airport in Varna was no hit. It took more than one hour in the check-in queue. Then 40 minutes in the queue for passport control, security check and another passport check. There was chaos in the queues with people creeping under the barriers to reach their boarding.
The Kaliakra can never get a one million city in the vincinrty, like Antalya in Turkey. On the other hand, they do not have an Erdogan yet …