Most British golfers will probably have at least considered a golf weekend on mainland Europe. The courses of Le Touquet in Northern France are only a short channel tunnel ride away and Belgium isn’t much further. Both areas have some delightful clubs – with a variety of links, parkland and woodland courses. For those who haven’t been, they’re well worth a visit.
Then there’s the Med. Spain and Portugal in particular are very well set up for travelling golfers. The clubs around Vilamoura in the Algarve, for example – Val de Lobo, San Lorenzo and the Vilamoura courses themselves – are all world class. And that’s to name but a few. In Spain, you can find fantastic courses all along the Costa del Sol – from the premium clubs like Valderrama and Sotogrande, to the more affordable and lesser known tracks of Guadalmina and Alferini. The list goes on and on.
But there are golfers for whom northern France, Portugal and Spain is a little old hat. Le Touquet’s ‘La Mer’, to name one, is a wonderful track, but like any course, when you’ve played it fifty times, you start to yearn for something different – something new.
And that’s where the courses of Austria come in. How many of you have played golf beneath towering, snow-capped Alpine peaks? How many of you have skied in the morning and played golf in the afternoon? Not many, I’ll wager. In short, golf in Austria offers something totally new and, often, something totally captivating.
Here’s a breakdown of a trip I made there recently:
It was mid-October 2013 and I was in Austria on business. I was planning to fly into Linz, do the needful, then fly out of Salzburg a few days later. Having been in Austria in October before, I knew it was worth dusting off the golf clubs and I knew it would only take 2 hours to reach my favourite part of the country – the picturesque Alpine town of St Michael im Lungau.
Contrary to what many might think, Austria’s autumns can be very warm and pleasant. Although light snow is not unusual at this time of year, it doesn’t tend to settle until November. This surprising fact makes a golfing trip not only extremely agreeable, but also rather exclusive, as few people travel there in the autumn. In my view, there’s nothing quite like having a golf course to yourself. Add to that some stunning Austrian scenery, cheap accommodation and wonderful food, and things couldn’t really be any better.
So, with my business completed, I found myself at St Martin Chalets resort, nestled beneath the towering snowy peak of Speiereck on one side and the tree-covered slopes of Aineck on the other. St Martin Chalets sits in the Lungau valley, at around 1000 metres above sea level. At this time of year that tends to mean warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights. Just right.
My golfing partner, John, owns one of the chalets in the resort and he was already there with his wife, Gill and friends, Anne and Len. After an early breakfast, John and I loaded the car and set off. The morning was cold and misty – one of those that often preempts a still, sunny day – perfect golfing weather, I thought. Our destination was the Golf Club Millstättersee – one of the few courses in the area that I hadn’t yet played and I was really looking forward to it. It’s a very pretty track – zig-zagging through wooded slopes directly above a large, picture-perfect lake and the waterside town of Millstatt. Well worth a visit for golfers and non-golfers alike.
Drive to Millstatt
It took about 40 minutes by car, driving south towards Italy, passing through the core of some of the highest peaks in the Southern Alps, then hooking left above Millstatt. It was only when we hit the long driveway that we realised we’d made a mistake. Austria’s courses are so empty at this time of year that we hadn’t even bothered to call, but the car park was packed! Victims of our own over-confidence, we entered the clubhouse slightly crestfallen. Sure enough, that particular day happened to be the date for the annual club championship – and golfers in a variety of ‘fancy’ dress, hurried to and fro, trying to make their shotgun start on time. Darn!
Still, we had nobody to blame but ourselves, so we decided to make the most of it with a nice, relaxed coffee by the open fire in the clubhouse.
They say that ‘out of adversity comes opportunity’, and we hoped this would be the case now. As we sat and looked for inspiration (in no real rush, as it was a nice place to sit!), we both remarked how friendly and helpful the Austrians are towards foreigners. In my experience, when you golf in France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, you’re definitely not made to feel overly special. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the locals are unfriendly, as some are wonderful people, but overall I’m always left with the feeling that travelling golfers are a necessary evil, bringing much needed Euros but not rating much better than ‘tolerable’. In this part of Austria it is quite the reverse. The people here are positively warm and welcoming, and they go out of their way to say “hallo”. English-speaking tourists seem to be a bit of a novelty, especially in the autumn, and you can’t help feeling that the locals are glad you came.
Golf Club Millstättersee
Anyway, after a nice chat, taking some photographs and enjoying two cappuccinos, we regrouped and made a plan. With a late lunch in the diary, we would have to be quick, but both John and I still needed to scratch that golf itch. We decided to head back to base, via Millstatt (where we encountered this farmer and his sheep, as you do). We would play the home course, Golf Club St Michael – only two kilometres from the St Martin Chalets resort. With a couple of options – an 18-hole championship course and a shorter, but no less picturesque, 9-hole course – we would be able to choose our route based on how much time we had.
Again we had no booking, but the chances of being turned down at two courses were remote and, if the worst happened, we wouldn’t be far from home. As it turned out, we were fine, but being short of time before lunch, we decided to shoot round the short course.
Golf Club Lungau
By this time the sun was well and truly out and, as we played, we both stripped down to our shirt sleeves. Although we’d both played at GC Lungau many times before, this is a particularly spectacular time of year, with the hillsides burnished in various shades of yellow, red and gold. To make matters even better, we both played some pretty good shots and, with nobody in front of us (or behind us for that matter), we soon got round.
Although the golf ended there, the story doesn’t, as what follows sums up for me why this place is so special.
The people I’d agreed to meet for lunch were already on the mountain, taking a hike on the upper slopes of ‘Tchanek’ (there are a lot of ‘ek’s in this part of Austria). As this was a business trip and I was travelling light, I hadn’t brought my hiking boots, but with a decent grip and being waterproof, I decided my golf shoes would make a pretty good substitute.
It’s a ten-minute drive to the next town (more like a village) of Katschberg, which sits at the top of a mountain pass, just south of St Michael and about 600 metres higher up. It’s a true ‘ski-in-ski-out’ resort and, even in mid-October, it was shrouded by about three inches of snow. It’s a good thing the hire car companies fit winter tyres nice and early, as otherwise I wouldn’t have made it. As it was, I made it with ease (if you’ve never driven with winter tyres, you cannot imagine how well they grip on snow and ice – it must be seen to be believed!).
Reaching the parking spot, I left the car and set off along the wooded path, crunching through the snow, dressed in nothing more than a sleeveless polo shirt, golf trousers and fleece. I hadn’t taken many steps when the fleece came off and I strode along, bathed in sunshine, as though in mid-summer. The sound of my footsteps was the only thing breaking the quiet of my snowy surrounds, which became all the more silent when I stopped to take a couple of snaps. The landscape here is really quite special.
Before long, I reached a clearing, where I found a pretty wooden house (known as an Alm) with, believe it or not, a horse and sleigh parked outside! This particular hut is called the Pritzhütte and it’s ideally located about 30 minutes to an hour away, depending how fast you walk and where you park. I made my way in and found my group eagerly consuming a delicious looking ‘Brettljause’. This is a traditional Austrian selection of cured meats, home-made cheeses, pickles, bread and home-churned butter. With the food quickly disappearing, I ordered myself a board and knife (no plates and forks with this dish!) and helped myself to the ‘speck’ (Austrian ham), cheese and other goodies – all washed down with some Austrian ‘Weissbier’. I love it!
Greedily I ate my fill way too quickly, but I still found room for the three different desserts we shared: Kaiserschmarrn, an amazing, thick pancake, dusted with icing sugar and served with plum and apple sauces – an all-time favourite; Hühnersteigen, which is a delicious, ladder-shaped donut; and Rahmkoch. I had heard the latter described as ‘Austrian marzipan’, so I tried it tentatively (I hate marzipan). It turns out it’s more like cinnamon-flavoured shortbread and is absolutely gorgeous. Great for the tastebuds, not so great for the walk back to the car, which by now was not just welcome, but essential!!
And so, totally satisfied, we made our way back down the snowy trail, chatting cheerily as we went – a group of nine people and two black labradors. When we made it back to the chalets, it looked like a different season altogether. We sat in the garden, drank tea (with milk), ate biscuits, and contemplated a sauna… and possibly one or two more Weissbiers.
Back at St Martin Chalets
Already, I can’t wait to go back. There are still a number of highy rated courses I haven’t yet seen, including Millstättersee, which I definitely need to play next time. Maybe in future I’ll call. Or I may just leave it to serendipity again, as it doesn’t seem to end too badly here, whatever happens!
[Golf pictures courtesy of GC Millstättersee]
Lover of Austria and regular at St Martin Chalets, James Green has been visiting St Michael im Lungau since 1997.