Cherokee Plantation - As good as it gets
Just as The Carnegie Club, the swanky
Scottish sporting estate featuring the turret-
and-gargoyle-encrusted Skibo Castle, astonished the golf travel world when it opened a
few years back asking around £500 for a
measly one-night stay, Cherokee Plantation
has caused similar jaw-dropping responses since its
debut in 1999.
Never content with the mediocre, English entrepreneur Peter de Savary searched for years for the perfect piece of land to construct his first American dream. In de Savary's world, dreams usually become a reality, and this one is real alright. And it's grand, deluxe and historical on every scale. Just as he did at Skibo, he's put his most extravagant notions of creating an upscale invitation-only golf resort into action. Only this time he's pushed the envelope a little farther.
Just an hour from South Carolina's legendary sinuous coast midway between Charleston and Savannah, he snagged the pre-eminent Cherokee Plantation as his Great Southern Sporting Venture. The result? A Skibo-meets-Tara fusion of elegance, luxury, tradition, natural beauty and grace wrapped up in a centuries-old, 4,000-acre package.
'Tara' was of course the family plantation home of Scarlett O'Hara, immortalised in the Civil War epic Gone With The Wind. Everything revolved around it: a grand Georgian brick structure encompassing a fanciful way of living. Its roof was held up by huge, magnificent white columns, and there was a long, oak-lined drive leading to a welcoming front porch where Mamie would be waiting for guests with a tall glass of iced tea.
De Savary and his small-backing consortium were clearly taken by this quintessential idea of southern existence. Even down to being greeted with a cool one out front, this is Cherokee Plantation.
The original Plantation house was built in 1710 but along with many prominent homes in the south, General Sherman travelled from his native north and burned it down during the war, the 'War Between the States', as it's referred to here. When the plantation changed hands (something it's done a few times in its long history) in 1930, a new mansion was quickly built the following year. The family not only erected a most magical plantation home, but they enlisted the same firm responsible for designing Central Park to site-design the entire Cherokee Estate.
Today the house seems unchanged from when the owners imported 17th and 18th-century rooms, intact, from European castles. It brims with period antiques, rich tapestries, polished hardwood floors, fine bone china in dozens of patterns, and big, sumptuous four-posters gracing nine big, sumptuous bedrooms. The Norwegian pine drawing room and the low-lit 'gun room' (which includes a pristine billiards table and corner bar) are where house-guests gather for pre-dinner drinks before retiring to the majestic dining room for a dinner party harking back unashamedly to the grand traditions of the 19th century. Inside is a hand-painted mural that covers all four walls and is the only replica of a famous painting of a stag hunt which resides at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
There is a gracious charm at Cherokee that belies the enormous wealth behind it.
For money is surely what was required to get this southern nirvana up and running. And not a small amount of it. What has been created is not just another vast country club with the odd low-impact activity and token golf course to keep the members content. What we have here is the most exclusive club in the world, where the membership list will read like it's been cribbed from the latest Fortune 500 list when it's complete. And its course so top-notch that, at only five months old, it will host Shell's 'Wonderful World of Golf match between David Duval and Ernie Els following the Masters this spring. Even if your pockets are deep enough to afford the Skibo price for the privilege of a night at Cherokee and a round on the new Donald Steel custom crafted course, you simply couldn't. It's nothing personal, they just don't entertain the concept of an overnight paying guest. So if you do find yourself lolling about on this former rice and indigo plantation, you fall into one of a few very simple categories: affluent Cherokee member or lucky guest of affluent Cherokee member. It doesn't get any clearer than that.
Now for the punch that really puts it into perspective. To join the exclusive Cherokee clan as a member, there by enabling you to enjoy every 5-star-plus facility on offer, including the luxury of never seeing even the corner of a bill during any of your visits, there is a one-off joining fee. The asking price? $1 million. Taking into account that this also includes a sizeable chunk of land somewhere on the estate where you can build a cottage (at your own expense, of course, and the architecture subject to approval), some may think it represents good value. Where value might enter is when you figure under the current structure the 'million-dollar men' will effectively own the Plantation. The maximum number of 'units' on offer will be 92; and after the first 50 memberships are sold the founder members have first refusal on the ones remaining. So with only a possible 50 members in total, the word 'exclusive' really comes into its own.
Everything on the plantation, then, whether restored to its original glory or making its debut (like the Donald Steel course) is categorically the best of the best. From the golf, hunting, fishing, boating, renowned equestrian centre and clay-pigeon shooting to the lavish bedrooms, fine china and state-of-the-art gym and Clarins Spa, it would be a job to find better. Even with its invitation only membership policy and multi-million dollar everything, at Cherokee they believe in one thing above all others. Preservation - of ideals, values and customs. In its buildings, its spaces, its people and even its new golf course.
Oh yes, the golf. The raison d'etre for this piece. The first time you ever play a Donald Steel course you know he is of a different breed. I knew from the first tee of this course that this is a man who marches to a rhythmic drum beat. And even for the non-believing bigwigs who play here, 'Amen' will be the first utterance after holing out at 18. But surely this was inevitable. People who sink massive amounts of money into what is effectively an oversized playground with rather expensive rides, don't do things by halves. So with the proverbial gaunt¬let thrown, one of Britain's foremost golf course architects was selected to realise de Savary's lofty goals. Donald Steel's decision could have been taken after the US Golf Association visited and told him this was one of the best sites for a golf course that they had seen in 20 years. Whichever came first, these were words of encouragement indeed.
Inspired by the great traditional links courses in the UK, the par-71, 6,900-yard Cherokee course requires improvisation and imagination from start to finish. There is no out-of-bounds, officially, but the waist-high native wild-grasses that line so many of the holes could easily be classified as OOB in Scotland. These tripped me up - and trapped my new Titleists - from the beginning. Marked by majestic live oaks, thick copses of pines, five lakes and wide, rolling fairways leading to roller coaster-like greens, the low-country setting is nothing short of spectacular. The length of the course isn't terribly long by today's standards but this doesn't matter. The small, undulating greens (Ross-like), the deep bunkers (Hell-like) and the tightly cut fairways make for an arresting combination without another 300 yards to contend with. There are also 35 grass-revetted bunkers of true Scottish origin which beautifully define the holes but which can cause great frustration.
Still, that's the only source of frustration here. Steel may have intimidated me to the point of total loss of game control, but fly fishing and horse riding I could manage.
Now, if I can just scrape together that last million...
Golf Today Course Directory - South Carolina