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Qui, Normandy

Looking for an alternative to the over-crowded and overpriced golf in the long-established haunts of Spain and Portugal? For those in the know, Normandy – with its unbeatable scenery, golf, wine and food – is perfect for that touring holiday. Best of all, it’s right on your doorstep. Andy Marshall reports on the highlights of the region

It's early November in Normandy's Pays d'Auge, A picturesque landscape of small towns and villages and rolling meadows dotted with grazing cattle, russet-coloured apple orchards and half-timbered farmsteads. The Pays d’Auge region is known for the superior quality of its local produce – a land where some of France’s finest cheeses, such as Camembert, are created alongside the highly-prized local tipple, Calvados, the fiery apple brandy that has been distilled with typical French passion for more than four hundred years.

This western corner of France also happens to be blessed with a selection of very fine golf courses, and for the gourmet golfer who enjoys a tipple, the good news is that between tee-times there’s ample opportunity to learn about, taste and stock up on some of the fine local produce (the latter point especially relevant to golfers who take advantage of the many offers with Brittany Ferries to travel in the comfort of their own car).

Our base for a brief sojourn in Normandy is the Hôtel du Golf Barriére, a luxurious property situated in a stunningly beautiful location on the slopes of Mount Canisy, just five minutes from Deauville. This coastal town became fashionable in the early 20th century after construction of a racetrack, casino and boutique opened by designer Coco Chanel, and down the years has glittered with international royalty, film stars and political figures such as Winston Churchill.

Many famous guests have enjoyed the old-world charms of the Hôtel du Golf Barriére since it opened its doors in 1929, including Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford and Yves St Laurent (their autographed photos greet you with a smile inside the foyer). Just opposite is the chic Le Green Bar, where we happily sink into a couple of red velvet armchairs and admire sketches of famous golfers on the walls – it’s the perfect hangout to imbibe on some Normandy spirit and discuss our golfing adventures ahead.

“We have a selection of thirty types of Calvados,” announces Laurent Mallet, the friendly barman. “Perhaps I can tempt you with a rare 60-year-old Camut?” Tempting, but with at eighty euro for a shot we settle on a more affordable 8-year-old Château du Breuil before making our way to the hotel restaurant for a belt-loosening five-course meal. They don’t do things in halves here at the Hôtel du Golf Barriére – all part of the experience, you understand.

After a good night’s sleep we’re up early the next morning, eager for our first taste of Normandy golf. And we don’t have to go very far. Rated among France's top-20 prettiest and most established layouts, Golf Barriére de Deauville is on the hotel’s doorstep, and you quickly appreciate why it has always been one of the places to play in Normandy. The three loops of 9 holes are all maintained in excellent condition year-round, with beautifully manicured fairways and greens. The original 18 holes opened in 1929, a lovely parkland layout with a mix of undulating fairways and panoramic views over Deauville and Pays d’Auge country.

For a truly authentic links experience, don’t miss out on the chance
to stop by at the Harry Colt designed Golf de Granville

The course is a greater test of your accuracy than it is power, bunkering and fairway shaping testing your course management from tee to green. The newer nine holes were designed in 1964 by our very own Henry Cotton, and here you enjoy a course which has a more wooded character.

For a short break there is ample golf at Hôtel du Golf Barriére to keep you occupied, but those in search of further golfing adventure only need travel 15kms south of Deauville to find another excellent 27 holes at Pont L'Évêque, famous for the Normandy cheese of the same name.

We would certainly recommend you check it out. Golf Barriére de Saint-Julien’s main 18-hole layout – Le Vallon – is hilly in places and winds through lush Normandy pastureland. The higher part of the course invites you to open your shoulders with the driver, elsewhere you find yourself once again double-checking the course planner to plot a safe route to the green. Water comes in to play several times on the lower part of the course, notably at the 9th and the 18th, where the approach shot is played over water to reach heavily bunkered and undulating greens, the marvellous chateau-style clubhouse a glorious backdrop. (Make sure you allow ample time for lunch before taking on the 9-hole Le Bocage course – the club restaurant serves up might fine French cuisine).

Completing a trio of 27-hole courses within our base at Deauville is Golf Amirauté, a championship-standard course designed by Bill Baker. It’s a modern layout featuring huge fairways, large greens, plenty of water (over 36 acres of lakes!) and several rather novel hazards in the shapely form of assorted contemporary sculptures. The aptly named ‘Art Course’ is mostly flat, so it can easily be walked, though carts are readily available (as we found to be the case at all of the courses we visited). There’s also the floodlit 9-hole ‘Star Course’ if you fancy indulging in the experience of golfing at night.

Unmistakable Normandy Spirit

As a break from golf, a guided tour of Manoir d’Apreval comes highly recommended. This is a family-owned estate in the coastal village of Pennedepie (located 10 km east of Deauville) famous for a line of fine Calvados and cider. “From mid-September to mid-December we hand-pick the apples and then press them into a juice that ends up inside these tanks,” explains manager Agathe Letellier as we step inside the fermentation house. “If you listen carefully, you can hear a hissing sound. That’s the apple juice naturally fermenting into a dry cider inside the tanks.”

She explains that after one to six months, the cider is distilled twice to separate the alcohol and eventually produce a colourless and very strong spirit of around 70 per cent alcohol. Double distillation – in addition to the apples originating in the Pays d’ Auge region – are requirements for Calvados to achieve the AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), the highest honour that can be bestowed on a French product.

Continuing our tour, we are led to a cellar, where the liquid gold is aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years, by which time it’s gained a rich amber hue (due to the tannin in the wood) that darkens as the Calvados ages. Usually the maturation goes on for several years, and each year the Calvados loses a little volume and alcohol content through evaporation until it drops to between 40 and 45 per cent, and this is known as the ‘Angel’s Share’. The longer the Calvados is aged, the smoother the taste. “Put a dab on your wrist and just take in the aroma,” prompts Agathe, demonstrating the complexities of Apreval’s Calvados X0 with its sweet aromas of wood and ripe fruit. “There’s a richness in the flavour and finish that’s unique to aged Calvados.”

Once he deems it to be mature, the cellar master then blends Calvados from different years, choosing each for its complimentary qualities. We learn that it’s a traditional custom at meal times for Normans to down a small glass of Calvados – to help re-awaken the appetite between dishes, we’re told. Known as the ‘Norman Hole’ or Trou Normand, it’s a rather appropriate term on a golf trip.

As she concludes the tour, Agathe announces our opportunity to taste some of the produce inside the estate shop – and a chance to purchase other apple-based drinks such as robust ciders and the refreshing aperitif pommeau (a two thirds cider/one-third Calvados mix) that makes a great 19th hole tipple.

Another Calvados distillery worth visiting is the Château du Breuil (which you’ll find inland from Deauville). Listed as an historical monument, this attractive slate-roofed château was built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and has been entirely restored by its new owners who have been distilling highly respected spirits for three generations now.

A Normandy cheese is considered the perfect partner for a Calvados or cider, with much of it being produced around the small towns of Livarot, Pont l'Évêque and Camembert. With its golden-yellow centre and creamy-white rind, the circular Camembert is the quintessential Normandy cheese and known the world over. Its origins are relatively young in cheese-making terms and Marie Harel, a farmer’s wife, invented it during the time of the French Revolution and sold her cheese in the market of Vimoutiers.

Two lesser-known and much older cheeses are Pont l'Évêque, an uncooked, unpressed cow’s milk cheese that is square in shape, and Livarot, an ancient and noble cheese that dates back more than 700 years, originating with the monks. Other Normandy cheeses include Pavé d'Auge, a semi-soft, creamy cheese with a reddish rind, so called because it looks like the square cobblestones (pave) you still see in old marketplaces in France, and the heart shaped Neufchâtel, a soft, slightly crumbly, mould-ripened cheese.

With golf off the menu for the afternoon, we decide on a visit to Fromagerie Graindorge, a cheese producer in Livarot that offers free tours and tastings. Inside is a unique collection of old black-and-white photos, cheese-making implements, milk churns, cheese moulds and a replica of the world’s largest Livarot cheese. Measuring around one metre in diameter, it was made from 1165 litres of milk (the equivalent of 250 standard size Livarot cheeses), and shared with all the residents of the town on a special fiesta day in 2008.

There’s ample opportunity to observe the various stages of making the Livarot and Pont l'Évêque cheeses – working the curd, salting, drying, and washing the rind. Before leaving, it’s mandatory to sample some of the produce, beautifully displayed in colourful boxes inside the Graindorge shop. Keep an eye out for Le Grain d'Orge with Calvados – a delicious cheese that combines two of region’s most celebrated products.

Normandy Landings & Links

West of Deauville is Golf Omaha Beach, a 36-hole golf complex located on the coast at Port-en-Bessin, only a few kilometres from the D-Day Landing Beaches of 1944, and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where Stephen Spielberg filmed scenes for the movie Saving Private Ryan among the 10,000 white crosses.

Omaha Beach boasts a 36-hole complex located on the coast at Port-en- Bessin,
just a few kilometres from the site of the D-Day Landings

The 1985 design of the prime two loops, Bocage (Hedgerow) and La Mer (Sea) are simple and unfussy with the emphasis on steady driving. The Bocage nine is set in an apple orchard and the name stands for the earth and stone buttressed hedges, which criss-cross the interior rural landscape – natural defence lines which made life a nightmare for invading forces.

Each of the nine holes on Le Mer loop closest to the sea, are named after famous World War II war heroes, among them Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery. Playing the few holes that run along the bluffs overlooking the beaches you can appreciate the advantage defenders had over their adversaries below. The signature hole is the dogleg par-four 6th, where you can still see remnants of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements which made life hell for the invading army. Fortunately, today, the only danger is negotiating the sizable bunkers on both sides of the fairway as we tee off. From the green perched on a cliff top, there are spectacular views to the historic remains of Mulberry Harbour and across the Channel.

Further afield, on Normandy’s west coast, is the superb Harry Colt links of Golf de Granville, regarded as one of the best in France. Nestling among the dunes by the sea, this is an authentic links with a rugged, natural character and where little has changed since 1912. The mild climate ensures excellent playing conditions with good greens and dry fairways your to be enjoyed year-round on this traditional Scottish-style course. The course offers up a wonderful mix of holes, teasing one-shotters and some fearsome long holes into the prevailing wind. A number of holes are played to raised green and plateaus – the typical ingredients of classic links golf.

Situated north-east of Deauville, on the way to Paris, is Golf Club du Champ de Bataille – our final stop on this memorable road-trip. An impressive championship course set in an exceptional natural and historical environment, Champ de Bataille has been compared with Wentworth and Woburn, and it’s easy to see why it’s ranked among France’s top 25 courses. The layout occupies 370 acres of historic forest and parkland and takes full advantage of natural features such as valleys, lakes and centuries-old trees. The 17th is a particularly memorable par-three with a tight teeshot over a deep gully.

The chateau-style clubhouse is a fitting
backdrop to the 18th green at Golf Barriére de Saint-Julien

So when conversation at the 19th next turns to where to look for the perfect short break, a boys tour or a romantic getaway, give some thought to Normandy. It’s on your doorstep, and the green fees will surprise you.

Bon voyage – oh, and bon appetit

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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