Dispatches from afar: Turkey, golf and more

From ancient civilizations in Istanbul to opulent resorts on the Mediterranean,  a golf trip to Turkey is a fantastic blend of old and new 

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that there are really good golf courses in every corner of the world, including some destinations that don’t immediately scream out “golf destination”.

Such is the case with Turkey, one of Europe’s oldest civilizations but a relative newcomer to the world of golf. There are only 24 courses in the entire country, serving a population of almost 80 million people. Most of them are dotted along the Mediterranean coast in the area known as the Turkish Riviera, surrounded by upscale resorts and spas. Golf is very much a part of the tourist industry, if not so much a mainstream sport for the soccer-crazed Turks to enjoy.

That said, the country does have ambitious plans to expand its golf portfolio. The Turkish Golf Federation, which was only formed in 1996, has a bold target of having 100 golf courses and making golf more accessible to the Turkish people. Demand for the sport, which initially was limited to visitors and wealthy Turks, has been fueled in part by the Turkish Airlines Open, one of the premier events on the European Tour calendar and part of the season ending Race to Dubai playoffs. There’s nothing like having the best players in the world come to your country and compete for a championship to garner the attention of local sports fans and generate new interest.

Justin Rose hitting a shot to the 18th during the Turkish Airlines Open

The Turkish Airlines Open was in its fifth iteration when I was invited to visit last November. The trip had several purposes, which dovetailed with the many responsibilities that the national airline carries. As the sponsor of the event, they naturally wanted to showcase the tournament, the golf course and the spectacular host resort; and as one of the largest airlines in the world and a leading proponent of tourism, they also wanted me to see various parts of Turkey and enjoy its diverse culture and history. Finally, they specifically wanted me to experience their business class service from Toronto to Istanbul and their incredible Business Class Lounge at Ataturk Airport.

You can read about my visit to the Business Class Lounge HERE but in a word, it was incredible. The lounge is huge and offers a level of pampering that is way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not often that you get home from a trip and talk about the airports but this Biz Class Lounge will be on your list of highlights for sure.

The trip from Toronto to Istanbul takes about 9 hours and the Business Class service is designed to make it as comfortable as possible. The seats are a marvel of modern technology with a staggering amount of leg-room so they can fold down flat into a pretty comfy bed. The guy in the seat next to me was well over six feet and he had no trouble stretching out. The attendants even provide a real full size pillow and duvet so you can snuggle in and go to sleep. Or you can stay up and watch TV or movies on your personal large screen monitor. The plane features Wi-Fi too so you could get connected to the internet and work if you wanted.

Turkish Airlines Business Class – so much room, so many frills.

The Biz Class cabin on my flight had 35 seats and there was a second cabin about the same size. Each was attended by 5-6 flight attendants plus a chef. Meals consisted of typical North American food plus Turkish appetizers, entrees and desserts served with a wide variety of wines. Dinner on our overnight flight came first, followed by breakfast some six or seven hours later. In between, complimentary drinks and snacks were regularly offered. Nobody starved!

I certainly don’t travel as much as some but I’ve crossed the Atlantic and beyond over a dozen times on a variety of airlines and have to say that Turkish Airlines Business Class was the best service I ever had. But don’t just take my word for it – it’s been voted the Best Business Class service in Europe for the last six consecutive years.

After a quick stop in Istanbul, it was on to Antalya and the Regnum Carya Golf and Spa Resort – the host hotel for the Turkish Airlines Open. The resort itself is stunning – some 800 acres of property that encompasses a huge hotel, the golf course, numerous waterparks, dozens of private casitas and a gorgeous beach on the Mediterranean complete with beach bar, restaurant and a long wharf that includes its own bar. The Carya is an all-inclusive hotel too so at any time of the day or night you can indulge yourself in the many restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Or even sample the all-chocolate shop.

Regnum Carya Golf and Spa Hotel

The TA Open means different things to different players. For some, whose season is almost over and they’re winding down, it’s an opportunity to take their families to a world class resort for a week, pamper themselves and play a little golf. For others who were chasing leader Tommy Fleetwood on the Race to Dubai, it was a critically important Tour stop with a huge purse, world ranking points and a chance to add another title to their resume.

Ironically, the contenders seemed to be having as much fun off the golf course as the players who were clearly out of contention. Each night there was a large group of players, agents, managers and Tour officials in one of the hotel’s watering holes watching a soccer match on TV or loudly discussing something. Maybe that’s part of the camaraderie that leads to Europe’s Ryder Cup success.

The Carya golf course is an intriguing layout over hilly terrain. Lakes, ponds and creeks are everywhere and deep bunkers surround practically every green. The course isn’t overly long by Tour standards but challenging enough especially with gorgeous tall pines framing each fairway. It’s the kind of course you just need one look at to know you want to play it. Unfortunately, I had to content myself with watching this time around but have definitely added it to my list of Must Play courses for some future trip.

I did manage to sneak away from the action long enough to play The National Golf Club, just a few minutes down the road. The National is one of the original courses in the region and David Feherty is listed as the designer. Yes, the same David Feherty who carries a microphone for NBC on the PGA Tour and hosts his own show on Golf Channel. He rarely mentions this phase of his career but during his time on the European Tour (5 wins, 1991 Ryder Cup team), Feherty designed two courses, the other being in Ireland.

The National Golf Club designed by David Feherty

The National is ranked in the Top 5 in Turkey but maybe its annual placement on the Top 100 courses in Europe would be a better testament to how good the golf course is. Like the Carya course, it meanders across rolling terrain with large stands of mature pines and eucalyptus trees. It’s a course where you definitely have to move your ball in both directions to contend with its twists and turns and not a course that can be overpowered. The greens are very contoured although on the day I played, not overly fast. Overall, lots of fun and just a bit quirky. Remind you of anyone?

After Justin Rose won the Turkish Airlines Open, it was back to Istanbul for me and a few days of sightseeing. What can you say about a city that is over 1,000 years old? There’s so much history – every street and building has multiple stories to tell. Istanbul is unique in that it is partly in Europe and partly in Asia, joined by bridges across the Bosporus Straits. In perhaps the only golf related story in the city’s history, in 2013 as part of a Turkish Golf Federation promo, Tiger Woods hit a ball from Europe into Asia, standing on one of the bridges high above the Straits.

Hagia Sofia built in 386

During my time, I visited several mosques in the old city including the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, built in 386; toured the Grand Bazaar, an indoor mall that was established in 1456 and covers 61 streets and has over 4,000 shops; rode the ferry from Europe to Asia and came back under the Straits on the subway. My pal Ahmet from Turkish Airlines was my tour guide and thankfully available to translate. He was also invaluable in helping me understand and order some of the local food, provide directions and explain much of the history.

Thousands of  books have been written about Istanbul and I’m not even going to pretend to know enough to describe any of it except to say, if you’re inclined to learn about other cultures and enjoy history, it’s one of the most fascinating and memorable cities I’ve ever visited.

When I mentioned to a few people that I was going to Turkey, it was almost always followed by two questions: Why, do you want to go that far to play golf? Is it safe?

Well, as I’ve said may times in this blog space, if it was just about playing golf, I’d stay home and frequent the local munis every day. But golf for me is all about experiences – discovering great courses, meeting new people, enjoying different cultures and learning about their history and traditions. Golf in many ways has become the great equalizer in world travel. No matter where you go, you can find exceptional courses designed by the same big-name architects, imposing their creative genius on the local landscape. The resorts are all spectacular and the experiences are guaranteed to be wonderful. But to me, what really makes a golf trip memorable is the local flavour that can’t be duplicated and the history which is unique to the region.

The “Old City” of Istanbul

So the idea of travelling “all the way to Turkey” wasn’t really a big deal when I consider the fact that I’d be experiencing a civilization that dates back thousands of years and visiting buildings that pre-date the discovery of North America. And playing golf on some world class courses and watching the likes of Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and plenty of other European PGA stars compete for one of the most prestigious titles on their Tour.

Is it safe? From my experience, resort areas all over the world are safe. Host countries go to great lengths to ensure that visitors feel secure – the tourism industry depends on it. My time in Antalya was mostly spent in a gated resort but on the occasions I ventured beyond the walls, I found the people to be engaging and friendly, despite my non-existent skills with the Turkish language.

In Istanbul, where I spent three days wandering the old city, sopping up as much history and culture as I could, I ate in local restaurants and pubs and travelled on the subway and ferries, it was much like any major city in the world. There are 15 million people in Istanbul so probably a few spots you want to avoid but in the historic parts of the old city and along the waterfront, there seemed to be as many tourists as locals. And everybody appeared to be having a great time.

So for anyone considering if it’s worth it to go all that way, the easy answer is absolutely. Whether you want to play a different golf course every day for two weeks while you soak up the Mediterranean sun and get pampered in a first class resort or you want to explore ancient civilizations and experience an astonishing culture, Turkey has both and a lot more.

I’m going back and next time I plan to take a few friends with me.

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