Golf With A Side of Lobster
Working up a sweat on the back end of a 45-foot wooden fishing boat five miles out at sea seems an unlikely place for a golfer to spend a perfectly good morning.
Yet here I am, draped head to toe in waterproof gear, entrenched in hand-to-hand combat with dozens of snapping lobsters and angry crabs ensnared in wire traps we winched up from the bottom of the ocean moments ago. The waters may seem calm on the surface, but working beside Capt. Perry Gotell and his first mate on their boat Tranquility feels like “Deadliest Catch” to me. Crabs and lobsters snap at my gloved hands. I snatch them by their backs, wrest them from the cages, sort them for market, then clench their claws shut with thick, blue rubber bands.
Our haul for two hours of work: 18 lobster traps, 25 pounds of lobsters, 30 pounds of rock crabs and two bloody fingers. Barely a dent in the 300 wire-framed traps Gotell tends to every day bobbing across a wide swath of Atlantic Ocean near Prince Edward Island.
“Some days we do well, sometimes not,” says Gotell, a strong, fit man with graying hair and salt-etched skin. “Today’s been a pretty good day.”
It’s called “Experiential Tourism,” and Gotell charges $89 to work like this for a full morning as part of his fishing crew. It’s proven enormously popular with tourists – and with golfers, in particular.
In golf, you pay to play. On the Tranquility, you pay to work.
“People don’t want the ‘bus ride’ experience anymore, especially not golfers,” Gotell tells me as we sort our catch, tossing back to the Ocean the female lobsters and those weighing less than a pound.
“Golfers want the salt-spray-on-their-faces, sand-in-their-underwear, go-home-tired experience,” he said. “They want bragging rights to working on a lobster boat or spending the morning digging bar clams from the sand, just like they’d do if they were part of my crew.”
On the slow ride back to port, we shed our oil pants and rain jackets and steamed a dozen lobsters in an enormous pot of seawater spiked with a handful of salt.
Is there a better way to eat lobsters, I wonder, then aboard a fishing boat slowly motoring back to port, cracking shells on the ship’s wooden railing, dipping the meat in melted butter, then carelessly tossing any scraps back into the Ocean?
It’s at these cool, misty edges of the Atlantic where the soul of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia reside. Lobsters, crabs, mussels, oysters, scallops, even blue fin tuna – the islands’ seafood is second to none. You can stay in a cottage cantilevered on a cliff gnawed raw by centuries of wind and waves, then stroll barefoot along sandy beaches and bike down red-clay country roads that all seem to lead to broad fields of strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.
But what was once simply a farming and fishing region has been actively rebranding itself as a golf destination.
It seems to be working.
A dozen of the top golf courses in Canada are located here. Two home run hits – the Links at Crowbush Cove and Dundarave, both on PEI – are barely a decade old and rank among the best in North America. And Highland Links, a Stanley Thompson masterpiece in the Cape Breton Highlands of Nova Scotia, is a must-play: an exhilarating, 70-year-old classic carved out of the mountains of a national park that runs down to the Ocean.
Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia (along with New Brunswick) make up Canada’s Maritimes, east of northern Maine. In terms of bang for the buck, it’s tough to beat them. The dollar is strong in Canada, enabling you to play the best of PEI’s 31 courses – including The Links at Crowbush Cove, Dundarave and Brudenell River – for less than $200. Economical stay-and-play packages can make the pricing even more attractive.
On neighboring Nova Scotia, a blustery, boggy province whose Scottish roots feel more British than Canadian, similar bargains can be found. Cape Breton is the easternmost tail of the province and boasts Nova Scotia’s best golf. That’s where you’ll find Highland Links and Bell Bay Golf Club, about an hour’s drive apart along the famously scenic Cabot Trail.
If the fishing and the food don’t captivate you, the golf surely will. It’ll take you the better part of the day to travel to and from the Maritimes from Texas. You can fly into Charlottetown on PEI or Halifax on Nova Scotia, then take a ferry when you’re ready to switch islands. Once you arrive, here’s what to play.
The Links at Crowbush Cove
Morell, PEI, www.golflinkspei.com
A scenic, visually intimidating golf course from respected Canadian golf course architect Tom McBroom, this 1993 design put PEI golf on the map. Crowbush Cove’s perfectly striped fairways roll and tumble through a pine forest on the edge of the Atlantic. Eagles and blue herons scour the area as intently as golfers searching for errant balls.
Without a doubt, Crowbush Cove is the top golf course in the area, and for good reasons. It’s difficult but fair, and when the wind is up, the par 5s might as well be par 7s. No matter what set of tees you play, play the from tips on No. 11, which you reach by walking through a wooded path then up 53 worn, wooden steps to an elevated tee box and a splendid view of the bay and the course. Where else could you buy four pounds of steamed mussels and a bucket of beers at the turn? Even the red foxes seem jealous.
Dundarave Golf Course
Cardigan, PEI, www.golflinkspei.com
Following the success of Crowbush Cove, the provincial government began upgrading its public courses and encouraged private developers to construct new ones, including Dundarave, which opened to accolades in 1999.
Each hole on this parkland course that runs along Brudenell River feels secluded. The fairways are trimmed with conifer and deciduous trees, and knee-high wild grasses that blow in the wind like waves in the ocean. Sculpted bunkers are filled with red, iron-rich island sand that lends a Christmas effect when adjacent to the deep green fairways. Beyond the first few holes, the 7,300-yard course creeps up to the bay, where tree-lined views match what you’d envision golf to be in this part of the world. The course is maintained in pristine shape. Don’t be surprised if a groundskeeper pauses long enough to hop off his tractor to explain that he’s fertilizing with natural minerals and “it won’t hurt you a bit.” Reads the sign near the first tee: “Time spent golfing is not deducted from one’s life span.”
Brudenell River Golf Course
Cardigan, PEI, www.golflinkspei.com
The older sibling of Dundarave, Brudenell River is a kinder, gentler course with broad, receptive fairways and a series of picturesque gardens, lakes and ponds. The layout is a series of three sixes: six par 3s, six par 4s and six par 5s. Though the course is less difficult than adjacent Dundarave, it’s a favorite among many golfers.
Highland Links Golf Course
Ingonish Beach, NS, www.golfcabreton.com or www.highlandlinksgolf.com
Unquestionably one of the best public golf courses in North America, Highland Links on Nova Scotia’s windy Cape Breton will blow you away with its mountain views, roller coaster terrain and unpredictable greens. You might find yourself asking questions like why is there a mound as large as a buried whale right in the fairway? How come there are so few flat lies? Why are the greens so tricky? Then you remember that the entire course was constructed mostly by hand, shovel and plow 70 years ago as part of a government work project. Sure, they could have used power equipment, but that wouldn’t have employed as many out-of-work Canadians. Now the course is as much a classic as anything in Scotland. After years of cost-cutting and well-intentioned softenings, an extensive renovation is underway to return all the holes to Thompson’s original, quirky specs.
Bell Bay Golf Club
Baddeck, NS, www.bellbay.ca
Another top-notch Tom McBroom design, Bell Bay looks out onto the Bras d’Or Lakes. Alexander Graham Bell spent his summers in a home nearby (the Bell Museum is down the street). The course has consistently won praise since its opening in 1993, about the same time McBroom was completing Crowbush on nearby PEI. Tall trees bracket many of the fairways, and greens run fast and true. Bell Bay is as fun to play as its vistas are dramatic.
Of course, fresh seafood and farm-fresh produce makes the food in the Maritimes as much a draw as the golf. You might find yourself finishing a round on Bell Bay, as I did, and be invited to join a lobster dinner among friends in the clubhouse. On PEI, the Inn at St. Peters (www.innatstpeters.com), a few minutes drive from the Links at Crowbush Cove, offers extraordinary meals. The tables are oversized “to better accommodate a group of four men on a golfing trip,” says the owner, a golf nut herself.
Everything is made in-house. The chefs roast a whole pig on Mondays (for pulled pork sandwiches on Tuesdays) and serve it with chips made from PEI potatoes and relish pickled from veggies from the garden. Don’t skip the just-caught mussels steeped in lemon butter and punctuated with rosemary, or the fresh bread you use to sop it all up with.
The Inn at Bay Fortune (www.innatbayfortune.com) is another place worth seeking out. Local cheeses and yellow fin tuna caught off the PEI shore are winners. So are the mussels, which are culled from Fortune Bay, a few steps from the front door. As a general rule, if you see lobster on the menu, order it.
And finally, though you’ll find outstanding lobster dishes across both islands, there is at least one notable exception: no matter how intriguing the signs, avoid stopping at McDonald’s for a McLobster, the single worst fast food abomination I’ve ever encountered.
There’s no way that Capt. Perry Gotell (www.tranquilitycoveadventures.com) would approve.