Cabot Links and Highlands Links: two awesome golf options in Cape Breton

CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA – Two fabulous properties with vastly different styles. Two wonderful golf courses. And what looks like a killer third one on its way.

I had a chance to check out both Cabot Links in Inverness and Highlands Links in Ingonish last week. And got to stay at both properties, as well. I also got a chance to scout out the new Cabot Cliffs course, which is being built just up the road from Cabot Links. It looks like it could be even prettier and more challenging than Cabot Links, and I suspect it’s going to have a HUGE impact on golf in Cape Breton, as well as tourism in general.

I’d played golf at Cabot Links before, but this was my first chance to stay the night. They have 48 units in minimalist, modern buildings alongside the golf course, which for my money is the best in Canada. The units are designed to blend in with the scenery and not stand out, while still making something of a statement.

They’re nice to look at from the outside, but the big splash comes when you walk in. The pale green walls in my unit were the colour of the greens outside on the golf course, and there was even a pale green strip of carpeting that led from the front door of the unit out to the sliding glass door on the balcony overlooking the course, thus immediately pulling your eye from the interior of the unit to the glories of the course and the ocean outside, which are the real stars of the show here.

All units have views of the course, which is a great feature. I’m told one of the early designs had units facing the parking lot, but Cabot Links’ owners put the kybosh to that.

My room had a big screen TV that would be perfect for watching a golf tournament, with jazzy stripes on the wall and a blue tartan print above the enormous bathtub. There was a black and white photo of a sailing ship and also a black and white photo of the old course at St. Andrews in Scotland. They blended in nicely and didn’t overpower the room, which is at it should be given the views.

The bathroom was huge, with a great shower and double sinks. The desk was just slightly weather beaten for a comfortable touch, and they’d cleverly wrapped the round mirror above the desk in old, brown belts for a cool look.

I didn’t much care for the clear, plastic desk chair to be honest. But it’s the only criticism I can make. The Wi-Fi is free and you can call anywhere in the world for free on your phone, which looks like a sleek computer. There’s also a sleek Nespresso coffee machine

There’s a fancy restaurant on site called Panorama but we opted for the onsite pub, the Cabot Public House, which is fairly new. I had a great burger and fries with a local beer. At breakfast the next day, I had a tasty (and huge) pea meal bacon sandwich with cheddar cheese prior to hitting the links.

They’ve made a lot of changes since the last time I was here, fleshing out new holes and changing the course around a bit. They’ve also added gorgeous boardwalks leading down to the beach and along the water, which is great for folks who don’t play golf. And they’ve built a cool, urban-feeling coffee house on the main street, which just opened.

Even if you’re just a casual golfer, this is a place you don’t want to miss. In my mind, there’s absolutely nothing in Canada that can beat it. It’s the only true links course in Canada, running entirely along the coast with views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from every hole. The greens are forgiving and the fairways pocked with pot bunkers and lined with ball-chewing-and-swallowing rough that looks like what you’d find in Scotland or Ireland. The fairways are usually hard and firm come summer time, allowing you to bump and run your ball onto the green.

Hitting the ball up in the air at a place like Cabot Links can be nothing short of treacherous when the winds blow. Or hugely advantageous. My playing buddy, Joe Washington, told me that on the par-3 14 th hole (just 105 yards) he sometimes hits a soft wedge. On the other hand, if the wind is in his face he’s been known to try to crush a five-iron. And that’s links golf, folks.

One worker at Cabot Links said that a caddy who usually works at St. Andrews is at Cabot this summer.

“He took a look at our course and found out we’ve got a new 18 hole course coming next year and said, ‘This place is going to be crazy. You don’t have to go to Scotland anymore to play great golf, and I’m from Scotland.’”

It’s already a huge destination for golfers around the world, with dozens of private jets flying into Port Hawksbury every year. The new 18, called Cabot Cliffs, should open next year and looks even better.

Cabot Links’ owners (Ben Cowan-Dewar of Toronto started the ball rolling here and now works closely with American Mike Keiser, who created the world-renowned Bandon Dunes facility in Oregon) found some property along the coast just a short distance up the road from Cabot Links. The new property has sections on towering bluffs that command awesome views of the coast.

Two of the holes, in particular, look absolutely spectacular. On number sixteen, a par 3, golfers will hit from the top of the cliffs and out over the bluffs as they try to reach what looks like a small green alongside spooky looking, spiky wedges of vertical stone shooting up from the beach below. And the shots will be pretty much into the wind just for added interest.

On 17, they’ll tee off from another cliff and have to power their drive up over the beach and over a massive, grey-brown hulk of Cape Breton bluffs to reach the fairway, which will then slope down the hill towards the water. The 18 th hole also will be along the bluffs, with more water views.

Not all the holes are seeded yet and I can’t say I’m an expert on golf course design. But based on what I saw, the three finishing holes will be the best in Canada and perhaps the most scenic on the planet. It’s really that spectacular.

I got rained out from an appointed round at Highlands Links, over on the other side of Cape Breton. But I took a cart and drove the course just to get familiar with it again. And was immediately crushed at having had to skip my round.

To be honest, I played here only once, and that was maybe 14 years ago. I remembered it was a nice course, but I didn’t remember it being this beautiful.

The first couple holes feel like a links course a bit, as the Atlantic Ocean is fairly close by on your right. The par-3 third hole is a great hole out over a river and small bay, with a green well protected by bunkers. You go inland on the seventh. But the inland holes are still a hoot; with narrow valleys and awesome views of the Cape Breton Highlands and a wonderful variety of shapes and hole styles.

Thompson punishes mediocre golfers with the tough 16 th hole, a par-5 up a hill that measures out at just 460 from the tips but looks 100 yards longer. It’s called Sair Fecht, which means hard work in Gaelic, so at least there’s truth in advertising. Thompson nicely eases up on the throttle on the par-3 17 th , a slightly downhill hole that could get tricky with the wind.

The landscaping is lush and the course was a deep, emerald green last week. Once it dries out a bit, I can’t imagine a prettier parkland-style design than this gem of a course, designed by the great Stanley Thompson. And the people at the clubhouse are just lovely.

Where the housing at Cabot Links is new and modern, you’ll get a completely different feel from the old-school style at Keltic Lodge , a handsome lodge near the town of Ingonish that’s connected to Highlands Links. Last year I stayed the night in a nice room with pretty shades of blue and taupe.

This time, I was with my family and they gave us an enormous, two-bedroom suite with a massive living area that even had a small, walk-up inside balcony with a telescope. We couldn’t take advantage given the clouds, but I would’ve been able to use it last year when I came during a glorious stretch of fall weather.

We had a pair of comfortable sofas, enough chairs for a board meeting of IBM, a microwave, huge bathtubs, comfy beds and nice views of the hotel’s expansive grounds, where the lawns are dotted with colourful Muskoka chairs.

They have a small pool out back and great walking/hiking trails and live music most nights at the pub, where we were entertained by funny stories and wonderful music. They serve good food and make some pretty nice drinks at the bar. Personally, I think the food at Keltic Lodge could use an upgrade. But the rooms are great and the setting is magical and the golf tremendous.

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