Cape Kaliakra, Bulgaria
‘Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year’ in 2012, this Bulgarian region only offers three courses but, coupled with the climate and value, it’s more than enough to keep you occupied on a mini break.
While every emerging European golf destination needs a helping hand to make its mark in a mature market dominated by the likes of Spain, France, Portugal and Turkey, it was still somewhat premature of the International Association of Golf Tourism Operators (IAGTO) to award Bulgaria the title ‘Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year’ back in 2012. At the time, just a handful of golf courses existed in the country, most of which were clustered within a five-mile radius on the southern tip of a remote peninsular on the country’s Black Sea coastline.
It’s easy to understand how IAGTO was so enamoured by Cape Kaliakra, though. In addition to three first-class courses in Thracian Cliffs, BlackSeaRama and Lighthouse Golf Resort, the region boasts a beguiling landscape of deep forests, craggy outcrops and valleys sprinkled with the relics of historic fortresses. The weather is also golf-perfect for six months of the year, the value-for-money is extraordinary and the accommodation is of the highest order. Everything was in place for Bulgaria to step up and become a serious rival to neighbouring Turkey. Unfortunately, golf has been slow to catch on and, despite Thracian Cliffs hosting the Volvo World Match Play Championship in 2013, the three founding courses remain the only games in town. But that’s not necessarily bad news for the visiting golfer. We have visited Cape Kaliakra three times since 2011 and have seen continual progress in the conditioning of the golf courses, customer service and the quality of the leisure and resort amenities. Last September, we visited the region during the European Tour Senior Classic.
Day 1: Lighthouse Golf Resort
One of the key questions to address when visiting Cape Kaliakra is the order in which you should play the three golf courses. Thracian Cliffs is without doubt the headline act – a Gary Player signature design that boasts 18 holes of scintillating and, at times, quite eccentric clifftop golf. It’s comfortably also the most difficult, so it makes sense to keep the toughest and most memorable golfing challenge as your finale. That leaves a choice between Player’s second course in the area, BlackSeaRama, and Lighthouse Golf Resort.
When we last visited Cape Kaliakra in 2015, we said Lighthouse was the weakest of the trio. All things being equal – design and conditioning – it probably is…but the gap is narrowing. The resort recently joined the European Tour Properties network and, in preparation to host the European Tour Senior Classic last September, has been given a sharp makeover to the point where it was the best presented of the three courses we played.
Architecturally, Lighthouse isn’t going to set the world on fire. It’s a relatively open, parkland golf course that flows through some nice woodland and makes sporadic visits towards the coast without offering
too many full-on sea views. In that respect, it’s a bit of a tease. But the Ian Woosnam-designed layout is fun and engaging, looping around several tracts of real estate and possessing a nice mix of holes, including five very good par-3s.
Woosie’s philosophy on course design has always had playability at its core – and this is exactly what Lighthouse delivers. It is a tad under 6,800 yards off the backs but the medal tees are still plenty tough enough for most golfers. The greens complexes are interesting without being excessively contoured, bunkering is eye-catching yet not excessively penal, and there are five water hazards to hold your attention. After a relatively sedate opening few holes, the fun kicks in at the 360-yard par-4 4th, where you’re required to thread your ball through a network of water hazards to find the fairway. The 7th is the visual highlight of the round, with the Lighthouse on your right and a beautiful view of the sea beyond the green. It’s followed by a pretty short hole framed by the sea. On the back nine, the 14th is the standout hole – a 200-yard par 3 played towards the Lighthouse and where you putt out to a backdrop of fantastic views. Lighthouse closes with a long, tough, par 4 – a fitting signoff for a course that presents just the right level of challenge for visiting golfers.
Just over a decade on from its official opening, Lighthouse has progressed from supporting act to one of the main cast – a course that can comfortably hold its own. It also has the very appealing benefit of being just a gentle five-minute walk from the best hotel in the region – the Lighthouse Golf Resort & Spa.
Day 2: BlackSeaRama
When we visited Cape Kaliakra in 2015, BlackSeaRama was our No.1 choice golf course for the region. While Thracian Cliffs has the thrills, the views, the excitement and the set-your-pulse-racing holes, BlackSeaRama is a more grown-up, sensible, consistent and orthodox test of golf, and it’s a step up in design and quality from Lighthouse.
Although it flirts close to the clifftops at times, and still offers plenty of delightful Black Sea vistas, the course largely traverses more sedate topography. This actually works in BlackSeaRama’s favour since the opportunity to work with a relatively blank canvas enabled Gary Player to craft 18 very solid golf holes. Despite the fact that the surrounding landscape is fairly flat, enough earth was moved during construction to shape an interesting and varied layout that possesses a level of maturity unexpected from a course that is only a decade old. As you would expect from a modern championship layout, BlackSeaRama off the tips comes in at over 7,300 yards but plentiful tee options make it eminently playable.
For the astute golfer observant and interested enough to look beyond background aesthetics, the main attraction of BlackSeaRama is its technical challenge. There are a handful of jaw-droppingly beautiful holes – notably around the closing stretches of both nine-hole loops – but it’s the dogged hole-after-hole consistency that is most impressive. While Lighthouse’s challenges are largely gentle, at BlackSeaRama the doglegs are a little more challenging and punitive, the bunkering is more aggressive and the greens a little more contoured and difficult to access. You walk off the 18th green feeling that your game and your strategy have been examined as thoroughly as they would have been at, say, The Grove, East Sussex National or The Belfry. In other words, it’s a solid, honest test of golf without hitting too many ultra high-pitched notes.
As is the case with all three of the courses in the Cape Kaliakra region, BlackSeaRama’s elevated location means that wind can play a significant role in your ability to score, especially on the bluff-side holes. When the course tracks inland and the breezes ease off, water hazards take up the slack, as you’re directed into a demanding trio of closing holes – a mid-length, water-flanked par 4, a three-shot par 5 to an infinity green and an all-or-nothing par 3 over the cliff edge to a green that’s half-protected by sand and heather-banked slopes.
So while BlackSeaRama perhaps lacks the jaw-dropping appeal of Thracian Cliffs, its greater technical challenge means it is a strong challenger for Golf World Continental Europe Top 100 honours in the future.
Day 3: Thracian Cliffs
Nothing, and we mean nothing, can adequately prepare you for the assault on the senses that awaits you over the course of your four-hour golfing immersion at Thracian Cliffs. Built on a slender peninsular on the southeastern most tip of Cape Kaliakra, the course climbs its way up and down a cambered cliff edge with every hole giving you an unobstructed view of the blissfully tranquil Black Sea. If you’re struggling for perspective, think Old Head of Kinsale meets Kingsbarns.
The beautiful vistas alone are worthy of the green fee, but it’s a testament to the design quality of Thracian that aesthetics don’t tell the full story of the playing experience. Although the topography was
no doubt fiddly, awkward and restrictive, Gary Player and his design team have managed to throw in pretty much every architectural trick in the book to ensure that your 18-hole journey gives you a huge adrenaline jolt.
Your opening tee shot sees you play down a fairly narrow and half-submerged corridor but this is the only time in the round where you get any sense of restriction or where there’s anything ‘pedestrian’ about a tee shot. As you reach your ball, the hole and the rest of the golf course open out in front of you. To the right you have the millpond-like Black Sea with a stream of ant-like oil tankers in the distance. To the left, slithers of green fairway sashay their way along bright white cliff faces. As you follow this kaleidoscopic trail, you’re treated to elevated tees and greens, do-or-die par-3s, sprawling bunker complexes, infinity greens and split fairways.
Like an illusionist who uses sleight of hand to distract you, Player’s enticing visuals steer your attention away from what is, in actual fact, a very severely sloping tract of land. Well placed bunkers make a valiant effort in helping keep you out of the big trouble, but lost balls is a price most golfers will inevitably have to pay for errant ball-striking. The opening stretch of holes plays close enough to the cliff edge to make a slicer’s heart rate skip a beat, while the home stretch on slightly higher ground gives heather-laden mounds an opportunity to intimidate you as you make a links-style 180-degree turn towards the clubhouse.
Shortly after he put the finishing touches to his design, Gary Player in typically understated fashion, described Thracian Cliffs as the ‘Pebble Beach of Europe’. While it’s a little bit of a stretch, Thracian provides the kind of dramatic golf that make it a must-play experience. Fabulous on-site accommodation rounds off a deeply impressive resort.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the five-star Lighthouse Golf Resort & Spa in Balchik, a five-minute stroll from the clubhouse and 1st tee. The resort offers luxury villas with sea, forest or lake views and 60 serviced apartments. There’s a selection of great bars and restaurants, including Heros’ Beach Bar, which hosts BBQ evenings, Fouquet’s Restaurant, which specialises in steak and seafood, and the clubhouse, which boasts superb sea and course views. Thracian Cliffs also has a range of luxury apartments and suites adjacent to the golf course – The Marina Village and the newer Hillside Village. There are on-site restaurants, water sports, a spa and a swimming pool.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
As you might expect, seafood is the cuisine of choice in the region. Service can be a little bit hit and miss from restaurant to restaurant, although standards are improving. Both Lighthouse and Thracian Cliffs serve fine clubhouse and restaurant food, but for a real taste of Bulgaria you should sample some of the smaller, family-owned restaurants. Dalboka Mussels Farm offers mussels, mussels and more mussels in an exquisite, although tricky to reach, location overlooking the sea. The village-style boutique restaurant Escargot serves premium French cuisine at an extremely attractive price.
WHEN TO GO
You can expect warm weather from the middle of May to the middle of October – and could easily get lucky with a week of warmth earlier and later in the year. July and August will be very hot. However, temperatures slide south quickly outside of these dates.
Wizz Air offers direct flights from Luton Airport to Varna International Airport, which is about an hour’s drive from Cape Kaliakra. Flight time is around three-and-half hours and prices start from £60 when booked in advance. Flying from other regional airports in the UK invariably means a stopover and higher flight prices. It is also possible to fly to Istanbul and drive to Varna (approximately four hours). www.wizzair.com.
BOOK YOUR TRIP
BlackSeaRama www.black searama.com