Regional Guide: Carinthia
Warm summers, stunning landscapes and a cluster of challenging courses make Austria’s southernmost state a left-field but genuine alternative to the crush of Spain and Portugal, says Duncan Lennard.
Tell your fourball partners you are taking a golfing holiday to Austria and you can confidently expect at least one of them to ask if you might also be considering a skiing trip to Alicante. A country the size of Scotland, Austria is of course renowned for its superb, western Tyrolean landscapes that offer some of Europe’s best snowsports. But as you move east and south, the Alps begin to peter out and the golf courses grow in number.
When Austria has shown up on the golf map it has tended to be in the country’s north east, around Vienna. European Tour venue Diamond CC, host to the Lyoness Open and June’s Shot Clock Masters, is just outside the capital, as is Fontana – at 78, the country’s only entry in Golf World’s ranking of continental Europe’s top 100 courses. But further south, there is a golf hub that delivers the perfect antidote to the hustle of the Mediterranean. The southernmost state of Austria, Carinthia is a truly blessed part of Europe spanning Alpine foothills in the west, through ubiquitous and expansive forests and lakes to the lower Klagenfurt basin to the south east. Bordering Italy and Slovenia to the south, its climate and culture borrows more from the Mediterranean than the Germanic. Voted Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year by golf tour operators in 2017, its beautiful courses remain underplayed and underappreciated.
Carinthia’s layouts are scattered around the Worthersee, a slender 10-mile strip of glittering turquoise and emerald, with water so clean you can drink it. Scanning the vivid, fir-clad Alpine slopes around the lake, you half-expect to see Steve McQueen bouncing around on a motorbike. Instead you’ll come across 12 golf courses offering variety and challenge, peace and space. That we suggest you pay it a visit is as clear as the waters. When you do, here’s everything you need to know.
Where to play
Carinthia’s golf courses can broadly be split into parkland layouts occupying the flatter land around the Worthersee and more forested and hillier options to the north and west of the region – or as we have them here, Lakes or Mountains. Consequently, your choice depends on how good you are, how straight you are… and how fit you are.
The Lakes: Moosburg-Portschach GC, Finkenstein GC, Dellach and Klagenfurt-Seltenheim
A great place to start is Moosburg-Portschach GC, an immaculate parkland challenge near Velden, some 10 miles west of Carinthia’s capital Klagenfurt. Easily walked and with generous fairways protected by tall deciduous trees, the course gives you a first-rate taster of what golf in Carinthia is all about – crisp course conditioning, excellent putting surfaces, fragrant air and a constant panorama of mountain backdrops.
An alternative option to find your feet is Finkenstein GC. A few miles further west near Villach, this sets a slightly grander and tougher parkland test, stretching to some 7000 yards off the tips. Typically in excellent condition, it is a course that demands accuracy while also giving you the chance to open your shoulders.
But if these courses give the impression golf in Carinthia is relatively gentle, two sterner challenges await in Dellach and Klagenfurt-Seltenheim. The oldest course in the region, dating from the 1920s, Dellach’s fairways thread through the southern Alpine foothills to the south of the lake, in a beautiful and affluent region studded with luxurious, balconied wooden houses. The course is at you from the off, a stream running diagonally across the devious dogleg opener. From here you move into dense forest both beautiful and intimidating; fairways become so tight that, as Sam Snead put it, dogs would have to wag their tails up and down. It’s only really after the 12th, a rollercoaster of a par 5
zig-zagging its way to a green and sumptuous views of the Worthersee, that you can start to breathe. You’ll lose balls here, but love every minute.
Meanwhile, Perry Dye’s Klagenfurt-Seltenheim feels every inch the elite tournament course. Host of the Karnten Open from 2009-2012, its open landscapes belie a series of exacting golf tests – nowhere more so than at the island-green 8th, at 140 yards and with bunker short right an apparent homage to dad Pete’s 17th at Sawgrass. Fairway mounding and plenty of water give the course a rather relentless and bombastic feel, but conditioning is typically excellent and if you want to play a course guaranteed to stretch you, it has to be on your list.
The Mountains: Millstatter See GC, Bad Kleinkerchheim GC, Velden Kostenberg GC
The clubhouse at Millstatter See GC enjoys one of the best views in golf. Perched on the side of a mini-Alp, it looks across a beautiful lake which mirrors the facing snow-capped massif. Dots of clouds hang in the space in between, and at 3,000ft you don’t really have to look upwards to see them. Down below you is a velvet practice green, beyond which a rolling, shamrock-green course stretches away.
And the pro that gets to work within this Carinthian tableau every day is a Yorkshireman. “This view stays with you,” says Paul Thompson. “Back home they wonder why I’ve chosen to base my career in Austria, but if they came here in summer they’d understand. We get the Italian weather so it’s almost always nice here, even up to 22 in September and October. The courses are perfect, and never crowded. And the air is so crisp, clean and clear. It’s just unbelievably beautiful.”
There are buggies to hire here, but it seems to defeat the object somewhat. Short and tight, Millstatter See is a gorgeous hike in a stunning setting and a classically fun holiday golf course, a time to take on your driver and the pin rather than a scorecard. The severe undulation means plenty of semi-blind shots, but that won’t stop you relishing the whole experience.
A half-hour’s drive from the Worthersee. Millstatter is one of three courses set up in the mountains that are well worth the trip. Just a few miles to the east, Bad Kleinkerchheim GC greets you with the definitive babbling brook, which runs alongside the path up to the clubhouse. Set near a main ski resort, this course takes the dramatic Alpine scenery up a notch. In truth it is more inspiring than the front nine, which sweeps up and down the valley without huge imagination; but this all changes on the back nine when the course suddenly changes character. A dizzying ski-run of a fairway greets you from the elevated 10th tee, before a cheeky little par 3 through the woods provides a delicious test. The superb dog-leg-right 12th takes you out of the trees, though the forested final two provide a merciless finale.
But if you only have the time or the legs to play one mountain golf course, make it Velden Kostenberg GC. Just a short drive north of the pretty lakeside town of Velden, its fantastic holes dart and weave through thick forest and sudden magical clearings, across dramatic elevations. Almost every hole gives you the opportunity to hit a shot you will remember. A walk in the park it ain’t, and after nine holes you might feel like you’ve played all 18. But push on through the pain and you’ll be rewarded with the memory of having had the definitive Alpine golf experience. In a region of peaks, this is a definite high point.
Where to stay
At the western end of the Worthersee, the beautiful town of Velden makes a great base. Its bustling main thoroughfare, complete with casino and bars spilling out on to the street, also includes a series of so-called ‘golf hotels’ which can arrange local course introductions, tee times, green fees and transport. One of the finest is the Golf und Seehotel Engstler (www.engstler.com), a stylish and welcoming hotel with lake frontage and modern spa and fitness facilities. One of the few hotels to have its own golf pro, Engstler also boasts a small indoor range and outdoor chipping green. It’s especially handy for Velden Kostenberg, Finkenstein, Villach, Moosburg-Portschach, Dellach and Seltenheim. Finkenstein GC itself also has 10 very classy on-site suites (www.suiten-finkenstein.at) starting from €75pp.
Further north and west, into the mountains, Hotel Das Moerisch (www.moerisch.at) is an elegant and airy hotel with stunning views and lovely spa facilities. Overlooking the 6th tee of the Millstatter See course, it can even serve lunch to its golfing guests as they play past. A few miles to the east in Bad Kleinkirchheim, the four-star Hotel Trattlerhof (www.trattlerhof.at) offers a blend of yesterday and tomorrow. Dating from the 16th century, its staff wear traditional clothing while its spa offers both the latest treatments and the oldest – the cold-water, circulation-boosting kneipp paddle is regarded as the region’s first wellness treatment. With its own power generator, this eco-friendly hotel offers golf guests the chance to ride to the nearby Bad Kleinkirchheim course in a 1950s tractor or a €130,000 Tesla. The hotel has also just opened a small complex of two and three-bed chalets, just a couple of miles from the course.
Where to eat and drink
The German word “gemutlichkeit” is largely untranslatable into English, but in this part of Austria it describes an atmosphere of calmness, relaxation and belonging. And after even a short time in Carinthia, you realise how central food and drink is to this chill-out culture. “Around here people don’t go home after golf,” says Christian Kresse, CEO of the Carinthian Tourist Board. “They stay and eat.” And it’s not bacon butties and sandwiches. Most golf clubs seem to set as much store by their restaurant as their golf course, offering expansive eating areas and specialist menus full of fresh, local produce. Indeed just across the Italian border, Tarvisio GC employs a two-star Michelin chef. For this reason alone, there is often no need to venture away from the clubhouse; expect to find local favourites such as Wiener Schnitzel, Kasnudel (cheese noodles) and apfelstrudel, though the Italian influence ensures plenty of pizza and pasta. Carinthia is also trying to lead the world in so-called ‘slow food’ – made solely from unprocessed, fresh local produce. For a wonderful taste of what can be achieved, head to the hidden, perched eaterie at Sternberg, a couple of miles south of Velden Kostenburg GC. Here you can enjoy natural, fine cuisine while watching the sun setting on the 7,000ft Mittagskogel slopes.
Most of Carinthia is at altitude – even the Worthersee is some 1,500ft above sea level. This limits the playing season to April to October. The best times to play are arguably May and September, when temperatures regularly reach mid-to-low 20s Celsius. In mid summer you can expect it to nudge 30ºC, though you can also expect some rainfall even in July.
The typical green fee is around €65-€85 but you can also consider the Alpe Adria Golf Card (www.alpe-adria-golf.com/en). It offers three fees for €195, four for €260 or five for €310 at 20 local courses, with two-for-one in early and late-season.
The nearest airport is Klagenfurt, though the only direct flights from the UK are in winter. You can connect through Vienna from most airlines. The best direct option is to fly into Slovenian capital Ljubljana, around an hour’s drive south of Kalgenfurt. EasyJet, Wizz Air and Adria provide services from London and Manchester.
If you are driving in Austria or Slovenia you will need a windscreen toll sticker for the motorways. These cost €9 for 10 days. Buy online from: www.asfinag.at