For most golfers, Portugal and Spain are familiar haunts. Even Turkey seems somewhat banal these days. So where else can you go within three hours flying time to play great golf and get a suntan? You may want to add Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast to your list...
I know Bulgaria well, having spent a fair amount of time here in the past, and I can see the possibilities that it has to offer. Most countries have suffered in the economic downturn, but somehow Bulgaria seem to have managed to keep its head above water even as more established neighbours such as Greece have slowly sunk into the dark depths of economic meltdown.
When I first visited back in 2006, this was a land of contradictions. Crumbling Soviet era construction mixed in with beautiful traditional Bulgarian buildings. The few cars that you did see on the roads were Ladas and Trabants. Now you are more likely to find 4x4's, although there are still plenty of horse and carts to watch out for.
Bulgaria is a cornucopia of differing landscapes and environments, from sweeping mountain ranges to wide open plains. The summers are long and hot and the winters are short and cold. One thing has always seemed certain to me; this is a land that is perfect for the development of golf courses to match and even exceed many of the more well known locations.
Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort. Designed by the legendary Gary Player, Thracian Cliffs Signature Course is truly inspirational. The way that it fits naturally into its surroundings is almost seamless. The course runs over two wide ridges set into the Black Sea cliffs with the front nine on the lower, then doubling back for the back nine on the higher ridge. You have the feeling that whatever hole you play, the sea is only a short distance away.
The resort derives its name from the Thracian civilization that lived in an area stretching north from Istanbul, Turkey to the Bulgarian/Romanian border. They left their mark in gold and treasure that is being discovered to this day. Thracian troops are known to have accompanied neighbouring ruler Alexander the Great on his conquests.
Important year. I arrive on a warm evening in late September. Thracian Cliffs is located on the Black Sea Coast just 30 minutes north of Varna and close to the village of Kavarna. Nearby are two more courses, The Lighthouse and Black Sea Rama which make this corner of Bulgaria a one-stop golf location. 2013 is an important year for the resort as they have been chosen to host the Volvo Match Play Championships.
I announce my arrival and check in to the apartment that has been reserved for me, and as I'm hungry after my journey, the next stop is the Geti Restaurant. To sit outside on the open terrace, looking out to sea with a glass of red wine and quite possibly the best food I have ever had in Bulgaria, is a real joy. Tomorrow I play some golf, but tonight I am content to sit back and soak up the atmosphere.
On the Course. The next day after breakfast I head out. The sun is shining and it looks to be a perfect day. On arrival at the first hole I find Jordan Borisov, the golf pro, chatting to two golfers preparing to tee off. This is a par-4 with a raised tee and quite limited views down the fairway, especially from the back tees. From what I can gather, Jordan is advising them to tee off from the white, but they seem to have other ideas and head for the black.
We both watch as these two distinctly average players take aim. Both of their shots curve off to the right and disappear into the bushes at the top of the cliffs. As they head off to discover just exactly where they might have gone, Jordan leans over to me and whispers, "They may be some time."
We walk over to the front of the tee and watch in fascination as they rummage through the thick Bulgarian undergrowth in what seems to be a vain attempt to retrieve their balls. One thing I have already noticed about the course: with the front nine having the sea to the right, the chances for a lefty such as myself ending up in the water are much more limited. In some places I even have a cliff to bounce off - happy days!
Having a good day. I make no attempt at heroics and, being fully aware of my capabilities, tee off from the white. Thus, I am rewarded with a shot that lands on the left side of the green and slightly behind a large mound. By this time, the two golfers in front of me have moved on to the second hole. I hope that they have stocked up with golf balls if they are insistent on playing off the back tees.
I now have a nice straightforward shot with a nine iron and am rewarded by landing on the green. Two shots later and I have a par on my scorecard. This course is being nice to me and I can see that today is going to be a good day.
Cliffhanger. On to the next hole, the sea is on my right and the white cliffs are rising majestically to my left. About a kilometre off shore I can see what appears to be a set of posts sticking out of the water. I am reliably informed that it's an Oyster Farm. I must remember to order some for supper at the restaurant.
On arrival at the sixth hole I have a real surprise. At 211 metres from the back tee, this is the longest of the par-3´s, but with a 40 metre drop to the green below it can play a little shorter. The green is cut out of the cliff edge and protected by the sea on the right and scrub to the left.
This is no place for dramatics; a simple straight shot to the green is what is required. I quickly check to make sure that the two golfers in front of me are not down below hunting through the bushes and quietly begin to chant my mantra, "there is no water, there is no sea." I strike the ball and watch in wonder as it sails off and disappears into the blue ocean. I have the feeling that it will not be alone down there. Ah well, let's just say that was a practice
Next to the sea. On to the seventh! Just when I thought that I was safe, I meet what could be my nemesis. This hole is a par-4 with a stroke index of 3. From the black tee this is a real test of mettle. To reach the green you must aim over the sea and avoid the cliff wall close by on your left. From the white tees the distance is shorter but the effect is just the same. I land on the green, much to my relief, and make short work of finishing the hole.
Soon the front nine are behind me and I move on to the tenth. I'm having an absolutely wonderful time. From the back nine, the views are just as stunning and even though you are slightly further away from the water, you still have the feeling that you are right next to the sea. Each hole has its own set of challenges, whether it's a tee shot over scrub to the fairway or a precise shot to the green.
Bogey and a beer. On to the fifteenth which is a real joy; a par-3 from an elevated tee, this hole requires concentration and accuracy to land on the green and not spend the rest of the day in the thick undergrowth.
Seventeen and eighteen are where water comes into play in the form of a lake. For the seventeenth, which is a long par-5, you have to be careful - especially the big hitters - as the water runs along the left hand side of the fairway and green. My round is completed on the eighteenth, a superb par-3 across the lake.
There is plenty of room on this hole to land behind the green, with the added luxury of a bank. Better a long putt than a swim. I overshoot and land on the bank behind the green. My round ends with a bogey but I am happy on the whole with my performance. I retire to the clubhouse for a well deserved beer.
On the beach. For non-golfers and also returning heroes from the course, don't forget to visit the beach. This is after all a Golf and Beach Resort. You have a choice of Bendida beach which is open to the public, and Argata beach which is purely for guests. With hammocks set along the shoreline, you could be mistaken for thinking that you were in the Caribbean. Complete with a wooden Jacuzzi set under the olive trees, a bar, and barbeque/restaurant, you can relax and watch the sunset.
Thracian Spa. After a day on the golf course, or even just because you deserve it, I can recommend a visit to the Spa at the resort. You can soothe those muscles with Bulgarian specialities such as Kazanlak Valley rose oil, traditional herbs and honey or Black Sea healing mud. Or perhaps even a traditional Moroccan Hammam.
We Brits have been pouring into Bulgaria for years but we seem to have not got the memo about Thracian Cliffs. Could we just possibly be missing one of the best courses in Europe? Over a coffee the next morning with the resort managers, Sandrina and Perry Einfeldt, I put the question to them.
"The Russians and other Eastern Europeans are very used to coming to the Black Sea for their holidays," says Sandrina. "So naturally they visit and also buy properties here. Being German, we tend to attract the German golfers. Our goal now is to increase the visits from countries such as the UK." Things are afoot for the further expansion of Thracian Cliffs in the form of a Marina, Luxury Hotel, villas, and further apartments.
I depart after a wonderful couple of days. The golf course has been a delight to play and I am keen to return again, the sixth hole being one I want to improve on. Yes, it's a course that will test you, but it does also give you the opportunity to play to your level and as long as you don't try any heroics, no one should leave here discouraged. And if you do visit and find two golfers still hunting around in the undergrowth, smile, wave and move on to the next hole.
Good to know
You can fly direct to Varna with Bulgaria Air from London Heathrow and Whizz Air from Luton. EasyJet flies to Sofia, where it is possible to catch a connecting flight to Varna which takes about 45 minutes.
Car hire is available through Avis at both Varna and Sofia airports.
Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort
9656 Bouzhuretz Village,
Kavarna (next to Cape Kaliakra)