There are a myriad of golf courses that claim to have a sea view on every hole, but perched on cliff tops overlooking the Black Sea, Thracian Cliffs is one of the few that can really deliver on that promise, and then some!
I don’t get to go on so many trips anymore; we have a team of highly proficient journalists who can do that job. At least that’s what they tell me every time a new and exciting location needs to be visited, and I fall for it every time. “No, leave this trip to the Bahamas to us,” I hear them say! Well, not this time. I’m off to one of my favourite golf resorts: Thracian Cliffs, Bulgaria. Best just to keep quiet about it!
Myself and a collection of fellow journalists and tour operators fly out with Whizz Air from Luton Airport direct to Varna on the Black Sea coast, an easy three hours. Darkness has fallen when we disembark, that warm, Mediterranean-style darkness that is experienced in the UK only at the height of summer. Once on the ground, we have a 30-minute drive to the resort.
This most southern of the Eastern European countries has, in my opinion, so much to offer, with so many terrains and climates squashed into one country. Some areas have remained virtually unchanged for over a hundred years, whilst resorts like Thracian Cliffs have embraced the notion of uniqueness like a long lost brother. Here is a resort that offers golf, beach and spa to name but the most obvious of choices, where families and groups that include both golfers and non-golfers will be equally content.
ARRIVAL. We are met by the General Manager, Claudio Marini, and taken directly to the resort's main restaurant, located in the marina village and with views out to sea. Great food, excellent Bulgarian wine and a room full of journalists -- I do wonder how the golf will be in the morning!
The next day, after breakfast, with blue skies and every chance of obtaining that annoying suntan which will make us stand out on our return, we head off to two other golf courses that are located only a few minutes’ drive away: BlackSeaRama and the Lighthouse.
The tour operators in our party are to play nine holes at the Lighthouse while we journalists will play nine holes at BlackSeaRama. Then, in the afternoon, we swap over. Nobody seems too much the worse for wear apart from me, which leads me to believe that my colleagues obviously have more stamina.
STRATEGIC THINKING. BlackSeaRama, like Thracian Cliffs, is a Gary Player course. While not as challenging, there is enough here to keep most people on their toes. Starting off with a nice par-5 to get you into the swing of things, it’s not until the fourth hole that you need to start thinking strategically. Something which seems to go against my death or glory approach.
This is a par-4 dogleg left with lots of water down the left hand side and, with a slice like mine, it’s inevitable that I lose a ball (or two). The fifth and sixth both make good use of that same water hazard, as if you need reminding. The penultimate hole is the only par-3 of the front nine, while the ninth is a gorgeous par-5 with a green protected by bunkers both on the approach and to the right.
We end our tour of the front nine contented, although it is a shame that the view of the sea is blocked in places by a development of villas. Sitting back on the terrace and talking to various other golfers, we find out that the back nine are the most scenic holes; it's rather a shame that they did not choose to let us play those.
THE LIGHTHOUSE. After some lunch we switch with our tour operator colleagues and play the Lighthouse, a course designed by Ian Woosnam. It starts off with a comfortable par-4 to set the mood. It's at the sixth that water comes into play again and, unfortunately for me, on the left side of the fairway. I do like par-3's and the eighth is particularly nice, with raised tees and a shot to a concealed green.
Now it must be remembered that these courses are easier than Thracian Cliffs, and as such, are quite nice places to while away some time. But you see, I am a bit of a kamikaze golfer. I would rather go down in a blaze of glory on an amazingly difficult course with fantastic views than play it safe somewhere that will make me look good. And it’s worth keeping this in mind while reading this, because if you want nice courses that you can play without too many surprises, the first two are perfect. But come on! Who wants to play safe all the time?
THRACIAN CLIFFS. For me, this Gary Player course is an adventure. Yes, I am going to lose an eye-watering number of golf balls, and yes, there will be time spent rummaging around in the rough, mumbling to myself while tentatively counting how many I have left. But I really don’t care, because this course just inspires and captivates me.
Take the very first hole, for example, a par-4 from a raised tee down to the green below in the valley, cliffs on your left and the sea and a long drop on your right. What could be better? This course is a story told over eighteen chapters.
Each hole has something to say, an adventure to be experienced. There are blind par-4’s that will keep you guessing as to whether you are safe until you finally walk over the brow of the hill, and par-3’s that tempt and confuse you with a shot from high above the green. All in all, especially on your first attempt, it’s best to just relax and enjoy the amazing views.
BIG DROP. The signature sixth hole, a par-3 from high up on the cliff down to a green 40 metres below, is a challenge for anyone. I could quite happily spend several hours here with a big bucket of golf balls. When the drop down is further than your drive, you just know that it’s going to take more than one shot to nail it. And what a view!
This is closely followed by hole number seven, a par-4 from a small island in the sea with a long carry over water. You then follow this with a shot to the green on the hill above. Oh, and with trees in front, just to make it harder.
For some reason, the twelfth really grabs my attention. Once on the green, unless you have managed to get over the brow of the hill on your drive, there is a blind shot to the green, which is hidden in between an outcrop of rock on the right and thick undergrowth on the left.
The course finishes with a par-3 over a lake; my fellow golfers and I are the last group in so we have a large audience watching from the bar just up from the green. I am relieved that my ball lands slightly long on the other side of the green. It would not do to land in the water with such a critical audience!
THE SPA. That afternoon, we are invited to try out the spa, and after a busy morning on the course, what could be better? I am treated to a wonderful back massage, but for me it’s the chance of a good steam in the Hammam that really appeals. This is the perfect way to loosen those stiff muscles.
With a heady mix of Thracian and Moroccan styles, you really do not need to look for excuses to visit. Traditional Bulgarian products are used, including the famous rose oil from the Kazanlak Valley, L. bulgaricus yogurt, Mavrud grapes from the Southern Thracian region and, of course, that famous and all-soothing Black Sea healing mud.
A DIP IN THE SEA. A little later, I decide to take a trip to Argata Beach, one of two stretches of beautiful white sand located within the resort. This beach is perfect for those wanting to relax. Bendida is the larger of the beaches at almost two kilometres in length.
There is an excellent restaurant located here and a distinctly Moroccan theme in general. As it’s rather late in the season, I have the beach to myself so after a dip in the sea, I relax in one of the hammocks and spend a good half an hour dozing before heading back to my room.
THE FINAL DAY. Before we begin our return journey to the UK, I spend the final morning touring the resort. The course itself is truly spectacular, and with the beach and spa onsite, along with the restaurants and so many other opportunities, there is plenty to do.
For anyone looking for that all-important holiday bolthole, tasteful villas and apartments are being built. I have to say that it is a real joy to see that neither the course nor the properties are in conflict with each other. In a location like this, all too often, either the properties block the view of the sea from the course or vice versa. But, because the resort is built on cliffs, the properties are set further back and higher, giving them the advantage of views not only out to sea, but over the course as well.
And what does the future hold for Thracian Cliffs? A new hotel and marina are already in the planning stage. From what I have seen, there could be new Thracian treasures on the most beautiful stretch of the Black Sea coast.