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GOLF ATRAVEL Player’s Guide

The

Ultimate

Bucket List Destination The David McLay Kidd-designed course at Laucala Island Resort in Fiji, one of the world’s most exclusive retreats, provides the ultimate escape for those in search of a truly unique golfing experience, writes Charles McLaughlin.

The spectacular third hole at Laucala Island is the longest par-5 on the course at 521 metres from the back tees 70

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Clockwise from top: a picture-perfect view of the resort, with the Peninsula villa in the foreground; a golfer is dwarfed by the majestic flora, here at the 16th; the approach to the green at the short par-5 12th is the most beautiful on the course, says the author; one of the many carved and decorated black tree fern trunks, known in Fiji as balabala 72

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s k f ive gol fers why a particular golf course is on their “bucket list” and you will likely get five different answers. Some focus on the architecture of the course. Does each hole offer a unique challenge? Does it make best use of the surrounding environment? Is it memorable? For others, location is a big factor. It’s no coincidence that the majority of world-famous layouts are situated close to large bodies of water: the Firth of Forth, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the North Sea, and so on. Whose name is associated to the course can also be a key driver. Many a good track is ignored if it doesn’t have a “Premier League”-designer’s moniker attached. Forgetting for a moment the fact that no one truly knows who designed the Old Course at St Andrews – arguably the most celebrated in the game – fanboys make a beeline for places that bear the illustrious names of notable past players or in-vogue architects, despite the fact that in a lot of cases, those names may have had little to do with the actual course save cutting the ribbon on grand opening day. (HK Golfer has it on good authority that one former top-10 player, on a visit to his newest design in China during the boom of the early 2000s, was heard to ask: “Where’s the first tee?”) Exclusivity is a factor. Let’s face it, we love it when we are doing something very, very few HKGOLFER.COM


others will ever do. Be it a round at Cypress Point, a Pro-Am with a renowned player, even dinner at the impossible-to-book restaurant, the exclusivity dynamic heightens the senses and the whole experience takes on a surreal element. Overall though, reputation is perhaps the best reason of all. Obviously all of the above features come into play, but reputation is what’s left when the hype evaporates. You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the play, the movie is over, but what is it like in the real world with feedback from real people? Look no further for the latest addition to your bucket list: Laucala Island Resort. Situated on a private island in the Vanua Levu archipelago in Fiji, it is a mere 50-minute flight from Nadi, the international gateway of these spectacular islands, on the resort’s own turboprop aircraft. The resort has become legendary among its well-heeled guests for its relaxing qualities, and that starts at your home airport when you can essentially ignore any delay to your Fiji Airways flight because your connection isn’t going anywhere without you! Should any stress remain, a welcome drink, the local band serenading you on arrival and being greeted personally by the general manager takes care of that. A member of The Leading Hotels of the World, the resort comprises just 25 bures, or villas, the work of London-based contemporary HKGOLFER.COM

designer Lynne Hunt, most of which have direct access to their own beach. Each has it’s own pool, and a truly enormous amount of internal space to wander around in. The resort stretches for almost five kilometers, which ensures you feel you have the place to yourself, but also makes the personal golf buggy a necessity. Hungry? With in-bure or on-beach dining available 24/7, there are also five restaurants, a truly staggering number given the resort’s capacity, which means it’s highly unlikely there will be any other diners in situ when you visit one. Every island activity you can think of is included – diving, sailing, windsurfing, fishing, water skiing, horseback riding, hiking – and many more besides. There is even a mini submarine for those who want an underwater tour of the surrounding lagoon. The resort boasts perhaps the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the world, with a workforce approaching 400 looking after the guests, who rarely number HK GOLFER・SEP 2015

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The resort’s mini submarine takes guests on an underwater tour of the surrounding lagoon 74

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more than a dozen or so at a time. Together with f irst-class gym and spa facilities, and jaw-dropping standards of food and service, you might feel you are living the life of a billionaire – and in fact, you are! Everything reflects the wishes of the island’s owner, Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, aka “DM”. Self-sufficiency is a key objective, and the island boasts a 240-acre farm, large hydroponic greenhouses, a huge herb garden, extensive livestock (including Wagyu cattle, various breeds of pigs, goats, quails and huge Austrian Sulmtaler chickens), as well as the obvious bounties of the surrounding crystal-clear seas. Put such superb fresh ingredients in the hands of a Executive Chef Anthony Healy and the results are simply sensational. One might think that there is going to be an enormous amount of waste having fresh ingredients available every day for any eventuality, but suffice to say the staff look happy and well fed! The ever-attentive employees will delight in telling you that “DM” visits regularly and makes use of all the facilities. He seems to understand that the best way to have everything in perfect shape for his own visits is to have a fortunate few visit the island and keep everything ticking over, the staff alert and stop Chef Healy from going stir crazy! Whilst not intended to be a hugely profitable enterprise, the room rates (you can pay anywhere between US$7,000 and US$25,000 per night) certainly goes a long way to making

the resort close to operationally breakeven. T he best food a nd d ri n k , t he f i nest accommodation, furnishings and design, firstclass activities and equipment, superbly trained staff – how could it get any better? Which brings us to the most unique thing about this isle of superlatives. Most private islands have great food, most private islands have luxury accommodation; heck, some other private islands might also have a mini submarine. But nowhere else has an 18-hole championship golf course, and certainly not one designed by David McLay Kidd. Fresh from gaining global acclaim – at least within the golf industry – through his eponymous creation at Bandon Dunes, the Scotsman was tapped to carve a world-beating course out of virgin jungle on this speck in the Pacific Ocean. The result is a surreal gem in jawdroppingly spectacular surroundings. There is a clubhouse, with lockers and shower facilities, and the fully stocked proshop has several sets of rental clubs, which you can get used to on the fully-grassed driving range. Next door is a great “19th hole”, complete with bar stools and large flat-screen TVs to watch sports. All that is missing are the golfers. I was shocked to learn that only 160 people or so play this course each year, less than one every couple of days, most accompanied by the resident pro, Tony Christie, a bubbly Kiwi and a fine player. Despite apparently not knowing HKGOLFER.COM


the way to Amarillo, he is a 3-time Fiji Open champion and as recently as last year qualified for the New Zealand Open, a prominent event on the PGA Tour of Australasia. As with everything on Laucala, this is a far higher standard than one might expect from your resort pro and their ability to attract top talent is amazing. Kidd both designed and built this course over a three-year period and spent a large part of that time on the island. His creation initially weaves through dense semi-tropical forest, into the prevailing wind, although huge elevation changes mean the ocean is never out of sight for too long. Soon the course runs alongside lagoons and it is here where players encounter a most welcome sea breeze. The views from this stretch of holes are stunning. A relaxing stop at a charming clifftop “half way hut”, which provides yet more splendid vistas over Satakoro Bay, is immediately followed by a sweep downhill to Wai Vitala Bay at the inviting par-4 10th, before swinging back inland and climbing up to the clubhouse. Each hole at Laucala has in attendance what can only be described as a guardian angel, a carved and decorated black tree fern trunk, featuring a face hewn from the wood, known in these parts as balabala. Each one is there to offer golfers protection against the spirits, and to be frank, they are rather creepy-looking things. But it is good to know that in the most individual of sports, there’s someone – or something – else on your side. Throughout, the gentle soggy thuds of my duff shots were set amidst the fantastic chirps and calls of a stunning variety of local birdlife, including some up close and personal encounters with the brilliantly coloured kingfishers that are the basis for the resort’s logo. If you are lucky, as I was, you will also be treated to the sighting of the spectacular flame dove, which is only found on this group of islands. Kidd has a deserved reputation for creating testing layouts, and some might say overly penal at times. At Laucala, he has sensibly provided a series of tee boxes that make a round from the tips a very robust challenge, albeit one which grants the finest views, while offering a more relaxing test from the forward tees. I would strongly recommend trying both, or at the very least going to the “blacks” to check out the vistas. A visit to a golf-less Laucala Island would be one of the most fantastic leisure experiences imaginable. Add on a championship golf course, in a stunning location, by a world famous designer, which almost no one else ever gets to play and this surely becomes the ultimate global destination for the golfer who has it all. You will think you have died and gone to heaven, so it is just as well you ticked Laucala Island off your bucket list first! HKGOLFER.COM

FIVE LAUCALA HIGHLIGHTS “YAKOYANI” 3rd Hole (521m, Par-5) – The views from the tee are breathtaking but you’ll need your breath back to take on this, the longest par-5 on the course. Two carefully placed shots are required, while avoiding the waterways crossing the fairway, to leave a delicate approach to one of the trickiest greens on the course. An unforgettable rollercoaster of a hole.

“KARA” 8th Hole (451m, Par-5) – The shortest par-5, but with perhaps the longest carry required off the tee. From the backs an uphill shot of around 250 yds is required to reach the fairway and climb the steep slope between two bunkers. Do that successfully and the reward is a long second to a small shallow green perched on a cliff top. This is risk-reward at its best!

“WAI VITALA” 10th Hole (272m, Par-4) – This short par-4 is perhaps the most scenic hole on the course, played downhill over a large pond with the bay all down the right. The hilltop tee box sits alongside the atmospheric ancient gravestones of the Rosa family, and appropriately, if you relax you will get buried!

“BARAVI” 12th Hole (472m, Par-5) – The approach to this short par-5 is the most beautiful on the course, with the green abutting a palm tree-lined inlet. You are encouraged to have a go, but anything long, or more likely, right will either be wet when the tide is in or require a recovery from the sand when it is out. A fantastic looking hole that sticks in the memory.

“VABABA” 15th Hole (182m, Par-3) – Perhaps a surprising choice given the embarrassment of riches here, but this par-3 is the trickiest on the course. It plays far longer than its yardage suggests and with the diagonal green running away from left to right, a fade is recommended, but this requires clubbing up. Miss the putting surface and you’ll need to conjure your inner Phil Mickelson to get up and down. A wee gem.

NEED TO KNOW CONTACT laucala.com

GETTING THERE Fiji Airways (fijiaiways.com) operates direct flights between Hong Kong and Nadi three times a week (10 hours, 10 minutes). Guests are transferred to Laucala Island via the resort’s private turboprop aircraft (50 minutes)

THE GOLF Par 72 / 6,245m, designed by David McLay Kidd

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