As a golfing destination, Costa Navarino has it all: attractive accommodation, striking scenery, fabulous food and, as I’ve written elsewhere, ecotourism at the forefront of its plans. But what about the golf?
Despite starting in the final knockings of the 19th Century, when British soldiers fashioned a rudimentary layout on Crete, the sport has struggled to gain a foothold on either the Greek mainland or islands.
There are, by most accounts, fewer than a dozen courses spread across this vast land. But with four of those nestled in one tiny corner, Costa Navarino is becoming one of the world’s leading destinations.
Its quartet of courses pepper the Peloponnese peninsula in western Greece and are among the finest on the planet. Don’t just take my word for that – the brand spanking new Jose Maria Olazabal-designed International Olympic Academy Course was voted the ‘world’s best new course’ at the 2022 World Golf Awards.Set high in the Kinigou Hills that overlook the historic Bay of Navarino, the Olympic – and Hills course (also from the Olazabal stable) – are the new additions to the Costa Navarino family, younger siblings to the Dunes and Bay courses that play more at the water’s edge. And while the babies are still finding their feet, the teenagers are maturing, settling into their surroundings.
Being under the Costa Navarino umbrella means each of the four signature courses – which are all within 13km of each other – has the same attention to detail, but each layout has its own individual feel. The International Olympic Academy Course features two distinct nines. The first is played on softly undulating terrain through olive groves. The second nine follows the edge of an inland cliff that offers a breathtaking vista.
Perched more than 200m above Navarino Bay – the scene of a defining sea battle in 1827 that led to Greek independence – the views of the Ionian Sea’s turquoise waters are idyllic, with the distant island of Sphacteria serving as a natural breakwater to make the bay one of the safest in the Mediterranean.
It offers a pleasing distraction should the golfing not be going so well. The par-3 12th and 16th holes, played in opposite directions from adjacent tees, are cases in point. Anything left on the former is dead. Anything right on the latter is dead. But then breathe in the view. And relax.
The Olympic, as is the way with many modern courses, has a variety of tees to suit all handicaps – with the layout ranging from a modest junior-friendly 4,500m, to 6,500m for professional events – but is easily the toughest of the four Costa Navarino courses.
The on-course experience is sensational and every off-course need is catered for at the fresh and bright Hills Clubhouse. While you tuck into a hearty Greek salad, with Kalamata olives the size of golf balls, your clubs will be cleaned and ferried on to the next course on your agenda. That does, of course, stop you from righting the wrongs of your putting stroke back in your hotel room. But it’s refreshing not to have to lug your clubs around, and with extensive practice facilities serving Hills and Olympic – a putting green the size of a football pitch, a chipping green with several bunkers, and a driving range wide enough to accommodate 62 players (and with jaw-dropping views into the mountains) – then we’re all allowed a little down time when the sun sets.
And when the sun rises, it’s back up into the mountains to the aptly named Hills Course.
Your clubs will already have been strapped to a buggy – walking any of the four courses is discouraged – in preparation for a scenic journey through nature, as you climb past ancient olive trees, traverse ravines and plunge through valleys.
Almost every hole is played in solitude but you need to be straight because wayward shots will join the jackals and wild boar hiding in the undergrowth. After a steady opening, the par-5 6th was a personal favourite – and not just because I hit a career-best 350-yard (wind-assisted) drive that we all agreed must have been propelled further by an out of sight cart path! The downhill 2nd shot plays to a long and narrow green which is well guarded by cavernous bunkers.
The views beyond are stunning. Despite being a neighbour of Olympic, Hills offers barely a glimpse of the sea, instead mountainous terrain dominates the landscape as the course descends to its lowest point, 75m or so below its highest. The climb back to the clubhouse begins on the demanding par-5 11th, with a lonesome tree in the middle of the fairway making you think about position off the tee, while sprawling bunkers wait to catch errant second shots fighting to make the green.
A strong run of three holes from the 15th provides an excellent end to the round. The first is a par-3 that is all carry across a ravine, if you do as we did and take a swipe for fun from the back tees. There are friendlier options. The par-5 16th climbs 25m from the tee to a green that is surrounded by deep and penal bunkers, while the 17th is a classic risk and reward dog leg with bunkers protecting the direct route. While not as challenging as Olympic, Hills has more fun moments and because of that is an excellent bedfellow.
Back down at sea level, the Dunes – which is a Bernhard Langer design – appears at first sight to be the more benign of the quartet with wide fairways, but the punishments for straying off line are severe with steep-faced pot bunkers and penal run-offs protecting undulating greens as the course takes in a mixture of waterfront and inland holes.
The Romanos and Westin hotels intertwine with the Dunes – although it is possible, of course, to play here – or at any of the courses – and stay in one of the picturesque local towns, such as historic Pylos. Outside of the clubhouse is a statue of ‘The Captain’ – Vassilis Constantakopoulos – the local man whose dream it was to bring golf and ecotourism to Messenia. The local man who spent three decades negotiating around 1,500 separate deals with farmers to fulfil his ambition.
There are still vast swathes of ancient olive groves stretching almost as far as the eye can see, but they sit comfortably alongside the new as Costa Navarino continues to expand. Greece’s first Mandarin Bay Hotel is opening in the summer of 2023. It mingles with the Bay Course and is barely visible from the roadside, with low buildings and villas embedded into the hillside.
The Bay – my favourite for its mix of playability and views – rewards a strategic round with a premium placed on accuracy off the tee as the 18 holes wind through seaside, canyon and grove landscapes. It’s a Robert Trent Jones Jr design and is 10km around the bay from Dunes, at the bottom of the slope leading up to Olympic and Hills.
The opener, like the 2nd at Dunes, sets the perfect tone. It may be relatively straightforward downhill par four, but you try hitting the perfect drive and wedge with the distraction of a millpond Ionian Sea framing the green. It’s perfect resort golf with risk-and-reward shots over water, holes that allow you the freedom to swing hard, and greens that demand creativity to find the hole. And when the going is tough, just gaze out to the bay and tip your hat to the Captain.
Costa Navarino’s stock is rising and in the eyes of some has already surpassed anything else Europe has to offer. “You might better compare it to Bandon, or Pinehurst, or Pebble Beach,” Trent Jones Jr recently said. And who am I to argue with that?
*For more information or to book a trip to Costa Navarino, visit CostaNavarino.com
*Pete Scrivener was a guest of Costa Navarino