Costa Navarino: Golf in the land of the Gods 

Costa Navarino Golf
Costa Navarino stretches out along the breathtaking Peloponnese peninsula

Costa Navarino stretches out along the breathtaking Peloponnese peninsula, once the playground of Greek Gods and heroes. Myths and legends brought to life by some of Europe’s earliest communities in these parts have enthralled and inspired mere mortals for centuries. 

The ancient Palace of Nestor, nestled in the hills overlooking the idyllic Ionian Sea in this stunning corner of south-west Greece is a reminder of one such tale featuring King Nestor of Pylos, grandson of sea god Poseidon. 

Today, though, the Peloponnese peninsula has become a playground of golfing Gods. Not so much myth, but certainly legends. Their part in some of Europe’s most significant Ryder Cup teams; have enthralled and inspired mere mortals for decades. Germany’s Bernhard Langer and Spaniard José María Olazábal were among those heroes and they have been at the forefront of helping turn this corner of Greece into a must-visit destination – and not just for the golf.

Costa Navarino Golf - Hills Course
The Hills Course offers some stunning views. Credit: Jacob Sjoman

Costa Navarino was the dream of ‘The Captain’ – Vassilis Constantakopoulos – a local boy who rose from deckhand to shipping magnate and vowed to regenerate what was a deprived and often overlooked area into an eco-friendly luxury retreat.

It took him three decades to acquire the land in Messinia, negotiating around 1500 individual deals with farmers, while promising jobs for those living in the local communities. He lived just long enough to see the opening of the Robert Trent Jones Jr sculpted Bay Course, which followed the now decade-old five-star Romanos and Westin hotels, that serve the Dunes – a course signed off by two-time Masters champion Langer. And since ‘The Captain’ passed away, development has continued.

Costa Navarino Golf
The Bay Course’s brand new earth-sheltered clubhouse. Credit: Jacob Sjoman

The W Costa Navarino at Navarino Waterfront and the first Mandarin Oriental to hit Greece – with private villas camouflaged into the hillside – are the newest accommodation additions to the growing destination.

They complement two new Costa Navarino golf courses – Hills and International Olympic Academy – set high in the Kinigou Hills above Navarino Bay. Olazabal, who also has two Green Jackets in his wardrobe, is to thank for those.

Each of the four signature courses has its own distinct feel. The Dunes appears to be the more benign, 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.

Costa Navarino Golf
The stunning Dunes Course at Costa Navarino. Credit: Jacob Sjoman

The Bay Course rewards a strategic round with a premium placed on accuracy off the tee. The sea views are simply sensational as the 18 holes wind through seaside, canyon and grove landscapes.

The aptly named Hills takes you on 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.

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 a cliff that offers a breath-taking vista of Navarino Bay.  It is no surprise it was voted the best new golf course at the 2022 World Golf Awards, while Costa Navarino picked up a gong for best emerging golf destination.

It is impossible to not be blown away by the sheer scale and ambition of the project, with permits being sought for a fifth Costa Navarino golf course and at least two more hotels. It does, however, beg the question as to whether this level of development is sustainable for the environment? It’s a hot topic in golf, as hot as a Greek summer. Costa Navarino is clearly striving to be the best in class and plans to become carbon neutral by 2030. The whole project is rooted in the ideals laid down by The Captain, who was a passionate environmental activist in the 1970s and it was his idea to set up and fund the Navarino Environmental Observatory to study the effects of climate change in the Mediterranean.

Costa Navarino Golf
The International Olympic Academy Golf Course is designed José María Olazábal. Credit: Jacob Sjoman

There have been quick wins like removing single use plastic bottles and replacing the fleet of gas guzzling minibuses that ferry golfer between hotel and course is also high on the agenda. But Costa Navarino is also rising to the bigger challenges. Water management is key. The golf courses are irrigated by their own reservoirs, which are filled with run-off water heading seawards from the coastal hills and highly treated recycled water from their own wastewater plant. The courses are seeded with hard-wearing Bermuda grass which requires 30% less water than on average, while the plants and shrubs that border the course are of similar dependence and weather-monitoring stations calculate the optimum amount of liquid required at specific times.

The commitment to the sustainable development of land that had been devastated by fires in 2007 extends to the five-star hotels and villas that are as opulent and welcoming as you’d expect. Local specialists used local materials and planted roof gardens that both insulate and cool the interiors, while also helping settle the hotels in their landscape. And more than 7,000 olive trees have been relocated and one million shrubs planted as part of the biggest transplanting program attempted in Europe.

Costa Navarino golf
The views across Costa Navarino. Credit: Jacob Sjoman

A host of new independent restaurants, cafes, bars and shops selling locally-made produce will populate Agoras – Greek gathering places – at each hotel site, further bedding the development into the community. And there is a real commitment to protect and preserve the ecosystems that line the coast. If you’re lucky, you may be at Romanos or Westin when the loggerhead sea turtles arrive to nest on the beach, or when their young hatch and scurry down to the sea.

TEMES, the umbrella organisation set up by The Captain to look after tourism investments of which Costa Navarino is the flagship, works with the Sea Turtle Protection Society in Greece, to ensure both are left undisturbed. The location of buildings, low intensity lights and the planting of shrubs are all designed to encourage mothers to lay their eggs and not disorientate hatchlings.

And for those who don’t want to spend every waking hour on the golf courses – yes these people do exist – there are numerous swimming pools (many of which are private and attached to rooms and villas), basketball and padel courts and a tennis coaching centre, helping to make this a family-friendly destination.

Just up the coast is Gialova lagoon, home to Europe’s only population of African chameleons. It also features 271 species of birds and is one of the continent’s most significant wetlands. Again TEMES is active in protecting the habitat. In the opposite direction is the town of Pylos, with its ruined fort guarding the bay that witnessed a famous sea battle in 1827 where Britain, France and Russia pulled together to defeat Ottoman and Egyptian forces and ultimately set Greece on the path to independence. Two hours to the north is Olympia and the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games. The peninsula is littered with distractions to keep everyone happy. All are positive ticks.

Olympia Greece
Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games

There must be a downside, right? Until recently, that would be the journey to Costa Navarino golf paradise. A four-hour flight from the UK to Athens followed by a three-hour transfer to the coast is nobody’s idea of fun. But the Constantokopoulos family is a significant shareholder in Aegean Airways and surely it is no coincidence that the previously provincial airport at Kalamata, a much more palatable 45-minute drive from Costa Navarino, is now attracting flights from across Europe.

It’s also attracting footballing royalty in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, who reportedly dropped a hefty tip after a recent stay, while the Greek God of basketball Giannis Antetokounmpo is also a visitor. 

So perhaps it’s time to widen your view of the traditional European golfing landscape. Spain and Portugal are wonderful but maybe it’s time to create your own myths and legends on a Greek odyssey.

Peter is the golf editor of the BBC Sport website and has covered the biggest tournaments in the world at a number of the game's great venues. In his career as a sports journalist, Peter has also covered Olympic Games and Football World Cups but golf is his real passion.

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