Cabot Links opened in 2012 and caused a buzz in the golf world as Canada’s first and only true links course. This is the original type of golf course design, dating to the origins of the game, found in such venerable tracts as St. Andrews and Turnberry. Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland boast most of the planet’s links. Traditionally they were built on sandy oceanfront land exposed to the salt and wind. Some links have minimal views of the sea and are as flat as pancakes; others run alongside the ocean with towering dunes. The vast majority of courses calling themselves links are not; authentic links constitute less than one percent of all courses on earth, yet this small collection includes nearly half of the best courses in existence.
Then in 2015, Cabot Cliffs was added and after my first round, I vowed that if Cape Breton’s newest seaside links sensation wasn’t ranked the number one golf course in Canada, if not North America, I’d eat my putter. I was right! The accolades came rolling in.
Whatever your definition of links golf, there is no doubt that both Cabot Links and Cliffs are the “real McCoys.” They occupy a sandy coastal site that drains exceptionally well, resulting in firm, fast fairways. Trees are few and far between allowing them to be scoured by wind. There are plenty of deep pot bunkers, and in almost all cases, approaches to greens are unobstructed, promoting bump-and-run shots. Greens are firm and hard to hold with lofted shots.
Formed more by Mother Nature than man, the original links along the coast of Scotland were the game’s crucibles, where golf as we know it was born. In the hearts and minds of golf purists, they are the only real and true courses—all others are imitations. How fitting that the game that was born in Scotland traversed the ocean and took root in Inverness, Cape Breton, first settled by Highland Scots in the 1800s and still a place with strong Celtic traditions.
The folks who own Cabot Links (Toronto-born Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser of the highly ranked Bandon Dunes in Oregon) hired the acclaimed team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design their second course. Global Golf Post described Cabot Cliffs as, “Pebble Beach on steroids.” However, the maximum green fee for Cabot Cliffs from June to October in 2016 was $185 for resort guests and $215 for non-resort players. Compare that to Pebble Beach’s rates hovering around $500 U.S. Canada’s true links are also true bargains.
Golf architect Bill Coore remarked about his design of Cabot Cliffs, “the greatest curse in life is extreme potential.” His partner, Ben Crenshaw added, “We’ve seen a lot of golf courses, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier sight than this one right here. Right on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it’s got gorgeous undulations and the movement of the ground is graceful.”
Indeed, the fairways tumble and twist down from a forested glade high above the sea. They meander up and over dunes, cross meadows and ravines and skirt ragged cliffs. There’s an empathetic harmony between the golf course design and the rollicking terrain—an ebb and flow with endless sea views. And although there’s no lack of WOW factor, a romp over Cabot Cliffs feels natural. There’s a rhyme, a reason and a natural rhythm to this masterpiece.
Standing on the first tee at Cabot Cliffs, inhaling the briny air, watching the russet fescue swaying in the breeze, I wonder if I’ve been transported to Scotland. Furthermore, that round island out in the Gulf sure looks like Ailsa Craig, a massive dome-shaped rock out in the ocean near Turnberry in Scotland. It’s uncanny.
“Is Mike Keiser so rich that he can afford to tow the Ailsa Craig across the Atlantic Ocean?” quipped another golf writer. No, the locals call this Ailsa clone Margaree Island (it’s real name is Sea Wolf).
There’s not a weak hole at Cabot Cliffs and many you will never forget. Number six, a par-three 186-yard gem that resembles something you’d play in the British Isles. The green is positioned in the bowl of a cluster of dunes—memories of the Dell at Lahinch in County Clare, Ireland.
What differentiates Cabot Cliffs from typical Old World links courses is that along with the ocean, fescue, craggy bunkers and dunes, you will encounter a forest starting on the spectacular seventh hole, plus the most intimidating tee shot on the course with a forced carry that looks longer than it really is.
On the par-three, 14th, a huge rock outcropping surrounded by bunkers to the right of the green stands ready to deflect any errant shots. The designers could have bulldozed this rocky attraction out but wisely opted to make it an integral part of the design.
The most photographed parts of Cabot Cliffs are the green at 16 and the tees at 17, both located on jagged, windswept promontory. Number 17 is a cliff-hanging drivable par-four. Once you tee off over the chasm, the roll of the fairway propels your Titleist towards the green. Birdie this one and you’ll be on cloud nine.
I think the first course, Cabot Links, is now even better due to new routing. The first four holes were previously numbers six to nine. Actually, the present routing was in the original plan. Now the first hole offers a gentler handshake to your round and if you only want to play nine holes, you now finish back at the clubhouse.
In keeping with true links traditions, Cabot Links is planted from tees-to-greens with 100-percent fescue. Drop your first putt and you’ll be rewarded with the sound of it clinking into a tin cup. You don’t have to hire a caddy, but we recommend doing so the first time playing both tracks. Our caddies, Steve and Keith, locals from Inverness, gave us lots of valuable tips, especially about how to negotiate the cleverly contoured greens. They also provided local colour. Commenting on one of my badly struck shots, Keith remarked, “That’s what we call a mother-in-law. It looked good leaving but didn’t go far enough.”
Unless you have a medical condition, you do have to walk both courses. And what a joy that is, especially around numbers five and six that play around MacIsaac’s Pond where lobster and crab boats bob in the harbour. Numbers 14 to 16 play right along the beach. With luck you’ll spot dolphins or whales while you practice your bump-n-runs, plus every other shot in the book. Number 14, a nod to the famed seventh at Pebble Beach, is a short 100-yard, par-three with a downhill pitch to a peninsula green jutting into the water.
The philosophy at Cabot is similar to that at Bandon Dunes. Nothing supersedes the fantastic golf experience. That said, guests enjoy well-designed rooms with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Cabot Links and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Stenciled on every door are clever quotes by famous golfer characters. Mine, by Harry Vardon, reads, “Don’t play too much golf. Two rounds a day are plenty.” The heavenly Beltrami bed linens are custom-made for the resort in Italy. Amenities such as walk-in rain showers, l’Occitane toiletries and Nespresso coffee machines all add up to a top-notch resort experience.
In addition to the 60 rooms, two-and-four-bedroom villas are for sale. These units are also available in the rental program. Each villa is totally equipped with top end appliances, tasteful furniture and state-of-the-art kitchens and bathrooms.
The management team fully intends to make Cabot Links a world-class golf destination where everything, including the cuisine, scores a “ten out of ten.”
John Haines and Tracy Wallace, Cabot’s husband/wife chef team, both born in nearby Antigonish, are fully committed to the owners’ lofty mandate. John was trained in the classical French style. Tracy is self-taught and brings a more modern dynamic to her dishes. They make absolutely everything from scratch and butcher every piece of fish caught daily in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Meat and poultry are sourced locally and most produce comes from their spring-fed garden.
Everything is good, but some dishes are outstanding. The award-winning chowder will never go off the menu. Some guests, including yours truly, request it for breakfast. The lobster ravioli is so rich and decadent it should be illegal. Go for it.
Panorama is the main restaurant, but now you can enjoy casual fare until the wee hours at the recently opened the Cabot Public House on the property. They bought a Moretti Forni, the Italian “Lamborghini” of pizza ovens. Specialties include thin crust Italian-style pizzas and local craft beers. The Downstreet Coffee Company on the main street of Inverness, serves baked goods, coffees made by baristas, soups, sandwiches and some specialty items such as truffle and olive oils. It’s a great spot to mingle with the locals over an espresso and scone. You can also buy a fresh baguette and fixings to take a picnic to the beach. Who could have ever guessed that Inverness, a former coal mining outback, would become a world-class golf destination with cappuccino baristas and truffle oil on the main street?
At the end of a memorable day on the links, tucking into some fabulous seafood in the Panorama restaurant, watching the sun slide into the St. Lawrence while the last golfers sink their putts on number 18, is about as good as it gets. The folks at Cabot Links deliver golf as it was meant to be played and life as it was meant to be lived. Put it on your bucket list.
Anita Draycott is a Canadian freelance travel journalist, editor and photographer who specializes in golf, food and spas. Her column, Fairways to Heaven, appears bi-monthly at travelindustrytoday.com.
Anita is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Travel Media Association of Canada, Golf Journalists Association of Canada and The A Position. A self-confessed golf addict, she has chased dimpled white balls over six continents.