BY ANDREW WOOD
Is there really world-class golf in Slovenia? A friend asked me incredulously? “Yes, indeed there is,” I said, “Just head straight to Royal Bled.” While the three-hour motorway journey into town from either Venice or Trieste, Italy, is a breeze, with very little traffic and no speed camera’s, it still won’t be easy to head straight to the course. The reason is simple: Slovenia’s beautiful scenery is a constant distraction pulling your attention from glorious mountain peaks to fast-flowing turquoise rivers, ancient castles, and fairytale towns. Slovenia is that cliché of all clichés, a true hidden gem, and while the capital Ljubljana, an hour away, has its own charms, Bled is the country’s crown jewel.
Set in the foothills of the Julian Alps, along the glacial Lake Bled, it became a famous resort town after the First World War, when then Yugoslav King Aleksander Karađorđević chose Bled as his summer residence. His presence attracted wealthy guests and nobility from all over Europe. Walking around the pristine blue lake in town takes a little over an hour and is the perfect start or finish to your day. On a cliff overlooking the lake is the 11th-century Bled Castle, which houses a museum, chapel, and printing press. While atop a small island in the lake’s center is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria, with its steep staircase and bell tower, which can be accessed by row boats available at several points around the lake, with or without a rower.
Less than two miles away from this fairytale town, you will find the equally stunning Royal Bled golf course. Opened in 1937 as the country’s first golf course, that number of courses has now risen to thirteen. But don’t let the numbers fool you. Royal Bled would most likely still be the best course if there were two hundred courses in the country. Unfortunately, after a great beginning, the course was largely abandoned in the years following the Second World War before noted architect Donald Harradine redesigned it in 1972. Harradine, born in London, was the first member to join the British Association of Golf Course Architects and was a founder member of the European Society of Golf Course Architects.
In 2015 the course was bought by Gordana and Dragan Šolak, successful Serbian entrepreneurs. The course was closed for two years for an extensive, twenty million Euro renovation that saw dramatic changes and updates to the original layout to align with modern championship specifications. The remodeled facility comprises the 18-hole Championship King’s Course and the 9-hole Lake Course. Surrounded by the dramatic mountains and sweeping valleys of the Julian Alps, the course offers perfectly manicured surfaces, a strategic layout, and a rare opportunity to play golf in complete tranquility. You’ll hear no cars whizzing by or airplanes buzzing during your round.
The course plays long, although five sets of tees allow you to choose the best distance for your game. Water features on several tee shots, although, for the most part, the fairways are generous. Miss them, though, and the carefully crafted rough will do its job and rob you of a shot here and there as it’s cut to a classic “half a shot” penalty length. The greens are smooth, large, and very undulating, meaning par is never guaranteed just because you have reached the green in regulation. It also makes getting the ball up and down when you miss the green a very tricky proposition.
The 14th is a monster of a par 4, although only 394 meters. It is played from a raised tee with water left and right. A perfect drive close to the left water will still leave you a long second to a skinny undulating green also guarded by water on the left. Take par here and run or drive to the next tee, for while they have a fleet of brand-new carts, the course is eminently walkable. As you stroll the lush fairways, wildlife abounds everywhere, and in addition to the usual rabbits, fox, and deer, you can hear and see more than fifty species of birds, including eagles living in the golf course area.
The shorter nine-hole Lake course is perfect for an emergency nine to settle the bets or a casual nine after lunch.
Being a range rat, I especially loved the well-designed academy, short game area, and grass driving range, which offers beautiful views of your ball arching over the Karavanke mountains in the background. This stunning location sets the tone for a truly world-class learning and development environment.
The food was every bit as spectacular as the course as I enjoyed a seven-course lunch. Inspired by local, seasonal ingredients and with a focus on modern, regional, and international dishes, dining at Royal Bled is an integral part of the experience.
The Kings House
While the town offers all manner of accommodation, the keen golfer will feel at home staying right on property. The King’s House, originally built in 1938, is a testament to regional Slovenian architecture and its unmistakable facade speaks clearly of its time and place in history. Following its extensive renovation, the King’s House, featuring ten guest rooms in the clubhouse, has been restored to its original grandeur. The refined interiors, open fires, and comfortable furniture create a unique and familiar atmosphere that encourages guests to linger, relax and enjoy the unrivaled surroundings. Private terraces offer views over the golf course, and warm, traditional furnishings create a cozy feel at home.
Although you may not be royalty, the staff at Royal Bled will treat you like you are. Their service was as impeccable as any exclusive Palm Springs club or resort. The locker rooms are spacious and beautifully appointed, while the pro shop was one of the finest I have seen in Europe. Royal Bled is a world-class experience at every turn, and I look forward to returning there again. Indeed this was my third visit to this spectacular area, whose beauty is a siren call to the world traveler.
At a Glance:
- 18-hole championship course
- 9-hole standard length course
- 10 luxurious rooms on site
- 4 classic rooms on site
- Five-star food and service
- Beautiful locker rooms
- Excellent practice facilities
- Extremely well-stocked pro shop
- Top-notch conditioning
- Amazing views
- Beautiful Lake Bled and Castle just 2 miles away
- Multiple hotels and restaurants in town
- Easy and beautiful 3-hour drive from Venice or Trieste