No matter where you golf in France, there’s bound to be a stunning château and lashings of gourmet choices close by. Our correspondents tee off at some choice courses to be found in Champagne-Ardenne and Normandy.
Lying some 100 kilometres northeast of Paris is the historical province of Champagne-Ardenne, best known for its production of the world’s most famous sparkling wine. But it’s not just the grape that reigns supreme here – there are also some terrific golf courses and elegant châteaux to stay in.
Tee off first at Golf de Reims, eight kilometres west of town in the middle of the famous vineyards. This picturesque 18-hole layout founded in 1928 is an attractive mix of tree-lined fairways and expansive greens in the beautiful surroundings of the 15th century moat-circled Château des Dames, and a perfect setting for a post-round flute of bubbly.
RIGHT: The interesting tee sign on the 7th hole at Golf De Reims. PHOTO: Paul Marshall.
Fifty kilometres northeast of Reims, on the outskirts of Fagnon village, is Golf de l’Abbaye de Sept Fontaines, another wonderful 18-hole layout sympathetically built around an historic château. The front nine is parkland with superb château views, and it would be impolite not to indulge in some delicious French cuisine in the excellent restaurant before playing the more open back nine. Another recommended course in the region’s south, on the edge of the Aumont forest, is Golf de Troyes-la Cordelière, featuring an intoxicating mix of gently undulating fairways and 18 holes, accented with water features and ancient trees.
Other golfing options in the region include Golf de l’Ermitage (near Troyes) with its par-3 12th signature hole and island green, La Grand Romanie (40km south-east of Reims), built on the site of an old Roman camp and Golf d’Arc en Barrois (80km south of Troyes), situated in the grounds of a château and featuring two lakes and elevated greens.
Away from the golf, there are plenty of off-course activities including the Route Touristique du Champagne – 600 km of signposted roads that meander through the principal wine-growing areas including Montagne de Reims (between the two champagne centres of Reims and Épernay), Côte des Blancs (south of Épernay) and further south, the Côte des Bar, specialising in smaller producers.
An excellent example in the village of Urville is Champagne Drappier, a family of sparkling wine-producers who’ve been cultivating their vineyards for over two centuries and over the years their superb champagnes have seduced a number of prestigious personalities including Charles de Gaulle and Luciano Pavarotti.
The provincial town of Épernay is one of the best places for champagne tasting, and underneath the streets of the ‘capital of bubbly’, in some 100km of subterranean cellars, millions of dusty bottles of sparkling wine are maturing side-by-side until one day being popped open in celebration. Épernay is home to famous champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon and Mercier, and many offer informative tours and tastings. Also worth a visit is the cool cellar-and-bar C. Commes Champagne, where you can sample champagnes from independent winemakers.
It’s only a six kilometre drive north to the picture-perfect village of Hautvillers, where champagne was first created three centuries ago by Dom Pérignon, cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey. In the village square you’ll find the tourist office where, for a few euros, you can enjoy a walking tour with an explanation of Pérignon’s life. Northeast of Hautvillers, in the wooded hills around Verzy, is Le Perching Bar – the world’s first champagne bar in the trees. From Verzy, its only a flute or two of bubbly to Reims, a town with a rich history, and home to some prestigious producers such as Mumm, Pommery and Louis Roederer.
To complement the golf and champagne experience, stay at one of Champagne-Ardenne’s many historic châteaux. A classic example is Château d’Etoges, about 22km south of Épernay and surrounded by vineyards. This impeccable 17th century château overlooks a moat and boasts 20 individually appointed bedrooms furnished with antiques. Downstairs, an imposing fireplace bears witness to banquets, meetings and celebrations from a medieval past. Classy French cuisine is served in the adjoining L’Orangerie dining room, and after a tasty dinner it’s only a short stumble to your comfortable four-poster bed.
The château of choice for Reims, and nicely situated for playing Golf de Reims – is Château Les Crayères. Nestled discretely in the heart of the champagne city, this elegant home, once owned by the Polignac family, is now a luxurious gourmet retreat, where guests can relax in the 20 sumptuous rooms and where fine dining takes centre stage.
RIGHT: An historic chateau is the centrepiece at Golf de l’Abbaye des Sept Fontaines. PHOTO: Paul Marshall.
North-east of Reims and close to Golf de l’Abbaye de Sept Fontaines is Château de Montaubois, run by likeable husband-and-wife team Jean-François and Elizabeth Monteil, who have spent three decades restoring the château to its former glory.
NORMANDY’S GREENER PASTURES
The Pays d’Auge region of Normandy is a picturesque landscape of small towns, rolling meadows, russet-coloured apple orchards and half-timbered farmsteads. The good news for golfers is there’s ample opportunity to play some fine courses while sampling delicious local produce.
An excellent starting point is the luxurious Hôtel Barrière L’Hôtel du Golf near the coastal town of Deauville. Many famous guests, including Errol Flynn and Yves St Laurent, have enjoyed the hotel’s old-world charms since it opened its doors in 1929. Autographed photos of the rich and famous can be found inside the foyer, opposite the cool Le Green Bar with its extensive selection of Calvados.
Only a long putt from the hotel, and rated among France’s top-20 prettiest layouts, Barriére Golf Deauville has always been one of the places to play in Normandy. The three loops of nine holes are in excellent condition year round, with beautifully manicured fairways and greens.
RIGHT: One of the elaborately decorated bedrooms to be found at Château de Montaubois. PHOTO: Paul Marshall.
The original 18 holes (red and white tees), built by Tom Simpson in 1929 is parkland, with a nice mix of undulating fairways and varied holes with panoramic views over Deauville and Pays d’Auge country. The course requires accuracy and power with two par-4s of 400 metres and heavily bunkered par-3s on the front nine. The other nine-holes (blue tees) designed in 1964 by Henry Cotton bear a more wooded character.
Another challenging 27 holes wind through lush Normandy pastureland 15km south of Deauville at Pont L’Évêque, famous for the Normandy cheese of the same name. The higher part of the Barriére Golf de Saint-Julien course encourages some open-shouldered driving, and when the holes are not long they are technically difficult, especially 11, 12 and 14.
The signature holes of the main 18-hole layout are the 9th and 18th, both par-4s, where you must play your second shots over water to reach heavily-bunkered greens, with the marvellous château-style clubhouse as a backdrop. If you have time, stop by the restaurant for some fine French cuisine before taking on the nine-hole Le Bocage course.
“To complement the golf and champagne experience, stay at one of Champagne-Ardenne’s many historic châteaux.”
Completing the trio of 27-hole courses close to Deauville is Golf Amirauté, a championship course designed by Bill Baker. A magical site studded with lakes, it features huge fairways, large greens, plenty of water and a novel hazard: contemporary sculptures. The aptly named ‘Art Course’ is mostly flat so it can easily be walked, though carts are readily available as with most French courses. There’s also the floodlit nine-hole ‘Star Course’, two putting greens, a grass practice range and a 42-bay driving range.
In addition to the golf, there’s quality regional produce to sample – in particular the prized apple brandy Calvados. Enjoy a tour at Manoir d’Apreval, a family-owned estate in the coastal village of Pennedepie (10km east of Deauville) that makes a line of fine Calvados.
RIGHT: Grape pickers at work in the ‘Côte des Bar’ champagne region. PHOTO: Paul Marshall.
After learning how it’s made, visit the shop for a tasting and a chance to purchase other apple-based drinks such as robust ciders and the refreshing aperitif pommeau (a two-thirds cider and one-third Calvados mix), that makes a great 19th hole tipple. Inland from Deauville, the slate-roofed Château du Breuil has been completely restored by new owners who have been distilling highly respected spirits for three generations.
A Normandy cheese is the perfect partner for a Calvados or cider, with much of it being produced around the small towns of Livarot, Pont l’Évêque and Camembert. With its golden-yellow centre and creamy-white rind, the circular Camembert is the quintessential Normandy cheese.
Lesser-known cheeses include Pont l’Évêque, an uncooked, un-pressed cow’s milk cheese that is square in shape, and Livarot, a blue cheese that’s been made here for more than 700 years. Then there’s Pavé d’Auge, a semi-soft, creamy cheese with a reddish rind that is so called because it looks like the square cobblestones (pave) you still see in old marketplaces in France and the heart-shaped Neufchâtel, a soft, slightly crumbly, mould-ripened cheese.
For a closer insight into cheese making, visit Fromagerie Graindorge, a producer in Livarot that offers free tours. Observe the various stages of cheese making - working the curd, salting, drying, and washing the rind. Before leaving, it’s mandatory to sample some cheeses, beautifully displayed in colourful boxes inside the shop. Keep an eye out for Le Grain d’Orge with Calvados – a delicious cheese that combines two of region’s most celebrated products.
WHERE TO SIP
Champagne Drappier: A family producer of excellent champagnes in the ‘Côte des Bar’ region. www.champagne-drappier.com
C Comme Champagne: Specialist champagne bar and boutique in Épernay with more than 350 champagnes available: www.c-comme.fr
RIGHT: Boxes of cheeses from the Graindorge cheese fabriqué. PHOTO Paul Marshall.
Route du Champagne: The Champagne Trail. www.aube-champagne.com
Perching Bar: The world’s first champagne bar in the trees on the outskirts of Verzy. www.perchingbar.com