Friday, December 1, 2023

Caribbean’s Newest Golf Resort Is A Travel Game Changer

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With the very recent opening of the Apes Hill resort, Barbados leaps onto the global stage as a golf travel destination. Now, for the first time, you can play all five of the island’s top courses from one very comfortable home base. And while many Caribbean islands have one stellar course, one course does not make a golf destination, and few have the critical mass that requires. Barbados now rises to what is likely second only to the Dominican Republic in terms of the number of standout golf designs open to the public.

Along with a peer from Links Magazine, we were the first U.S. journalists to visit Apes Hill since its reopening, which in effect is really a grand opening. The previous incarnation that was here the last time I visited Barbados was an entirely private club with no resort/public component and a much different–and frankly less appealing–golf course.

Situated on one of the highest spots on the island, a breathtaking piece of property with views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, it is the kind of site that cries out for a great golf course. But there was a time when difficulty was considered something to brag about, especially for private clubs, and the previous design here was just that, quite difficult and lacking in fun. New owners and management used the pandemic down time to radically redo the course, and brought in the late Ron Kirby, an acclaimed golf course architect who just passed away in August, shortly after finishing the new Apes Hill. Kirby is best known for his stunning Old Head links design in Ireland, on Golf Magazine and Golf Digest’s Top 100 in the World lists. Old Head sits on a similarly impressive clifftop peninsula with 14 waterfront holes, and his mastery of this type of setting is why he was chosen to come to Barbados. As such, Apes Hill is his last design, and worthy of that legacy.

The views, elevation changes, dramatic exposed limestone and coral rock at every turn are still as dramatic as ever, but the course is much more fun to play. The fairways are wide, especially landing areas off the tee, there are no blind shots, and while many approaches and tee shots clearly have a preferred side and a “do not miss” side, everything you need to know can be seen with the naked eye. It’s nice to have no unpleasant surprises, and it’s really nice to have very few homes on the course, though there are plenty of the monkeys the island is famous for.

Conditioning is excellent, both through intentional effort and the fact that 30 players is a busy day here. The tee variety is such that it caters to all abilities, and from the white tees there are some reachable par-4s and eagle opportunity par-5s, while from the back the course is for only the biggest hitters and features the longest par-4 in Barbados. There is also a really cool 19th hole, not a bar but rather a semi-recreation of the famous island green par-3 from TPC Sawgrass, right in front of the clubhouse, a fun bonus at the end of the round, a tie breaker, or most surely, just a fun green to hit to from all over the place, including the lawn outside the bar.

As a result of all the changes, Golf Inc. magazine named Apes Hill a “2023 Development of the Year,” and at the 2023 World Golf Awards in Abu Dhabi, the resort cleaned up, winning in four categories: Best Golf Real Estate Venue, Best Eco-Friendly Golf Facility; Best New Golf Course Barbados; and Best New Golf Course Caribbean.

The emergence of Apes Hill as a golf resort is still underway, with the imminent opening of a new main restaurant, clubhouse and par-3 nine-hole course, all in time for the December holiday season. While it has become a hot trend for marquee golf resorts to add short courses as extras for golfers, many of these are so short as to be basically glorified pitch and putt layouts–I played one that didn’t even need a club other than putter. In sharp contrast, the brand-new Little Ape is entirely real par-3 holes, from 95-145 yards, and a great way to warm up your short game before tackling the main event, squeeze in a little golf on the days of arrival or departure, or just get more than eighteen in.

The existing restaurant is the open-air 20th hole, the bar and halfway house, and the food, a mix of Barbadian specialties (fish cutter sandwiches, West Indian curry, etc.) and international, fare is very good. The property is vast, with an emphasis on sustainability and farming, and to that end, in addition to the golf course being Audubon Sanctuary certified (read more here), there are greenhouses and nurseries and Apes Hill grows its own tropical fruit, produce, and even has bee hives to make honey. Drought resistant grasses take less water, fertilizer is made on sight from seaweed and compost, and a 58-million-gallon reservoir captures rainwater and allows the golf course to be completely independent of Barbados’ water utility. Sustainability is a big focus of Apes Hill, and the strong farm to table aesthetic translates into high quality food–even the tasty hot sauce is made from scratch in house.

There is also a new state-of-the-art golf performance center for lessons, analysis and club fitting that immediately takes its place among the best in the Caribbean. Multiple indoor/outdoor bays are equipped with hardware and software rarely seen at such a small resort, including Catalyst swing analysis, pressure plates and a PuttView indoor putting center (You can read my recent story on the best Resort Golf Academies and Performance Centers here at Forbes). There’s a temporary gym now open until a much larger fitness center and spa is finished next year, a large tennis and platform tennis center with multiple lighted courts and various surfaces, including synthetic grass. The property is interlaced with miles of waking and mountain biking paths through the jungle and more challenging hiking trails as well. Apes Hill even has its own polo field and cricket ground.

Until its coming beach club opens, Apes Hill has arranged special privileges for resort guests at the beach club at the nearby luxury Fairmont Royal Pavilion hotel, with lounge chairs, a tropical bar and full range of watersports equipment.

There are currently ten 3-bedroom/3.5-bathroom Fairway Villas in the rental program for resort lodging, most along the 18th fairway, close to the center of the club facilities. Each comes with a golf cart for local use, plus full kitchens, indoor and outdoor living areas, plunge pools and niceties such as laundry rooms and full daily housekeeping service. Barbados is not inexpensive, so at under a thousand dollars a night in prime spring and fall seasons, these are a very good deal, especially considering and how many people they can accommodate. Seventeen even more luxurious 4-bedroom Hilltop Villas are under construction for addition to the resort lodging pool in 2024.

But Apes Hill will be fully realized as a resort in 2025, when a 30-room beach resort, spa and beach club opens on the waterfront in Hole Town, the epicenter of Barbados dining, shopping and nightlife, just 5 minutes way. There will be shuttle service, and guests will have the choice of staying at villas at the golf resort or on the beach, and in either case, enjoying all the facilities of both. For now, Apes Hill is mainly a second-home real estate community plus the new overnight resort lodging. It has seen a big recent increase in North American buyers, especially with added airlift from the U.S. non-stop to Barbados, such as new United, American and JetBlue flights. It is the only community on the island where you can buy and have access to all the top golf courses, and even the famous Sandy Lane community, long a top choice for vacation buyers, does not offer a traditional private golf club membership as Apes Hill does.

But in terms of a golf vacation, what makes Apes Hill so special is that you can play the otherwise entirely private and usually empty members course by staying here, and at the same time still have access to the best of the rest of the island’s golf. Sandy Lane Country Club is the most accessible top-quality course nearby, and Sandy Lane resort also operates the Green Monkey, historically the most exclusive “public course” in the Caribbean, open primarily to guests of the very expensive hotel, with no members. Bot feature forecaddies, and the Green Monkey is so elite that you are not even allowed to buy logo clothing from the course in the Sandy Lane pro shop unless you actually play it. But there is one tee time a day for outside guests, which can be pre-booked when staying at Apes Hill. Rounding out the island’s top four exclusive courses is private Royal Westmoreland, which also has some limited non-member access that Apes Hill can arrange. Finally, there is the Barbados Golf Club, the island’s premier public facility.

That is five courses all well worth playing, all fairly close, and since those staying at Apes Hill will likely play their “home” course multiple times, plus the Little Ape, this array easily covers a full week of golf for those seeking an immersive experience. For those who just want to relax, play some golf, play some tennis, hike and chill by the pool with first rate food and service, staying at Apes Hill is all that, especially given its easy proximity to the best dining and shopping on the island, just down the hill.

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