CRESTON, British Columbia - Your round of golf begins with a ferry ride. And not just any ferry ride. This is the longestfree ferry in all of North America taking you across the vast KootenayRiver. You drive your rental car right onto the boat and for the next40-50 minutes, depending on whether the ship's captain is hurryinghome to dinner or not, you stand on the deck, watch the beautiful BritishColumbia scenery go by and get water-mist sprayed.
As a first tee prelude, it sure beats hearing a honk chorus and breathing in exhaust fumes on the expressway.
This is part of the wonder of a golf vacation in the Kootenays region of British Columbia. This big ski area with largely unknown wondrously scenic, refreshingly unpretentious golf is about an eight- or nine-hour drive or an 80-minute flight from Vancouver or a three-hour drive from Spokane, Washington. It's a golf spot where city slickers will experience adventures they've never had before.
Like taking a ferry to the golf course.
It's either the longest free ferry in North America or a mountain pass to get to Creston Golf Club from the Balfour/Nelson area, your most likely Kootenays' golf stay spot. The journey there fits in with a course that offers unfussed nature as the primary obstacle and attention grabber.
The mountains are there in the background of almost every hole because it's hard to build a course here without having impressive mountains in the background. The trees tower because they've stood in these parts for a long, long time. There's a minimum of nature manipulation at Creston. Really, there's no need for it.
Place a golf course on this stretch of land and you're going to have something worth playing.
This explains why Creston draws a steady mix of locals and visitors in the know. It's about as tricky as a run up the middle. Woody Hayes football may not be in style even in Columbus, Ohio, anymore, but there are still some things in life where the basics do fine.
"The views are what this course is all about," Head Professional Randy Panton said.
None are better than the look down from the raised 12th tee. It's a 195-foot drop to the fairway from the white middle tees. With this par 4 measuring in at 343 total yards from whites and the extra downhill distance bonus, Creston's No. 12 is not just pretty. It could just be your chance to play Tiger Woods and drive the green.
Now, that's beautiful.
Opportunity is the name of the game at Creston. Your good shots will be more than amply rewarded and unless you hit a bucket of balls into the water around the so tough, so short 102-yard par-3 sixth or rack up double digits on the very tight, very creek- and bunker-populated par-4 17th. You're liable to post a score that can make you smile.
"It doesn't kill you," golfer Walter Gulliver said. "It's not that type of course. It just comes up and bites you a few times when you're getting too high on yourself. That's the type of course I enjoy."
Creston caters to hackers who want things a certain way. In a region where greens can run turtle slow by U.S. resort course standards, Creston's come in consistently at 91/2 to 101/2 on the stimpmeter.
"The rest of the area's probably closer to eights," Panton said. "But our players are particular about having a little faster green."
Surely, no more particular than the wild turkeys who have taken to sunning themselves in the 14th fairway and the 14th fairway only. It is a nice spot, par for the course at Creston.
Creston Golf Club doesn't have a single hole you're going to remember for all time. What's likely to stick with you is the overall experience, from the ferry ride to the snow-capped peaks over your shoulder to the turkeys letting you play through.
It's fun day of golf, plain and simple. Creston doesn't include the name of its architect in the course literature because of an old legal dispute. But the Kootenays countryside deserves the top billing anyways. There are a few holes that force you to make the choice on when you want to be challenged.
On the par-4 14th, you can go for it off the tee and try to clear the water (225 yards from the middle tees). This provides an easier approach to the sloping green. Or you can play it safe off the tee, just plop it in about 175 yards out, short of the water. This makes it much tougher to reach the green in two, though.
Those sunning turkeys aren't volunteering any advice.
Everyone enjoys things at their own pace at Creston.
Red Resort ((877) 969-7669) in Rossland is a great base for a Kootenays golf adventure. You have more than 20 courses in decent driving distance and there's a ski lodge-modeled restaurant a few minutes down the road that's openly relatively late (a huge plus for the Kootenays).
Still, the best of Red may be the wraparound wooden balcony. Sitting out here on a summer or early fall evening, listening to the creek running below and staring out into the pitch black of real Canadian countryside is an experience for a city liver.
The Kootenay Lakeview Lodge ((877) 229-4141) is a high-end hotel in true nature settings. Right down the street from Balfour Golf Course, one of the more scenic courses in the area, the Kootenay Lakeview Lodge provides all the trappings the modern traveler expects (wireless Internet access, plush pillows, full cable TV) in the rustic surroundings that make a Kootenays trip stand out. Many of the rooms look out onto the lake, a sight not to be missed at sunrise or sunset.
The staff here really helps make the place. Most of the young women working at the front desk have college degrees, one owner's a former adventure guide, the other a former golf pro and there are plenty of interesting conversations to be had. The place even sells local pieces of art work and crafts rather than the usual carbon copy hotel knick knacks.
McQ's North Country Grill, located in the detached lobby of the Kootenay Lakeview Lodge, manages to pull off gourmet and down home cooking. It has some of the best tapas you'll ever taste, the kind of interesting combinations you expect in a New York restaurant and the old staple hamburger. If you're in the Kootenays, you have to check out McQ's.
Another top restaurant in the Kootenays can be found right by a golf course as well. The recently opened fine dining restaurant at the Rossland Golf Club is another unexpected discovery. The stuffed chicken is particularly good and all the offerings are complimented by strikingly fresh vegetables.
You can get to Creston from the other direction without taking the ferry. It's just not as fun.
December 1, 2005
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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