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Highlands Links Golf Club is inside a national park, one of only two golf courses owned by the Canadian government.
Highlands Links Golf Club is inside a national park, one of only two golf courses owned by the Canadian government. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

Cape Breton's Highlands Links Golf Club will get you high on dazzling scenery and a superb golf course

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

INGONISH, Nova Scotia - To get to Highlands Links Golf Club, you travel a narrow and winding mountain road from Baddeck, on faraway Cape Breton, north of the golf courses of the Nova Scotia mainland.

Up, up, up you travel through the Northeast Highlands, and when you hit Cape Smokey, you travel even further up, looking at nothing but the craggy side of a mountain and up into a deep blue sky.

Then the sea fog settles in, and you may as well be in the mountains of the moon. You finally reach a relatively level road, and when you stop for breath and gas, a short, jolly man with a French accent, incredibly, comes out to pump your gas.

"Yeah, we still have full service out here," he says. "Lot of things stay the same around here. You here for the golf? You'll enjoy it; it's the best in the world."

Finally, you reach the village of Ingonish and are mystified to see the ocean to your right, through the thick haze of fog. You learn later that you've been subtly traveling back downhill, only you didn't know it because of the fog.

Still, you journey onward, to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is where you will find Highlands Links; it's one of only two golf courses left owned by the Canadian government.

"The hardest thing about running this course is getting customers," says Course Manager Graham Hudson. "We're pretty far out of the way."

It's worth it. The drive alone is worth the time and effort to reach this stunningly beautiful course on the rugged coast of northern Cape Breton.

This is golf in the wild. The views are breathtaking, over ocean waters - where whales can be seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence - and up to the ringing mountains and over inlets, lakes, ponds and clear, rocky streams holding trout and Atlantic salmon.

There are numerous environmental areas off limits, the better to guard the awesome natural beauty.

Bald eagles feed here regularly, as do foxes, and you will most likely encounter a moose or two munching on the high grass around the greens.

It's like being inside a painting by Audubon.

The course itself is as visually stunning as its surroundings. Noted Canadian architect Stanley Thompson used the natural terrain beautifully, and the layout climbs up and down the coast, and up and around the hilly interior, with mountains rising around you. The first six holes play along the ocean before turning inward.

Stanley called this his "mountains and ocean" course. It was originally supposed to be a nine-holer, but Thompson convinced the government to stretch it to 18. Wisely, they consented.

The fairways rock and roll and twist and turn, and the moguls and valleys make even lies as rare as condos in this part of the world. Many of the fairways are bordered by steep embankments, and nearly all of them are bordered by thick woods made up mostly of hardwoods - play this course in the fall for a riot of color.

One gorgeous hole follows another. With the elevation changes, you'll be facing a number of blind shots, both off the tee and into the greens. There is some rough but usually only fairways and woods; it can be a penal course if your driver is distracted.

The greens are excellent as well. There are some multi-tiered greens, some elevated green complexes, and they have dramatic slope and undulation.

"The only thing level is the tee," said Hudson.

Highlands Links Golf Club: The verdict

The park people had the course renovated a few years back and are still kicking themselves. The renovation architect made a number of mistakes, some including serious drainage issues, and wiped out some of Thompson's more attractive design characteristics.

Now, the park is seeking an architect to restore the course, which opened in 1941, to the original Stanley design. The plan is to have the course designated as a National Historic Site.

"The architect will have to have 'Stanley experience,' " Hudson said.

Conditioning is excellent throughout, with the focus on keeping the course as natural as possible. The cart paths are gravel, and if you're walking, which you should do on this course, you will walk alongside the Clyburn River and maybe see some salmon.

Green fees range from $71-$90 with juniors getting discount rates.

True, this is a rather difficult course to reach, but for a special treat, pair it with a kayak or whale watching trip, or simply a visit to the national park, which is one of the most scenic in Canada and has a variety of activities.

The golf magazines have managed to find Highlands Links, some of which have ranked it among the top 100 courses in the world.

Highlands Parks has a chipping area and putting green but no driving range.

Cape Breton hotels

The Inverary Inn Resort is a terrific place to base your Cape Breton golf experience. For one thing, it marks the start of the Cabot Trail, which winds around the cape's rocky, northern coast and is one of the most scenic drives in the world.

The inn was originally built in 1850 and still retains that old-time feel even if it now has all the modern amenities, including a spa, indoor pool, fitness center, meeting facilities and wireless Internet.

The inn sits on 11 acres hard by the beautiful Bras d'Or Lakes, with a waterfront boardwalk and rooms as well as cottages. It has the Thistledown Pub and an excellent restaurant.

Baddeck is the home of Alexander Graham Bell, whose estate can be seen from the inn; Bell's grave site is on his former estate.

Getting to Nova Scotia

"The Cat" is a sleek, high-speed catamaran ferry that's more like a cruise ship. If you want to get to the picturesque Nova Scotia golf courses from the U.S. mainland, it's a great alternative to the long drive.

The seats are wide and plush, with plenty of leg room, and quite a few of the seating arrangements have tables, perfect for meals or playing cards.

Discovery Channel called it one of the world's top-10 super ships. The Cat has movie screens, restaurants and even a casino - slot machines only. It holds cars, motorcycles, bicycles, RVs, or you can just walk aboard.

The huge windows make sightseeing easy on the six-hour crossing between Portland, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The ferry is used by a lot of American tourists on the way to the Celtic and Acadian cultures of the Canadian Maritime provinces, like spectacular Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island.

The ship travels up to 40 knots, and rates range from $64 to $99 for passengers, with the shorter Bar Harbor to Yarmouth route being cheaper. Vehicle rates are $115 to $164 for cars with varying rates for trucks and smaller vehicles. There is a port and security fee of $10 each way.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald 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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