I’m lining up a 90-yard putt from well off the infinity green on the eighth hole at Cabot Cliffs golf course in Inverness, Nova Scotia, the sea glimmering in the distance and a pair of ravens kibitzing nearby. Ninety yards with a putter, you say? Well, this is New Scotland, and you can leave a couple of wedges at home and play the game the way they do back there in that other Inverness, across the pond.
Though Cabot co-founder Ben Cowan-Dewar took a calculated risk in conjuring up his vision of Scottish-style links golf in a charming but somewhat remote corner of Cape Breton, he also knew that the Canadian location would provide a win-win for visitors looking to avoid a trip across the ocean and an outlay in pounds sterling. “We really believed that if we were able to build great golf courses in this extremely beautiful area of the world, then people would come, and they have!” he says. Of course, if you have high-trading greenbacks – and we run into no small number of Americans during our stay here – you can add another win to that formula. But cost-saving isn’t the real reason to tee it up here. Cabot Links, designed and in large part built by Canadian Rod Whitman and opened in 2012, sits at number 93 in Golf Digest’s ranking of the world’s top 100 courses. And Cabot Cliffs, a Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore design that debuted just last summer, entered the fray at number 19. (That’s a bit like winning an Oscar as a child actor.)
When Giovanni Caboto sailed past these lands in 1497, he was aware of the potential of the New World, but he couldn’t have spotted the seams of coal that would create wealth in Inverness in the 19th century. Then again, few could have foreseen that the mining industry would dry up here in the 1950s. The town lost half its population in the postwar period, shrinking from about 3,000 to 1,400, and today it’s common for folks to have relatives working out in the oil fields of Alberta. But Cabot Links, built overtop the remediated mine fields, may have reversed the trend – there’s now an air of renewal in the community, says our driver Scott Smith, from behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.
It’s one of half a dozen luxury Sprinters owned by the resort. The vehicles are used to transport golfers to and from the Halifax, Sydney and Port Hawkesbury airports and to take them on the short drive between the Links and Cliffs courses. “They can be a rowdy bunch!” says Theresa MacNeil, another Sprinter driver, with a laugh, so it’s ideal to have a professional transport service. Says Cowan-Dewar: “When we opened Cabot, we set out to offer the very best for all our guests, and the addition of these incredible vehicles has certainly heightened the experience.”
The following day, we once again hit the road to explore the environs. Within minutes of driving, we’re at a “tourist trap” (where they sell old lobster traps for $20) and then onto Margaree Harbour and Laurence’s General Store. There’s a Canada Post outlet here, and the whole shingled establishment, founded in 1860 and still run by Fletcher Laurence, the grandson of the founder, is so pretty, perched over the harbour, that you could be picking up utility bills here and not feel glum.
“We’re open six days a week,” says Laurence. “And if you can’t buy enough to last from Saturday to Monday, then that’s too bad,” chimes in Don MacNeil, a customer at the counter, with a grin.
By Chéticamp, the thriving little Acadian village up the coast, we’ve left the big-box world even further behind. At the municipal docks, there’s simply the smell of diesel fuel and salt air, the sound of lapping waves, a few rusted anchors and remnants of rope.
Down we go to Mabou and the Red Shoe Pub for refreshments. It’s run by the famed Rankin musical family, and a violin is still a fiddle here. Over crab and spinach-artichoke dips served with tortillas and local Big Spruce pale ale, and with Celtic tunes in the background, we see that the menu may be modern, but this part of the world is not about to change anytime soon.
Back at the resort’s Panorama Restaurant, I chat with Ray Henry, the culinary director. Just beyond the windows and the 18th green of the Links course, he has access to a bounty of seafood that can turn a meat-loving crowd of golfers into instant pescatarians. “As soon as they come here and see the ocean, they say, ‘Ah, you’ve got lobster!’ When the lobsters are in season and the boats are out there, it’s hypnotic. We also have halibut, salmon, scallops – all that kind of stuff. They say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve gotta have that.’”
Up the hill at the Public House, people are also going local, ordering whiskies from nearby Glenora Distillery, then boasting about tomorrow’s round. “I hit it so far, I don’t need a caddie to find it for me,” says one patron, though he looks concerned when told there will be some forced carries of a couple hundred yards.
The next morning, on the serene Links course – which is so close to the town and its church steeples, you’d think you were back in the old country – the undulating greens turn out to be the handicap.
“Is there no justice?” cries playing partner Dave as his putt lips out. Actually, there is: Back on the fifth hole, the resident red fox lopes by the green, inspects our tee balls and then marches off, leaving them untouched. However your game is going, there’s no lack of inspiration – or surprise – along the coast of New Scotland.
Stay in style
Accommodations at Cabot Links include a 72-room Lodge, two- and four-bedroom Golf Villas and cedar-clad Residences overlooking Inverness Beach, and all cleverly mimic the minimalist style of the golf courses. Dining options focus on fresh Cape Breton ingredients, and include the Panorama Restaurant, Cabot Bar, Cabot Public House and Downstreet Coffee Company, located on Central Avenue in Inverness. Speak to the concierge about airport transportation or about test-driving one of the property’s Mercedes-Benz vehicles.