Already a confirmed fan of golf in Italy, Mike Harris takes a trip to
Sicily to visit Sir Rocco Forte’s creation, Verdura Golf Resort and Spa...
Words: Michael Harris; Images: Verdura Golf Resort & Spa
Ask UK golfers where their favourite short haul destination is and I expect many will plump for trusty choices of Spain and Portugal, or perhaps the all-inclusive delights of Turkey. But for me, the answer is most definitely Italy and its islands. I have been lucky enough to make several trips to play golf in the country and every time I have left with having loved my time and my expectations well and truly exceeded.
Whether it was the 27 magnificent holes at Castelconturbia near Milan, the luxurious Poggio dei Medici resort in Tuscany, the short but oh so tricky Florence golf club with its wonderful art deco clubhouse or the lovely Is Arenas layout in Sardinia with beautiful pine tree-lined fairways.
The combination of great golf courses that rarely seem to be busy, a perfect climate, food to die for, a special welcome for families and ability of the Italians to wear a sweater, possibly two, casually draped over the shoulders in a way I can only aspire to means it’s my number one. I therefore went to Sicily and the Verdura Golf Resort and Spa full of expectation and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It might be hard to believe, but in this instance that most-often used comparison holds true – it’s bigger than Wales. Like Wales, the topography of Sicily is varied, but mostly it’s fairly hilly, even mountainous. The famous volcano, Mount Etna, is an imposing landmark in the north east of the island. Rising to over 3,300m, it’s the highest active volcano in Europe.
There’s actually an underwater volcano off the coast from the Verdura Resort – Ferdinandea – but visitors needn’t worry, as it hasn’t eruptedsince 1831.
Verdura is located on the southwestern coast of Sicily between the beautiful and historic towns of Sciacca and Agrigento. This is a green, lush and sheltered corner of the island and, with its wonderful Mediterranean climate, it provides the ideal setting for a golf resort.
Sir Rocco Forte must have realised this, as he saw the potential of this wonderful site and decided to take action.
The hotelier is a single-figure handicap golfer and a member at Sunningdale, and he’d always wanted to build a world-class golfing destination.Using all of his experience from both the hotel industry and the world of golf, he has undoubtedly achieved this at Verdura.
One of Forte’s smartest moves was to enlist the services of renowned golf course architect Kyle Phillips. The Californian has been responsible for the design of some of the most stunning layouts built around the world over the last 20 years.
He was the architect behind the magnificent layout at Kingsbarns in Fife, as well as The Grove in Hertfordshire and the excellent Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. Phillips is known for taking his influence from the classic seaside courses of the British Isles and this is exactly what Forte was looking for
at Verdura. Phillips has created three stunning, links-style layouts at Verdura – two 18-hole championship tracks: East and West, together with an excellent nine-holer.
Although they only opened for play in 2009, these courses have already earned a reputation as some of the very best in Italy. In 2012, the European Tour’s Sicilian Open was contested over a composite course at Verdura, made up of holes from both the East and West layouts.
The track received significant praise from the players through the week, and talented Dane Thorbjorn Olesen ran out the worthy winner. Yes, these may be courses that can test the best players in the world, but Phillips’ clever design means they’re enjoyable and playable for golfers of all standards.
Although the holes of the East and West run alongside one another at various points, it’s testament to the designer’s skill that each track has a very distinct feel.
In the main, the East is a more undulating layout with sweeping fairways providing relatively generous targets from the tees. The large greens feature modern-style run-off areas that will cause slightly errant approaches to feed away from the putting surfaces. Those run-offs are fair though, and they allow the player to try a variety of short shots to get back on track.
The par-3s deserve a mention on the East Course. The 6th is Verdura’s “Postage Stamp.” It measures a maximum of 124 yards but, with a tiny green perched precariously on the sea’s edge, it requires a shot of utmost precision. Then there’s the 12th, at one of the course’s highest points. It’s a monster par-3, stretching to 260 yards and, if the wind is against, many may find it to be unreachable!
The final hole on the East is an absolute beauty. The drive is taken with stunning cliffs and an ancient ruin as a backdrop, the sea lurking ominously to the right. Your first shot drops to a landing area some 12 yards below the tee. But the approach must climb again, to a green set into the cliffs with water on the right side. It’s a cracking hole and was ranked the hardest on the course in the Sicilian Open.
On the West Course, it’s the holes running alongside the beach that really stand out. Firstly the 8th and 9th holes, then the run for home from the 15th. The 15th and 17th holes are challenging par-3s, while the 16th and 18th holes are fabulous par-4s. As with the East, the closing hole provides a fitting climax to a highly memorable golfing experience here.
Moving gently from right to left, hugging the shoreline, the tee shot must be precise to avoid the water on one side and clever bunkering on the other. The approach to the green is an appealing one, as you fire into a beautiful green overlooked by the impressive clubhouse located at the 14th century Torre Verdura Fort.
The nine-hole course is always maintained in the same excellent condition as the two longer tracks. It’s a great option for beginners, for families – I had an epic match with my nine year old daughter – for those looking to work on their short games or just for those wishing a shorter round.
There’s also a superb Academy onsite where you can hone your game in the sunshine (guaranteed to make practice more fun). There are also PGA-qualified professionals on hand to deliver dedicated tuition for children and adults.
The team is led by director of golf Niall Cameron who came to Sicily from Royal St George’s and head Professional, David Waters, who is an ex-Sunningdale pro. It’s safe to say that visiting golfers are in good hands with these guys!
As you would expect from a Rocco Forte resort, the hotel at the heart of this complex offers accommodation of the very highest standard. There are 203 rooms and 50 suites, all beautifully designed and offering stunning sea views. Opulently finished, with private balconies and salubrious bathrooms, the suites deliver the height of luxury.
After golf, or for the non-golfer, there are many and varied activities to be enjoyed at Verdura. All around the resort you’ll find collections of blue bicycles of all sizes to fit everyone from small children to adults. They are a great way to get around the resort and cycling to the Liola’s trattoria up by the golf clubhouse in the warm evening sunshine is one of my abiding memories of our time in Verdura.
There are tennis courts and football pitches where coaches from Juventus are on hand through the summer. There are private beaches lining the azure blue Mediterranean, upon which guests can try windsurfing, sailing and wakeboarding.
This is a family-friendly resort and younger children will love the Verdura Kids Club. There’s a playground and designated pool and a qualified team to oversee a range of child-friendly activities.
There are two infinity-style pools for the grown-ups to relax in, as well as the renowned Vita Health club. If you’re feeling drained by a hard day on the links, take a trip to the Verdura Spa where a range of holistic treatments and therapies are on offer.
Suitably refreshed, it might be time to sample some of the superb cuisine on offer at Verdura. There’s a fine range of dining options in the resort, from the formal and sophisticated Zagara restaurant within the hotel to more relaxed dining beside the pool or Amare, the beachside grill that’s open in the summer months.
Our favourite was Liola’s where the grilled lamb and the Sicilian wines from the Planeta winery that has its base in nearby Menfi were hard to beat. I’m only sorry to report it’s incredibly hard to find Planeta wines back in the UK.
Verdura Golf and Spa Resort provides the complete package for a luxurious and memorable holiday.
The accommodation, dining and off-course activities are of the very highest order, and that standard is matched on the fairways. With 45 holes designed by one of the world’s leading architects, laid out on a stunning stretch of Sicilian coastline, this must be considered one of Europe’s finest destinations for an extended “play and stay” golfing break.