Cabot Cliffs Flies High in Atlantic Canada

Dramatic Par Three at Cabot Cliffs golf course (Image: Cabot Cliffs)

Cabot Cliffs was hailed as one of the world’s best courses even before its official launch in 2016. (Images: The Resort at Cabot Links)

Golfers from around the world are flocking to Cape Breton Island to play wildly acclaimed sister courses Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links. And coming soon: A Caribbean spinoff called Cabot Saint Lucia.

Golf holes seamlessly unfold one upon the next atop magnificent cliffs, threading through humps and hollows, forests and grassy dunes. Seabirds circle lazily overhead in the clear northern sky, and to the northwest the metallic-blue Gulf of St. Lawrence stretches to the horizon.

Even after several visits, I’m still awed by what must surely be one of the most fabulous vistas in all of golf.

Designed by the red-hot team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Cabot Cliffs is found just outside the Cape Breton Island town of Inverness, in the province of Nova Scotia, on Canada’s Atlantic Coast. It’s the sister course of Cabot Links, a true seaside links that instantly became one of the nation’s flagship courses when it opened on Inverness’s waterfront in 2012.

But Cabot Cliffs is indisputably the bigger star. Even before its official launch in the spring of 2016, Cabot Cliffs had already been named the 19th best course in the world by Golf Digest, ahead of Royal Birkdale, Carnoustie and other stalwarts. Cabot Links, meanwhile, came in at No. 93. Just two years later, the same prestigious publication ranked Cabot Cliffs the ninth best course in the world, with Cabot Links coming in at No. 43.

Cabot Cliffs golf course hole in Cape Breton Nova Scotia

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw weaved Cabot Cliffs through humps and hollows, forests and grassy dunes.

Strange to think that the building of these internationally renowned courses once seemed an unlikely dream. The town of Inverness endured mostly hard times after the local coal mine closed in 1953, leaving behind a waterfront littered like a bombsite with mine tailings and other debris. But a handful of golf-savvy civic boosters kept the faith, knowing that hidden beneath the clutter was a mile-long stretch of sand-based shoreline ideal for a links-style course.

Jack Nicklaus’s design team sketched a tentative course routing, and other architects and potential investors travelled north for a look. The late Mike Strantz, who numbered among the most influential of golf architects, called Inverness one of the “50 greatest sites left in the world for golf.”

But always the funding for a world-class course and resort in this out-of-the-way setting fell through. Halifax International, the closest major airport, is three hours from Inverness by car. Even Cape Breton’s much smaller Sydney Airport is a two-hour drive away.

Enter Ben Cowan-Dewar, the 25-year-old owner of a successful Toronto-based golf travel company, who followed his entrepreneurial instincts and the growing buzz to Inverness in December 2004.

“It was a gorgeous, sunny day and the site in Inverness instantly captured my imagination,” recalls Cowan-Dewar, a low-handicap golfer who had played many of the game’s marquee courses in his travels. “I stood on high ground and saw that the site had wonderful natural movement and flow. And where else in the world could you still find unoccupied linksland in the heart of an existing town?”

Cabot Links golf course with holes along the ocean, Cape Breton Nova Scotia

Designed by Canadian Rod Whitman, Cabot Links offers sea views from every hole.

Nor was Cowan-Dewar deterred by Inverness’s remote location. At the time, Chicago-based golf impresario Mike Keiser had just launched Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, as well as a third course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. If golfers were prepared to travel to those lonely outposts, then a course in Inverness might also work.

Besides, golf was hardly an unknown attraction in Cape Breton. Highlands Links, one of Canada’s most revered courses, is located in the quiet north shore community of Ingonish. Designed by legendary Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, Highlands snakes dramatically through a pine tree-edged valley floor and seaside marshes. Rounding out a strong local lineup of courses are Bell Bay Golf Club, The Lakes Golf Club, and Le Portage Golf Club.

Cape Breton’s many other charms were familiar to Cowan-Dewar from previous visits. Regarded as one of the world’s most captivatingly beautiful islands, Cape Breton offers everything from quaint villages and a vibrant Celtic-inspired music scene (the region was largely settled by Scottish immigrants) to salmon fishing in the Margaree River and the famous Cabot Trail, a scenic highway that loops around the isle’s rugged northern tip.

Within three years Cowan-Dewar had purchased the land he needed in Inverness and named the proposed first course, as well as the entire resort project, Cabot Links, after the explorer John Cabot, who visited these shores in 1497. Just as important, Mike Keiser had come aboard as a principal partner after being wowed during an inspection tour of the site. “That was crucial,” Cowan-Dewar says. “Mike had the playbook for this type of project from what he had already done at Bandon Dunes.”

The public boardwalk along the ocean at Cabot Links golf course in Cape Breton Nova Scotia

An oceanfront boardwalk at Cabot Links enables even casual strollers to feel part of the action.

When it opened in 2012, Cabot Links joined just four other courses in North America considered to possess the sandy soil, undulating terrain and native vegetation to qualify as one of the world’s approximately 250 true seaside links. Feature stories in both the New York Times and The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading newspaper, trumpeted the opening. Virtually all the early reviews were raves.

Canadian golf architect Rod Whitman, who started his career as an assistant to Pete Dye, built a subtly moulded and strategic course that trails down into the dunes along the ocean before returning to higher ground.

Unlike many seaside links, which veer inland at some point, Cabot Links offers sea views from every hole. Especially memorable is the par-five eighth, where a well-protected green is set high on a plateau overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And the diminutive 14th, a 102-yard par three, immediately became one of Canada’s signature holes. All that’s visible from the elevated tee is the green and the seemingly endless ocean.

Glimpses of the rumpled links are enjoyed from almost everywhere in Inverness. The once hardscrabble community of 1,250 citizens has blossomed with the arrival of golf tourists from around the world. Stylish new houses are under construction, real-estate prices are soaring, and the main street is being given a facelift. Down on the waterfront, a long public boardwalk built between the beach and the fairways closest to the sea enables everyone who visits to feel part of the action.

The clubhouse and restaurant at Cabot Links in Cabot Breton Nova Scotia

Set beside the 18th green at Cabot Links, Panorama restaurant features long views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Golf has become as essential to the fabric of life in Inverness as it is in Scotland’s St. Andrews. The original oceanfront site in town, now known as The Resort at Cabot Links, has grown to include an elegant restaurant overlooking the 18th green, a lively pub, and a two-storey string of 72 guest rooms, each affording floor-to-ceiling views of the links and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also available to guests are 19 luxuriously appointed two- to four-bedroom villas that rent from US$835 a night.

Cowan-Dewar and his team are constantly hatching marketing plans to keep Cabot Links fresh in the minds of golfers. In the years before the launch of the second course, journalists and VIPs were inevitably treated to site tours to help build anticipation for what was to come. Still, the almost unprecedented wave of hype and excitement that greeted the opening of Cabot Cliffs in 2016 shocked everyone in Inverness.

Hailed as a masterwork of the minimalist school of golf course design, Cabot Cliffs weaves through and around massive shaggy dunes, jumps chasms, rolls through gentle meadows, and starts and dramatically concludes with holes set against the cliffs to the north of town. Star architects Coore and Crenshaw—whose A-list credits include Bandon Trails (Oregon), Lost Farm (Australia) and Sand Hills (Nebraska)—say that they had never worked on a site so rich in variety; where memorable golf holes seemed to emerge almost organically out of the landscape.

Absolutely unforgettable is the 16th hole, a 173-yard par three where the green is perched, like an emerald bonnet, atop a towering jagged cliff. The tee shot plays from one precipice to the next, with only a 100-foot drop to the crashing ocean in between.

Cabot Links Golf Course, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Cabot Links is one of a handful of North American courses considered a true seaside links.

“We always knew the Cliffs site was so spectacular that if we didn’t screw it up we would have something pretty special,” Cowan-Dewar says.

The popularity and acclaim enjoyed by both Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links has encouraged Cowan-Dewar and Keiser to keep right on building. Villas and a clubhouse are under construction at the Cliffs, and a 10-hole par-three course designed by Rod Whitman and Dave Axland (a longtime associate of Coore and Crenshaw) is scheduled to open in 2020.

Also seriously being contemplated is a third 18-hole course on yet another choice piece of real estate not far from Inverness.

“Why not?” asks Cowan-Dewar. “Bandon Dunes has opened four 18-hole layouts and a par-three course in only two decades of operation—and a fifth championship course, Sheep Ranch, will open soon. That’s exactly our roadmap to making Cabot Links an even more amazing golf destination.”

Coming Soon: Cabot Saint Lucia

Located on Point Hardy, an unspoiled 375-acre peninsula at the northern tip of the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Cabot Saint Lucia is a new resort community whose centrepiece is a golf course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the same acclaimed team that built Cabot Cliffs.

Plans for Cabot Saint Lucia include a 50-suite boutique hotel, three restaurants, retail shops, spa, and clubhouse. Real estate options range from hillside townhomes to beachfront and blufftop grand estate lots. Prices start from US$760,000.

Work on Cabot Saint Lucia began in summer 2019, with the golf course, Cabot Point, scheduled to open in 2021.

“Mike Keiser and I had been waiting for the perfect opportunity to expand the Cabot brand internationally,” says Ben Cowan-Dewar.

Seven holes at Cabot Point will play directly along the ocean. Coore and Crenshaw have routed their course to include dramatic cliff-top greens and valley fairways that descend from the upper elevations to the sea. It’s the American design duo’s first project in the Caribbean.

 

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