Cruise and Golf Canada’s Atlantic Coast

One Ocean ship and Cabot Links green (Image: Brian Kendall)

One Ocean Navigator viewed from across the fairways at Cabot Links. (Image: Brian Kendall)

With stops that include Cabot Cliffs and Highlands Links, One Ocean Expeditions’ Fiddles and Sticks golf cruise explores some of Atlantic Canada’s most breathtaking coastal settings.

(Editor’s note: Sadly, One Ocean Expeditions has ceased operation since this article was published.)

“Golf course, ho!” I hear someone call as the fairways of Cabot Cliffs loom portside the first morning of our Fiddles and Sticks golf cruise of Canada’s Atlantic Coast. Including stops at acclaimed sister courses Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links (rated the ninth and 43rd best courses in the world by Golf Digest), our One Ocean Expeditions ship will drop anchor in the provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the French-speaking Magdalen Islands in Quebec, and remote Sable Island, a national parkland home to a herd of wild horses. Kayaking, paddle boarding, cycling and hiking in stunning coastal settings will also be on offer during an often-magical week-long journey.

Day One: Fiddles and Sticks

Following a short drive from the airport in the city of Sydney, our adventure begins with a tour of the once mighty Fortress of Louisbourg, on the rugged southeast coast of the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It was here in 1758 that France’s hold on Canada irretrievably weakened when the fortress was captured and subsequently dismantled by the British. We nervously fire muskets, use only a primitive spoon during lunch in the manner of the first French garrison soldiers, and otherwise enjoy our pre-cruise tour of a National Historic Site of Canada rebuilt on its original foundations

Fiddler and mandolin player greet passengers boarding One Ocean Expedition's Fiddles and Sticks golf cruise. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Troubadours play toe-tapping Celtic tunes on the fiddle and mandolin during almost every non-golf activity. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Serenaded by a duo of musicians playing the Celtic-inspired tunes popular throughout a region largely settled by Scottish immigrants, my wife Sharon and I—together with about 46 other eager passengers—board the good ship One Ocean Navigator late that afternoon. In keeping with the Fiddles and Sticks theme of One Ocean’s inaugural golf voyage, our troubadours will provide toe-tapping musical accompaniment on the fiddle and mandolin during almost every non-golf activity.

Sharon and I settle into our snug but comfortable cabin before heading to the dining room for a welcome-aboard feast of locally caught lobster. Soon we feel the engines throb and the ship start its journey to our first tee offs at Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, twin jewels of Canadian golf.

Day Two: Cabot Links

If not for the wild success of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, One Ocean would likely never have expanded into the golf market. The sister courses in the former mining town of Inverness have become the flagships of Canadian golf, drawing visitors to Cape Breton from around the world.

One Ocean, a Canadian company previously focused on Arctic and Antarctic cruises mixing tourism with scientific studies, seized the opportunity to leap into golf.  Already confirmed for 2019 is an inaugural Islands of the North Atlantic golf cruise (June 5-12), with stops in Ireland, Scotland, the Hebridean Islands, and the Orkney Islands. Courses on the itinerary include Cruden Bay, Castle Stuart, and Ballyliffin. One Ocean will also repeat the Fiddles and Sticks cruise (July 3-10).

Cabot Cliffs Signature Hole (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

The signature 16th hole at Cabot Cliffs, a Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design that ranks among the world’s best courses. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Suited up in waterproof jackets and pants, rubber boots and life preservers, we storm ashore like Navy Seals in our fleet of Zodiacs (inflatable boats that allow landings directly onto both sandy and rocky beaches). Half of us are sent on to Cabot Cliffs, just north of town, while Sharon and I and the remainder of the golf-playing passengers tee off at Cabot Links, a superb course that launched in 2011. We’ll get our chance at the Cliffs tomorrow.

One of only a handful of true links in North America, Cabot Links sits on sandy ground between the town and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Holes unfold as if organically along a wind-buffeted shoreline that trails down into the dunes along the ocean and then back to higher ground. Though I have visited several times before, I marvel anew at the subtly molded and strategic design by Canadian architect Rod Whitman, and frequently pause to enjoy the panoramic sea views.

Back on ship, catcalls and good-natured ribbing greet the winners of the longest drive and closest-to-the-pin prizes. Fast friendships are forming among a passenger list heavy on Canadians and Americans. Prominent among us are a former speaker of the Canadian parliament, a former federal cabinet minister, and a Canadian senator. Just two days in, all hands are as happy as pirates after a successful plunder.

Day Three: Cabot Cliffs and Glenora Distillery

Cabot Cliffs should adopt the slogan, “Every bit as good as advertised.” My playing partners and I walk in awe across a two-year-old Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design that early in 2018 Golf Digest ranked No. 9 in the world, ahead of even such heavyweights as Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale. No fewer than eight holes offer endless views of the glittering gulf from soaring seaside bluffs, while inland holes sweep majestically through sculpted dunes and woodlands before returning to the sea. Most unforgettable of all is the 16th, a par three chiseled into a jagged oceanfront cliff.

Oyster shucking contest onboard (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

An oyster-shucking contest heats up on the aft-deck. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

No wonder golfers are flocking to the Resort at Cabot Links. Co-founded by Canadian entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser, the Chicago-based golf impresario behind the success of Bandon Dunes in Oregon, the property offers guest suites overlooking the links, fine dining, and a convivial pub from which One Ocean staff has to eventually drag my foursome.

That evening we dine sumptuously at nearby Glenora Inn and Distillery Resort, purveyors since 1990 of perhaps the finest single malt whisky produced in Canada. Too bad, though, that our reportedly glorious starlit Zodiac ride back to the ship is now a booze-hazy memory.

Day Four: Magdalen Islands

A quiet day, at least for me, on the tranquil French-speaking Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, home to grassy plains, sculpted sandstone shorelines, and charming fishing villages with waterfront homes painted in a palette of vibrant colours. Europeans first discovered the islands in the mid-15thcentury, though indigenous Mi’kmaqs have been visiting for centuries to hunt walrus.

Early morning golf is on offer at an unheralded nine-hole course. But passengers unanimously agree to forego the experience in favour of bicycling or hiking, sea kayaking through sandstone sea arches, or browsing the local shops and patisseries.

Ocean kayaking at Iles de la Madeleine (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Ocean kayaking, hiking and bicycle tours are among the activities offered. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

I opt for a leisurely stroll on the beach and an early return to the ship for a nap, followed by a tour of our floating home. One Ocean Navigator (also known as the Akademik Ioffe, after the noted Russian physicist Abram Ioffe) started life as a Soviet oceanographic research vessel. It is still manned by a Russian crew, although One Ocean staff handles almost all interaction with passengers. The ship, capable of handling 96 passengers, is by no means luxurious, but does offer all the comforts (small gym, sauna, Jacuzzi, plunge pool).

One Ocean is already talking up the impending introduction of the RCGS Resolute, a larger and far more lavishly outfitted ship. The 2019 Fiddles and Sticks cruise, as well as the inaugural Islands of the North Atlantic golf cruise, will sail in grand style.

Day Five: Prince Edward Island

“Well, that’s a first for us!” observes the startled head pro at the Links at Crowbush Cove when our Zodiacs splash ashore not more than a smooth five-iron shot from his clubhouse on the north coast of Prince Edward Island.

Following a day without golf, we eagerly tackle the layout that ignited golf tourism in Canada’s smallest province after Golf Digest named it the country’s best new course of 1994. More than a dozen mostly strong courses opened in its wake.

Links at Crowbush Cove PEI (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

The Links at Crowbush Cove ignited golf tourism in Prince Edward Island. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Set beside the rolling dunes of a white-sand beach, the Links at Crowbush Cove features nine water holes, eight holes that skirt the lee side of the environmentally sensitive dunes, wide and undulating fairways, and green sites that are often severe, full of bumps and hollows and protected by deep-set bunkers. The most difficult obstacle to scoring well at this design by Canadian architect Tom McBroom is the almost constantly howling wind. But our day dawns sunny and calm, and most of us walk off the 18th hole as happy golfers.

Meanwhile, the non-golfers in our group are busy discovering the camera-ready charms of an island of pristine beaches, lighthouses, and red-soil farm fields. Though small in size, Prince Edward Island holds a vital place in Canadian history. An 1864 conference in Charlottetown, the capital city, led directly to Canada’s founding three years later.

Day Six: Highlands Links

An overnight passage northeast across the Gulf of St. Lawrence returns us to Cape Breton and a tee off at Highlands Links, an iconic course in the town of Ingonish that has anchored golf on Canada’s East Coast since 1941.

Returning to the ship by zodiac, with the Magdalen Island lighthouse in the background. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Passengers return to ship by Zodiak following a day of sightseeing on the French-speaking Magdalen Islands. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

One exhilarating shot follows another as we play our way over wildly humped and slanting fairways that snake dramatically through terrain ranging from a pine tree-edged valley floor cut by the charging Clyburn River to rocky outcrops and seaside marshes. Designed by Stanley Thompson, the greatest of all Canadian golf architects, Highlands features painstakingly sculpted views of the ocean and the surrounding mountains. Especially memorable are green complexes made treacherous by the architect’s distinctive hollows, run-offs and bumps.

That evening we gather on the aft-deck for a decidedly one-sided oyster-shucking contest between One Ocean’s excellent guest chef and a crew-member who once worked as a master shucker in a Toronto seafood restaurant. By now our young though impressively experienced crew (some have visited Antarctica a half-dozen or more times) have become our bosom pals. We even forgive Kaylan, the otherwise charming expedition leader, for her jarring early morning wake-up announcements over the ship-wide PA system.

Day Seven: A Sable Island Farewell

Though it might seem unusual for a golf cruise not to conclude with a round of golf, no one thinks of complaining once we get ashore at Sable Island. This narrow, astonishingly beautiful and tranquil crescent-shaped sandbar is set on the edge of the Continental Shelf, about 175 kilometres southeast of the closest point of mainland Nova Scotia.

Sable Island wild horse (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Remote Sable Island is home to a herd of wild horses. (Image: One Ocean Expeditions)

Only a few hundred visitors a year are permitted entry to a national park that’s home to the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals, a herd of about 350 feral horses, more than 300 bird species who pass through this migratory flyway, and four park rangers.

“Sable Island has to be the most humbling experience I’ve ever had,” says one well-travelled member of our troupe. “These shores are as close to Adam and Eve as I’ll ever be.”

Still dazed and awed by the experience, Sharon and I say our goodbyes to our new friends that night before our disembarkation early the next morning in Sydney.  Cell numbers and e-mail addresses are exchanged, together with solemn vows to tee it up again next year with One Ocean in Ireland and Scotland.