Epicurean golfers looking to enjoy year-round sunshine and two championship courses should look no further than Donnafugata, a luxury resort in Sicily that sits alongside some of Europe’s most scenic mediaeval villages and towns
Fans of the BBC’s imported Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano will need introduction to the attractions of Sicily as a holiday destination. Ruggedly beautiful – and that’s just the actor who plays our swarthy sleuth – this popular TV series has done more to promote the sites and sounds of this spectacular Italian island outpost than any tourist board could hope to achieve, no matter what its budget.
For the uninitiated, Montalbano is Sicily’s answer to Inspector Morse, with the main character being a middle-aged downtrodden policeman who goes around solving gruesome murders, while stopping off in local cafés for espressos and groaning plates of pasta ragu. And what John Thaw’s cynical screen copper did for tourism in Oxford, Montalbano is currently doing for Sicily, with the locations for the series now forming part of an official tour that legions of fans have been signing up for since the show first aired in Italy in 1999 (2012 in the UK).
I’m not sure whether our world-weary inspector is partial to a game of golf when he’s off duty, but the game is certainly another growing part of Sicily’s appeal to overseas visitors, following the opening of a number of world-class resorts on the western coast of the island.
The newest is to be found at Donnafugata, a five-star golf and spa resort located 20 minutes from the coastal port of Comiso. Opened in 2010, Donnafugata’s fortunes have recently been boosted by the opening of a new airport just 10km away. A former military airbase, Comiso opened up to commercial flights last summer, with Ryanair flying in twice a week from Stansted to deposit an increasing number of discerning travellers seeking a flavour of undiscovered Sicily.
Voted the ‘Best Golf Resort in Italy’ by Condé Nast Traveller in 2012, the NH Hotels owned-Donnafugata boasts 202 rooms overlooking two championship 18-hole golf courses. It also features a spa and wellness centre, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and three restaurants. Although the names of the golf courses – Links and Parkland – are rather uninspired, the locations certainly aren’t, and the architects who designed them (Franco Piros and Gary Player respectively) have done a fine job in carving out two eminently enjoyable layouts that will suit the demands of holiday golfers and tour players alike, so much so that the Parkland played host to the European Tour’s Sicilian Open in 2011.
My favourite of the two tracks was the Links course, which enjoys greater variety, with more changes in elevation, interesting water hazards, and is generally a more fun layout to play than its sister course. Gorse-like shrubbery between holes gives it a linksy look, but everything else about it, with the exception of the coastal breezes, is about as far removed from links golf as you could get.
Standout holes on the Links include the first, which, somewhat unfairly, has water running all the way down the left-hand side of the fairway long before you’ve had a chance to get your swing into any sort of groove. The par-four eighth is another tester, requiring a considered play with a three-wood off the tee to a steeply downhill sloping fairway and then a pin-point short iron to an island green that sticks out into the water that we first encountered on the opening hole. My heart was certainly in my mouth as my wedge shot headed towards the putting surface, and the resulting par felt very much like a birdie.
The back nine offers plenty of variety, with the 14th, a par-five that has a split fairway divided by a large pond, being a highlight. The safe option is the larger bail out area on the right, while a much smaller landing area on the left, which also has water on the left, and the pond on the right, gives the shorter shot to a raised green. I closed my eyes and hit a rare draw with my driver that left me in what can only be described as ‘Position A’ – about a foot short of the lake on the left-hand side that gave me only 160 yards to the green. A 6-iron over the flag and two safe putts saw a birdie marked on the scorecard and had me wondering what all the fuss was about!
All in all, the Links is a course that tests not only your shot-making ability, but also your course management skills, and there are very few holes where you can just pull out a driver and smash it. With testing rough, some significant elevation changes, and very few flat greens, the Links always keeps you on your mettle. Yes, the greens could be slightly smoother, and the bunkers in significantly better condition (these are being improved even as I write), but all told it was entertaining from start to finish, and you can’t ask for much more than that from a resort course.
The adjacent Parkland course winds it way through a typically Ragusan landscape (Ragusa is a southern region of Sicily, keep up) of olive and carob trees and, after a fairly pedestrian start, bursts into life at the seventh hole, a sweeping downhill par four played to a green protected by a large lake. The layout gets appreciably more interesting as the round progresses, culminating in the last three holes, where water plays a factor in either your tee shot or approach to the greens at 16, 17 and 18. With a variety of teeing options, you can make it as hard as you like, although it’s never going to be easy, especially with ball-grabbing Bermuda grass making life tough from the rough.
Off the golf courses, the resort’s practice facilities are being currently undergoing major improvements following the signing of a deal to open a Darren Clarke Centre of Excellence, which will ultimately offer a variety of tuition packages for golfers of all abilities, although for now a driving range is all that is offered.
The 202 spacious bedrooms and suites are spread around a U-shaped courtyard that overlooks the golf courses, with the top-floor rooms featuring balconies and the ground floor accommodation offering small private terraces. There are three restaurants on site, including the fine dining Il Carubo, and the more relaxed 19th Hole, which offers a shaded outdoor terrace for long, lingering lunches.
Besides slow-cooked ragu sauces, the food is very fish-orientated in this region, with tuna, octopus, bass and bream being firm menu favourites, while it’s hard to find a dish that doesn’t feature the ubiquitous aubergine in some form or another. Ragusa is also a major wine production region of Sicily, and the reds are robust and earthy, thanks to the rich volcanic soil that is typical of the area. However long your stay, a visit to any number of local trattorias is recommended to get a true flavour of Sicilian cooking, while the two-Michelin starred Locanda Don Serafino restaurant in Ragusa is highly recommended if you want to push the boat out. Located inside a cave tucked into the hillside, a tour of the restaurant’s grotto-like wine cellar is a must for all vinophiles.
Ragusa, the cradle of Sicilian Baroque architecture, is just one many stunning towns located within 30 minutes of the resort that are well worth a visit. Neighbouring Modica, Scicli and Noto are all listed as UNESCO world heritage sites, with cobbled streets, captivating churches, and charming cafés at almost every turn, and, of course, coach-loads of Inspector Montalbano fans looking for the location of a famous scene.
Sicily certainly isn’t yet the place to go for an all-out golfing holiday where you play a different course every day for a week, but if you like a slower pace of life, virtually guaranteed sunshine, and don’t mind long lazy days by the pool punctuated by the odd round between five-course meals, then it will tick all the right boxes.
A four-night stay at Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa, including two rounds of Golf, starts from €1,080, based on two people sharing a double room, The price also includes daily breakfast, two three-course dinners and two lunches. For bookings, visit donnafugatagolfresort.com.