Golf in the mountains, golf in the valleys, golf by the sea—the game is alive and well in Northern California, where courses began springing up like wildflowers about 15 years ago. Plan your trip accordingly, with reservations at a charming inn or golf resort, then pack your golf duds and sunscreen, throw the clubs in the car and get away for a few days.
1. Sierra Foothills
Play: Golf options abound in the foothills, and unless you love driving the potentially nauseating curves of Highway 49, your best bet is to choose one area and stick with it for the weekend. Just off Interstate 80, The Ridge Golf Club in Auburn lures golfers who like elevation changes and lots of sand. The Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed 18-hole course has 48 bunkers and several water holes in 170 acres, so be ready for a challenge. DarkHorse Golf Club, also in Auburn, has 18 holes and wide, open greens running across an oak-dotted ridge. Up Highway 50 in Camino, Apple Mountain Golf Resort tucks into the rolling hills just past Placerville, giving golfers a challenging 18 holes against a gorgeous backdrop of pines and madrone. In Calaveras County, two resort courses light up the landscape: Saddle Creek and Greenhorn Creek resorts. Designed by Carter Morrish and surrounded by the golden hills of the Motherlode, the 18-hole Saddle Creek, in Copperopolis, stretches 6,800 yards from the back tees. At Greenhorn Creek in Angels Camp, an 18-hole championship course, customize your game according to your ability—five sets of tees allow lots of wiggle room.
Stay: For the full golf resort experience, grab one of the guest cottages at Greenhorn Creek. Two- or three-bedroom units come with full kitchen amenities, a deck with barbecue grill, high-speed Internet access . . . all the comforts of home, and close to the pool, fitness center and tennis courts.
For a Rare Treat: Pop over to Murphys for an inspired meal at Mineral, a vegetarian place that has been known to beckon even hard-core carnivores. Order a papaya avocado salad with Mexican vanilla vinaigrette and pickled cabbage, then try the black sesame potato-crusted farmhouse tofu with pineapple .
2. Lake Tahoe
Play: At Northstar at Tahoe near Truckee, you’ll find yourself in the sun for half the course, then in the shade for the next nine holes. The Brad Bell-designed Coyote Moon, also near Truckee, winds through the pines, yet provides roomy fairways and a virtuous good feeling that you’re golfing a course that’s been recognized by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program—that means it’s more environmentally correct than many courses. Like Coyote Moon, Old Greenwood is part of Tahoe Mountain Club; designed by Jack Nicklaus and certified as a signature sanctuary by Audubon International, it’s 18 holes of challenging play. Tee off among the pines and sage—the latter so fragrant during summer months, you’ll want to bottle it. The Resort at Squaw Creek, pretty with Sierra peaks circling the course, is a championship course with lots of marshes. Bordering Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, the spectacularly scenic Edgewood was designed by George Fazio in the late ’60s. It remains Tahoe’s most famous golf course, perhaps in part because of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, which has drawn big-name celebs here every July for the past 20 years.
Stay: Spend the night at the new Ritz-Carlton Highlands, Lake Tahoe, a 170-room five-star luxury resort perch-ed mid-mountain in Northstar. Open about six months, it’s a retreat in itself, with a restaurant and spa, and fireplaces and goose down comforters in each room.
For a Great Meal: On South Shore, join the party at Naked Fish Sushi, where the place often is packed, the sushi creative, the sake easy to overdo. Top off your meal with an order of tempura cheesecake. In Truckee, head up to Cottonwood Restaurant & Bar, which overlooks downtown. During the summer, take a table on the deck at sunset, order appetizers and drinks, then stick around to listen to live music.
3. Northern Sierra
Play: In the Mohawk Valley about six miles outside Graeagle on Highway 89, Whitehawk Ranch invites golfers to play among streams, ponds and waterfalls, and numerous stands of pine and aspen trees. The par-71, 6,983-yard course was designed by Dick Bailey and, with four sets of tees on each hole, promises a challenge to any level of player. While you’re in the area, check out two other 18-hole courses in Graeagle: Plumas Pines, a championship course along the middle fork of the Feather River, and Graeagle Meadows, a par-72 championship course that plays 6,725 yards.
Stay: The Lodge at Whitehawk rents 14 private cabins. Reserve the one-bedroom “on the pond” cabin, special because it overlooks the fly-fishable trout pond. Believe it or not, wireless Internet access is available in all cabins, but here’s our advice: Leave the electronics at home and simply enjoy the alpine getaway. Another recommendation: Stay on the compound for dinner and try the chicken piccata.
Off the Course: Venture into the Lakes Basin Recreation Area for a hike to the Sierra Buttes lookout. About 5 miles round trip, and a good workout, the hike passes several lakes and wildflower-packed meadows. It culminates in a 200-step rise to a lookout tower that affords a 360-degree view that can stretch to the Sacramento Valley and Mount Lassen.
4. Mount Shasta
Play: The 14,000-foot snow-topped behemoth backdrops two of Northern California’s most scenic golf courses, Lake Shastina in Weed and Mount Shasta Resort, both off Interstate 5. Let the majestic peak bring you luck as you play the 27 holes (including a 3,009-yard, nine-hole Scottish links-style course) at Shastina and the short (6,073 yards), pine-laden course at Mount Shasta Resort. Head east on Highway 299 to Fall River Mills to Fall River Valley Golf and Country Club, which at 7,365 yards runs over rolling terrain. Warm up on the driving range by trying to hit the old tractor placed there as a target.
Stay: For a luxurious getaway, reserve the one-bedroom premium lakeside chalet at Mount Shasta Resort. With its gas fireplace, leather furnishings and flat-panel TV, the cabin also has a full kitchen, which makes it easy to grab coffee and breakfast before teeing off.
Eat Out: Make the few-mile drive to Dunsmuir to experience Cafe Maddalena; you’ll find dishes inspired by Spanish, French and Italian cuisine. Linger at a table under the arbor with pretty white lights and indulge in such delights as Gruyere cheese puffs or steamed mussels in yellow curry.
5. Bodega Bay/North Coast
Play: At The New Links at Bodega Harbour, near Bodega Bay on the Sonoma Coast, you’ll feel like you’re in Scotland, surrounded by grassy ocean views. The course was renovated in 2007 and 2008, stripped of Poa Ana grass and replaced by bentgrass. The final three holes sit at the edge of the Pacific—so scenic you’ll vow that you’ll be back. A fun, Scottish links-style course designed by Robert Muir Graves, The Sea Ranch Golf Links puts you on the edge of the world, by the sea, among the wind and the deer. Farther north on Highway 1 just south of Mendocino, discover the nine-hole Little River Inn course, one of America’s greenest; a reservoir system captures winter rainwater, which then irrigates the course through siphons and gravity rather than electricity. (Superintendent Terry Stratton recently won the Environmental Leaders in Golf award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and Golf Digest.)
Stay: The obvious choice is Little River Inn, the 65-room property alongside the golf course. Go for one of the nine ocean-view luxury suites that hug the Mendocino coastline. Most have king-size beds, fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Order dinner from room service and hang out on the deck, lingering over a bottle of Mendocino County wine.
A Road Trip: Go north to Fort Bragg and go farther north—12 miles beyond Fort Bragg, in fact—to Pacific Star Winery to do a little wine-tasting. Try the It’s My Fault, a blend of Charbono, Carignane and Syrah, named for the fault line that was discovered four years ago under Pacific Star’s wine cellar. The view out here goes on forever: steep cliffs, crashing waves, rolling ocean all the way out to the edge of the deep blue sky.
6. Half Moon Bay/San Francisco
Play: A golf trip to this part of the Bay Area gives you lots of options, starting with the two courses at the Half Moon Bay Golf Links. The 18-hole Old Course runs through cypress trees and around lakes, and you better hope for a stiff onshore breeze on the 18th hole—otherwise, a big salty water hazard awaits. The Ocean Course, another 18 holes, links-style and treeless, also finishes beautifully along the bluffs. While you’re in the area, cruise up to San Francisco to play the Presidio—6,477 hilly yards under Monterey pines and fragrant eucalyptus—and the old munis Harding Park (27 holes, including the Fleming Course, alongside Lake Merced) and Lincoln Park (adjoining the city’s prestigious Seacliff neighborhood, near the Legion of Honor). Harding Park underwent a controversial $16 million renovation a few years ago and hosted The President’s Cup in 2009.
Stay: Where else but the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay? Splurge on a Club Level suite, and you’ll have a dedicated concierge and round-the-clock drinks, snacks and sweets. Reserve an ocean-view room with a king-size bed, marble bath, plush robes and all the Internet access you’ll ever need. The on-site restaurant and spa round out the resort experience.
Up the Road: Between Half Moon Bay and San Francisco on Highway 1, stop where you see the long line of people gathered outside what looks like an orange train car. Gorilla Barbeque, started four years ago by a couple of guys from Pacifica, lures ’em in for pork ribs, chicken, hot links, beef brisket and pulled pork. (You’ll find veggies on the menu, too.) Grab a combo and head for the beach.
Play: In the “sip it, grip it and rip it” tradition of wine country golf, the 18-hole Chardonnay Golf Club beck-
ons those who like to whack the ball among the grapevines. Get out there in the early morning and catch Napa’s wildlife: rabbits, foxes, hawks and, sometimes, bobcats. At Silverado Resort, also in Napa, 36 holes await on the North and South courses. Classic courses of rolling terrain dotted with enormous pines and water crossings, these courses were designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Play Eagle Vines Golf Club, and you’ll enjoy a Johnny Miller-designed course—the Napa area’s newest public course, and loaded with hills, brooks and waterfalls. Cruise over to Sonoma to explore the Sonoma Golf Club, a semi-private facility that’s open to members and guests of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. A championship layout that opened in 1928, this 177-acre course winds between vineyards and oaks, around lakes, amid incredible views of the Mayacama mountain range.
Stay: Add spa treatments to your game with a stay at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, where rooms range from your basic four walls and a clean bathroom to luxurious suites with whirlpool tubs, fireplaces and plush sitting areas. “Take the waters” in the spa’s thermal mineral pool, filled with water that flows naturally from 1,100 feet beneath the ground at 135 degrees.
Sip: In wine country, it’s imperative to take time to taste the product. The Napa and Sonoma valleys are rife with wineries, from little mom and pop operations off the back roads to huge conglomerations off Highway 29. Book a tasting tour at the spectacular Jarvis Winery, outside Napa on Monticello Road. The tour costs $40 and takes you into the 45,000-square-foot wine cave that tunnels into the Vacas Mountains. You’ll also taste six wines, including
8. Capay Valley
Play: Out here, it’s all about Yocha Dehe Golf Club, owned by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and managed by Troon Golf. Located in Brooks and designed by Brad Bell, the 7,300-yard course slips in between the golden hills of the Capay Valley. Play 18 holes and watch out for water hazards; they’re abundant, as is the scenery on the back nine.
Stay: Stick around and stay at the Cache Creek Casino Resort, the 200-room luxury hotel adjacent to the golf course. Indulge in some spa treatments, sunbathe by the pool, dine at any of the nine restaurants on the premises and try your luck at the gaming tables. You never know . . .
Farm Country: The Capay Valley is home to a number of organic farms, many of which feed Sacramento and the Bay Area through community-supported agriculture. The second Saturday of every month, visit the Capay Valley Farmers Market in Esparto Community Park. This month, keep your eyes open for strawberries, beets, garlic, radishes, grapefruits, lemons and lots of fresh flowers.
Play: As any golfer knows, the Monterey Peninsula is packed with great courses. Whether you play the Pebble Beach Resorts courses (Pebble Beach, The Links at Spanish Bay, Spyglass Hill and Del Monte) or try your game at Poppy Hills or the Bayonet and Blackhorse courses—redesigned in the past couple of years and earning rave reviews as 36 of the best holes on the peninsula—you can be assured of a challenging, intensely scenic game. Jack Nicklaus said if he could only play one more round, he’d choose to do it at Pebble Beach. And no wonder, with its position on the tumbling Pacific Coast. The biggest tournaments come to Pebble Beach: The 2010 U.S. Open Championship takes place here June 14–20. To play away from the coast, drive out to Carmel Valley to the course at Quail Lodge—it’s often sunny out here when the fog’s socked in near the beach. Also in the sunny valley, Carmel Valley Ranch has been undergoing a resort renovation, but the Pete Dye-designed golf course remains open.
Stay: While The Lodge at Pebble Beach and the Inn at Spanish Bay provide beautiful, luxurious accommodations, Pebble Beach’s Casa Palmero truly charms with its more intimate, Mediterranean style. Reserve a spa room or courtyard suite, and you’ll have a personal jetted spa on your patio—perfect to stew in after a day on the green. Between Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach, some 14 restaurants and bars grace the lineup. Try Stillwater Bar & Grill for the seafood bar or Roy’s for energetic Hawaiian fusion cuisine.
Get Out on the Water: Whale watching goes on year-round in Monterey. The California gray whales have just completed their migration, but boats continue to go out all summer long to spot humpbacks, blue whales and dolphins. Bring your Dramamine and binocs, and take a ride on one of Monterey’s whale-watching charter boats.