PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND, Canada -- A foursome of the elite golf layouts on Canada's Prince Edward Island are owned and operated by the provincial government. This dream grouping includes The Links at Crowbush Cove, positioned on the north shore; Mill River Golf Course, sheltered in the western reaches of the island; and the duo of Dundarave Golf Course and Brudenell River Golf Course, situated next door to each other on the eastern edges.
These are typically the first layouts visitors hear about when stepping out onto this golfer's paradise. They are also the ones that will continue to fuel PEI's fame as an international golf destination and tout themselves as PEI's finest golf (PEIsFinestGolf.com).
Of the quartet of pillars that keep tourism propped up on Prince Edward Island - golf, beaches, culinary and culture - only one has its own "Stairway to Heaven."
In reality, the newest pillar - golf - joined the group in the early 1990s with the creation of The Links at Crowbush Cove. This lively Thomas McBroom design plays hard along the Gulf of St. Lawrence with no less than nine holes highlighting views of the sea and several others playing in close contact with it. While Crowbush Cove, ranked top 10 in Canada year in and year out, continues to excite golfers across all of its fairways, there's one vantage point in particular that has to be stood upon to be believed.
Overlooking the north shore dunes and beaches of PEI is the far back tee box on hole No. 11. Stand between the "crow" tee markers on this par 5 and just marvel at 360-degrees of glory. From this elevated vantage point, a visitor will be treated to unforgettable vistas of the course and the coast.
Terry Hamilton, the head professional of Crowbush Cove, calls it PEI's "Stairway to Heaven," due to the fact that players have to hike up a 51-step staircase to get to those tips. Once they have reached the summit, they are rewarded with what is known as a "Crowbush moment." The view overlooks Savage Harbor, which means during the late morning golfers can enjoy watching lobster boats going home for the day.
"There's a wide variety of views from up here," Hamilton said. "Inland towards the resort it looks like you are in the Adirondacks somewhere. Up the coast it looks like Scotland or Ireland. When I stand here, I think of North Berwick (the famed seaside links course in Scotland). There's a lot of space out there with all the hills. And a lot of character."
Crowbush Cove is nature mixed with golf at its finest. As a rare Audubon Sanctuary, it also showcases wildlife, native spruce trees and sensitive dune habitats.
"The beauty of coming out here away from it all is you don't hear traffic," Hamilton added. "All you hear are the birds, feel the breeze and smell the sea air."
Joining The Links at Crowbush Cove on the list of upscale courses operated by the government are Mill River, Dundarave and Brudenell River.
As a former host of the Golf Channel's "Big Break," Mill River is probably the second most recognizable name on the island, though it is also the most distant from the downtown hub of Charlottetown. Despite being an 80-minute drive from the capital city, it is well worth the journey across lush and colorful PEI countryside.
Mill River is a mature course with 18 distinct holes flowing through tree-lined corridors with several views of the neighboring namesake Mill River. The 1971 Robbie Robinson design will engage you on a number of holes with its challenges, including a split fairway on hole No. 7, aptly named Hunters Spring. Though relatively short, this 303-yard par 4 is fraught with danger. Do not hit your tee shot down the middle or it may end up wet in one of a series of water hazards. A crisp iron shot is required to attack the green from either the right or the left patch of fairway to an extremely elevated green.
Rounding out the group are the sister courses at Dundarave and Brudenell River. Dundarave Golf Course is a modern design by the award-winning architect team of Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. This course, with its dramatic bunkering style, is considered the "beast" of the two layouts.
Dundarave, which opened for play in 1999, pays tribute to the red sandstone of the region, offering expansive fairways lined at certain junctures by lush pines in full view of the tranquil Brudenell River. In 2006, this venue was considered strong enough to host two of the greatest golfers ever - Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson - in a "Legends of Golf" match.
The native red-colored bunkers help add to the artful patterns that adorn the layout. Unfortunately, they can also be quite scary.
"I ask, 'why?'" Anne Chouinard, head golf professional at the two courses said. "I tell golfers, 'they [the bunkers] aren't going to eat you.' Once players get over the visual intimidation of the bunkers, they appreciate that you always seem to be on one hole and one hole alone."
For those searching for a more traditional design, just cross over to the Brudenell River Golf Course sculpted by Robbie Robinson three decades ago.
"It's and old-time favorite and much more traditional," Chouinard added. "With two such contrasting designs, it is truly a beauty-and-the-beast combination."
As a unique offering of six par 3s, 4s and 5s, the "beauty" — Brudenell River — is accentuated by numerous gardens, lakes and ponds, and also offers a contrasting bunker style to its sister course. Instead of the native red sand, Brudenell River showcases a more traditional white sandy bunker style. It is also an extremely walkable routing, with more holes strolling along down by the river, for those who like to get a little more exercise as they play.
These are just a few of the highlights that golf on Prince Edward Island affords.
More information at GolfPEI.ca, Reservations@golfpei.ca or 1-866-GOLF-PEI (465-3734).