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Gourmet Golf

France's Loire Valley Serves up a Heady Diet of First-Class Cuisine and Bargain Golf
William Echikson
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Baron Marcel Bich, the inventor of the BIC pen and disposable razor, was 68 years old and an avid sportsman. He had sponsored two challenges to win sailing's ultimate award, the America's Cup, and he loved tennis. But when the baron's heart began to fail, a Japanese business partner suggested he switch to golf. The baron took his advice, and was soon impassioned about the game.

His problem was that no golf course of merit existed near his massive hunting estate in the Loire Valley, about an hour and a half southwest of Paris by car. What's a determined billionaire to do? Nothing less than build his own golf resort, and not just any 18 holes. "He wanted a championship course, something that would show the French what golf was meant to be," recalls Jim Shirley, the landscape engineer whom Bich hired along with Houston golf architect Robert von Hagge to realize his dream.

In 1987, Les Bordes Golf Club, the embodiment of that dream, opened. A by-product of the dream's realization is what is arguably the greatest combined culinary/sporting experience on the globe. Scratch golfers and duffers alike can step off the fairways and enjoy the fruits of the Loire Valley's gardens, vineyards and forests at an array of first-rate restaurants.

Golf at Les Bordes inspires superlatives and generous comparisons. The wooded vistas, lush manicured fairways and slick greens suggest Augusta National. Giant fairway traps recall Doral's Blue Monster. Sharp tree-lined doglegs and spectacular water shots smack of TPC at Sawgrass. Les Bordes ties for No. 1 in Europe in the Peugeot Golf Guide, with a rating of 19 out of 20, equaled only by such better-known names as Spain's Valderrama, Scotland's Muirfield and Old Course, and Ireland's Ballybunion. Golf Travel's Guide to the World's Greatest Golf Destinations begins its review, "Of the many golf courses we have played, Les Bordes is perhaps the most memorable."

Amazingly, on a clear, crisp autumn day, my son and I had this most memorable course almost to ourselves. Greens fees? A reasonable $45 on weekdays. After our round, we enjoyed a beer and hot chocolate in the hunting lodge in front of a roaring fireplace under a great cathedral-beamed ceiling. That evening, the chef prepared a sumptuous feast, starting with foie gras followed by delicate venison fillets, which were hunted on the estate, and topped with quince and blackberry gelee. Dessert consisted of a generous cheese course followed by a heart-warming caramelized apple tarte tatin. Everything was washed down by a 1990 bottle of rich, plummy wine from the baron's own St.-Emilion Estate.

What a pity France remains much less known than Spain and Scotland as a European golfing destination. After a giant building boom during the last decade, the country boasts more than 600 courses. These aren't cheap cow pastures, either. Like Les Bordes, many are of championship quality set on an astounding diversity of terrain, from dune courses in the Basque country, to mountain vistas in the Alps, to the Mediterranean perfumes of the Côte d'Azur.

And yet, since the French still have not become golf fanatics, Americans conditioned on $150 resort greens fees will find that almost all of these courses are open to the public at reasonable, even robbery rates. Add legendary Gallic gastronomy, and both scratch players and duffers should be flocking with their clubs across the Atlantic.

When it comes to golfing and gorging, my first choice is the Loire Valley. This historic region is gentle and garden-like, full of rolling farmland and forests, choice vineyards and meandering rivers. Local cooking draws its strength from fresh local raw materials: from magnificent wild mushrooms, like cepes, girolles and chanterelles, to hearty venison and wild boar from the forests, to superb eels or pikes from the rivers. "This is a place to search out solitude, nature, tranquility -- the true values of nature," says Marie-Christine Clément, owner of the two-star Michelin Grand Hôtel du Lion d'Or in nearby Romorantin-Lanthenay. Visit in the spring and autumn to avoid the summer crowds while enjoying the freshest produce and the blooming landscape.

Ever since the Middle Ages, French kings and princes have built spectacular châteaux along the Loire and its tributaries. The region's golden age came under sixteenth-century King Francois I, who hired Renaissance craftsmen from Italy and hobnobbed with Leonardo da Vinci. Even after France's base of power shifted to Paris around 1600, aristocrats continued to erect luxurious palaces here. Today, France's new aristocracy -- its moneyed entrepreneurs such as the Biches -- continue to keep weekend residences in the valley. Happily for tourists, many of the old castles have been converted into luxurious hotels.

Although the French long have preferred endurance tests of soccer and cycling, British vacationers did bring a love for the links across the Channel at the end of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the country's true historic courses are located in the favorite English haunts -- northern Channel resorts such as Le Touquet and on the Atlantic Coast around Biarritz. Then, in the 1980s, a building boom swept the entire country: from only 170 courses in 1987, more than 500 existed by 1992. "Everyone thought that golf was going to become the country's next passion, so they piled in," recalls Les Bordes' director Brian Sparks. Within a 30-minute drive of Les Bordes, more than a half dozen acceptable courses ring the forests and fields. In Cheverny, one pleasant set of 18 holes is built on the grounds of a perfectly preserved eighteenth-century château, where the count still lives on the upper floor and opens his living room to tourists in order to make ends meet.

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