COUNTY DONEGAL, Ireland -- It's time to put aside the notion that the links of northwest Ireland are an "up-and-coming" or "undiscovered" destination.
This beautiful and unspoiled region of Ireland -- and we're talking about Northern Ireland, too -- is home to one-sixth of the world's links courses. They're spread out like outposts along the coast, often with an hour or more of driving between them. Thankfully, the roads have improved, and in some cases, new ones have been built. Taking car ferries to hop between the finger-like peninsulas of land in the north is part of the charm of a golf trip here.
Perhaps no place embodies the growth of the region better than Ballyliffin, once a sleepy fishing village isolated at the tip of the Inishowen Peninsula. The Ballyliffin Golf Club's Old Links and Glashedy Links today rate among the best conditioned links in the world, thanks to recent improvements and the installation of an irrigation system. (Yes, irrigation does help, even in rain-soaked Ireland). When combined with a stay at the fine Ballyliffin Lodge Hotel & Spa just a kilometer away, Ballyliffin is now a world-class links destination as good as any.
"The Northwest has risen to prominence in golf and accommodations," said John Farren, the general manager at Ballyliffin. "The tradition of links is stronger here. We have nothing to fear from our peers. We are as good as the best in the world. You don't get such a caliber of links in such close proximity.
"In recent years, we've seen a break from the tradition of the Southwest. We have great value for the money. Sometimes, I think we undersell ourselves, but the quality of the courses is unrivaled."
The golf world has noticed. Northwest Ireland, as a whole, was named the European Golf Destination of the Year in 2011 by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. Golfers heading to Ireland have always hit the Southwest first, mainly to check off top-100 courses such as Waterville Golf Links and the Old Course at Ballybunion Golf Club and Old at Lahinch Golf Club. That mindset is slowly changing. What the Northwest lacks in ranking star-power, it makes up for in value and charm.
The "West loop"
Itineraries can vary on how to best tackle the Northwest. Those who land in Shannon Airport should hit the western-most loop of links, starting with Connemara Isles Golf Links and then head north to Carne Golf Links, followed by a turn east toward Enniscrone Golf Club, County Sligo Golf Club (also called Rosses Point), Donegal Golf Club (also called Murvagh) and, if time permits, Narin and Portnoo Golf Club.
The highlight of this loop would be the gorgeous setting at County Sligo in the shadow of Benbulben Mountain and the dunes of Enniscrone, some of the largest in the world. I've heard nothing but glowing reviews of the wild dunes of Carne (also called Belmullet), but it's one of the few Irish links I've not seen in person. Lesser-known links -- Strandhill Golf Course and Bundoran Golf Club -- reside near County Sligo, an H.S. Colt classic.
The "East loop"
It's an entirely different experience landing at crowded Dublin International Airport on the overnight flight from New York, Chicago or Atlanta. The three-hour trek to Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Resort might sound painful, but it's actually a good way to fight off the grogginess of little sleep on the plane.
Rosapenna is a place of spoils. This four-star retreat -- one of the oldest golf resorts in the world, circa 1893 -- boasts the Vardon Restaurant overlooking Sheephaven Bay, a warming room where golfers put their wet gear to dry, a 15-meter pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna. Its links are great contrasts. Sandy Hills cuts through severe dunes. The back nine of Rosapenna's Old Tom Morris Course sits in the flatter valley next to the bay and is infinitely enjoyable.
From this starting point, golfers can head east, making their way back toward the airport. A short drive will reveal Portsalon Golf Club, a lovable links set on a scenic beach. The only quirk in the routing is a metal roof covering an underground beach walkway that cuts through the first and last fairways.
From there, golfers should ferry over the Lough Swilly or drive around it to reach Ballyliffin. Although Ballyliffin's location is remote, it's hardly cut off from civilization, another stereotype that should be debunked. From Ballyliffin, golfers can take the ferry over the Lough Foyle to reach the great links of Northern Ireland or head three hours back toward the airport. That route isn't ideal, but it's doable with a capable bus driver.
The links of Northern Ireland
The links of Northern Ireland can start or end a trip as well or be combined with various other links. Those landing in Belfast have the best access to the first tee at Royal County Down, the seaside wonder in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne. Consider a pit stop at the Ardglass Golf Club, a short but scenic cliff-top course with a castle for a clubhouse.
About another hour's drive north up the coast reside the Castlerock Golf Club, Portstewart Golf Club and the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush Golf Club, home of the 2012 Irish Open, all stacked up within minutes of each other.
This is one of my favorite stops in the Emerald Isle for its mix of tourist attractions and golf. Save time for dinner at the Bushmills Inn and a tour of the Old Bushmills Distillery. The ruins of Dunluce Castle and Giants Causeway are two wonders along the shore.