RABAT, Morocco - Morocco's capital city, Rabat, has just one golf club, though it's grand enough to host all of the city's players and plenty more visitors from Europe: Royal Dar es Salam Golf Club, complete with 45 holes of golf, including the heralded Red Course that stages the King Hassan II Trophy each fall.
Although it's the capital and a city of more than 2 million residents, Rabat probably isn't the first city worth visiting in Morocco if you're coming from the U.S. or Europe. Marrakech, the exotic vacation city with its open markets and deserts, makes for a popular first option. And the hustle-and-bustle of Casblanca, one of Africa's largest port cities, is just an hour from Rabat.
But Rabat has its share of historical sights in a much less panicked atmosphere than Casblanca. Royal Dar es Salam Golf Club is another reason to spend a few days here, as the country's most prestigious golf course.
Royal Dar es Salam's Red Course
Golf in Morocco dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, but it didn't really begin to take off until King Hassan II took a liking to it, and he commissioned Rabat's own world-class golf club just minutes from the city center. Royal Dar es Salam (or "House of Peace") was built in 1971 by Robert Trent Jones Sr., set among 1000 shady acres of cork and eucalyptus trees on gently rolling land a few miles inland off the Atlantic coastline.
Shortly after the club opened, King Hassan II got with American PGA Tour legend Billy Casper to recruit the game's top players for a yearly tournament. In the 36 years the King Hassan II Trophy has been staged here, such names as Payne Stewart and Padraig Harrington have competed and won. In 2008 South Africa's Ernie Els made his first visit to Morocco and won the event.
Royal Dar es Salam's Red Course is certainly fit for the best players in the game, stretching to over 7,400 yards and a par 73. It's a classic Jones-type design with large, splashed bunkers and raised greens set through tight, dog-legging fairways that often require some shape to the ball. But there are also some bells and whistles that give the course its royal touch. Roman column ruins were transferred to the back of the course (playing between the 11th and 12th holes) from the nearby ancient city of Volubilis. In fact, Roman fortifications can still be found all over Rabat from its occupation between 40-250 A.D.
The most picture-perfect golf hole is the par-3 ninth. Depending on the tee box, it's a 200-yard shot entirely over water to a very small, shallow green, where lili pads and flamingos wade in between. Flowers and rock formations lurk left of the green and behind. This is where "House of Peace" truly resonates.
Royal Dar es Salam's Blue Course
The second 18, Royal Dar es Salam's Blue Course , is of championship length and quality at 6,600 yards and hosts the annual Princess Lalla Cup, a professional women's event. It features its share of quality holes as well. A third layout, the Green Course , is a shorter, nine-hole, par 32 walk with no par 5s but several long par 4s and some very challenging par 3s.
While the Red Course hosts the country's most prestigious golfers and their guests, it's actually quite affordable, at just 400 DM for 18 holes walking (which is less than $50). The course welcomes visitors year round, just be sure to reserve a time in advance.
Royal Dar es Salam Golf Club features a restaurant. Caddies and buggies are available upon request, and there's a practice and golf instruction center with chipping greens, bunkers and a putting green.
Where to stay in Rabat
Rabat is a traditional Muslim, government city in most spots, though there are a handful of bars and nightclubs going strong at night. And most of the hotels have bars stocked with beer and liquor.
The posh, five-star Rabat Hilton puts up many of the tour pros during the King Hassan II Trophy. Its lobby is enormous and elegant and features plenty of luxurious amenities.
If you want to stay central, just minutes from Rabat's open markets, waterfront, Hassan Tower and more, the contemporary Sofitel Diwan Rabat is a four-star option. It's a little smaller than the Hilton, but features a delicious hot breakfast buffet, fine dining and its own small but usually lively bar area.
Getting to Rabat
Most tourists will want to fly into Casablanca, about an hour's drive from Rabat, through Royal Air Maroc or Air France. Rabat does share a smaller airport with its sister city, Sale, and there are flights by Royal Air Maroc, Jet4You and Air France from Agadir and Paris.