HAMBURG, N.J. -- From the Clara Barton to the Molly Pitcher to the Vince Lombardi service stops, the New Jersey Turnpike stretches long, flat and homogenous, suggesting the Garden State Parkway is convenient to pass through, but alluring only for a bathroom break, a cup of coffee and a massive slice of Sbarro pizza.
There's a New Jersey, however, which bears little resemblance to the bustling stretch of asphalt between the Delaware Memorial and George Washington bridges. In the lightly populated northernmost part of the state, lakes, streams, small towns and the Kittatinny Mountains give Sussex County the pastoral feel of New England.
At Crystal Springs Resort, seven scenic golf courses and three modern lodges are an example of the New Jersey that many are pleasantly surprised to discover.
"There are people from New Jersey who come here and are shocked," said Art Walton, vice president of golf operations at Crystal Springs. "They say, 'I never knew this existed.' "
Word is getting out thanks to Ballyowen Golf Club, ranked the best public course in the state by New Jersey Monthly, NJ Golf and The Jersey Golfer. While links-style Ballyowen (1998) is the star attraction of Crystal Springs' portfolio, six other courses by five different designers offer plenty of diversity.
Crystal Springs Golf Club (1991), the forerunner of the resort, is full of elevation change, fairway moguls, clear spring waters, exposed rock and dramatic views of the mountains. Upon its arrival, the Robert von Hagge design made Golf Digest's top 25 list of best new courses and remains the resort's tightest and toughest test.
Wild Turkey Golf Club (2001) shares the rugged character of adjacent Crystal Springs, before giving way to windswept, links-style golf on holes 12-17. The Roger Rulewich design includes a dazzling collection of par 3s that typify the remarkable property. The seventh plays over a water-filled quarry, often populated by sunbathers. The 10th is a dramatic drop shot off a cliff, where the High Point Monument (New Jersey's high peak) can be seen. The 16th, in the wide-open basin, plays over glistening waters.
The most fun course under the resort's umbrella is Great Gorge Country Club (1970). The George Fazio design, formerly the Great Gorge Playboy Club, has 27 dramatic holes cut through mountainous terrain. It also has a bevy of retro touches, including '70s music blaring on the veranda, period-furnishings in the clubhouse, staffers in tight Loudmouth gear, and a collection of iconic Playboy magazine covers under glass at the bar.
Crystal Springs' most playable offering is Black Bear Golf Club (1996), a Jack Kurlander design that has soft edges. While the course draws recreational players of all levels, the Bear Den Grille appeals to those with refined tastes, serving innovative burgers, paninis and appetizers.
Rounding out the Crystal Springs group are two nine-holers, Cascades Golf Course (2009), which plays to a beefy 3,627 yards, and Minerals Golf Club (1987), a true executive track at 2,305 yards crafted by acclaimed designer Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Cascades is in the resort's hub, which includes the Crystal Springs and Wild Turkey courses along with the luxurious Grand Cascades Lodge. The Adirondack-style hotel includes high ceilings, an indoor tropical biosphere pool complex, a world-class spa and the award-winning Restaurant Latour with the nation's second-largest, and perhaps most elegant, wine cellar that has more than 9,000 varieties.
The must-play course in the group is Ballyowen, a Celtic-style marvel set on an abandoned sand and gravel quarry. On a treeless plateau, much earth was moved in creating lakes and shaping the rolling holes. It's an amazing work, especially considering it was the first solo project of Rulewich, who first gained acclaim helping create the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.
In the absence of trees, Ballyowen has surprising definition thanks to sparkling white sand bunkers and wispy, golden fescue that lines the fairways and intricate green complexes. Highlighting the front nine are holes 5-7, which play around a lake. At 473 yards, the par-4 seventh is the toughest hole on the course, with a green that slopes severely toward the water.
On the scoreable back nine, both of the downhill, dogleg par 5s can be reached in two shots, especially for those who favor a draw. The most dramatic holes are 12 and 13, a pair of par 4s entirely visible from the tee and playing to elevated greens. The first is about strategy, the second about precision. The 18th hole is another arresting par 4 playing toward the clubhouse, downhill to the fairway, uphill to the green.
Many small touches contribute to the allure of immaculately conditioned Ballyowen, including attendants in kilts and knee socks, fish and chips and bacon-wrapped brats in Owen's Pub, and on many afternoons, a bagpiper blowing a mournful tune outside the clubhouse.
Who would expect a modern, first-class, links-style golf course in New Jersey? Like many of the courses in Sussex County, Ballyowen is an enchanting surprise in an unlikely location.