Vilamoura is at the centre of the 'Golden Triangle' and after a short journey from Faro Airport our first port of call is Arnold Palmer’s spectacular Victoria course, a relatively new star in Vilamoura which has hosted the Portugal Masters since 2007. It was a tough baptism. The Victoria, 7,300 yards from the tips, is a serious test when the wind is blowing given it is strewn with huge bunkers and water hazards. There’s a big finale in the form of a 600-yard uphill par-5 penultimate hole with water all the way down the right followed by an equally demanding and similarly ascending par 4, water this time protecting the left side.
Next up is the Old Course. Opened in 1969 and renovated in the mid 1990s, this Frank Pennick design is a must play. Every hole is flanked by a combination of cork trees and mature pines. The opening three holes set the tone – find the fairway or else! The magnificent stroke index 1 8th is a 460- yard par 4 that requires a long drive to the left of the fairway to open up the climbing approach to a green guarded by sand and trees. Take a par here and run.
The Millennium course is a par 72 comprising of nine holes from the formerly 27-hole Laguna layout and a brand-new nine. The result of this 2000 creation is a fun and varied test of just over 6,700 yards from the competition tees. The majority of the course is a wide, open your-shoulders type, but there is a surprise in store as you cross the road on the front nine to play holes three to seven. These resemble the Old Course, with fairways flanked by tall timber and demanding accuracy.
Quinta do Lago
The North course is a good all round test without being overly demanding – which was the architects’ aim. It’s a resort course after all and, sure enough, opens with a gentle downhill par 4.
Another superstar is San Lorenzo, which is packed with unforgettable holes. The stretch from 5 to 7 is comfortably the most memorable in the Algarve. The 5th is a dinky par 3 played over a valley with an Atlantic backdrop while the following hole is a spectacular sharp left dog-leg par 4 playing along the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve. The equally stunning 7th does likewise. The handiwork of American achitects Rocky Roquemore and Joseph Lee, San Lorenzo has been entertaining golfers since 1988 and is owned by JJW Hotels, whose luxury, recently re-furbished Dona Filipa hotel overlooks the Atlantic on the neighbouring Vale do Lobo resort.
Vale do Lobo
Vale do Lobo’s chief attractions are the superb Royal and Ocean courses with the assortment of bars, shops and restaurants at the beachside Praca complex providing a great place to unwind in the evenings. The lively Monty’s bar & restaurant is particularly popular. The VdL courses are always in mint condition whenever you play even though they both receive relentless playing ‘traffic’. Both courses are an absolute must for visitors to the area, again providing some of the most spectacular holes you’re likely to play in continental Europe.
You certainly won’t face a more thrilling and nerve-wracking par 3 than the Royal’s 16th, played over a gaping clifftop chasm. Walk off with a par or better from its green and you’ll be in sun-dappled golfing heaven – a phrase that aptly sums up the central Algarve in general.