Why Iceland is the next big golf destination

Brautarholt is one of the best golf courses in Iceland.

Brautarholt is one of the best golf courses in Iceland.

Brautarholt is one of the best golf courses in Iceland.

Golf World Top 100 editor Chris Bertram spent a week playing Iceland’s golf courses and returned convinced this island in the Arctic Circle has everything required to make it a bucket-list destination.

I have played golf in 57 countries in pretty much all corners of the world – from Nicaragua to Norway and Oman to New Zealand – and I’ve never returned from any of them more exhilarated, enthused and frankly bemused by what I had experienced than I did after my trip to Iceland.

I had seen pictures of a couple of its courses and you hear the odd mention about them – and of course, I knew a reasonable amount about the breathtaking natural beauty of the whole country. But not until you are standing there with the jaw-dropping splendour in front of your own eyes does it properly hit you.

Brautarholt.

Its climate is less attractive than Britain’s (which gives it a short golf season) and it is not cheap by any standard, but if you have an ounce of adventure in your body, Iceland should be on your wishlist.

Some golfers might not enjoy playing its courses every week, because they are eccentric and an assault on the senses. But as a distinctive, almost other-worldly experience, I find it hard to believe it is surpassed by many countries as a memorable destination.

It may surprise you to read that, and here is another shock for you… there are 60 courses on the island! For a population of 300,000.

The good news is that I’ve done the ‘hard’ work for you and whittled these 60 down to 11 for you to choose from. If 11 sounds like a lot in even a week’s holiday, it is actually very doable because some are just nine holes. There are other solid courses on the island that I went to but my view is that people don’t go to Iceland in order to play a solid parkland course.

Oddur, Reykjavik Grafarholt, Reykjavik Korpa, Akranes and Borgarnes are exactly that. Selfoss, Akureyri, Hella and Mosfellsbær have more pizzazz but don’t make my cut, which is fairly brutal as they are lovely and often exhilarating. There are just too many other ludicrously exciting courses to fit in.

Anywhere else in the world and their respective settings would feel like a breathtaking location for a course, surrounded on all sides by expansive mountain views. In Iceland, they are merely the standard.

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I’m going to split the 11 into three groups: the must plays (although I am prepared to accept the other eight that follow are pretty much as spectacular in their own way); the Reykjavik extras; and the ring road options.

Brautarholt is one of the best golf courses in continental Europe.

Golf in Iceland: The must plays

Brautarholt (above) is within an hour of the capital and is a bewitching 12 holes set on cliffs. When you’re not looking at the sea and rocks, you’re firing toward gorgeous mountains. Local architect Edwin Roald made a fine job of maximising the site. More holes are being added, but to me 12 is perfect. I’d say it is surpassed only by Lofoten in Norway in terms of its beauty.

Westman Island (below), or Vestmannaeyjar to give it its local name, runs Brautarholt close for immense aesthetic appeal though. If someone said they felt it was even more beautiful, I wouldn’t disagree. Mountains that reach hundreds and hundreds of feet into the sky mix with classic seascapes of crashing waves, spray and imposing black rocks. There are also some wonderful holes among a lava field. Unquestionably epic. You need to take a 30-minute ferry from the south of the island (two hours from Reykjavik) to get there.

Westman Island.

Keilir (below) has a front nine that runs through a lava field and is wonderful if tough. If you miss the fairway your ball is bouncing around on the black treacle that lines the green ribbons of grass. The back nine plays around the bay with some elevated tee shots.

Ink those into your itinerary, and then consider adding on one or two of the next section if you have more than just two days in Iceland. They are all easily accessed from the Reykjavik area.

Keilir.

Golf in Iceland: The Reykjavik extras

Two to play right out of the airport (or before your flight back if it’s in the evening) are Sudurnes – which darts back and forth on a gently sloping site down to the sea and includes an all-world 3rd to an infinity green – and Grindavik, which is bisected by a road and has seaside holes on one side and cool green complexes on the other.

‘Ness’, locally called Nesklúbburinn, sits on a tiny peninsula 10 minutes from the city centre. It is set down in a triangle around the clubhouse, so you are playing alongside the for many holes. It won’t win architectural awards but is absolutely dreamy.

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Moving inland, Hveragerdi has a gorgeous setting in the mountains, with a real feel of Alpine golf. There are some modest holes but also some absolute beauties. It is close to Golden Circle attractions, (see below) as is Geysir – a fun nine holes in another idyllic setting. A river bisects the course and is used to good effect to add drama.

Golf in Iceland: Ring road options

Sigló, right in the north (12 o’clock if you imagine Iceland as a clock face), is laid out at the foot of mountains that surround the course on all but one side, the other side giving views down to the town of Siglufjordur, where Netflix series ‘Trapped’ was filmed. Renovated by Roald, it is an absolute delight.

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Hornafjordur lies on rolling land on the edge of the sea, with spectacular views and shots to take on. It’s in the south-east of the island (4 o’clock) so takes a bit of getting to, but is worth it.

Finally, Vik sits on the other side of the ring road from the iconic eponymous black sand beaches (6 o’clock). It plays back and forth at the bottom of the mountains. Greens are cut into the side of the slopes. Another unforgettable experience, and close to the ferry terminal to get to Westman Island.

Golf in Iceland: Off the course

Golf should be just one aspect of your trip here, however long you’re staying. A bit like the golf courses, there is a long list of possibilities but here are a few of the unmissable experiences…

The Golden Circle lets you explore some of Iceland’s geological wonders in one spectacular three-to-four-hour drive. Stop by Thorofuss National Park for some wild and rugged Game of Thrones sets, try some of the legendary ice cream at homey farm Efstidalur II, watch water shoot metres up out of the earth at the geysers of Strokkur and be left speechless by the power and size of the mighty Gullfoss waterfall. 

Walking in the Blue Lagoon natural thermal spa with a pint of local beer in hand and a mud mask on your face is a surreal but unmissable experience. Or, for a more rustic and wholesome pampering session, simply take an easy hike to the bath-like springs of Reykjadalur Valley. 

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Further afield, you’ll find some of the best whale watching in the world around Husavik, the ‘Whale Watching Capital’ in the north, not to mention many more majestic waterfalls and snow-topped mountain ranges. Horse trekking along black-sand beaches and glacier hiking are found around every corner.

Those who venture as far as the west coast are rewarded with the sensational view of the basalt column-filled Studlagil Canyon, while the ethereal Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – where massive chunks of ice float in the lagoon and eventually the sea – is an extraordinary sight.

For authentic local eats, it doesn’t get any better than the iconic beer (go for Boli over Gull) and chips combo at Reykjavik Chips, found in the centre of what has the be one of the most quaint capital cities in the world. 

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Golf in Iceland: Our 10 top tips for the perfect break

Car hire 

Iceland is not cheap so to save a couple of days of car hire if you’re here for a week, rent one from the airport for a few days then deposit it in the city centre while you explore Reyjkavik. Then pick a new one up after two days for the rest of your stay. We hired with local firm Blue Car and global giant Europcar and for various reasons they were both absolutely brilliant.

Short break or holiday?

For a week you can do the ring road and have the trip of a lifetime but NB, you’ll use a lot of fuel – around £140. But it’s worth it.

Three-day itinerary

If you’re there for three days, stick to the 6pm-12pm part of the Icelandic clock and prioritise Brautarholt, Westman Island, Keilir plus the Golden Circle attractions and a few hours exploring Reyjakvik.

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Week-long itinerary

Brautarholt, Keilir, Westman Island and maybe Geysir, Sudurnes, Grindavik, plus add in Siglo, Hveragerdi and Vik as you drive round the ring road. Bear in mind some are nine holes and one 12 and they are almost always just a few minutes’ drive off the ring road.

Trust the AirBnBs 

Did we say Iceland is expensive? Accommodation is definitely not cheap but use AirBnBs because they are wonderful and often in lovely family homes where you’ll be made so welcome.

Fish and chips = a delicacy

Whatever you think of as the best fish and chips you’ve had, it’s in for a real test in Iceland. The chips are great but the fish is just out of this world. And often served in chippies with a good selection of local beers.

Watch Trapped first

Partly joking here. It is a great series and spotting all the things you’ve come to know so well in Siglufjordur and elsewhere is a lot of fun. Watch it here.

Take your clubs

You can hire here and there but the clubhouses are not lavish affairs. Plus, you’ll want to have your own clubs for these once-in-a-lifetime courses.

Take all your weather gear 

You think the conditions change quickly in Britain? That is nothing compared to Iceland. Pack your waterproofs and jumper and never take them out your bag – you honestly just never know in Iceland, even from June to August.

Don’t change currency

It’s a waste of commission – you can use your card anywhere and everywhere.

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