I was driving west on Oregon Route 38 on a brilliantly sunny May afternoon, dangling my hand out the window into the cool air rushing by. The broad Umpqua River, blown full of whitecaps by that stiff onshore wind, was on my right. About 200 yards of grassy valley floor was on the left, and above it rose a steep wall of enormous pines.
I travel to a lot of interesting places, but 'Elk Crossing' is not a road sign I see every day. I had seen five of them since setting out from the airport in Eugene. I had nearly wrecked the car that many times taking in the stunning, rustic beauty of southwest Oregon. Now another road sign, one of those brown here's-something-cool signs, informed me that an elk viewing area was coming up on the left. Sure enough, as advertised, here were about two dozen head, munching away at the fescue about halfway between the road and the piney valley wall.
As it turns out, I hadn't seen anything yet.
I don't know why people say it's hard to get to Bandon Dunes, the magnificent golf resort that hangs out over the Pacific Ocean about 25 miles south of Coos Bay. Sure, you might have to take an extra flight -- east coast to Seattle, then hops from Seattle to Portland and Portland to North Bend, plus a 40-minute drive. Or you could do what I did (I hate connecting even once, so three flights was out of the question), which was to fly to Salt Lake City, then to the college town of Eugene. That leaves a comfortable three-hour drive to Bandon. (Both Eugene and North Bend have wonderful airports, the kind with perhaps two baggage belts, no long walks to anywhere, and your rental car literally 50 yards outside the door.)
No, physically it's not that much of a hassle to get here. The real challenge is getting your mind and spirit, beleaguered as they are by the demands of the hurry-up, never-rest, gotta-have-it-yesterday world, to join you. But once you do, they'll never want to leave.
Bandon Dunes is Scotland's long-lost twin, a golf paradise for anyone who truly loves the game in all its windy, bouncy, random, invigorating fullness. Like Scotland, Bandon is one of those rare travel experiences that actually lives up to -- and sometimes exceeds -- the hype.
Coming south on U.S. 101, massive dunes rising as much as 80 feet block your view of the ocean. And it occurs to you that golf grasses, the hardy, salt-air-loving kind, would grow well in such an environment. That has been the turfgrass secret of Bandon, whose rolling terrain is covered in a fine, resilient fescue that hits firm, putts fast, and looks marvelous -- steady medium green with just a hint of tan. There are flat lies to be found here, but not often. The roll of the fairways pleases the eye and challenges the mind, adding to almost every shot the variable of ball height in relation to the player's feet.
And then there is the wind -- insistent, usually northerly, frightening those who left their fortitude at home into pressing too hard. You don't play the wind here; it plays you. Almost like putting, where you hit to a spot and let the fall of the green work with gravity to get your ball to the hole, at Bandon you get it up there and let the wind hammer your shot into shape, glorious or grotesque as luck and your predictive skills allow.
In short, Bandon is links golf at its finest. And this is real links, connecting the beach and inland agricultural fields with a vast ribbon of firm, sandy underlayment for all that magnificent fescue. Add the vegetation, the trees, the yellow broom and gorse, the violet heather and multitude of wildflowers -- if you look in certain directions, it is a Scottish scene straight out of Carnoustie and environs.
But instead of Firth or Sea, you have ocean, the biggest ocean, down a 60-foot bluff and aproned with a wide, driftwood-littered beach. While we played a shakedown nine the other day, a fogbank the size of Scottsdale loomed a few miles offshore. The north-northeast wind held it off.
'That adds another element,' said Skip Luke mildly. Skip is one of the rangers I met while walking the front nine of Bandon Dunes, the first of the three courses here. (Bandon Trails and Pacific Dunes are the others; a fourth is under construction.) Skip, a lightly grizzled fellow firmly in his fifties, is typical of the robust and helpful folks you'll find here -- ready to play golf, or help, any time, any weather.
'Hardly any wind Tuesday,' Skip said. 'Really picking up now. But still, it's pretty playable here.' He took a deep breath. 'Beautiful day.'
Beautiful indeed. If your cares don't fall away here, they are glued onto you too tightly. There are other things to do on the Oregon coast, excellent things -- fishing, hiking, horseback riding, lighthouse touring -- but if you have come to Bandon Dunes, you are here for the golf. Most of our fellow guests were of the 36-hole-a-day variety, no matter how much of a slog those last few exhausted holes might be. Gathered in the restaurants at night, wan smiles at the day's exploits and X-outs alternated with good-natured winces at the ache in one's thighs. But everyone sleeps well, and there is no shortage of enthusiasm over breakfast the next day.
Accommodations at Bandon are eminently comfortable, but not over the top in luxury. Many folks find that pleasing; there is never a sense that some needless ornament or ostentation is inflating the greens fees. My room had a gas fireplace and a brown leather chair that was perfect for reading or ruminating. A small veranda offered a view of an absolutely untouched lily pond, where a frog chorus nightly accompanied the dance of blue-backed swallows as they skimmed the surface in search of insects.
Restaurants on site offer pub-grub comfort or more upscale (but never stuck-up) dining. Once here, there's little reason to leave.
Except that eventually, you must. But if you're a golfer, your mind and spirit will stay.
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