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Square Meal took advantage of the year-round sunshine and short-hop flight to discover a golfer’s paradise in a rugged corner of South-Eastern Spain
It’s only a few hours since we left London, but, as we turn off the motorway onto dusty roads carving through a lunar landscape, this could be another continent altogether. So when Desert Springs looms over the horizon, a 750-acre, mini-metropolis of colourful, low-rise buildings and lush greenery set in Europe’s only desert, there’s something of a film set about it. The comparison seems all the more pertinent when we learn that the Tabernas desert is chiefly renowned for its role in some of the most famous spaghetti westerns ever made: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars to name a couple.
In 1985, Robert Hitchins, a UK-based property developer, looked at this barren, inaccessible expanse of land and recognised its potential. Spain was preparing to enter the EC, and the government was seeking private groups to respond to public investment in the country. So his Dubai-style vision – the raising of a luxury resort with lush greenery and a beautifully manicured golf course from the sand – was not just the product of a vivid imagination. The area is flanked by a horseshoe of mountains that protect the region from cloud and rain, affording it the warmest winters on the continent, and opens onto a 20-mile wide bay which tempers the intensity of the summer heat: the perfect climate for leisure tourism.
Fast-forward to 2008, and this vision has been realised. Budget air travel has opened up the area to leisure tourists and corporate groups from across Europe. Just a two-and-a-half-hour flight away and with three international airports located within a two-hour drive, it’s possible to reach these balmy climes more quickly than Cornwall.
Desert Springs is built around a beautifully manicured championship golf course, its fairways set amidst cacti, rock and desert flora. The Spanish colonial-style apartments, townhouses and country villas, interspersed with swimming pools and elegant courtyards, are all privately owned. Since its creation in 1999, the resort has thrived during its peak season – from March to October – and construction of a 130-bed hotel and another golf course are destined for completion within three years.
With six full golf courses in the region, of which Desert Springs is the most highly regarded, this is undoubtedly a destination for groups that primarily want to play golf, and the resort counts a number of high-profile sportsmen such as Ian Botham and Daley Thompson among its property owners. At its heart, the testing 72 par, 18-hole USGA Indiana golf course, designed by former Great Britain and Ireland team captain Peter McEvoy, has hosted some top international tournaments and it’s also the overseas home of England’s national squad.
As you’d expect, golf plays a major role in the events held at Desert Springs. Organisers who are looking for conference facilities might find the resort too leisure-orientated – there’s no internet access in the event spaces – but this approach lends itself to ‘work-and-play’ corporate getaways. Quantity surveyors Potter Raper chose Desert Springs as the venue for its 12-strong partners meeting, held over a weekend in June. ‘We decided to try a venue out of the country and do something different,’ says Mike Neilan, a partner at the firm, who was in charge of organising the trip, ‘and getting away from the office is great for bonding.’
Technically well judged and aesthetically striking, the course and extensive practice facilities are, naturally, a significant draw for corporate groups as well as for the professionals. ‘They do everything with an eye for detail – a lot of money has been spent and it shows,’ says Neilan. ‘The practice facilities – the driving range, putting and chipping greens – are fantastic.’
However, the resort’s popularity owes just as much to its unstuffy approach, which attracts an ever-increasing number of women. The club also welcomes beginners, who can take lessons with one of the resident PGA-qualified teaching pros. And there are plenty of options away from the golf course. ‘We had our meeting on Saturday with drinks and a buffet lunch then a couple of days’ leisure around that. The range of facilities meant that individuals could do what they wanted,’ Neilan adds. Indeed, the Sierra Sports and Fitness club includes a well-equipped gym, a football pitch and tennis courts. Swimming pools and sun terraces abound, catering for the less active, and there’s a homely day spa run by a cheerful therapist.
With lodging for around 200, the on-site restaurants are used to catering for large numbers. The casual, Africa-inspired Crocodile Club restaurant serves fun cocktails, gigantic pizzas, pastas, burgers and steaks. Alternatively, there’s more formal dining on offer at El Torrente in the main clubhouse, where the kitchen majors in traditional Spanish food – local seafood especially – and the space can be used for lunches and gala dinners overlooking the 18th hole.
Overall, however, our favourite space was the Cave Bar, a grotto that was discovered during the construction of the golf course, which Potter Raper selected for their main meeting. A party of 12-16 guests can be seated on rustic, high-backed chairs around the striking table carved from a tree trunk, while further private spaces, including a screening suite and a billiards and snooker room, are tucked away in a swish pair of country houses. For larger events there’s a 180-capacity marquee that’s often used for golf tournaments.
While it has the characteristic warmth and confidence of a family-run operation, Desert Springs is not lacking in ambition. Unconstrained by space, it continues its development in harmony with this unexploited region, drawing increasing numbers of homebuyers and tourists with its blend of year-round sunshine and top-notch facilities. Desert this may be, but these days the tumbleweed is long gone.
The Almanzora Group, tel: 01242 680116
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2008.