Nick Bayly pays a long overdue return visit to the sporting oasis that is La Manga Club to find a much-changed resort whose centrepiece hotel, the Grand Hyatt, has recently undergone an impressive renovation
One of the few upsides to the global pandemic – and I grant that there were very few – was that it caused a hiatus in international travel that was sufficiently long to not only give the earth’s atmosphere a chance to draw breath, but it also afforded golf clubs, hotels and resorts around the world the opportunity to carry out some long overdue renovations to their valued assets.
While having next to no guests was clearly financially disastrous for many hospitality operations, those businesses with deeper pockets were able to use the slowdown in visitor numbers to take stock of their existing operations and carry out some much-needed renovations and upgrades to their facilities.
La Manga Club, one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations for the last 50-plus years – it first opened in 1972 – was among those to take advantage of this situation, although the six-month closure of its centrepiece hotel came over the winter and spring of 2022-23, just as the world was coming out of its enforced hibernation and international travel was bouncing back with a bang.
Having not visited La Manga since 2016, I was keen to see what changes had taken place since the resort was bought by the Spanish-owned Hesperia Hotels & Resorts in 2019 following its sale by the Arum Group. Most significantly, the hotel – formerly known as the Príncipe Felipe – is now called the Grand Hyatt and is first ‘Grand’ that Hyatt has opened in Spain – and the first that Hyatt has franchised out in the world. Although the staff have largely remained the same – give or take a new general manager – having Hyatt involved has served to raise the bar to new heights in terms of what was originally on offer.The Grand Hyatt’s new adult-only infinity pool overlooks the 18th hole on the South Course
Re-opened in May last year, after a six-month renovation, the new-look venue now boasts 192 fully upgraded bedrooms, including six suites and one VIP suite, a new gym and spa, a new outdoor adults-only infinity swimming pool, and a host of restaurants. Guests at the hotel in its former guise will recall having to traipse around the resort to find somewhere alternative to eat other than the main restaurant, but Hyatt have brought many of them in-house, with Asian (Asia), Japanese (Hatsune), Italian (Don Luigi Trattoria) and Mediterranean (Amapola) restaurants all now operating under the same roof inside the hotel. There is also a new sports bar, ‘The Last Green’ – whose name was clearly considered a marginally less clichéd option than ‘The 19th Hole’ – and whose stylish circular bar is located just off the main lobby area.The Last Green, the Grand Hyatt’s new sports and lounge bar, serves drinks and bistro food Amapora, a fine dining restaurant with a Mediterranean theme, is one of half-a-dozen eateries located inside the Grand Hyatt
Breakfast – and dinners during high season – is served in Le Buffet, and it’s certainly an experience to behold, offering every type of protein, carbohydrate and fat – and combinations thereof – you could shake a 9-iron at. For someone like me – I really like my food – it was hard to walk away from, although as we headed for the exit I was careful to make sure I tucked away a couple of pain au chocolat for a vital mid-round snack.
Le Buffet – which has an outdoor terrace overlooking the 18th green on the South Course – is also the destination for a bi-monthly Sunday Bottomless Brunch which allows guests to fill their boots with luxury food for an all-inclusive price of €90. If you skip the previous night’s dinner and that morning’s breakfast, you could get very close to breaking even if you have more than a healthy appetite.Le Buffet offers a light and airy space to enjoy breakfast, with doors leading to an outdoor dining terrace overlooking the golf courses
Travelling with my golf-mad 16-year-old son in late-January – which is very much out of season for golf in southern Spain – not all of the restaurants were open during our visit, but given the paucity of guests we had the good fortune to be housed for our three-night stay in one of the bigger suites, which boasted twin beds, a spacious lounge area, a huge bathroom with walk-in shower and separate bath, and a small balcony overlooking the practice putting green. Tastefully furnished and with two massive TVs (with English channels and Sky Sports Golf) and a well-stocked mini bar, we were all set for a relaxing few days golf.La Manga Club is rare among European resorts in offering three 18-hole golf courses
NORTH, SOUTH & WEST….
Apart from accommodating 2,500-plus residential properties and being bigger than Monaco in terms of square acreage (1,400+), La Manga Club is, of course, best known for being home to three 18-hole golf courses. I won’t call all of ‘championship’ layouts because it’s a loose term and only the South Course has hosted tour-level golf, but there’s a lot to be said for having 54 holes right on your doorstep whatever their level.
I say ‘doorstep’, as while the North and South courses are but a short walk from your hotel room, the West requires a 3-minute transfer by a courtesy shuttle to reach its first tee and separate clubhouse. We played the courses in North, South, West order, which makes no odds, but whichever order you play them make sure you bring a good stock of balls if the West is the last of the trio, as it eats Pro V1s and Chrome Softs for dinner, with room for a dozen TP5s for afters.
The clubhouse has recently undergone a refurbishment and now offers a sparkling new pro shop which is kitted out with the latest apparel, accessories, shoes and plenty of golf balls. There is open air driving range right in front of the pro shop, along with a practice putting green, while just a short buggy ride away is a covered range, with tuition and custom-fitting bays, as well as a bunker and chipping practice area.The North Course measures just over 6,000 yards off the yellow tees, but is made more challenging through its palm-tree lined fairways, large greens and deep barrancas
Straight off an early flight from London, and after a 30-minute transfer from San Javier Airport in Murcia, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the clubhouse’s 37 Spike Bar before jumping in a buggy and driving the 150 yards or so to the first tee of the North Course to begin our 54-hole golfing marathon.
We had the slight misfortune to play the course in a 40mph wind – the tail end of whatever storm was battering the UK at the time – with temperatures low enough to have us reaching for a third layer, so while our scores weren’t much to write home about, it did mean that we had the course to ourselves, which has much to commend it as far as pace of play is concerned.
Having managed just half-a-dozen thinned 7-irons by way of a pre-game warm up, the North’s lengthy opening par-4 passed in a bit of a blur, and a bogey, a score that was replicated at the par-3 second, which is one of those annoying par threes whose yardage barely gets into three figures but still you walk off the green with a four on the card and wondering why golf is so hard.
The par-5 third is a great three-shot hole, with the approach played over a pond. With a hurting wind taking the green well out of reach in two, a testing short iron is required to reach the shallow green which is tilted back to front.
With the swaying palm trees unloading some their branches across the fairways as the storm-force winds did their best to break our spirit, I was happy to bag a par at the next par-five, the 530-yard sixth, which gently curves to the right all the way up to the green, while a par at the 330-yard ninth enabled me to cover the front half without losing a ball and onlydropping six shots.
The North course’s challenge ramps up on the back nine, with water coming into play on the five-hole stretch between 13-17, which did some serious damage to my son’s ball supply. The 17th is a lovely dogleg par four that has two different teeing options, while the 18th, another par four, is a nice finishing hole with the approach played across a deep gully to a receptive green located right in front of the hotel.
Thankfully there’s not much in the way of deep rough to lose balls in on the North Course, although missing the fairway will see the ball sit down in a type of grass that has a nasty habit of twisting the clubhead and sending the ball off in entirely different direction and distance to the one intended. The greens are large, making three putts an all-too-common occurrence, while there are enough tiers and borrows to keep it interesting even if you to manage to hit it close.
The general condition of the course was pretty good considering that the fairways were in their dormant winter phase, while the use of a buggy made the occasional long gap between greens and tees a much easier task. At around 6,000 yards off the yellow tees, the North serves as a gentle introduction to holiday golf and a good warm up for the tougher challenge that lies in wait on the South Course.The South Course measures over 7,000 yards off the back tees and features heavy bunkering and often bold carries over water
The South Course is by far the toughest of La Manga’s three courses and lives up to its championship pedigree through its sheer length (7,100 yards off the back tees), its heavy bunkering and the challenging design of its holes.
First opened in 1971 and designed by Robert Putnam, it hosted numerous Spanish Opens during the 1970s and is now home to a Legends Tour event, the European Senior Masters. The course was given a design overhaul by Arnold Palmer in 1993, then refurbished again by an in-house team in 2004, while further tweaks have been made in the intervening years.
Compared to the tighter North course, the South feels almost spacious off the tee – despite the many palm trees that line the fairways – but water lurks on all but a handful of holes, so you can’t afford to be too wayward with the driver or with your approaches.
The opening few holes are not overly memorable, but the 4th, which used to be a testing par four, has been extended to a par five with the addition of an attractive pond in front of the green. The 560-yard 6th, which was once the 9th, is an excellent par five with a lot of water and sand as you near the green, but that is only after a tough blind tee shot onto a wide and downhill fairway.A sea of sand awaits anything hit right on South Course’s par-4 14th
The back nine starts with the dog-leg 10th, a fairly benign par 4 which skirts around the driving range, but things get more interesting at the 11th, which has benefited from the extension of the greenside lake, making the second shot a real tester. The 140-yard 12th is a short but examining par three which is all carry over water to a plateau green. Beyond that, the 14th, a par four, presents one of the largest bunkers in Spain, running almost the entire length of the right-hand side of the fairway.The 18th green on the South Course
The 17th is a tricky 190-yard par three, but the 18th is the signature hole, with its tough tee shot – water and bunkers everywhere – setting up a mid-iron to a green that is almost surrounded by sand. Overlooked by the hotel’s terrace, which was thankfully devoid of guests during our round, it’s a suitably public finish to a match.
Despite its championship status, the South, for my money, is the least entertaining of La Manga’s three courses. However, it does provide the strongest test of golf. It’s long, there’s plenty of bunkering – I found at least 10 of them – and the course demands accurate and powerful ball striking. You can let loose with driver far more than you can on either of the other two tracks, but somehow it misses the all-important ‘wow’ factor and its lack of much in the way of elevation changes can make it feel a little samey at times. That being said, it is presented in excellent condition and provides little to complain about.
SO NEAR, SO SPA
After two rounds of golf our limbs were beginning to ache a little, so a trip to the Grand Hyatt’s new spa was called for. While in years gone by hotel guests had to make the journey up to Las Lomas Village to avail themselves of spa facilities, today’s hotel residents simply have to take the lift down to the ground floor, where they will find the Alma’ Spa.
Boasting six treatment rooms for the usual mix of massages and beauty therapies, the Arabic-inspired spa’s centrepiece is a 20-metre hydrotherapy pool, where a myriad of high-powered jets and nozzles or varying shapes, sizes and angles – some under water, some from above – will pummel all areas of your body. For those who like a bit of pleasure/pain, there’s also a separate plunge pool set at a decidedly chilly 10°c, which, I’m reliably informed, is a great way of aiding muscle recovery. I tried it for all of two seconds and didn’t rush to repeat it.The hydrotherapy pool in the Alma Spa
There’s also a steam room and a sauna, and something called an ice fountain, which I was told produces big chunks of ice which you are supposed to rub onto yourself to cool down after using the sauna. Erm, no thanks.
Fitness fanatics will enjoy punishing themselves in the sizeable gym, which is kitted out with the latest Technogym machinery and banks of free weights and mirrors in which to admire or recoil at your physique. The gym is open 24 hours-a-day – accessed by your room key card – which is good for those who like to get a workout in out of hours, as the rest of the spa closes at 7pm.The West Course is cut out of a forest on the hillside, offering massive changes in elevation and some superb views
BEST OF THE WEST
Suitably refreshed by our spa visit and a restful night’s sleep, for our final round we took the short shuttle ride to the West Course, which feels quite separate to the rest of the resort, tucked away, as it is, in the more mountainous fringes of the estate. Thankfully, the wind had fully subsided, and the sun had decided to make a late but welcome appearance for what, in many people’s eyes, is the most visually striking and memorable of the three courses.
Set amid dense forest and steep slopes, the West has more than slight jungle feel to it, with each hole cutting a swathe into dense undergrowth. Such is the typography of the land that if you dare miss a fairway you can wave goodbye to your ball unless if you fancy traversing a near vertical incline to rescue your scarred Srixon Soft Feel, so come armed to the teeth with reserves.
That being said, I really enjoyed the variety of holes on offer on this 6,036-yard course, with the huge changes in elevation, forced carries and lay ups, double doglegs, the occasional blind tee shot, and some tremendous views, all adding to the enjoyment. And while my score didn’t come close to matching that achieved on the similar-length North course, I came off with a bigger smile on my face, with both of us agreeing that we would play it again in a heartbeat armed with a bit more course knowledge.A view from behind the green at the par-5 17th
Standout holes, of which there are plenty, begin with the par-five 3rd, which deserves a mention for its challenging tee shot, horrendous ravine and tucked-away green. The short par-four 5th is a brute of a hole considering its stroke index (10), with its tight drive and approach to a narrow target. The par-5 6th is the first hole where you can get the driver out with any degree of safety, while the jewel of the front nine is the par-five 9th, which requires an uphill tee shot then bends left at a right angle and then plays severely downhill to a huge green protected by a ravine to the front and a lake at the back. I had to lay up with my second after a decent drive, but managed wedged on and a two-putt for what felt like an heroic par.
The entertainment doesn’t flag on the back nine either, although it does get harder. The 10th is a complete horror off the back tees, and then it’s up and down the mountains taking on the tough 12th, and a beautiful, but treacherous uphill par-three 13th that features deep jungle all the way up the left side, and a plateau green that is protected by a bunker short left. I took my bogey here and moved on.The view from the 18th tee on the West Course with the fairway some 200 yards below and the La Manga strip skyline and the sea on the horizon
The course concludes with fabulous stretch of four consecutive holes that are each memorable for different reasons. The 15th is a gorgeous par-five with some well-placed trees along the centre of the fairway making shot selection an interesting task. The 190-yard 16th is a brute of a par three with absolutely no margin for error – hit the green or chalk up a blob. The 17th is an exacting par-5 requiring a pin-point drive to the corner of a dogleg left, with a third shot to a narrow green with water right which it has the potential to leave your card in tatters if it already isn’t.
The best is rarely saved to last on most courses, but that certainly isn’t the case on the West, where, after a lengthy drive up a steep and twisty buggy path you eventually arrive on the 18th tee to be greeted with a stunning 270-degree view over the entire estate and outwards the seas and the high rises and hotels on La Manga strip in the far distance. While a 10-second video of the view is an easy win on social media, the tee shot is slightly more difficult, with a 200-yard carry required to reach the fairway on this 400-yard par 4. You just have to let rip and hope you hit a straight one.
Thankfully we both did, resulting in a rare father-and-son high five as we jumped back in the buggy and careered down the path at breakneck speed. OK, so we both missed the green with our approaches, but a closing bogey couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces after what was a truly memorable round.
Yes, the West course could be a bit smarter around the edges, offer a slightly more modern clubhouse, and perhaps provide some less bumpy buggy paths, but it has charm in spades, and its slightly ramshackle appearance merely adds to its overall appeal.The Racquets Centre at La Manga Club boasts courts for tennis, Padel and Pickelball
With our golfing experiences over, we just had time to have a quick tour of the impressive array of other sporting facilities on offer at the resort, which includes eight grass football pitches, two cricket pitches, and an elite-standard Racquets Club which boasts 28 tennis courts, seven floodlit padel courts and a pickleball court.The nearby town of Cartagena is well worth a visit on day trip from La Manga
Although La Manga Club is more like small town than a golf resort – with banks, bars, restaurants, supermarkets, estate agents and even a petrol stations on site – there is plenty to see and do outside of the resort should you have the time and the inclination. There’s a twice-weekly coach that takes shoppers to nearby Cartagena, which is a great day trip venue, especially if you’re fond of a bit of Roman amphitheatre action – which I am – or shopping in street markets.
Renting a car might be a good idea to allow you to explore the Mediterranean coastline or nearby inlands towns, but when you’ve got so much to do on your doorstep, it’s not surprising that few people on a short break ever feel the need to escape.
BOOK YOUR GRAND HYATT LA MANGA GOLF BREAK
The Grand Hyatt La Manga is currently offering a Golf Getaway package, which includes three nights’ B&B accommodation and two green fees for any of the three golf courses. The package includes free access the spa and gym, and 10% discounts in bars and
restaurants managed by La Manga Club. Prices start from £153 per night for two people in February.
For the very latest package details and bookings, visit www.grandhyattlamangaclubgolfandspa.com or call +34 968115651.
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