MESSINIA, Greece - When Nuno Sepulveda was approached about becoming the general manager at Costa Navarino five years ago, he originally wasn't interested.
He wanted to stay in the golf industry, not realizing that this growing Greek getaway already had two courses. World-class golf in Greece? Like many, he just couldn't believe it.
"Greece has zero golf culture ... less than zero," admitted Sepulveda, the general manager of Costa Navarino Golf.
Costa Navarino is ready to change all that. No golf resort in the world is growing faster than this fantastic coastal property in Peloponnese in southwest Greece 3 1/2 hours from Athens. Costa Navarino debuted two new courses at Navarino Hills designed by Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal in February to complement its existing Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Bernhard Langer designs. Two new hotels are also under construction: the W Costa Navarino will open this summer; and the Mandarin Oriental, Costa Navarino in 2023. Their 350 rooms, villas and suites will add even more luxury to the beautiful Westin and Romanos hotels that currently share the same complex right on the beach. The W and Westin are Marriott brands, so rev up those Bonvoy points.
With 72 holes and four high-end hotels spread across four different campuses - Bay, Dunes, Waterfront and Hills - it's not a stretch to call Costa Navarino the best golf escape in all of continental Europe. A fifth site called Blue remains in the planning stages. Everybody and anybody - families, couples, golfers, beach lovers, foodies - will love their vacations at Costa Navarino. I'd argue it's the best family-friendly golf trip I've ever experienced following a three-night stay during the Greek Orthodox Easter holiday in April. Here's why.
Costa Navarino: The Resort
After nine days touring Athens and the Greek Isles, my family was running on fumes. The pampering of the beachfront Costa Navarino was exactly what we needed to recharge. The rooms at the Romanos are huge and very private. There are 321 rooms, suites and villas. My 19-year-old son loved the bed so much he slept 15 hours one day (no lie). My 17-year-old daughter couldn't get enough of the sprawling breakfast buffet at Pero (free to guests) and the chic pools with swim-up bars.
In between the Westin and Romanos, the Agora Square features a collection of restaurants and shops. It's a gathering spot year-round, home to many of the resort's 13 restaurants. The holiday weekend brought extra perks like free food, drinks, music and dancing.
The 445-room Westin serves as a hub for families with younger children. There's an outdoor water park; Division 16, a 1960s American diner with a photo booth, bowling, an escape room, DJ and karaoke; and the SandCastle, a daycare catering to ages 4-12 that provides recreational and educational activities as well as overnight stay options.
Unfortunately, we were a little too early in the season to do much swimming. The beach did, however, deliver an amazing meal at the waterfront Barbouni Bar Restaurant. An impressive spread of seafood ceviche, a tasty octopus tentacle and shrimp pasta was just as good as the view.
The previous night, we dressed up as a family to dine at Flame in the Dunes clubhouse while the sun set over the golf course. The Greeks might not know a thing about golf, but they're experts at food and drink. It's hard not to fill up on the bread dipped in homegrown olive oil, even with a tasty short-rib appetizer and entrees of lamb and steak still on the way.
There was so much more we didn't have the time to see - a large tennis center, the Anazoe Spa and experiences like Greek cooking lessons, wine grape harvesting and cheese making. It would take at least two weeks to try it all.
Getting to Costa Navarino
The journey to Costa Navarino might seem daunting - and yes, I'm still fighting jetlag from the 10-hour time difference a week later - but it's really pretty simple for Americans, especially if you can find a direct flight to Athens. My family and I had a layover in Germany each way. The good news is the rental car experience in Athens is a breeze. All the companies are located at the airport - no shuttle! - and because you're outside the cramped and crowded city center, it's all nicely paved highway roads (with about 20 Euros in tolls) to reach the resort. Remember, foreign rental cars are generally tiny, so pack light or pay more for a bigger vehicle. We fit (just barely) with four carry-ons in the trunk and four backpacks.
We broke up the drive by visiting Mycanae, a hillside ruins dating to 12th century B.C. The walking does the legs and back good after so much traveling. The hardest part of the trip is the last 45 minutes, which winds through local villages and mountain roads. You'll pass the Kalamata International Airport during this stretch. The former military airport does offer connecting flights to and from European destinations. There's also a shuttle available from the Athens and Kalamata airports if you don't want/need a rental.
Costa Navarino: The Golf
Riding in a golf cart shuttle to the Dunes clubhouse, a hotel employee asked me a question I'd never heard before: "How many professional golfers are there in the world?". I was stumped. Greeks are generally curious about the game. Most of them have never had any exposure to it. There are only nine 18-hole golf courses - and one nine-holer - in the entire country (our directory). The four best are at Costa Navarino (although Kilada, a new Jack Nicklaus course set to open in 2023, might shake things up). The question I have banging around in my head: "How do I rank the four at Costa Navarino?"
I rammed playing all 72 holes into essentially 36 hours, playing back-to-back 36-hole days. I never got tired because the settings were so inspiring. The golf operations are run by Troon Golf. A shuttle system runs every 20 minutes out of the Dunes clubhouse, transporting golfers to the Bay Course 15 minutes away or the new Navarino Hills development another 5 minutes up into the hills. All the courses are measured in meters, although golfers can adjust the GPS in the carts to display yards instead.
My first round was on the oldest and toughest track. Bunkers litter Langer's Dunes Course, a par 71 of 6,022 meters (roughly 6,585 yards) that debuted in 2010. I found it the most strategic of the four. Golfers who just swing away, and don't plot their way around, will fall victim to the target golf. It's got the most engaging short par 4 on property: the dramatically downhill sixth (306 yards). The second hole introduces the only scenic view of the Bay of Navarino (which feeds the Ionian Sea) that's so prevalent elsewhere.
Speaking of the water views, they're everywhere on the Bay Course, a par 71 of 5,614 meters (6,139 yards) by RTJ2. We ranked the Bay among of the world's 50 most scenic courses in 2019. No. 1 plays straight downhill toward the blue waves and the par-3 second follows the shoreline. From there, the routing climbs up to more panoramic scenery. It's the perfect holiday course except for one hole, the dreaded 17th, which has to be the skinniest par 4 in the world. There's no margin for error between the shoreline and the heavy brush protecting the developing Mandarin Oriental hotel along the inland side. Next time I play it, I'll hit two 7 irons to stay in play. I wouldn't be against transforming it into another fun waterfront par 3 instead.
At Navarino Hills, the views arguably grow even grander. The International Olympic Academy Course (6,351 meters/6,945 yards) overlooks the bay from a number of epic holes. The Hills Course (6,251 meters/6,836 yards) spills out on the other side of the hillside, showcasing the lovely rural countryside. I've never come across Olazabal's work before, but he definitely impressed.
On the Hills, he incorporated a few blind/semi-blind shots, some cool tee angles involving a gorge on the par-3 15th and a dangerous Cape hole on no. 17. After a decent front nine, the IOAC Course wows with spectacular vistas coming home. I don't know how the par-3 12th, playing over a canyon with a 360-degree view of both land and sea, could possibly the easiest hole on the course. A rocky cross-hazard on the par-5 17th brings some risk-reward into the equation.
In one way, Costa Navarino mirrors Bandon Dunes in that there's no clear-cut best course. They're all 4 1/2-star caliber. Twisting my arm, I'd rank them Olympic, then Dunes and Bay (tie), followed by Hills. As I write this, I'm already thinking of reasons to reshuffle them again.
My lasting memory from the trip was playing Navarino Hills on the Greek Orthodox Easter holiday. I could hear a church choir singing in the valley below. Their voices echoed up and carried on the wind. What a surreal experience. I paused a moment to soak up the awe-inspiring sights and sounds. It signaled another not-so-subtle reminder that this little slice of paradise is pretty special. And it's only getting better.