DORNOCH, Scotland -- Luxurious vacationing certainly isn't new to the Highlands of Scotland. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American who made his fortune in steel durng the Industrial Revolution, bought the 7,500-acre Skibo Castle estate in 1898. It was at this time that the Carnegie Club was added to the wide range of leisure activities enjoyed here.
But compared to Carnegie's era, golf has never been as good as it is now in the Highlands. Not only was Carnegie's golf course entirely rebuilt as a links course by Donald Steel in 1998, the Highlands have added other top shelf courses.
In Inverness, Castle Stuart, host of the last three Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Opens, has one of Scotland's most unique seaside settings to go with a sensational course design by Gil Hanse.
Suddenly, Royal Dornoch, which has been the top draw for golf tours in the Highlands for decades, has plenty of company, especially if you include a round at fellow 19th-century links Nairn Golf Club near Inverness. And that's a very good thing for visitors, because it means that you can stick around the magic of the Highlands for that much longer before heading to St. Andrews or elsewhere to play more links in Scotland.
The Carnegie Club experience
Just about three miles from the town of Dornoch, you can catch a glimpse of a mysterious links when passing over the Dornoch Bridge. Until only recently did the doors open to this hidden club surrounded on three sides by water.
Carnegie Club now offers a very limited amount of public play: just one tee time in the morning and one in the afternoon on weekdays. For guests, an all-inclusive green fee (300 pounds) includes lunch and a full run of the facilities, including a cozy, luxury hotel-type locker room and even a full driving range.
The golf course winds on a narrow strip of land between the Dornoch Firth and Loch Evelix, making for splendid -- yet always different -- scenery. An inscribed boulder near the 18th green signifies the course's roots to 1898, but this is a very different golf course than what Carnegie's friends and family played. It's current form is the result of a rebuild in 1998 at the hands of links re-do specialist Donald Steel.
The course now certainly feels like an old-world links: pot bunkers, rippling fairways and greens full of run-offs and other pitfalls. But service and amenities feel more like you're in the U.S.
Not only does a refreshment cart come out and offer your group bacon rolls, but there is a comfort station you pass twice during the round that is stocked with drinks, alcoholic included, and an assortment of snacks. On one wall, visitors hang bag tags from a club back home, and the variety is far-reaching. With both an indoor lounge and outdoor patio, it's the type of place any foursome might want to stay awhile.
Considering this course counts having 60 golfers as a "busy day," such as on the day we played (staff members report that the number is usually closer to 20 players daily), your group probably won't hold anyone up no matter how long your pit stop is.
Your day isn't over after the 18th hole, a reachable par 5 that doglegs around Loch Evelix. Upon putting out, you'll notice a waitress waiting with a tray of whisky. Tilt a dram back, and then head into the clubhouse for a delicious meal, either buffet or order pizzas or other dishes off the menu and guzzle beer or wine. Stick around for a while and watch an afternoon cricket match or golf tournament in the bar, get refreshed in the locker room and relax awhile.
Stay and play: The new Links House Hotel in Dornoch
Members at Carnegie Club have access to Skibo Castle, the centerpiece of the lavish estate that hosts member events and has a handful of guest rooms. Non-members can only stay here sponsored by a member or if they are a prospect.
For the next-best luxury lodging experience for golfers in the Highlands, head up the road three miles to Dornoch and stay at the new Links House Hotel. For 295 pounds a night you can get a spacious room and full run of the beautifully appointed public areas, including a small putting green that is maintained between the main building and the cottage. You're steps from the clubhouse.
The Links house hosts groups of all sizes based on availability, but it particularly caters to the golf group that rents out the entire eight-room property.
Additionally, the Royal Golf Hotel, located on the other side of the clubhouse, is a larger, less expensive property with 22 en-suite rooms. Royal Golf Hotel assumed new management a couple years ago, and reinvestment into the property has been ongoing. The main draw is the bar and restaurant with the best vantage point in town, overlooking the first hole of the Championship Links as well as the sea.