You come to New York for Broadway, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Modern Art and soup dumplings in Chinatown. If you come for the golf, you … try to procure a precious tee time at Bethpage Black? Scan your phone contacts for members at Winged Foot?
The city that never sleeps can be an exhausting place for public-access golfers, and this from someone who called the place home for more than a decade. Traffic’s a bear, courses are crowded. Other parts of the country have plenty of top-of-mind topnotch resort stays. Out west, Bandon Dunes and Pebble Beach; Pinehurst and Sea Pines in the Southeast; Streamsong in Florida, and so on. Less so, no-brainers in the Northeast and particularly the New York City area — because Crystal Springs Resort in northern New Jersey, just 50 miles from MoMA and set among the lovely Kittatinny Mountains, gets overlooked. It shouldn’t.
I recently visited with my wife, teenage son and father-, mother- and sister-in-law. No, this was not a creative piece of criminal sentencing by a judge; we get on well. But when we tried to think of a driving destination where we’d all have enough things to keep us happy, we were flummoxed — until a friend suggested Crystal Springs (where upward of 90 percent of guests are of the drive-in variety). Cue slapping of own forehead: Of course! I’d been to the place a decade earlier with my wife, Lorraine, and son Ike and had a delightful stay, yet somehow it had fallen off my radar.
We arrived in the morning — my family and in-laws, Herb and Adrienne, from the Hudson Valley, sister-in-law Denise from the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, all in about 90 minutes. Easy-peasy. The women are crafty, so their first stop was the Paint-and-Plant activity, each decorating a planter, one of the resort’s bounty of activities, led by young, energetic, friendly staff, to keep people as busy as they wish to be. (Later, the sisters would square off at archery, and in the interest of family harmony I will avoid noting the winner.) Herb made himself happy with a bike ride and, later, a hike along a stretch of the Appalachian Trail.
In a similar vein, Ike and I headed to the resort’s Cascades 9-hole course — without our golf clubs. Instead, we signed out a pair of soccer balls and commenced on a round of FootGolf, the soccer/golf hybrid. Apologies for a parental brag, but years ago Ike was the inaugural U-10 New York State FootGolf champion, besting a stacked field of four. Having quit soccer a while back, however, kicking a ball had likewise fallen off his radar.
Our play was messier than Messi’s, but we had a blast. Kick and chase, kick and chase — what a blissful break from stressing over 4-footers with a putter! One of the measures of a resort stay, in my view, is the extent to which it turns back the clock on your life, and Crystal Springs succeeds on this front, in many ways. Later, Ike would cool off in the tropical Biosphere Pool, taking several runs on its two-story, serpentine waterslide, all traces of surly teenager replaced by a mile-wide grin, chatting on the stairs up to the top with little kids and overgrown ones alike. Yes, we all had some gelato from the Biosphere Café when he was done, and it was delicious.
That proved a theme throughout our three-day visit: the food and beverage offerings are outstanding throughout Crystal Springs. This starts at the haute end of things, with the fine dining Restaurant Latour consistently rated one of the state’s best restaurants, and perhaps the finest. I’m not one to photograph my meals, yet I couldn’t help but snap a shot of each course. This is food as art, and even better, it all tasted every bit as outrageously good as it looked.
The “Latour” name doesn’t come from nowhere, by the way. According to Wine Spectator, Crystal Springs has long boasted North America’s — not New Jersey’s, North America’s — finest wine collection, currently 75,000 bottles strong (pared down from more than 125,000 at one point) and yet still somehow longer on quality than quantity. There are surely few better places to do the blowout, bucket-list, price-is-no-object meal; if you’re an oenophile, add the wine pairing, guided by sommelier Gianni Chiodi Sr. of Palermo, Italy, to the chef’s tasting menu for a ne plus ultra experience. (And take one of the daily self-guided tours of the wine cellar, too.)
Then there was the buffet for the cops — stick with me here. The night of our arrival coincided with the resort’s fifth annual Law Enforcement Open, a day-long fundraising event that brings together police from around the Tri-State area for friendly competition as a thank-you from the resort’s owners to the men and women in blue. Kelsey Grammar, of “Cheers” and “Frasier” fame, lent his celebrity, mellifluous voice, and line of local craft beers to the event. The stars of the show, however, were the bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace” and “Balmoral” as the top four two-man teams were welcomed back out to the 18th green following the aforementioned after-golf buffet at the Ireland-in-Jersey Ballyowen course — that, and the vicious yet good-natured heckling that the teams, about to embark on a playoff, endured from their beaten comrades. (This event is only for law enforcement personnel, but those wishing to play alongside them can enter an inaugural, as-yet-unnamed such event on Oct. 12.)
While this was a drive-in-for-the-day outing, Crystal Springs — the Northeast’s largest golf, spa and culinary resort (and the biggest solar-powered resort west of the Mississippi) — is all about offsite meetings, with 100,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting and banquet space and a big, veteran team of concierge, catering, AV and conference service people to beat the band. (They can find you a band, too.) With two distinct hotels (one mountain, one valley) with every manner of guest rooms and suites; two day-spas (including Reflections, where a massage succeeded, my previously stressed-out wife happily informed me, in again permitting her head to rotate 180 degrees); three clubhouse and pool complexes (including the hopping, Jersey’s-having-a-party vibe at the infinity pool Vista 180); 10 restaurants; a fitness club; and nature center, there’s really no kind of gathering you couldn’t succeed with here.
Me, I needed more team-building with my 14-year-old, and that eventually meant golf with golf clubs. Of the resort’s six championship courses, Ballyowen sits at the top (as it does on several public-access state rankings), followed by Wild Turkey. Both were designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. associate Roger Rulewich, the former in 1998, the latter three years later.
Ballyowen preceded Instagram, but today it’s very much an Instagram course, with umpteen glorious photo opportunities. Oh, the heather in the sunshine. That it looks more like a links than it plays isn’t surprising; it’s not firm-and-fast ground, and the aerial game that you’re used to at home is in effect. “Links-style” is fine with me, so long as the heathland aspects work, and they do. Likewise, you’ll be riding a cart, not walking, as there are a few hauls between holes. Trendy lay of the land minimalism it is not.
Ballyowen preceded Instagram, but today it’s very much an Instagram course.
What Ballyowen is, is brawny, beautiful, often heroic golf, very well presented and maintained. Pure golf, too, without a house in sight. Based on my sample of one, the back nine is a bit more scorable and varied in terms of shot demands. In sum, Ballyowen is a strong, scenic test that’s pleasurable no matter how you perform on that test.
The Wild Turkey course is a bit of a turducken, that famous turkey/duck/chicken mashup. The treeless holes in its basin area, No’s. 3 and 12-17, are redolent of Ballyowen and would sit comfortably there. (Neither is it walkable.) Elsewhere, the design pays homage to the first, eponymous course at the resort (i.e., Crystal Springs), with its many significant elevation changes.
There’s plenty of eye-candy here, too, most famously and photogenically the gorge-spanning par-3 7th hole (just beating out the wild dropshot one-shotter at No. 10), but the neatest, most elegant hole on the course might be the 6th, an almost-but-not-quite-drivable, handsome par-4 with an overhanging tree that makes left pins inaccessible to drives too far left. Like hybrid clubs, this hybrid course proved highly effective in its job, in this case to provide a winning mix of challenge, playability and beauty.
However, Ike’s favorite course was tackled hours later — after sunset, as it happens. Crystal Springs features one of the country’s earliest (and best landscaped) 18-hole all-grass putting courses, something that’s now almost de rigueur at top resorts. It’s plenty of fun during daytime, no doubt … but at night, playing “Glow Golf,” with lit-up balls and flagsticks? Now we are having a total hoot because what isn’t lit up are the greens. It’s like the golfing version of pin the tail on the donkey.
On our last night, the whole family was there after sunset, putting away, giggling as balls wandered off without warning, cheering when one miraculously swerved toward the hole and, once, even in for a hole-in-one. (Ike’s, naturally.) Remember that thing about successful vacations taking you back in time? A happy-go-lucky teenager surrounded by parents, aunts and grandparents, all oohing and ahhing over a silly game — Crystal Springs had worked its magic. It won’t be forgotten again.