Why Maine (yes, Maine!) is an underrated golf destination
In the late 1800s, the “rusticators” began to arrive in Maine. They arrived by steamboat, from New York and from Boston and further afield, seeking an escape from the hustle of the city to the simple beauty of the rugged coastline. The Rockefellers came, and the Carnegies, and the Vanderbilts too, questing for fresh air. Boat rides. Picnics. Blueberries.
They’d discovered what the rest of the Northeast would learn in the century that followed: That Maine in August is no-frills summer perfection.
E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, spent the Augusts of his childhood on family retreats from New York to Maine. Decades later, considering a return to his boyhood haunts, he wrote this:
“It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving.”
I spent several weeks in Maine each summer as a kid, staying with my grandparents in their weathered summer cottage in the tiny coastal town of East Blue Hill. I played my first golf there, in the gravel driveway with cutdown clubs and eventually at the nine-hole club in town, a little strip of timeless coastal idyll.
This summer, on what can technically be called a “work trip,” we did not arrive by steamboat. We arrived by plane and by rental car, Sean Zak, Claire Rogers and I, coming from Chicago, Rhode Island and Seattle. We weren’t seeking hikes or picnics but we were seeking other things infinitely precious and worth saving: boat rides, blueberry muffins and the very best golf that greater Portland had to offer.
In three days, we played an unforgettable nine-holer plus three 18-hole courses. Each of the big courses lays some sort of claim to the title of “Maine’s best course.” Each was within 75 minutes of downtown Portland. Each was distinctly Maine. And each was completely and totally different. Here’s how it unfolded:
DAY 1: TO THE COAST
CAPE ARUNDEL GOLF CLUB
There’s a tempting version of this paragraph where I make Cape Arundel sound like a potential PGA Tour site, based mostly off clout and pedigree. It is, after all, the home course of former president George W. Bush and the entire Walker/Bush clan. Walter Travis designed it. Phil Mickelson owns the course record. Photos of Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Bill Clinton adorn the clubhouse walls. Arnold Palmer, Francis Ouimet and Babe Ruth have walked the fairways.
We won’t blame ‘em if they don’t add photos of Rogers, Zak and Dethier to the walls, but we walked the fairways nonetheless, enjoying a pleasant afternoon trek. Arundel is clever and tricky, but it’s eminently playable — the perfect course to start on, stiff and potentially sleepy from a cross-country trip. You’ll probably walk off with more three-putts than lost balls. Driver is largely optional. Precision is required, but only if you want a good score. Otherwise? Enjoy the walk.
Arundel couldn’t host a PGA Tour event, but that’s actually a large piece of its appeal. It’s just shy of 5900 yards from the tips. The holes criss-cross and overlap and intersect. The rollicking greens feed some balls toward the hole and make other two-putts feel unachievable. It has quirk and spirit and a series of fair challenges interspersed with healthy chances at glory — or birdie.
Last month, my colleague Michael Bamberger wrote this sentence: “Golf-wise and otherwise, our version of Scotland is Maine.” That came after a round at Arundel. And if Maine channels Scotland, well, Arundel channels Maine. Historic. Scenic. A little shabby. And just the way they like it.
DAY 2: TO THE LAKES
BELGRADE LAKES GOLF CLUB
$110-$160, cart included
What’s more Maine than this? Belgrade Lakes has no online tee times. They only sort of have tee times, period. To reserve your spot on course, you have to make like it’s 1998 and actually call the pro shop and speak to a human being.
The effect of this mild inconvenience is something quite pleasant: You’ve established a personal connection with your hosts before you even get on property. Behind the scenes, they build out their tee sheet as they see fit, establishing 15-minute gaps between tee times, prioritizing speedy play and satisfied golfers.
Belgrade didn’t actually open until 1998, making these the newest holes we played by some half-century, but rather than bringing modernity to Kennebec County, the course insisted on absorbing its pace of life from the towns around, with just a few lively touches — like the music that greets you when you arrive on property, or the cutting-edge brand selection that awaits in the pro shop.
E.B. White, the architect of the quote that led this piece, lived near the Maine coast but summarized the duality of the state thusly:
“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods.”
The placidity of a lake in the woods. That’s what we found when we left our hotel in Freeport (just north of Portland), tooled up I-295 and turned west, into the trees. The drive was transformative. It also took less than an hour.
When the course’s founders arrived on site, they found three things: Trees, rocks and hills. If you were asked to describe the course today, a quarter-century later, you might use those same three words — but now swaths of fairway have been hewn through the trees, the rocks have been painstakingly piled to the side of each, framing your target, and the clubhouse sits atop the tallest hill, offering sweeping views of the lakes themselves. If you look at the right time, you can see the white interruption of Belgrade’s mail boat in action, one of the last of its kind.
Belgrade Lakes is a relatively new golf course, happily stuck in time.
DAY 3: TO THE ISLAND — AND TO LUXURY
GREAT CHEBEAGUE GOLF CLUB
$50 for all-day play
A 5:30 wakeup was perfect timing to get us on the first ferry of the day from Cousins Island to Chebeague Island, the home of Great Chebeague Golf Club. The 2,239-yard nine-holer, “organized” in 1920, sits just steps from the ferry wharf and the 7th tee actually sits on the dock itself.
My co-conspirator Sean Zak is writing another article on the charms of Great Chebeague, so I’ll leave you with just one detail: parking for the ferry to the mainland extends all the way up Wharf Road, which bisects the course. As a result, you’re actually playing OVER a row of parked cars between two and four times per round, and both the vehicle owners and the course have settled on this as best practice. (A one-shot free drop is also available via local rule, which Claire utilized to avoid adding dings to that silver Subaru Forester.) The cars roll their windows down to avoid any shattered glass, understandably more concerned about thinned 8-irons than petty thievery.
BOOTHBAY HARBOR COUNTRY CLUB
In the afternoon we shipped up to Boothbay Harbor, breaking up the hourlong drive with separate stops for lobster rolls and ice cream. All in the name of local Maine research.
If Belgrade Lakes is a new course with an old vibe, Boothbay channels the opposite. The course is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but the original nine-hole Stiles and Van Kleek charmer has expanded to an 18-hole luxury destination resort, which reopened in 2016 and now boasts a massive modern clubhouse, a top-notch restaurant, a gym, a pool, a tennis center, villas and a number of stay-and-play packages via their nearby resort or new six-bedroom villa.
Boothbay is a private course that allows public play via resort stays, so we booked rooms at the resort and showed up for a mid-afternoon tee time. The course was in world-class condition when we arrived, with a first tee that rolled faster than a typical Maine green.
Boothbay Harbor is Maine Luxury. Its expanses include water views, lakeside tee shots and, my favorite, some greens on the back nine overlooking massive leafy ravines. Off the tee, your targets are fairly wide — but trouble lurks should you miss those corridors or end up on the wrong side of several slippery slopes.
On our final nine, as the shadows grew long, Claire hit her stride. Flushing driver. Canning par putts. And discovering one little slice of fairway magic that you can see in the video below.
We’ll come back soon, Maine. And we know you’ll look just the same when we do.