Beach landings in a Zodiac, seawater spray on your nine-iron and some of the best courses in Canada are just part of an incredible East Coast golfing cruise

“WET LANDING or dry landing?”

In the company of golfers, this question typically means one thing and one thing only: did your tee shot carry the water hazard?

But not here, not today. I’m one of about 60 passengers in the dining room aboard the One Ocean Navigator, a six-deck, 6,230-tonne One Ocean Expeditions vessel, gently rocking at anchor off St. Peters Harbour on the northeast coast of Prince Edward Island.

After a 5:30 a.m. wake-up and 6:00 a.m. breakfast call, we’re in the Q&A portion of the briefing on the day’s itinerary with expedition leader Kaylan Worsnop. It’s our fourth morning at sea — July 1, Canada Day — and the midpoint in One Ocean’s inaugural eight-day, seven-night Fiddles and Sticks east coast “expedition” golf cruise. We’ve already played rounds on consecutive days across the Northumberland Strait in Inverness, N.S., at Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links — Canada’s number-one and number-four ranked courses respectively. So, by this time we’ve learned that the day’s most important footwear choice isn’t golf shoes, but what to don for the Zodiac trip from ship to shore.

“Today will be a beach landing,” Worsnop replies. “It’s also a little splashy out there, so boots and waterproof suits are recommended.”

Water and wind: Boarding the Zodiacs is done with care. They’re fun, but sometimes things get “splashy”

Water and wind: Boarding the Zodiacs is done with care. They’re fun, but sometimes things get “splashy”

For much of One Ocean’s cruise calendar, the company’s three vessels can be found plying icy ocean waters in the vicinity of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. “We are a polar cruise company in our DNA,” says founder and managing director Andrew Prossin. But a few years ago, the operation added a pair of east-coast options — a one-way northerly route up the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador to Iqaluit on Baffin Island and a Maritimes loop with landings throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On one of the recent latter trips, Prossin says, they were anchored within view of a seaside golf course, brainstorming new ideas, and somebody said, ‘Why not that?’ — and Fiddles and Sticks was born.

I’ll SAY IT right here: the course itinerary might be top notch (Cabot Cliffs, which only opened in 2015, is spectacularly worthy of its number-one ranking and reputation), but as golf trips go, this isn’t for everyone. But the same can probably be said for One Ocean’s other cruises, too. If you like it soft, over-the-top posh and never too real, move along. Adventurous spirit? Get in line.

Cabot Cliffs, Canada's top-ranked golf course, worthy of every golfer's bucket list

Cabot Cliffs, Canada’s top-ranked golf course, worthy of every golfer’s bucket list

The distinctions are apparent the moment we gather in the mid-afternoon sun on the wharf in Louisbourg, on the southeastern tip of Cape Breton Island, for the start of the cruise. The Navigator — a Russian research vessel, with a Russian crew, on a recurring lease to One Ocean — is anchored in the harbour. Our luggage and golf clubs are already on board. Now it’s the passengers’ turn.

When our moment comes, each of us gets a stern lesson from the expedition staff on the right way — the only way — to step into a Zodiac. Two hours later, when everyone’s aboard, there’s another mandatory Zodiac safety briefing. Not only are the inflatable craft the workhouses of the trip, but our time in them on the water presents the greatest risk.

 

It isn’t until the morning off Prince Edward Island, however, with a round of golf awaiting at The Links at Crowbush Cove, the island’s top-rated track, that the value of the boarding lesson hits home. We’re embarking into one- to two-metre swells under low clouds. At the base of the gangway, I lock onto the forearm of the Zodiac pilot and time my move from the platform to the side of the boat to catch a rising wave. When we pull away for shore, I turn to look to the beach and a blast of seawater catches me in the face. It’s salty, but exhilarating.

The first two days playing in Inverness, we had “dry” dock landings (the fourth course on the trip, Highlands Links, the legendary Stanley Thompson design at Ingonish, just inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is also a dock landing). That means our beach landing at Crowbush — 50 or so golfers and a few non-golfing passengers coming to kayak or hike at nearby Greenwich National Park, arriving like cruise-ship commandoes in a wave of Zodiacs — is not only a first for PEI but possibly for any golf course in Canada.

Ride right: Assistant expedition leader Adam Hamundsen brings a group ashore

Classic: Highlands Links golf course, designed by the legendary Stanley Thompson

Classic: Highlands Links golf course, designed by the legendary Stanley Thompson

Crowbush staff meet us with electric carts and drive us right to the clubhouse. By the time we tee off, the sun is breaking through the mist. Appropriately enough for Canada Day, one of the course’s resident beavers also makes an appearance, as do swarms of black flies. But on the trip back to the ship, the waves get rougher still — part roller coaster, part log flume. Later, after the staff and crew pull off a Canada Day barbecue on an open deck in a freshening gale (toques were in demand), we learn that the worsening conditions nearly required the staff to bring us back early. That news reminds me that at one of the trip’s early briefings, program coordinator Ian Peck noted that while the itinerary starts at Plan A, sometimes the ocean has other ideas. “This is expedition golf,” said Peck, “so the schedule may change.”

BECAUSE IT IS EXPEDITION GOLF, it’s also difficult choosing what to emphasize about the experience. Make no mistake, the courses belong on every Canadian golfer’s bucket list, and the game is the primary focus: the days we play, the itinerary and the staff’s logistics are organized around it; it dictates the cruise’s overall route; people’s conversations in the bar at happy hour and in the dining room at night are mainly about the courses, conditions and their scores; and there are daily contests for longest drive and nearest to the pin as well as a handicapped four-day scoring competition.

Off day: Cycling on the Magdalen Islands

Off day: Cycling on the Magdalen Islands

But to write about individual holes, critique the layouts or report on anyone’s play (let alone mine, which had me in the running for “most honest golfer”) feels misplaced. Compared to a land-based golf trip, Fiddles and Sticks is multi-dimensional. Being on a ship in the ocean, waking up in a different setting each day, the up-close-and-personal dynamic with an energetic expedition staff, and having the option of other off-ship activities like kayaking, standup paddle boarding and cycling — it’s more than just golf. And perhaps that’s the whole idea.

Zen moment: A hot tub, hot sun, a cold G&T and minke whales on the horizon

Zen moment: A hot tub, hot sun, a cold G&T and minke whales on the horizon

In my case, the two non-golf days are both highlights. Visiting the Magdalen Islands, the small Quebec archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on day three, I join a dozen or so others for a cycling road trip. The south island’s hilly, two-lane roads take us along the shore, then inland through fields and forests and into the tiny tourist town of La Grave. By the time we get back to the beach for a group lunch, we’ve ridden about 35 kilometres. Many passengers opt for other activities in the afternoon, but I go back to the Navigator early. Leg weary from the ride and keen to soak up some sun, I find my way to the hot tub on the open top deck. A sublime afternoon, sipping a gin and tonic under an all-blue sky and gazing out at the water, gets a lot more sublime when I spot the dorsal fin of one, and then ultimately several, minke whales cruising by.

Wildlife also takes centre stage on the trip’s penultimate day, when we reach remote Sable Island, which lies in the North Atlantic Ocean about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax. Designated a national park reserve in 2013, this 42-kilometre sandbar is most famous for its feral horses, animals originally released on the island in the 1700s that now live entirely as an unmanaged wild population. Protected since the 1960s, they number about 500.

Wild horses: There are approximately 500 feral horses living year-round on Sable Island

Wild horses: There are approximately 500 feral horses living year-round on Sable Island

Historically, Sable Island is also famous for its shipwrecks. Even in this era, fog and fickle seas make any beach landing a same-day decision. Fortunately, the morning of our arrival is fair. We get the all-clear for our last round-trip Zodiac excursion of the cruise and one by one the boats peel off for shore. At the beach, we’re met by a greeting party of large grey seals — at last count, the island was home to 240,000 of them, the largest breeding colony anywhere.

We spend four hours ashore, escorted over the vast, sweeping dunes by Dan Kehler, Parks Canada’s Sable Island ecologist. It doesn’t take long before horses are in view. Park rules require visitors to give every animal a wide berth. Some never let you get close, others are less skittish, plodding slowly over the sand, their long manes blowing wildly in the breeze.

Sable Island: “A place that teaches perspective and awakens wonder”

For impact, though, nothing beats contemplating the isolation, expanse and rarity of being part of only a handful of groups that visit the island every year — and to know you’re one of fewer than 10,000 people to have ever set foot here. A passenger from the United Kingdom describes it as the closest he’ll ever come to an “Adam and Eve” experience.

The night before, expedition leader Worsnop framed it in a way that only now, in the moment, truly resonates. “Why Sable Island?” she asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t seem like a place that has much relevance to a golf-specific trip. But we felt it was important to include on this itinerary because it has a palpable effect on people. It’s a place that teaches perspective, it’s humbling and it awakens wonder.”

Expedition golf, indeed.

Originally published in Canadian Geographic Travel, Fall/Winter 2018-2019. Photos all my own.