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June 6, 2014 5:44 pm
Celtic Manor is like a miniature country run by a benign but golf-obsessed government. That’s true of most golf clubs but this Welsh resort is a bigger deal than most. It may not yet have an army or a space programme but it does have a kind of capital, in the form of the 330-room Resort Hotel, the twin-winged slab of a building that looms over the M4 motorway as you head towards Newport. This would be more than grand enough for any self-respecting parliament, especially one whose members felt the need for spa facilities; maybe David Cameron and Barack Obama will opt for some pampering when Celtic Manor hosts the Nato summit in September.
It has regional centres, too, with clubhouses scattered here and there, such as the one it built when the Ryder Cup was held here in 2010. It worries about education, laying on a Golf Academy to make sure its shifting populace of guests can hold their heads high in the global golf economy. And it does infrastructure, with roads connecting its facilities and the three courses on Celtic Manor’s 2,000 variously hilly, wooded, watery, grassy, putting-greened and bunkered acres.
It has come a long way since 1980, when technology entrepreneur Sir Terry Matthews – Wales’s first billionaire, as a staff member proudly told me – bought the derelict maternity hospital where he was born and set about doing it up.
Now Celtic Manor has embarked on a housing programme, building 10 “Hunter Lodges” on a stretch of track along from the 2010 Clubhouse. The aim is to extend the resort’s appeal by providing high-end self-catering accommodation for families and groups of up to eight.
The “Hunter” designation is meant to make you think of outdoorsy adventure, nothing more: I don’t think they’d be too impressed if you turned up with a gun and a retriever. But is a golf course – or even a golf statelet – any place for a family to spend the weekend? Especially a barely sporting, definitely non-golfing family, lightly frazzled after a cab ride and a crowded train journey from London to Newport?
In fact, that grumpy commute made our roomy, immaculate lodge all the more appealing. Like its neighbours, the Plucky Pheasant had a congenially silly name (next door: the Kooky Kestrel), was largely made of wood, giving it a shake-that-city-dust-off feel, and was highly spacious. I think ours could have comfortably swallowed up the family home but that may have been an illusion caused by the lack of clutter. The main living room, though, was certainly as tall as a house: looking up, you saw the inverted “V” of the roof, all in pale planking, as you would in a church. It had three ranks of windows too: a whole house façade for a single room. It reminded me of that scene in Help! where the Beatles each go into their apparently separate terraced houses but it’s one big groovy space inside.
It was all very open-plan: the lounge merged into the dining area, with its big, long chunk of a table, which merged into the kitchen, which had all the equipment you could wish for. There was also a bathroom with a sauna, and a sort of Zen games room, furnished with bean bags, a big screen and a games console.
Perhaps inevitably, there was a hot tub too, which sat in a spacious porch off the lounge. But if you’re going to wallow in luxury, then wallow: I’m a sucker for these things. This one had views across to the other side of the Usk valley, all cloud shadows sliding over patchwork fields and farmhouses and spinneys; on its putting-green floor, tiny players were intent on their rounds.
As the children lolled in their rooms in digital indolence, hypnotised by YouTube Team Fortress tutorials and Adventureland cartoons, the grown-ups sipped tea in the tub and assayed various permutations of jets and bubbles.
The Hunter Lodges are self-catering but that’s an option rather than an obligation. You can order in hampers, for breakfast or afternoon tea, or takeaways (pizza, Indian, fish and chips). These cost roughly the same as you would pay your local takeaway and are pretty good. If you’re feeling hungry and flush, there’s a cook-it-yourself roast dinner hamper, serving eight, with a four-kilo rib of beef for £240. That wasn’t much good for my daughter, who is a vegetarian, but the caterers came up with a nice pulse dish for her; they were even unfazed by my gluten-free diet. (Yes, no one invites us for dinner twice.)
Unless you’re a complete slob, those options still entail clearing up, loading the dishwasher and so on. Another option is to dial up a car – there’s complimentary transport for guests – and head for one of the six on-site restaurants.
For many, the main draw will be the golf. But since none of us had ever played before, we booked an introductory lesson on Saturday afternoon and, before lunch, got in the mood by playing mini-golf on a course that replicated the most challenging holes of the world and bore the grandiose name Kingdom of Legends.
I went two under on the tricky long green at Valderrama, and the thrilling possibility of a dormant talent opened up – only to snap shut again when we began our lesson. As patient pro Michael taught us the rudiments of gripping the club and driving the ball, it became clear that, like a risky investment, success in the Kingdom of Legends is no guide to future performance. For every ball that I watched sail past the 100-metre mark, 10 scattered wildly to the left or right.
Yet if you can do one immaculate shot, with the ball lofting obediently into the sky, you can surely do more . . . and so the interest takes hold. Maybe if I focus more on stance this time? Or adjust my fingers just so? Better get another 40 balls, or maybe 400 . . . In the cubicle next to me, a man and his young son were steadily thwacking their stockpile out of sight; I told him it was my first time but that I could start to see the appeal. “You can have the worst, coldest, blowiest round ever,” he said, “and at the end you’ll be thinking, ‘Now when can I do that again?’ ” My 13-year-old, beseeching me for another session on the range, was clearly of a like mind.
Not that there was any shortage of other activities: archery, a laser war game, one of those treetop rope trails. There are gyms, spa treatments and swimming, with pools at the main hotel and a big satellite clubhouse called the Lodge. And steam rooms: you could spend a weekend steeping yourself in different varieties of leisure water.
After two nights, I felt clean, loose-limbed, glowing, a sleeker analogue of the jumpy stress-puppet who’d fetched up on Friday night. The children, too, having resisted the exile from our metropolitan WiFi comfort zone on Friday, were begging by Sunday to stay longer. School and work did not permit but, as the train pulled away from Newport, I wasn’t the only one thinking, “Now when can I do that again?”
Neville Hawcock was a guest of Celtic Manor (celtic-manor.com). The Hunter Lodges sleep eight and cost from £1,750 for a three-night weekend break
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