Chef Nick Stone hands me a menu then mentions one addition – a three-course meal comprising clam chowder, crab cake, and Prime Rib, all the ingredients of which have been dug, caught and sourced locally. I hand him back the menu without even glancing at its pages. Why bother when you would have looked for exactly the same items that make up tonight’s special anyway?
This is a golf publication, not written by or for foodies. But golfers enjoy a good dinner too. You don’t have to be a restaurant critic with a sophisticated palate to know just how good Chef Stone’s food is. The convivial atmosphere inside the Squaxin Island Seafood Bar at the Little Creek Casino Resort near Shelton, and the conversation with Stone who works just the other side of the counter from where I and my companion are sat makes this dining experience all the more enjoyable. The beer, brewed locally of course, might have had something to do with it too.
The Seafood Bar is one of three top-notch restaurants at Little Creek and one of eight places where you can be fed and watered during your stay at a resort that has built a very solid reputation since opening in 2004 (the casino originally opened in 1995, but the resort part, designed by Ambia Architects of Olympia and built by Korsmo Construction of Tacoma, was added later).
Little Creek is not Monte Carlo, Baden-Baden, the Clermont Club or the Bellagio, but nor is it a murky smoke-hole that’s best avoided. Far from it. The casino earned King 5’s Best Casino in Western Washington title last year and the 190-room hotel actually possesses a measure of style and comfort that is a little unexpected perhaps, but extremely welcome after a three-hour drive from Bellingham and 18 holes under grey skies.
But it’s not the food, casino, or hotel we’re interested in here, excellent though they all are. Yes, we’ll need something to eat, a bed for the night, a little table action in the evening maybe, and perhaps even a nightcap in the Skookum Spirit Cigar and Wine Lounge above the Seafood Bar before retiring to our very spacious bedrooms. But what we’re here for primarily is the golf.
It’s entirely fitting that adjacent to the highly-regarded resort at Little Creek is a golf course that has won its share of positive feedback, not to mention a tidy collection of elite rankings such as No. 6 in the state of Washington from Golf Digest in 2013, and 10th best casino course in the country from Golfweek in 2012.
The Gene Bates-designed Salish Cliffs opened in September 2011. It covers 320 acres, drops 600ft from its high-point at the 12th tee to its low point on the tee at the 2nd, and offers the golfer a little weary of playing his home course repeatedly wonderful panoramas of the Kamilche Valley. In his considerable wisdom, Bates allowed golfers to take in the beauty of the surrounding area while opening his shoulders a little on generous fairways. He also kept a good bit of the beautiful cedar and pine forest that characterizes so many golf courses in this part of the world. So although a handful of holes give the impression of being a little constricted, the course does in fact indulge a little inaccuracy which, let’s be honest, resort golfers can be guilty of from time to time.
Salish Cliff’s playing surfaces are in the very capable hands of Superintendent Bob Pearsall who, despite what Head Professional David Kass describes as”historical deluges in the last couple of months”, has managed to maintain the course in terrific condition. Pearsall’s expertise coupled with two-plus miles of drainage pipe that have been added over the last 12 months or so, have ensured the course, though a little soft in places right now, remains eminently playable.
The fairways during my recent visit were damp certainly, and it was clear much rain had fallen, but not a single patch of standing water was evident. So, provided you didn’t dig down too steeply into the turf, the bottom half of your trousers weren’t six shades darker than the top after walking off the green at the 18th. The greens were very nearly as firm and true as they had been during my last visit a couple of summers ago.
Its condition is certainly to be applauded, but somewhere else Salish Cliffs deserves praise in how it refuses to harm the environment in which it sits. The Squaxin Island Tribe, which owns the course and the resort, is very serious about its commitment to the land it calls home. Things are done a little differently here, ensuring the course has next to no impact on the environment.
“Unlike at other courses, we ‘spot-spray’ fungicides rather than ‘blanket-spray,” says Pearsall. “Most courses will spray preventatively meaning they treat the entire area (i.e. fairways or greens) once a month whether they have symptoms of turf disease or not. At Salish Cliffs, we wait for the early stages of the disease and only spray selected areas where the disease is most evident.”
This, Pearsall adds, is performed by one person and, depending on the size and severity of the disease, can take as much as two days.
“We take a similar approach with noxious weeds,” Pearsall continues. “We selectively spray or wipe our weeds during summer when herbicides are most effective. Around creeks and other sensitive areas, we will physically or mechanically remove the weeds instead of using chemicals.”
This low impact philosophy is indicative, says Kass, of the Tribe’s hyper-responsible program and practices. The Squaxin Island Tribe, also known as the People of the Water, has survived off this land for centuries adds Kass. There is a profound sense of obligation therefore in keeping it as unspoiled as it always was. “And it’s why Salish Cliffs became the first course in the Pacific Northwest, and indeed America, to be certified Salmon Safe.”
Given all this, you’ll not be at all surprised to learn Salish Cliffs records over 20,000 rounds a year despite being a little out of the way (not Bandon Dunes out of the way, but not exactly on your doorstep either). You’re more than likely wondering when you will next be able to get there. Soon hopefully, and when you do visit why not make a weekend of it?
When you check in for your stay-and-play package at the resort, you are handed a little booklet of vouchers detailing what exactly you are entitled to. There’s the golf and lodging of course, but you’ll also receive $10 off any menu item at the Salish Cliffs Grill, 25% off any regular-priced item in the pro shop, $5 off a Salish Cliffs hat, 30% off your next stay at Little Creek (Mon-Thurs), and 20% off your next round at Salish Cliffs.
Schedule your visit to coincide with the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, 55 minutes east on Hwy 101, I-5 and Dupont Steilacoom Rd, and you’ll get the same attractive set of discounts. This U.S. Open package is available from June 15th to the 21st and starts at $399 (double occupancy). Why not treat yourself to a treatment at the Seven Inlets Spa too? Spa manager Sally Perkins will ensure any aches and pains that emerged on the golf course will soon be a thing of the past.
Circling Raven #6
If you’ve lived and golfed in the Northwest for long, you’ll know very well Salish Cliffs is one of two Gene Bates-designed courses in the region that he built for a Native American tribe. The Coeur d’Alene-owned Circling Raven outside the village of Worley in northern Idaho opened eight years prior to Salish Cliffs and received much the same acclaim when it debuted. Still inside GOLF Magazine’s top 100 public courses in the US, Circling Raven was laid out over a mammoth 620 acres and possesses numerous excellent holes. It’s not until the long, flat, par 4 9th, in fact, that you play a hole that you probably won’t love. That’s not to say the 9th is a bad hole. It’s a strong test for even the best golfer in the group. It’s just not special like all the others.
The back nine is more of the same – one memorable hole after another. Really, it’s only the 14th and 16th that don’t quite measure up to the rest. But who knows, they may be your favorite holes. Yes, Circling Raven is just that good – a beautiful walk (or more likely drive) through gorgeous countryside with holes you’ll want to play again and again.
And the casino resort here – the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort – got a much needed upgrade two years ago when then the Spa Tower was added to the original building, giving the hotel two very different looks. It costs a little less to stay in the original Mountain Lodge while the Spa Tower is ideal for the more discerning guest who appreciates a little contemporary chic.
Like most courses in Northern Idaho, and Central and Eastern Washington, Circling Raven shuts down in the winter and was sitting under a thin blanket of snow at the time of writing. It will reopen in the first week of April most probably when visitors will happily discover the rates are unchanged from 2014, meaning Circling Raven’s peak summer weekend morning rate is still under $100.
Like the green fees, stay-and-play packages will cost the same as they did last year. Spring rates (April 1st – May 15th) start at $199 which includes a room in the Mountain Lodge and golf for two midweek. A weekend stay in the Spa Tower with golf for two is $249.
Despite the mid-January snow, Director of Golf Tom Davidson says the winter in Worley has been pretty mild so far. “So we are not expecting any surprises when the course reopens in spring,” he adds.
According to the resort’s head of marketing, Bob Bostwick, there are plans to expand the list of amenities on offer this year. Fishing, hiking and biking opportunities are all being explored with the idea of giving guests what Bostwick calls the ‘North Idaho Experience.’
“Lake Coeur d’Alene is the fourth-ranked bass fishery in North America, and also a major draw for trout and northern pike fishermen,” says Bostwick. “And with the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and Taft Tunnel (Trail of the Hiawatha) we can offer wonderful outdoors adventures in what is arguably the best summer climate in the world.”
On the Palouse of south-western Washington, it can get a little warm admittedly, but it’s also a fine place in which to be outside during the summer – all the better if you are playing golf on an endlessly entertaining course that allows magical views across this distinctive landscape. John Harbottle’s Palouse Ridge has been open for six and a half years now, and quickly moved inside most people’s Washington top 10, if not top five. Owned by Washington State University and located immediately to the east of the Pullman campus, Palouse Ridge is also one of the very best college courses in the country. At the end of April, it will host the men’s Pac-12 Championship.
Palouse Ridge #3
Like Circling Raven’s Brian Woster, the superintendent at Palouse Ridge, Todd Lupkes who is also the General Manager, believes the course is set fair for the spring. “There should be little snow mold and we should really be in fine shape for the upcoming season,” he says. Stay-and-play packages at Palouse Ridge are run in conjunction with three Pullman hotels which take care of everything during your stay including getting you to and from the course. A Marriott Residence Inn opened in town last year giving prospective visitors a slightly more high-end lodging alternative. Lupkes describes the new hotel as ‘beautiful’ and says it is making stay-and-play packages all the more attractive to golfers from Seattle and Spokane. Rates start at $259 (golf for two people).
Somewhere else that has fast become a very attractive option for golfers traveling from all over the state, and indeed beyond, is the fantastic Gamble Sands outside the village of Brewster in Central Washington. The buzz before the David McLay Kidd design opened officially in August last year could be felt from one side of the country to the other, and the feedback since opening day has been entirely positive culminating in Gamble Sands being named “America’s Best New Course of the Year” by Golf Digest in November. General Manager Dave Christenson says he was overwhelmed with interest from golfers and media. “It really never stopped coming,” he says. “We didn’t have many quiet days before closing the course for the winter at the end of October. We would often have golfers from Seattle arrive pretty early in the morning, play 36 then drive back to Seattle the same day. And we also had plenty of players show up for 18 but decide to stay on for another round before leaving.”
By the end of summer next year (possibly sooner), guests might not have to leave at all as the Gebbers Family which owns the course, intends to start work on eight on-site cottages sometime this spring. “The plan at the moment is to offer 40 rooms which will be configured in a way that is suitable for individuals, couples or groups,” says Christenson who adds the cottages will not be visible from the golf course.
Until the cottages are built, visitors to Gamble Sands have four top-quality hotels to choose from when arranging a stay-and-play package. The pick of them is probably the Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop, 55 miles north and west where 18 holes for two, a guestroom and breakfast last fall started at $147.50.
Gamble Sands Golf Course
This is Gamble’s first winter since opening of course, but Superintendent Chip Caswell should know what to expect having observed the course come out of the cold during the course’s grow-in period last year. The fact it has been so mild with little snow will work in Caswell’s favor, though he and his winter staff are busy every day building the new maintenance shed and doing what they can to make sure the fescue is primed and ready for what promises to be a summer season even busier than the first.
Wouldn’t it be great if the turf was perfect as early as June to coincide with the U.S. Open? Christenson is looking forward to that week but says no plans with regard specials and events have been finalized yet. “We are working on some things for the U.S. Open,” he adds. “We’ve a few months yet to announce anything, but we certainly want to celebrate the Championship coming to Washington for the very first time.”
One place you can be pretty sure the turf will be perfect by June is Semiahmoo in the far northwest of the State where in the 18 months since Resort Semiahmoo LLC (a partnership of individuals and investment groups led by managing member Wright Hotels of Seattle) took over, $400,000 has been spent on turf equipment. Among the new toys Superintendents Vance Much (Semiahmoo) and Bill Dierdorff (Loomis Trail) have been working with are two fairway mowers, one riding greens mower, four turf gators (utilized for debris and material pick-up), one core harvester, two aerifiers, one small backhoe, one trim mower, three walk mow cutting units with trailers, one rough mower, and one triplex mower.
And if that level of investment wasn’t enough, the new owner added fleets of 60 brand-spanking new carts at both Semiahmoo and Loomis Trail, the clubhouse at Semiahmoo got new carpets and a fresh lick of paint, and granite tops were installed in the restrooms and locker rooms. The result is a much improved Semiahmoo which, in all honesty, wasn’t looking too shabby before Resort Semiahmoo was handed the keys.
Until May 14th, you can enjoy unlimited golf at either course (Semiahmoo on odd days of the month, Loomis Trail on even days), plus a cart, practice balls and accommodation for as little as $79 per person.
Courtesy Semiahmoo Golf Resort
Of course, Semiahmoo and all the other places already mentioned aren’t the only destinations in the Northwest offering golfers desirable stay-and-play rates, whether it is at their own on-site hotel or partner hotels nearby. More than a dozen other courses in Washington, Idaho and Oregon have similar packages providing golfers with a great incentive to get out of the city for a couple of days. Suncadia, eight miles east of Seattle, The Links at Moses Pointe and Desert Canyon in Central Washington, Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Black Butte Ranch and Eagle Crest near Bend in Oregon, the magnificent Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho, the list goes on…and on – White Horse and the Clearwater Casino on the Kitsap Peninsula, all the courses in the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, Richland), Apple Tree in Yakima, Swinomish Casino near Anacortes, Gearhart Golf Links on the Oregon coast, and the Wildhorse Resort in Pendleton, Ore.
Don’t forget the golf resort that has been rightly considered the best in the country, if not the world, for the last few years. Bandon Dunes has been a part of every serious golfer’s conversation for 15 years now, a conversation that obviously increased in volume and intensity over time as one more world-class course was added to the roster. The resort possesses four courses inside GOLF Magazine’s top 100 you can play in America and a 13-hole short course that would hold down the No. 1 ranking in perpetuity if a ranking for 13-hole short courses existed. Adding to the fun, the Punchbowl putting course opened last year separating Bandon Dunes from the competition still further.
You’ve no doubt heard a stay at Bandon Dunes is expensive and if you come during the summer and stay in a Northwest Room in the Lodge you’ll pay well over $500 before you’ve bought any balls, hats, or shirts, and had a thing to eat or drink. Go in February though and the same room and round of golf will cost $215, hopefully leaving you some for miscellaneous items. But, as everyone knows, whatever you spend at Bandon Dunes will most likely be money very well spent. Actually one wonders just how much owner Mike Keiser could inflate his prices before rooms went unoccupied and the courses became empty.
Courtesy Chambers Bay Hole #15
And, lastly, how about overnighting in a hotel that has been ranked inside the top 100 hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveler Magazine, and playing a U.S. Open venue as well as two other quality courses? The Championship Experience, offed through the amazing Hotel Murano in Tacoma, includes golf at Chambers Bay, as well as Gold Mountain outside Bremerton and the Home Course in Dupont. The package is not offered right now but will return on a very limited basis through April and May. June’s out obviously, but it will be available once again starting in July, just a week or so after Chambers Bay’s first U.S. Open champion has been crowned. Rates in April begin at $529 per person and rise to $619 in May. From July to September, the package will cost $669 per person then fall to $529 in October.
The Championship Experience really is the ultimate stay-and-play especially this year. Will you go before June to preview the course the world’s best will take on, or wait to know who won and try to hit some of their shots – the short ones at least?