Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slice of life in St. Andrews

Home of golf, royal romance and a cat that runs the town

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The Fairmont St. Andrews sits on a stunning 210-hectacre coastal estate, serving up luxurious vacation packages, including tee times on its two golf courses.

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The Fairmont St. Andrews sits on a stunning 210-hectacre coastal estate, serving up luxurious vacation packages, including tee times on its two golf courses.

St. Andrews, Scotland -- Visiting St. Andrews, the home of golf, is akin to making a pilgrimage.

This was the birthplace of golf 600 years ago and the city is steeped in the history of what has become an almost sacred pursuit.

To golf the Old Course is to play where all of the game's great ones have played.

Visitors will also find some of the finest and most famous courses in the world in the St. Andrews area, along with a fascinating museum dedicated to the game.

While it was golf that drew me to St. Andrews for a holiday, I quickly realized it would be golf along with a town full of other charms that would bring me back again someday.

First, the golf:

I started, on Day 1, with a splendid course called The Torrance, one of two courses at Fairmont St. Andrews.

As I walked to the first tee box, a light fog rolled across the lush greens in front of us. In the distance, the medieval spires of St. Andrews' historic buildings reached into the early morning sky. The restless North Sea stretched out to the east. And, as if on cue, a deer delicately leaped across the fairway.

It was magical and just what one might imagine golf would be like in the country that gave the world this game.

After spending a few hours at The Torrance and later visiting Fairmont's other course, The Kittocks, it was easy to see why the resort has won many golf awards, including a top 18 finish in World's Top Golf Resorts poll by Condé Nast Traveler.

The courses were a perfect way to get ready for a mid-week visit to the Old Course, which is where golf as we know it today was first played.

Course officials know a game here is a significant event for many golfers, so they're happy to help people take photos before teeing off, with the iconic Royal and Ancient Clubhouse in the background.

Because the Old Course is such a tourist attraction, there can be dozens of people standing around the edge of the course watching golfers at hole one and hole 18, which are side by side.

It can be a bit nerve-racking, but luckily we were able to start the game with a good laugh as my Calgary-based twosome found out we'd been paired up with a twosome from Edmonton. Players from around the world can be found on the course every day, but the golfing gods had brought the four Albertans together for a memorable round.

For visiting golfers, the Old Course recommends you hire a caddy since the tight and busy course can be a tad confusing. They're worth their weight in directions, tips and stories, as I learned from my caddy.

For example, there are 112 bunkers on the course, each with its own history and name, such as the three-metre-deep Hell Bunker. (Jack Nicklaus once needed four shots to escape it.)

The caddy also talked about the course's grasslands, heather and dunes, which provide habitat for many small mammals and various birds, including a one-legged feathered friend with a predilection for begging for snacks.

The holes on the Old Course also have storied pasts, such as the fourth hole, which is sometimes called Ginger Beer in honour of a greenskeeper who sold the beverage at a refreshment stand he set up at the hole in 1856.

One of the most celebrated features of the course is the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole, which many famous players have chosen as the place they wave farewell to professional golf. Every single golfer I saw on the course stopped for a photo on the bridge.

Near the 18th hole is one of the many golf shops found in St. Andrews, but this one is special. It's the oldest golf shop in the world, started in 1866 by Tom Morris, a four-time Open champion and St. Andrews Keeper of the Greens for almost four decades.

Despite the fact the traditions of golf are held sacred here, visitors will find some surprisingly common touches at the Old Course.

A narrow, public road cuts through the first and 18th fairways. Walkers, and the occasional motorist, are warned to exercise caution as they cut across the course since golf is in progress.

The occasional old-timer will bring his dog with him on the course.

And on Sundays, the course is closed to golfers and opened up for public use, with townsfolk doing everything from picnicking to playing soccer on the fairways.

Experiencing golf at the Old Course is one of those bucket-list activities for many visitors, but there is a wide variety of other St. Andrews attractions to check out, for golfers and non-golfers alike.

"St. Andrews is a great town. It has something for everyone," says Graeme Dawson, marketing manager at the area's Fairmont. "It has restaurants, bars, shopping, history, cathedrals, museum and beautiful walking trails, in addition to golf."

Stroll just a few metres from the famous Old Course to the nearby beaches of St. Andrews Bay and you'll find an equally famous beach. This is where the memorable running scene from the 1981 award-winning film Chariots of Fire was filmed.

St. Andrews has also become notable as the place where Prince William met his wife, Kate Middleton.

The two met at university and fell in love, and a number of businesses around town now promote the fact their establishments were favourite hangouts for Wills and Kate.

"St. Andrews still has that uncanny knack for feeling like home," Prince Williams said in 2011 when the couple returned to tour the area.

Speaking of universities, the campus of St. Andrews University is spread throughout the town site, giving rise to museums and various points of interest for visitors. It was the early 1400s when an existing school in St. Andrews was given university status -- the first in Scotland and one of only 24 in existence at the time.

The town also entices visitors to step back in time: Visiting historical sites and remnants of structures built centuries ago reveal the fascinating past of St. Andrews, including religious conflicts and Scotland's complicated relationship with England.

St. Andrews is serene, safe and full of quirk, too. One of its most famous residents is Hamish McHamish, a fluffy ginger cat that wanders around town, deciding to eat, sleep and hang out wherever he wants. His favourite haunts include a real estate office where agents provide his breakfast and the hair shop next door, where he gets a daily brushing. He's one of the most photographed residents of town and the unwritten rule is if Hamish wants to enter your home or business, you open your doors. It's the St. Andrews way.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 E2

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