THINK VENICE BUT without Venetian prices. Just 90 minutes to the east on the road to Trieste, away from the crowds pouring onto the historic island in the lagoon lies another that was colonised by the Romans, centuries before Venice was founded. It too enjoys a hauntingly beautiful setting and is also able to boast a first class golf course.
Like Venice, Grado is approached by a causeway with the Alps to our back and salt water either side of us. Before we reach the town we pass Golf Club Grado, a determinedly upmarket offering popular with discerning local players and Austrian visitors.
It remains strangely off the British tourists’ radar although with the finest white wines produced in all Italy and a course that has matured and improved considerably since its opening in 1996 it is about time that more UK tour operators became aware of Grado’s considerable attractions.
Around the beautiful sandy beaches there is some ugly hotel development from the 1970s but still much to enjoy in the historic centre with some first class restaurants and bars set amongst sixth century churches.
But we are here to play some golf so we take a right turn off the road into town and park outside the single storey clubhouse that offers a warm welcome to visitors and a delightful covered patio area to enjoy a coffee before our round and some excellent German bottled beer to savour afterwards as well as the wonderfully crisp white wines of Friuli.
Grado used to open with a terrifying par three (pictured above) modelled on the equally daunting 17th at Sawgrass in Florida. With no dropping zone, hapless high handicappers were often to be seen on the first tee raining balls into the water until they decided that surrender was the best policy and walked meekly to the second hole to officially begin their round, assuming that they did not have to return to the pro shop to pick up some more balls.
The second, a more gentle but still challenging par four, alongside the lagoon and with water all the way down the left, starts our round and the horrors of that par three do not greet us until the last. It is no easier a hole, especially off 177 metres from the back tee, but at least players are more relaxed when approaching it.
The outstanding holes at Grado are the four par fives, all different and all tough. The toughest hole on the course awaits us on only the second hole, a 520 metre beast where the fairway swings right, crosses a lake at 200 metres and gradually tapers towards the distant green.
With lush parkland conditions helping the ball sit up invitingly and with the lagoon setting against an Alpine backdrop a fine day makes for a wonderful, if challenging round, where placement is much more important than power.
Possibly the best hole on the course is the 16th, another par five although the shortest at Grado at 465 metres. Water runs nearly all the way down the left and there is out of bounds to the right. This is a real risk and reward hole as the tighter left we play the closer we get not only to the green but also to the water- a par here is something worth celebrating- especially with a two tier green that slopes steeply right to left.
With many of the greens raised and with subtle borrows and slopes, holes can be cut in some painfully difficult positions but amidst the challenge there is a huge amount to enjoy amongst the wild birds, geese and large, confident rodents called nutria that are relatives of the beaver and have made the watery reed beds their home.
The club has played host to the Italian PGA championship and on two occasions over the past three years, the Italian PGA senior championship with the current holder, Ryder Cup player Constantino Rocca, a regular visitor to the club who can often be seen enjoying a glass of wine with members after his round.
Green fees for a round at Grado cost €59 during the week and knowledgeable visitors come in the early afternoon as the bulk of the holiday golf traffic is between 9.00 and 11.00. With the course providing easy walking and much else to do in the area, such as visits to local wineries and trips to nearby islands as well as excellent swimming from the beaches, a holiday in this warm and welcoming part of North East Italy comes highly recommended.