STRETCH the evenings, stretch the legs. When the coiscéim choiligh or 'cock's step' kicks in, golfers start thinking of putting their clubs in an aircraft hold.
Irish golfers are one of the most welcome breed of tourist through the entire holiday market. Like many golfers, they travel in fours most of the time. But they also travel in 400s. Irish golfers have been known to fill a trans-Atlantic-sized aircraft en route to Malaga for a weekend. You find more hobby golfers abroad than at home. Which can be more fun.
Spain and Portugal are the golf destinations of choice because of the short flight and the climate, which has a habit of ensuring that the rough is not very rough. Prices climbed a bit in the noughties but €200 green fees have since slipped back towards €60 and €50.
Specialist golf tour operators such as Cassidy Travel, Killester Travel/Sean Skehan and Tony Heverin have put together packages which an independent traveller will not be able to beat.
Access is the key to the spring golfing break abroad. Malaga is so popular Aer Lingus runs an A330 there to get another 100 seats. The Algarve is well served from all Irish airports from Easter. The Lisbon coast is easily accessible year round. Each of the Canary Islands offer golf options but these can be a tad pricier pre-Easter.
The burning questions for 2014 is whether Michael O'Leary wants golfers back. When one complained about the exorbitant excess baggage fees for a bag of clubs at the Holiday World Show some years ago he told them that he did not want their business. All may have changed.
There are now 27 golf courses on the Algarve coast. The landscape suggests that sandy parkland rather than links would be the prevailing style here. So it is with the blue chip courses, the extensive complexes around Vilamoura. But for those not prone to vertigo in search of the spectacular, the Sheraton Pine Cliffs means exactly what it says. Terrain varies from the steep hillsides of Parque da Floresta to the sea-level flatlands of Vilamoura III. Salgados and Palmares include links holes. Christy O'Connor's course in Alcantarilha is an Irish favourite. Don't worry about the mosquitoes – Christy says all his water moves. Before the Faro flights from Irish airports really kick in there are lots of great options on the Lisbon coast just 30 minutes from the airport, including the prestigious Campo Real.
Golf destination: Vilamoura, Algarve.
Costa del Sol
Spain rules golf tourism and has done so since Henry Cotton and his colleagues first realised what great potential Spain had as a golf destination in the 1960s. You could spot the tourists a Rory McIlroy-sized drive away. There are 69 courses along the Costa del golf, as the tee-boys and girls of the 1970s dubbed it (because golf is one of those words that won't translate). They range from the flat and untaxing to the undulating Almenara, to hilly wonders such as La Duquesa and La Quinta courses west of Marbella, Estepona, the La Cala course west of Fuengirola and the Alcaidesa, Sotogrande and famous Valderrama courses to the east of Gibraltar. Spain-bound golfers can find plenty to exercise their calves as well as their minds. The very hilly Torrequebrada, 15km west of Marbella, is a particular favourite with the Irish.
Western Cape's 100 excellent courses (Atlantic Beach near Cape Town De Zalze on the wine trail at Stellenbosch and Devondale are good example) have been popular with Irish golfers for two decades. They have a reputation of being expensive to get to, but marvellous value when you land at 14 rand to the euro.
Long flight, humidity, and lots more, but your hotel room is the size of the dell in Lahinch. Thailand has 200 golf courses. Many are a second flight out of Bangkok but most Irish take the road trip to Pattaya. The Royal Cliff is a local favourite – courses of choice include the Laem Chabang and Siam Plantation.
Golf is in its infancy in Turkey but this is a country that has changed the game in terms of air access, all-inclusive resorts and every other tourist activity going. Belek is the capital of golf in Turkey with ten resorts offering some of the lowest green fees in the business and a range of parkland (Antalya Sultan, Carya, Cornelia, Gloria, Nobilis) and one links course, Lykia, although another parkland course, the Sueno, has some links features, too.
Cassidy travel, www.cassidygolf.ie,
Killester Travel, www.killestertravel.com,
Tony Heverin Travel, www.golfholidays.ie,
Best 5 spa destinations
THIS is the time of the year to find the real tourism hotspots, the ones with natural warm water springs.
High-end hotels are vying with each other to offer massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and treatments gleaned from mainly Asian tradition.
For a time during the Celtic Tiger we appeared to be drowning in spas. Ireland had 82 spas at the craze's peak in 2008, with three 'destination spas' at the top: Monart in Wexford; Park Hotel in Kenmare; and Temple Country Spa in Horseleap, Co Westmeath. There were ten resort spas, 54 hotel spas and five with the status of specialised retreats: Healthy Choice in Castleblayney; Powerscourt Springs in Enniskerry; Inchidoney in Clonakilty; Bundoran in Donegal; and Strandhill in Sligo.
But there was nothing new about this type of tourism: if you go back to 1837, Ireland had 40 spa towns, not counting Lisdoonvarna, which only came to life in the 1880s.
What is the difference between spa tourism and wellness tourism, as the Germans call it? None, apart from the fact that spa costs more.
There is lots of accommodation in Bad Gastein and its valley (7,000 beds in Bad Hofgastein, 5,000 in Bad Gastein and 2,500 in Dorfgastein) because it is known as a ski and walking spot, with access to 200km of ski slopes split over four separate areas.
The hidden treasure is the Healing Galleries at Böckstein, a naturally heated underground chamber reached by a 2km train journey into the mountain. It is warm and clammy and there is a feeling as you chug deeper into the mountain that you are descending into Hades. Some of your fellow passengers are on state health curative programmes, and are carried on stretchers to recuperate. There is a long list of afflictions, including skin and respiratory, that your spell down here will cure.
Topflight are specialists in the Gastein region www.topflight.ie 01 2401784
Meet the locals who socialise in the Szechenyi Baths, public baths where people meet like they would in a public house environment at home, playing chess and sitting in the natural thermal water surrounded by elegant Romanesque columns that give a certain grandeur to the humblest attempt at a dog paddle.
Quiet and hidden away, the ancient Radi baths also offer a sublime bathing experience. All of Budapest's hotels offer excellent spas and the Danubius Gellert Hotel has an international reputation to uphold.
Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Budapest from Dublin www.aerlingus.com www.ryanair.com, citiescapes.ie is one of many tour operators offering citybreaks to Budapest
The town of Karlovy Vary in Western Bohemia has been sitting on a waterspout throughout its existence. The most spectacular of them is a geyser that sprays 2,000 litres of near-boiling water 20 feet in the air every hour, having been driven from 2,000 metres down among the depths of the earth.
There are 12 spa wells in the village, and local doctors will prescribe what water to drink and in what order to cure gastronomic ailments (people say the local hooch Bercheskova is the 13th). At the Bristol Hotel they will show you the private corridor Brezhnev had built, very convenient for elderly bathrobed guests today.
The Blue Lagoon is not very old (it emerged form the construction of a hydro-electric station in 1976) but it is an excellent place to take the hot water with the icicles in the background. It is so close to the airport (13 kilometres) you could pop in after check-in. Its signature is the silicon poolbed underneath that teases your toes and lots of places where you can muddy up your face.
Travel Department www.traveldepartment.ie 01 6371600 offer excursions to Iceland with direct flgihts
You can find excellent 'hamams' all around the world but you feel you are getting the real deal in the Arabic world. Head for Marrakesh to Touria Assbane's family business, Argan Phyto House for hamam and massage as it used to be before the multi-nationals took it over.
Sunway www.sunway.ie 01 2311800 are speciality tour operators to Morocco
Best St Patrick's Day getaways
HAIL glorious St Patrick, he has been delivering low holiday prices to the Irish since 492 or thereabouts. None of the main tourism markets has a bank holiday around March 17, which conveniently falls on a Monday this year, turning the entire week into a playground for the Irish.
American fares are not spiking as we go to press, although the big capacity for the summer of 2014 has not yet kicked in and there is huge interest in the flamboyant American parades.
Wherever you go, the air and hotel prices are low in comparison to mid-term and summer. The increased options do not stop at availability – they can also lead to cheaper upgrades and extras.
Even in resorts that do not have formal festivities, most major hotels have St Patrick's events around the weekend.
Choice is limited because the summer flights have not yet begun, so the alternatives are the Canaries, Egypt, Malaga, Morocco and the city-break flights to Lisbon, Istanbul and one-stop long haul destinations.
The Dominican Republic and Thailand are a longer flight but sometimes a week there can cost less than the Canaries.
Sadly, you should probably steer clear of Montserrat. St Patrick's Day is a bank holiday there as well.
The best value for ski holidays is always in mid-January, but the longer days of spring with sunny days on the slopes are a great alternative in March, when many resorts run St Patrick's Day promotions. The slopes are floodlit green for St Patrick's Week and the local tourist board has introduced special offers for Irish skiers. St Patrick's week departure (March 15) offers include free youth passes for under-15s with each adult ski pass.
www.topflight.ie 01 2401784
Disney always does great parades so when they turned their hand to St Patrick's Day in 2009, with costumes and themed fireworks, it was an instant hit. You can now transfer form Beauvais, as well as Charles De Gaulle. Neenan Travel and Abbey Travel are the specialist Disney operators.
Neenan Travel /www.neenantravel.ie
01 6079900 Abbey Travel www.abbeytravel.ie 01 8041700
They put on a great St Patrick's Day in Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria (it has an air of Playa del Irlandes for the day) where Victor Auz, a gracious lawyer who serves as consul general of Ireland on the island, delivers the message from Michael D Higgins, which is followed by a prize-giving ceremony. As night fell, a Thin Lizzy cover group performed on a stage outside Mulligan's Pub.
Falcon Holidays www.falconholiday.ie 1850 929 141 and Sunway www.sunway.ie 01 2311800 are among the tour operators who offer packages in Gran Canaria year round. See your local travel agent for more details.
The town of Puerto Vallerta on Mexico's west coast is a much more attractive playground than Cancun, where most Europeans go. Venture up the coast a bit and you come to the town of San Patricio Melaque, refuge to 175 Irish veterans who fought on the Mexican side of the 1846-8 Mexican-American war. Melaque is also where the action began for Mexican tourism with the first hotels for Mexicans long before Californian visitors started to come. The swells at Punta Serena are huge, too large to swim (the sign on the beach says: "read this or you will die") but you can allow yourself be turned over and rolled by the waves, a little like what Mexico does to the emotions.
Cabo Roig in Murcia on the Orihuela Costa on the southern Costa Blanca is the unlikely venue for Spain's largest St Patrick's Day parade. Over 80,000 ex-pats live in Spain and this has become a focal point for the festivities.
Ryanair fly to Murcia from Dublin www.ryanair.com