As the coach pulled out from the Sheraton Hotel in Lisbon there was a cool, early morning breeze, but the sky held the promise of a good day for a dozen travelling golfers who had been reminded the previous morning that it occasionally rains in Portugal.
But the belief that shorts would replace the waterproofs later in the day began to wane as the sky took on an increasingly dark hue and our worst fears were realised as the Serra de Montejunto came into view; not the peaks, mind you, but the lower reaches, and in time visibility was reduced to about 50 yards.
In fact, the coach came to a standstill at one stage as the driver had difficulty making any progress because of the pounding rain and steamed-up windows.
The beauty of southern Europe, though, is the fleeting transformation of a traveller's vista and within an hour we were throwing a professional eye on a Swedish international as she hit a cracking drive up the first fairway at the Clube de Golfe Golden Eagle. Morning coffee and the sun were greeted simultaneously and a pair of hairy legs that had seen duty for many years on English soccer pitches was observed moving towards the putting green.
If the Algarve is the first choice each year of Ireland's travelling army of golfers to Portugal, the greater Lisbon area is making serious inroads: from the magnificent Praia d'El Rey Club on the Atlantic Coast 40 miles north of the city, to Quinta do Peru about 15 miles south across the '25th of April' bridge. The capital has 24 courses.
Set on 224 acres of undulating land, the Golden Eagle was designed in 1994 by William 'Rocky' Roquemore who has been very busy as a golf architect in Portugal (among them Belas in Lisbon, and Quinta do Lago -- North Course -- and Vale do Lobo in Faro) as well as his native America. Naturally enough, water and sand feature prominently with 87 sizeable bunkers and eight lakes demanding a high degree of accuracy on the 7243 yard, par-72 stretch.
The 12th is particularly attractive, or should that be daunting, as it is built on the lines of the 17th hole at Sawgrass, Florida, which, though short, is surrounded by water and on one tournament day in 2007 saw 50 balls disappear like a high diver into a pool. The Golden Eagle's replica, with a choice of tees from 94 to 148 metres, has a minuscule bailout area to the back which does little to comfort anxiety-ridden players.
With Penneagle fairways and Penncross greens, it is a quality course which staged the 2009 Portugal Ladies Open and demands a variety of shot-making. A modest- sized clubhouse with a good veranda is well situated with views of the first and 18th holes. Close by are villas within the complex, as well as dining and drinking facilities for large groups.
Our first port of call, Quinta do Peru, situated close to Sesimbra and Setubal and nestling under the Arrabida mountains, was also designed by Roquemore. The fact that it opened in 1994, the same year as the Golden Eagle, suggests he was a busy man at that time, and if a comparison were to be made between the courses, Peru would probably have to settle for second place.
In its favour is a bigger, more attractive clubhouse with better dining facilities and a great feeling of hospitality. But having thoroughly enjoyed the course on a previous visit about 12 years ago, there was a sense this time that it had lost a little of its sparkle. The small bunker and chipping practice area needed attention. Further out, a number of the tees are in need of repair or resodding, although it must be said that May, when I was there, might be a little early in the year to see Bermuda grass at its best.
The course does have a number of excellently designed holes, particularly on the back nine. The 15th is a fine example, it requires a very accurate drive down a tree-lined fairway, to ensure a good angle for the second shot that travels parallel to a lake which adjoins the fairway and green. That same water comes into play at the 16th as there is a carry of 160 metres from the back tee to terra firma. A graveyard, no doubt, for many a medal card.
We also visited Santo Estevao Golfe, designed by the well-known English architect, Donald Steel, who laid out the Lackabane course in Killarney. What was once a farm is now an 18-hole challenge measuring 6382 metres with a par of 73. The terrain was never going to throw up spectacular vistas, but Steel managed to design some testing holes. More importantly, he did an outstanding job with the greens. The A4 Creeping Bent grass provided a velvet carpet, and the clever undulations make them a joy for putting. By far the best greens of the four courses played.
A wet morning slowly developed into ideal afternoon conditions for 18 holes at Ribagolfe 1 -- a 36-hole complex which is close to Santo Estevao, about 12 miles east of Lisbon. Built on a cork oak-tree plantation and used for the European Seniors Championship in 2006, it is a good test over 7,370 yards. Designed by Peter Townsend, it adjoins Ribagolfe II, the creation of Michael King. This is a little less demanding and used more as a members' club.
With holiday costs now more relevant than ever, the Lisbon area is more reasonable for golf than the Algarve, and then there is the advantage of being able to get central accommodation which provides easy access to shopping and night life in a most attractive city. We spent two nights in the Sheraton Hotel where the rooms and food were top class, but four beers in the rooftop bar at €48 took some of the gloss off a beautiful panoramic view of Lisbon.
That same view is available across the estuary of the Tagus from a hilltop that has the Castelo de Palmela perched on it, a fortress transformed into a luxury 28-room hotel of charm and comfort, 30 minutes from the airport. If it suits your budget, I would suggest you go for it.
Adhamhnan O’Sullivan flew Dublin to Lisbon with Aer Lingus. See www.aerlingus.com for daily flight information.
The Portuguese Trade and Tourism Board (01 6471530), or www.visitportugal.com, will advise prospective travellers.
Sean Skehan of Killester Travel (www.killestertravel.com) has over 30 years’ experience of bringing groups to Lisbon while Peter Toal’s Estoril Golf Tours (www.estorilgolftours.com) also has a choice of attractive packages.
Sunday Indo Living