Terre Blanche Resort and Golf Club and The European Tour recently launched the Tour’s first Performance Institute, and Sunday Times journalist Derek Clements gives his account of the latest European Tour Destination.
Derek was in Terre Blanche for the first step in his quest to bring his golf handicap down, taking ad-vantage of the latest knowledge, hi-tech equipment and facilities at Terre Blanche, near Cannes in Provence. And away from the range, he took time to explore his surroundings.
SEAN CONNERY is often rather quaintly described as a canny Scot. The veteran actor certainly knows what he likes and has accumulated a fortune during a long and hugely successful career.
He loves the finer things in life and the first time he saw the Domaine de Terre Blanche, he fell in love with it. Back then it consisted of a chateau set in 326 hectares of forest overlooking the village of Tourettes in the Fayence region of Provence in the south-east of France. His wife, Michelle, was born in the area.
Legend has it that Connery, a noted gambler, won Terre Blanche in a game of cards. Whether or not that is true, he knew that he had a gem on his hands and he realised that it had huge potential.
Connery is a fanatical golfer and when he looked at the land he now owned he visualised a golf course, perhaps even two, with holes wending their way through the trees and around the chateau. In his mind's eye he also saw the possibility to create luxury accommodation for guests. Being an astute individual, the Scot realised that financing such a project was way beyond even his means, so he got all the planning permission in place and sold Terre Blanche.
The company that originally took it on found that it was also beyond their means and that was when Dietmar Hopp stepped in. A German software entrepreneur, he was one of the founders of SAP AG, as well as being one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Like Connery, Hopp loves golf – Ernie Els, the South African golfer, is sponsored by SAP – and he concluded that such a magnificent area deserved the very best. Dave Thomas, the renowned course designer, was employed to create two courses, The Chateau and The Riou. Work also began on what is described as a hotel but which in fact is more like a luxurious village. There is a spa, too, but more of that later.
The first thing that will strike anybody staying at Terre Blanche for the first time is that the security and safety of guests is paramount – electronic gates, security cameras and infra-red ensure that only those who are meant to be on the property can gain access. As you go through the gates you are then taken down a long sweeping drive to what seems to be the hotel – in fact it is a very impressive building that contains the reception area, two restaurants, a bar, meeting rooms and administration areas.
Outside is a full-size pool that looks inviting no matter what time of year one may visit the domain. Naturally, there is also a poolside bar and restaurant.
It is only when you have checked in that you begin to realise the scale of the place and the quality of what is on offer. You are given a key card before boarding a golf cart to be taken to your “room”. I stayed in a standard room which, in reality, was more like a small house. It comprised a huge lounge area with a door onto a magnificent patio and balcony area, a bedroom that featured a king-sized double bed, walk-in wardrobe and a fantastic bathroom that included a gigantic bath, his and hers sinks, power shower and, oh yes, heated tiled flooring.
The lounge and bedroom both had wall-mounted flat-screen TVs and DVD players, while there was also wi-fi and a computer connection. One of the many classy touches is the cards from senior managers welcoming guests to Terre Blanche and wishing them an enjoyable stay. When you return to your room after a long hard day, you will find a card on your bed containing a weather forecast for the following day – just think blue skies and sunshine and you will not be far off the mark.
There are a variety of “rooms” on the domain, with some able to accommodate eight people and boasting plunge pools and jacuzzis. No matter the size, they each have a number of things in common – the views of the area are spectacular, the quality of the fixtures and fittings is of the very highest order and, amazingly, they each contain part of Dietmar Hopp's extensive art collection. Over the years he has acquired dozens of paintings, sculptures and artworks and he has a refreshing philosophy, namely that art should be seen, not hidden away where only one individual can see it.
And so it is that you might come home each evening to a painting or sculpture worth tens of thousands of pounds. They are also scattered around the grounds and around the main building, the golf clubhouse and the spa.
A renowned children's club allows parents to leave their little ones for the day if they wish, knowing that the kids will be looked after and entertained by qualified staff while mum and dad have 18 holes of golf, go for a spa treatment, a trip round the local area or a few laps of the pool.
One of the things that will strike most guests is the sense of space here – each room is large, there is no sense that any of the properties at Terre Blanche are built on top of one another and when you go for a walk around the domain it is incredibly tranquil and not at all like any other hotel grounds you have ever experienced.
As you would expect, the food is of the very highest quality, beautifully presented and prepared. One of the best chefs in France has just joined the staff and recently appointed general manager Gilles Fouilleroux has set him the target of achieving a Michelin star. Once he has done that, M Fouilleroux wants a second star. The absence of a Michelin star is something of a surprise, especially when you discover that Le Faventia restaurant was awarded one in 2005, and gained a second in 2009. M Fouilleroux wants them back. As he said, it is not gaining such accolades that is difficult, it is holding on to them and continuing to improve that is the trick.
You are in Provence, so you know that the wine is going to be something extra special – and it is.
One of the jewels in the crown is the spa. Let's put to one side the fact that it is located in a magnificent building that houses further examples of Hopp's art collection; let's forget that it contains a beautiful heated swimming pool and that there are numerous relaxation areas; and let's even ignore the fabulous changing rooms, the slippers, the dressing gowns, the grooming and dental kits, the steam room and the sauna. Any spa worth the name is all about the treatments on offer.
It may be a good time to own up to the fact that I have been a soap and water man for most of life, and it was with some trepidation that I went for a massage and full facial treatment. Did I look like Brad Pitt after my time with Adeline? Be fair, she only had an hour and miracles were beyond even her. But she did turn me to jelly. I felt that I really should be talking to her while she was applying her potions and lotions to my aged body but I truly couldn't find the energy to do so.
Put it this way – I now understand why so many people swear by spa treatments. I also understand why this particular spa has three times been named the best in the world. This seems like an appropriate time to list just some of the other awards picked up by Terre Blanche – Trip Advisor 2012, Travellers' Choice Award; Spa Finder 2011, Best for Golf; Conde Nast Traveller 2011, Gold List, World Best Places To Stay; Gallivanter's Guide 2011, 2nd, Europe's Finest Resorts; Gallivanter's Guide, Best European Resort, Best Hotel Group Worldwide. And so it goes on
It has just been named as a European Tour Destination, and you can be sure that the continent's leading golf organisation would not have teamed up with Terre Blanche unless it was certain that the venue was right up there with the best of the best.
The allure of the place is perhaps best summed up by M Fouilleroux: “We regard Terre Blanche as somewhere our guests can discover beauties, colours, flavours, as well as many other ingredients, such as quality and first-class service. Terre Blanche is a unique place with unique people, working each and every day on added values and details for the pleasure of our guests. It is a daily adventure, with emotions to fill the senses.”
Of course, all this quality and luxury comes at a cost, but we all have special occasions in our lives when we want to treat ourselves or our loved ones, and this is the place to bring them.
Terre Blanche comes under the Four Seasons banner, but from the beginning of October, it will no longer carry any brand name other than its own and will be known simply as Terre Blanche Hotel and Spa. It has been a hidden gem for too long – now is the time to go and discover it for yourself.
There are two courses at Terre Blanche, each designed by the incomparable Dave Thomas.
The Chateau course was originally established for the exclusive use of members and hotel guests, but visitors are now welcome to take on the challenge of what has become a championship golf course, renowned for its superb greens and immaculate tree-lined fairways.
It is a course that features many elevation changes (a golf buggy is recommended, especially during the summer, when temperatures can reach 40C) and man-made water hazards – it is a tribute to those who constructed the golf course that all the lakes look entirely natural.
The fairways are generous enough, but many golfers will be intimidated by huge oak and pine trees that line the route to the green and trouble awaits any wayward tee shot. When you find the target, it is important that you land in the right spot as many of the greens are large and undulating and are definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The second course, the Riou, was also designed by Thomas. It is shorter, but no less challenging, and is strictly for members only.
ONCE you have visited Terre Blanche for the first time, it is a safe bet that you will fall in love with the place and want to return, again and again. The best way to achieve that is to buy one of the building plots within the domain and build your own villa. A number of magnificent properties have already been completed, each with views to die for, each maintaining that amazing sense of space that so characterises this piece of heaven on earth.
The building plots are split into four separate areas – Le Bois Fleuri occupies 19 hectares, with all plots on the highest part of the domain facing south; Le Bois de Rouvieres, on 18 hectares and offering fabulous views of the northern mountainous landscape known as the Pre-Alps; Le Bois de Fontmerle, set in 13 hectares close to the golf courses and leisure facilities; and Le Bois de Cigalieres, set in four secluded hectares and comprised just five plots overlooking the Riou golf course.
The plots cost between £2,200 and £3,200 per square metre, and buyers are also expected to take out two golf club memberships, costing roughly £100,000 – but that sum is invested and should you ever decide to sell your completed villa, you would get your original sum back, hopefully along with a bit more besides. Annual golf membership costs about £6,700 and gives villa owners exclusive use of the Riou course. There is also an annual property service charge of about £6,700.
Investors are free to bring in their own architects and builders, but most use local craftsmen who are sympathetic to the area and are more likely to produce designs and use materials that fit in. One of the most striking things you notice about the villas that are complete is that they don't look new; rather, they appear to have been built years ago. And that is a clever skills.
Conservation is important to everybody involved with Terre Blanche. Wood from fallen branches is recycled, and no machinery is used to keep the forest floor clear – instead, five donkeys have been brought in, and they spend their lives happily munching their way through the undergrowth, keeping everything under control. There are also red squirrels in the forest, along with other wildlife and plants and a host of natural aromas from the flowers and fauna.
The likes of Nice and Monaco are within easy reach, as is the Mediterranean. If you can afford it, this could be your own slice of paradise.