Ross Bridge Resort is a gem of the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 23:03

The stately Ross Bridge Resort, seen here from the first tee,  holds a commanding

place on the property and is visible from many holes on the golf course.

Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is carved out of the Appalachian foothills just minutes from busy Birmingham, Alabama.  As soon as you drive onto this resort property that carries a Scottish theme for its namesake, you can feel yourself begin to relax just a bit.  We arrived here after breakfast at FarmLinks by way of a schedule change.  Due to a wet forecast for Friday, our hosts with the RTJ Trail set us up to play this resort's spectacular course a day early.

I've played this course a couple of times with the resort's general manager, Steve Miller, who is a pretty good player.  Steve had planned to play with us at Ross Bridge, but when we switched dates, he ended up playing with us the next day at the nearby RTJ Trail's Oxmoor Valley course.  I had the chance to play with Mike Gunn, a sales executive with the Greater Birmingham CVB, and a couple of fellow writers.  Ross Bridge is one of the longest golf courses in the world if you play it from the back tees.  Not only did we not do that, but I don't remember ever seeing anyone play from those tees in my rounds here.  It measures nearly 8,200 yards from the tips.

The first thing you notice about this course is that you almost always have a great view of the imposing Ross Bridge Resort from anywhere on the course.  This 259-room resort hotel sits on the property's highest point and is a focal point for any round here.  The golf shop is attached to the hotel, so guests walk from their rooms into the pro shop.  Each room has a balcony and the rates at Ross Bridge are very reasonable compared to most resorts of this caliber.  Miller told us at lunch the next day that $189 a night was a fairly good average rate here.  He also estimated that as many as a third of all guests in the resort played the course at least once during their stay.

Ross Bridge has some great holes and its greens are a bit less severe than some of the other RTJ Trail courses.  This is a resort course and if you play it from a reasonable tee based on your handicap, you can score here. 

After golf, I went to my room and opened the balcony doors overlooking the resort pool.  As I got out of the shower I heard the bagpiper.  A lone piper began on the first tee and walked a bit around the property, ending up on the poolside patio.  I listened for 20 minutes or so while I relaxed on the balcony.  This is an evening signature at Ross Bridge and it really drives home the resort's Scottish theme.  Bluegrass music has been described as a "high lonesome sound".  Bagpipe music?  For me it has always been ethereal and haunting. Something best heard from a distant hill.  This tradition makes a lasting impression for any visit to Ross Bridge Resort.


The finishing holes on each nine come in over this lake at Ross Bridge Resort.

The Ross Bridge course measures almost 8,200 yards from its back tees.

Players carry as much of the lake as they can with their drives on 18.  Their second shot will also carry

over water to this heavily bunkered green.

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Golfing in Alabama

Grand National and FarmLinks in one gloriously long day

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 20:50

In early morning, mist off the lakes at Grand National gives golfers a memorable look at Alabama's scenery.

We started early on Wednesday, teeing off at 7:00 a.m. on the Lakes Course of the RTJ complex at Grand National in Auburn-Opelika.  Many consider this course to be among the most scenic in the entire RTJ system.  By starting early, we saw lots of holes draped in fog and mist rising from its large lakes.  Llke so many RTJ layouts, the greens on this course are large, sculpted and fast.  If you are above the hole on these greens, lagging a putt anywhere close to the hole is a challenge. 

There are two regulation size courses here, the Links and the Lakes Course, and a short course (18-hole par three).  This site is dominated by nearby 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee.  Of the 54 holes at Grand National, well over half have water on them from this lake system.  Twelve holes on the course we played were on the lake, including the par-three 15th, which is considered a signature hole for the entire RTJ Trail.  After grabbing lunch and a quick video interview with director of golf, Scott Gomberg, we headed for FarmLinks, about an hour away.

This is one of the great golf stories in Alabama.  FarmLinks at Pursell Farms was envisioned by David Pursell, an accomplished artist and golfer who grew up in the family's fertilizer business.  Pursell dreamed of building a demonstration golf course in tiny Sylacauga, Alabama and inviting golf course superintendants to fly in from across the country for training in turf management.  His vision became reality in 2003 with FarmLinks was completed, designed and built by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry.  Pursell sold the family fertilizer business in 2006, but continues to oversee FarmLinks, which hosts corporate partners like Toro and ClubCar.  Hundreds of golf course superintendants have already been to FarmLinks, where they study turf management, play golf and enjoy the first-class amenities afforded at this golf resort, which was recently named #39 of Golf Digest's 75 Best Golf Resorts in North America.

The course itself was a contrast to the tight, tree-lined RTJ courses we had played the first two days.  FarmLinks is a great golf course with wide, sweeping fairways that allowed for a few errant drives without as much penalty.  The greens were impeccable, but less undulating and much easier to lag long putts on once you had the speed down.  The vistas on this golf course are farm vistas--broad expanses of wildflowers and fields with trees in shadows on the horizon.  The par-three 5th hole is a signature hole that drops maybe a couple of hundred feet depending on which tees you play.  The 18th, by contrast, is a long par-five that is carved from former cropland and seems to stretch forever back towards the clubhouse.  Pursell told us he loved the 18th because "we used 150 acres of farmland to create that hole."

Pursell joined us for dinner that evening at Parker Lodge, a rustic inn overlooking the 17th green and lake, that has eight guestrooms, a warm great room, complete kitchen facilities, and other amenities.  He spent an hour or so with us over steaks and detailed his vision for this family enterprise.  FarmLinks is about an hour from Birmingham and should be included in any golf trip to that part of Alabama.  Reservations are recommended and for $135 you can play all day with all beverages, range balls and lunch provided. Alcohol is not permitted on the course or sold on the facility.


Water down the left side guards the entire second hole on the Lakes Course at Grand National in Opelika.


The par three 5th hole is a signature at FarmLinks.


I shot this archway from Parkers Lodge overlooking the 17th hole after our overnight stay.


Owner David Pursell used "150 acres of farmland" to build the 18th hole at FarmLinks.

Golfers receive unlimited golf, range balls, lunch, and beverages on the course for one fee at FarmLinks.

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Golfing in Alabama

A week of golf is outstanding in Alabama

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 20:02

The Senator is one of three championship courses at Prattville's Capitol Hill complex on the RTJ Trail.

Last week I joined a group of golf writers and Pam Shaheen of Crossroads Marketing Inc. for a week-long trip to play golf courses in Alabama. We played several of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses, plus a couple that are marketed as part of the Honours Golf collection. The RTJ Trail will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and has been a unqualified success in the mission set out for it by the state's retirement system. The system was built to highlight Alabama as a travel destination and as a prospective site for new economic development. Over the past two decades, golf groups in this country and abroad have found their way to Alabama as a result, and three major automobile plants have landed here. Mercedes Benz, Honda and Hyundai-Kia have all begun production here over that time period. Honours Golf manages golf courses in numerous southeastern states.

Due to flight delays, I missed the first round at Highland Park, a venerable old course in downtown Birmingham. However, I've played this course numerous times with Jim Smither of the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. This is an Honours course that is owned by the city of Birmingham and it was in great shape. Its heritage includes a tournament won there by Bobby Jones when he was a teenager. Bob Hope also played this course when he was in Birmingham years ago. We made our way that evening to Montgomery, where we dined as a group at Dreamland BBQ, an Alabama institution that began in Tuscaloosa. I had a great pork plate and their signature banana pudding for dessert. Several members of the Montgomery CVB and Alabama tourism office joined us at Dreamland.

The following morning, I played at Capitol Hill, an RTJ complex in nearby Prattville that includes three 18-hole regulation layouts. We played The Senator, a links-style course that hosts the LPGA's Navistar Classic golf tournament.  The Senator layout is immaculate and its greens are treacherously fast,  but I was also fascinated by the course's use of indiginous kudzu.  Several holes on the front that are framed by kudzu-draped forests. As a southerner, I'm familiar with this wild plant that overtakes entire sections of forests and creates eerie backdrops that are as beautiful as they are mysterious. Ravines and glens on some holes were covered by this vine and made for gorgeous canopies along the way. Director of Golf Mike Beverly joined my group and we had a great weather for golf.

That evening, we made our way to Auburn, where I stayed at the impressive Hotel at Auburn University. John Wild, president of the Auburn and Opelika Tourism Bureau, arranged to take us on a tour of Jordan-Hare Stadium, home to the 2010 national champion Auburn football team, and then hosted us at Brick Oven Pizza, a campus icon, for pizza, calzones and beer.


The Senator course at Capitol Hill is host to the LPGA's Navistar Classic each summer.


I loved the kudzu that framed several holes on the front nine.  This wild plant is prevalent in many parts of the American south.


We stopped for a moment to take in the wild foliage that thrived in this ravine on The Senator's front side.

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Golfing in Alabama

Electric trains and apple pies

by Brian Jewell 19. October 2011 20:48

In East Troy, a preserved electic railroad gives visitors a passage into some of the area's hidden treasures.

A short drive from Lake Geneva, East Troy is a small southeast Wisconsin town that has a 100-year railroad history. In 1907, the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company brought the first electric railway through town, connecting the area to Milwaukee for freight and passenger shipping. Though rail is no longer the primary means of transportation, and much of the electric railroad in the area no longer exists, a stretch of electified rail extending from East Troy makes for great group excursions.

We began with a visit to the depot, which is now a museum detailing the history of the electric railroad. After a short introduction, our hosts helped us board a 1927 trolley car, restored to its original look and outfitted with vintage advertising. The car started on the ten mile journey, and our hosts told us more about their family history on the railroad as we passed through forests, corn fields and small villages along the way.

We stepped off at The Elegant Farmer, an orchard and bakery operation that sits right on the train tracks. This group of farmers has created an outlet store that sells area favorites such as Door County cherry products, cider-cured ham and traditional Wisconsin cheese curds. The Elegant Farmer's most famous product, though, is an apple pie baked in a brown paper bag. Owner Keith Schimdit walked my group through the store, and up to the production facility, where we saw workers kneading pie dough, coating carmel apples and preparing other fall products.

We had a great lunch at the Elegant Farmer, tasting a number of their products. The cider-cured ham was delicious, along with the bottle of fresh apple cider that came with lunch. A generous portion of fresh apple pie made the perfect end to a morning spent exploring these travel treasures of southeast Wisconsin.


Inside the historic electric train car

The Elegant Farmer's famous apple pie in a bag

A batch of freshly dipped carmel apples

A day on Geneva Lake

by Brian Jewell 19. October 2011 20:00

After spending a day on Wisconsin's Geneva Lake (in the town of Lake Genvea), it's easy to understand what made this area such a popular getaway for wealthy Chicagoans of the 19th century. With crystal clear water and beautiful foliage on 20 miles of shoreline, this lake is one of the natural treasures of the Midwest.

Throughout the late 19th and eary 20th centuries, wealthy residents of Chicago bought land along the lake and built "summer cottages" of varying sizes. The most modest are the size of typical American homes; the most oppulent are extraordinary mansions that showcase brilliant architecture and uncommon wealth. Unlike most houses, these homes don't face the road, which can be a quarter mile or more away. Instead, they face out onto the water.

Today, private owners still use most of these mansions as their summer homes. Many of them take advantage of the mail boat service that began in 1916. Each morning in the summer, a private boat contracted by the Postal Service carries mail to the houses along the lakefront. The large boats pull up to each pier along the way, slowing down just enough for young "mail jumpers" to leap onto the dock, deliver the mail, retrieve outgoing pieces, and jump back onto the boat, clinging to its exterior railing. Since the boat never stops moving (for fear of colliding with the pier), the mail run is an impressive display of bravery and athleticism on the part of its delivery crew.

The mail boat has become such a beloved tradition in the area that it is among the most popular Lake Geneva activities for visitors. Groups can come aboard the mail boat for morning runs, where they'll get an up-close view of the impressive dock jumping, as well as great narration about the history of some of the magnificent homes that they pass along the way.

In October, official mail boat delivery has ended for the season, but the sightseeing cruises continue. The jumpers did a few demonstration deliviers so that the group of journalists I was traveling with could see how it worked. The bursts of excitement perfectly punctuated a day spent reveling in clear skies, sunshine and the splashes of autumn color in the trees around Geneva Lake.


A modest lakefront mansion

Jumping onto pier to deliver the mail

Return jump onto the side of the mail boat

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Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Volcanic beauty

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:45

Mount Rainier National Park is one of America’s oldest and best-known national parks, roughly a hundred miles north-northeast of the “City of Roses” as the crow flies. Established as the nation’s fifth national park in 1899, Mount Rainier is about a 155-mile drive from Portland, or approximately 90 miles by road from Seattle.  

The centerpiece of this glorious national treasure is, of course, perpetually snowcapped Mount Rainier itself, the towering, 14,410-foot dormant volcano that can easily be seen from throughout the Seattle and Tacoma areas on a clear day. Travelers who have visited Colorado are likely aware that there are 55 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in that photogenic state, although none of them are as visually prominent as Mount Rainier for one very important reason.

Remembering that the base altitude in Colorado is Denver’s 5,280 feet, the “Fourteeners” there are actually only in the 9,000-foot range. Mount Rainier, however, is less than 50 miles from sea level, thus constituting a much more massive geologic landmark.  Eventually, it also holds the potential for creating a catastrophic natural disaster, since the Cascade Range has been active volcanically for eons. 

Needless to say, the eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens in 1980 provided a graphic reminder of this situation. But unlike the latter peak, Mount Rainier is much closer to the densely populated areas surrounding Puget Sound, so the danger posed is likely of a much higher order. Please don’t let this deter you from visiting this truly superb park, however, since geologists are confident that there will be ample warnings, should Mother Nature ever decide to initiate any significant volcanic activity here.

Carbon River Rainforest

Lake Louise

Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Repeated rewards

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:42

As one of our natural treasures that rewards repeated visits, I have visited Mount Rainier on many occasions. There are hard-to-obtain, somewhat basic group accommodations (although with incredible views) available in the park at the historic, 121-room Paradise Inn, built in 1917. 

Nevertheless, most groups will likely opt to stay in the Tacoma or Seattle areas, where there are a wide range of lodging choices available in all price ranges. A full-day excursion into the park will likely suffice as a thrilling “overview” experience for most groups, even though it is possible to take advantage of but a few of the scenic opportunities which this 368-square-mile facility has to offer in such a short time frame. 

Given that the park contains 26 glaciers covering some 35 square miles, more than 300 miles of trails, and over 140 miles of roads, the challenge to visitors attempting to “see it all” is readily apparent. 

Mount Rainier National Park is open year-round, although only the road from the west (WA 706) to the Nisqually Entrance, Longmire and Paradise is open during the winter months due to the heavy snowfall. In fact, the Paradise area, at an elevation of only 5,400 feet, annually gets an average of 126 inches of the white, fluffy stuff. 

On my most recent trip to the park in mid-July, at Paradise I had planned to take the relatively short Nisqually Vista Trail, which offers superb views of the great Nisqually Glacier. Unfortunately, I was prohibited from doing so because I wasn’t prepared to negotiate the deep snow still remaining on the trail from a much greater than average snowfall last winter. 

There is also one other caveat to remember before your group departs for a Mount Rainier day trip. If the sky is overcast and you can’t see the peak before leaving town, unless a change in the weather is anticipated during the day, you are likely to see mostly clouds and possibly no Mount Rainier at all once you reach the park proper.

Paradise Inn

Glaciers on Mount Rainier

Martha Falls

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Snow in July

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:38

Although a lot of snow was still evident during my two-day July visit to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, nature provided more than enough compensation for the minor inconveniences it posed. First, the melting snows at higher elevations made the park’s countless waterfalls truly spectacular. The rushing waters of Chenuis, Ranger, Christine, Narada, and Martha Falls, as well as many others along my route, made this trip to Mount Rainier a most memorable one.

The multitudes of brightly colored “spring” wildflowers were obviously at their peak this year in mid-July, while numerous birds and small earthbound critters added to the awe-inspiring splendor. At the northeast corner of the park, I also took an incredible hike though the Carbon River Rain Forest, where ample precipitation had decorated the verdant forest floor with all shades of green.       

Of course, this park is also famous for its deep canyons, beautiful mountain lakes and dense forests of giant Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock. Although I had planned for an extended picture-taking session at lovely Reflection Lake, it turned out to still be snow-covered, so I moved down the road and got some great panoramic shots overlooking Louise Lake, which is at a significantly lower elevation. 

Other sights that are also sure to be appreciated by group travelers include Stevens Canyon, plus the easy trails at the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River and the Grove of the Patriarchs. On this trip I did not have time to make it to the Sunrise Visitor Center, which, at an elevation of 6,400 feet, is the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle, and an ideal spot from which to view Mount Rainier. Due to the snow, the road to Sunrise had just opened for the season during the previous weekend. I was reminded of another visit on a July 13th many years ago, when I was required to take a pathway cleared through the remaining ten feet (!) of snow to reach the visitor center building.  

Mount Rainier National Park is a truly magical place, so don’t miss it when you plan a trip to the Pacific Northwest!

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at or by calling (435) 590-1553.

Stevens Peak

Narada Falls

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Living the High Line in NYC

by Mac Lacy 10. October 2011 23:49

A delightful urban environment awaits walkers on New York's High Line

One of New York's newest visitor experiences is the High Line, an urban trail that is being built on the former railroad tracks that carried freight trains through the city.  It is complete today from 30th Street to Gansevoort Street, almost 20 city blocks.  We walked up steps on 23rd Street and joined a throng of walkers going both ways.  The High Line is meticulously landscaped and has many places to stop and sit on benches or gaze at the city skyline.

We walked until it ended at Gansevoort Street, where a shopping district and several cafes welcome walkers.  The High Line is too crowded for runners, though we saw a few people giving it a go.  This is much more suited to walking.  Apartment buildings line the north side, and some are built over the pedway.  The south side overlooks the Hudson River and New Jersey. 

We had coffee on Gansevoort and then found our way very easily to Greenwich Village and Bleeker Street.  We spent a couple of hours checking out the shops and had lunch at John's Pizza - Bleeker Street.  We could not have had better weather in New York in October.  It was a magnificent day for a walk in America's premier city on its newest offering for walkers.

Two-way traffic works well on this pedway that is replacing old railroad tracks

Meticulous landscaping is one of the highlights of the High Line

Views across the river to New Jersey greet walkers looking southward

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New York

Visiting the 9/ll Memorial

by Mac Lacy 10. October 2011 23:30

Falling water offers a calming presence at this magnificent memorial

It's hard to write about the 9/11 Memorial without feeling like an interloper. This is such a sacred place to so many families that it's hard to feel like this belongs to all of us. But it does and it should. Before we left Kentucky, we got online to make arrangements for four passes during our trip to New York and it added so much substance to our trip. I would not have missed it and I heartily recommend it.

We were there on a cloudless day under a bright blue sky. Airliners leaving La Guardia made a constant pass above us. It was impossible not to connect the dots and think about how that day unfolded for this magnificent city ten years ago.

This memorial is as peaceful a place as you can hope to be. The water that cascades down the walls of both memorials accomplishes its purpose. It is restorative, uplifting and full of hope. It falls into pools that then fall into wells that seemingly have no end. They are eternal in nature. 

The Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center, is well underway and will stand 1776 feet tall at its completion.

An American flag graces a nearby building at the 9/11 Memorial

A single rose is a poignant addition to a victim's name in the memorial

Presently, visitors are alloted 30 minutes to tour the 9/11 Memorial

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New York

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