New Portuguese Resort Promises Four New Courses

By: Wayne Mills

While new golf course development in the United States is at a virtual standstill these days, other parts of the world are moving ahead with large-scale projects. Asia has gotten most of the attention, but now Europe and particularly eastern Portugal will see an entire new resort town, Parc Alqueva, including four new golf courses, built along the recently created Alqueva Reservoir.

Alqueva Reservoir is a 155-square-mile man-made lake that was created by the Portuguese government by damming the Guardiana River in the Alentejo region. It is now Europe's largest man-made lake. The Alentejo had been the driest and hottest region in the country and was subject to persistent droughts, had little infrastructure and was economically segregated from the rest of Portugal and Europe. The idea was to create a hydroelectric generation dam, provide massive irrigation to the area, and to offer recreational opportunities.

During the 1950s, the Portuguese Prime Minister, António de Oliveira Salazar, ordered a study of the feasibility of the dam project, and the potential benefits of the Alqueva dam have been discussed for decades. An initial effort was undertaken after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, but it was abandoned in 1978. The Portuguese government eventually made a firm decision to build the dam in the 1990s during the Cavaco Silva and António Guterres regimes.

The project became reality in 2002 when the floodgates were closed at the Alqueva Dam. It took over two years to flood the lake to full capacity. In 2004, the hydroelectric power station started to generate electricity, with a capacity of 240 megawatts. As of 2025, the lake should supply irrigation water for 1,100 square kilometers in the Alentejo.

Under the heading of "I can't help it if I'm lucky," Andre Roquette, a native Portuguese, and his family had large land holdings in the area and used a portion of their property to operate a winery under the name of Esperao. The rest was arid ranch land. With the creation of the reservoir, they now have waterfront property and access to irrigation water in mass quantities.

Being young and ambitious, Roquette rounded up a small group of partners and created Sociedade Alentejana De Investimentos E Participacoes (SAIP) to develop 5,000 acres into an entire resort village with a master plan calling for housing, hotels, village centers, marinas, spas, sports camps, equestrian center, organic farming, vineyards and a diversity of recreational facilities.

The entire project will involve an investment of 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion USD). Under strict environmental planning, the Portuguese government, wishing to avoid development problems similar to elsewhere in the Algarve, has allowed only 10 percent of the waterfront area to be developed, thus leaving nearly 900 kilometers of shoreline in its natural state.

The land area of Parc Alqueva is divided into three parcels known as Roncao, Postoro and Areias. Roncao has the most lake frontage, Postoro a lesser amount and Areias none at all. The lands include an ostrich farm and areas where pigs are let to run and eat the nuts from the oak trees - resulting in the most flavorful hams in the country, and also the Castle of Monasaz, a former king's palace from the Middle Ages. The castle will be incorporated into one of the hotel complexes.

The initial parcel to be developed is Roncao. It will have the marina, a hotel and the first golf course.

Massachusetts-based golf course architect Roger Rulewich has done the routing for all four courses and designed the first layout with a working name of Roncao D'el Rey. Rulewich, Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s design associate for 34 years before opening his own firm in the early 1990s, had done a lot of work previously on the Iberian Peninsula at Sotogrande and Valderama in Spain when working under Jones.

Rulewich describes the site for Roncao D'el Rey as being a mostly open, rugged, rocky and dusty environment making earthmoving difficult. Dave Fleury, Rulewich's construction partner, is on-site running the job along with Roquette's supervisor Simao da Cunha.

The course routing was purposefully kept from the water's edge because hydro-generation reservoirs notoriously vary in surface elevation, but views of the water will be almost constant from most every hole on the course. Although vegetation is sparse on the site, there are scattered oaks and olive trees that will be strategically utilized to define fairways, backdrops and entries into greens.

The first nine holes of the Roncao D'el Rey course should be grassed this year, with a grand opening in 2012 to coincide with the debut of some of the resort facilities. The grasses slated for installation are 419 Bermuda on the fairways and bent on the greens, which will take some care considering the hot summer temperatures in the Alentejo.

The next course at Parc Alqueva will be at the Areias parcel (one of two for that area), a site that Rulewich is particularly excited about. "It is a totally different site that has a gentle topography, nice rock outcroppings and native material that is much easier to contour. The beauty of the plan is that environmental authorities considered the Areias to be so special that they would not allow any housing on this parcel and we get to build two golf courses there."

Build out for the project has no definite finish date at this point; it will be determined by the success of the development as it progresses.

Wayne Mills is a New England-based freelance writer who has been producing golf stories for over 20 years. He has written for national publications such as Golf Inc. and superintendent-related, regional golf-lifestyle magazines and websites in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest and was a golf columnist for two daily newspapers. He has played over 700 golf courses from Canada to the Caribbean and from Cape Cod to California. He carries a single-digit handicap and has scored four holes-in-one.