The Irish Catholic Hajj Lived

The trek towards Middle America is daunting in an Econoline van, 700 miles and 11 hours long.  Yet the draw for a 17-strong contingent of Philadelphia area products from the Roman Catholic Church and school systems is irresistible, as witnessed by a core group that has made the South Bend trek to University of Notre Dame football games 17 times now.  

The underside of an obscure card table, inscribed with the names of past participants documents the participants from year-to-year.  Those making the Hajj for the first time dutifully add (R) to their names to signify their rookie status.  We also made habit of marveling at the precision organization, courtesy of Major General (Honarary) Edward Brady (Father Judge ’74), and execution.  Staying out of the way – unless called upon – for fear of ruining the mojo.

The group was not nearly as rowdy as might have been – and probably was – years ago.  Then again most of use are on the downhill side of 50 or below sea-level of 60!  It does seem to mute the wackiness.  The one exception being the call to “Huddle up!!” by Staff Sargeant (Hon) Lenny, a call to imbibe shots of intestinal fortitude.

You learn to celebrate Life more managably as you grow older.

Friday was for a tour of the Notre Dame campus, steeped in history not limited to football.  As a Philly guy, never quite bitten as badly by the ND bug, hearing the story of John Cardinal O’Hara (former Philadelphia Cardinal of the Archdiocese and President of Notre Dame) next to his marble crypt is one example.  The Battle of Gettysburg story of Reverend William Corey, steadying New York’s Irish Brigade in the hours before their date with Destiny at Little Round Top and the wheat field, is quite another.

As for the football experience, the pageantry and loyal following the Fighting Irish inspire is evident at every venue.  For me, the excitement generated by the Notre Dame Band of the Fighting Irish, on Friday particularly with the horn section warming up the crowd inside The Rotunda was simply spectacular!


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Saturday, the focus was FOOTBALL … not to be overshadowed by perhaps the nicest stretch of weather shining down on the Best Tailgating Experience ever!  (OK … Honestly the guy with the satellite dish and 40+ inch screen might have an edge here.)  It’s difficult to imagine a better day.

The Miami of Ohio – Notre Dame game was anticlimactic, given the obvious talent gap and the Irish’s ability to step on Miami’ s throat in the 1st Quarter (Final: ND 52 – Miami 17).  But the highlight truly is that there’s much, much more to enjoy at the Notre Dame Football experience than just a lopsided victory!

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View of our rental’s backyard in the vicinity of the University of Notre Dame

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The Irish American Hajj

Sixteen men, one determined young lady, two Econoline vans (bench seats), 700 miles, 11 hours … A journey meant for the die-hard fans of The Golden Dome, The Fighting Irish, Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and other Legends of the Gridiron ….

An American Hajj (Commitment)

A two-decade tradition expanded to include wannabes and hangers-on.  The planning intricate, resourceful, learned … Leadership the envy of military staffers ….

We depart at zero-dark-thirty for the University of Notre Dame with kisses from the women folk left behind. (Admittedly some of which are not all that worried about more spacious beds, cooking for one, and quiet evenings curled up with Netflix.)  The assault vehicles are loaded; GPS devices homed in; coffeed up and leisurely fed by one weekend widow, we are Oscar Mike!

The Summer of Orange Discontent

Description=ab23638.jpg AB23638 (RM) Traffic cones along side of road Taxi

Official Flora of Orange Summer

Many have heard the lame joke, made at times like these … “What’s the State flower of (fill in your favorite State/Commonwealth in dysfunction)?”  The punch line is pictured to the right.

It’s been one of those Summers in my little slice of Heaven on Earth.  Seems every week I am running into large rectangular announcements that “This road will be closed beginning on (month-date.)”  The amount of road work going on is enough to set commuters’ neck hairs a quivering!

My guess is that the Silver Lining in all this traffic disruption this Summer is a good sign for The Economy as a whole; but it truly wreaks havoc with the rate-of-productive-effort vs. travel time ratio.  And for some reason this Summer has seen much more infrastructure investment than any other Summer I can remember.

img_0036Summer’s tend to be most beneficial to blooming orange cones; but this one might set a record, not just for orange cones but also for orange detour signs (announced weeks in advance) and the deployment of the Flagger Forces of Evil.  I have joked recently that any hostile power, looking to pose damage and mayhem to American society would – as their first step in subversion – invest heavily in Flagger Force franchises.

Those guys are EVERYWHERE.  And even though they might seem innocuous, they control the smooth flow of American auto society.  Too perfect a cover for a nefarious force looking to nonchalantly position themselves at numerous strategic venues and choke points.  Reminds me of German efforts to sabatage the Allied response to the Nazis’ World War II offensive in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge).  They sent commandos to infiltrate behind Allied lines, disrupting communications and responses by – among other things – changing routing and destination signage!

img_0035It’s getting to the point where I am recognizing Flagger Force operatives moving from one choke point to another.  That cannot be a good thing!

My work commute is generally a non-invasive, relaxing commune with Nature along the secondary and back roads of eastern Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (Hatboro, Upper Moreland, Abington, Cheltenham).  No stress, relaxing scenery, manageable traffic …

Until this Summer anyway …

On any given morning, I can find two or three of my favored secondary roads impassable due to construction or repair work.  From the all too obviously needed bridge rework to road re-paving to power-line tree trimming to sewage and water line installations to God only knows what, it has been a particularly active Season of Infrastructure!

Terwood Road (closed since July 5) has been a real kick in the commute, a direct route slicing east-southeast through bucolic settings guaranteed to settle the most nervous commuter.  Worse yet, the popular route’s closure in an area not exactly brimming with non-invasive alternative routes, throws other east-west secondary routes in the area into complete disarray, forcing me to use primary routes (e.g. Route 611) where the driving is closer to Mad Max: Fury Road than psyche-settling leisure.

UPDATE:  Just days after posting this, Welsh Road (Route 63), another rather vital East-West commuter link, particularly for PA Turnpike access in eastern Montgomery County, had two sections narrowed to one lane (one for bridge work crossing over the Turnpike); had another stretch east of Washington Lane completely closed for God-only-knows-what, and is being resurfaced!!

It’s both maddening and reassuring in the “Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure” way of thinking.

  1. Roads – and the utilities running along and below them – are essential.
  2. Roads take a beating.
  3. Roads require maintenance and semi-regular investment to maintain long-term utility.
  4. Maintenance and Investment Time sucks when moving from Point A to Point B!

There’s NEVER a good time to do it.  And when it’s being done, it’s never a good time for anyone … other than the good people (so far as we know) of Flagger Force!

Just shoot me already … (That was sarcasm, FF!)

An American Hajj

hajj – an honorary title given to an individual who is engaging in pilgrimage. The honorific title “Hajj” stays with him, even after his return from pilgrimage until his death, quite often as a permanent title and part of his name with friends and public.

main-buildings-golden-dome-university-of-notre-dame-library-of-congress-lc-dig-highsm-18705One weekend this coming September, I will embark on a pilgrimage to the one of the most important sites for American Roman Catholics.  No … not St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, not the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa … not the Vatican …

I will be attending my first football game in South Bend, Indiana at the University of Notre Dame!

No doubt in some yet-to-be-discovered scroll tucked in a Galilean sea cave resides an ancient admonishment for all Roman Catholic citizens of the United States to make The Pilgrimage of The Fighting Irish at least once in one’s lifetime!  I’m sure of it.  It must exist … for how else to explain this overpowering physical attraction to The Program???

This is a phenomena with which I grew up in Irish Catholic Philadelphia during the 1960-70s.  It’s been a fascinating thing to witness, especially when few – if any – of those adults and children with whom I grew up actually attended Notre Dame!  The dedication is real and pervasive to the point where many families and friends set aside at least one weekend each football season to make the annual pilgrimage.

Frankly, an Irish Catholic’s love for Notre Dame football is not all that difficult to decipher as a natural development of growing up in undeniably wholesome and homogenous settings, where The Church was a central and integral part in the lives of our Parents and Grandparents … and thus onto us.  It’s a confluence of Sports and Religion unique in its roots, devotion and enduring strength.

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Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and friends

It’s origins likely the outgrowth of the rise of collegiate football in the decades preceding the existence of the National Football League (NFL); and the result of The Fighting Irish’s success and broad appeal in the collective conscience of those proud Catholics. While “the greatest generation” – the generation of my father and uncles, Irishmen all –  lived its formative years, Notre Dame football was a constant presence.

My father was born in 1919.  The years of 1918-1930 were the Knute Rockne years.  A twelve-year stretch consisting of FIVE undefeated seasons and SIX where no more than 2 losses were booked by The Fighting Irish!  So it’s not hard to see how a generation was immersed in the success and glory of Notre Dame football, even in a time long before football polls, National Championships, and the dreaded BCS.

Unfortunately, the lack  of clear-cut test for determining such pressing issues as football supremacy begot arguments that probably sent many an Irish-Americans into Saturday confessionals

For some reason I was not bitten as severely by the ND football bug as so many were in my extended fraternal family.  I like Notre Dame football; enjoy watching; and always pull for them when I catch their broadcasts.  But the fanaticism never took complete root.

In my family, I have had uncles and cousins make the pilgrimage as once-in-a-lifetime excursions or as regular visits.  I had at least one cousin buried in full Notre Dame regalia.  So many funerals and a few weddings had references to The Fighting Irish.

It’s a guy thing … a Catholic thing … a family thing …

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A family thing … Brother Pat and his two sons, Joseph and Andrew

Yet despite all that kelly green DNA, I never had the Irish-urge to see Notre Dame play locally or even think about taking the trip out to South Bend.

That changed a few weeks ago, when a close friend suggested we go out to God’s Country with mutual friends, who have made ND football an annual gig.  I demurred at first … again not smitten with the ND bug.  Then I found out my brother – a true ND football devotee – had decided to join the very same group from his home base on the West Coast.

Though I may not be a Notre Dame football disciple, I am certainly a huge fan of family, friends, fun, and good times.

What better reason could there be to embark on such an American hajj?!?

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Experience the Couples Massage!

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Not us pictured … Divorce might result if it was!

Hope you enjoy this very carefully, very tastefully written review of our first couples massage experience.  Hopefully I will not end up sleeping on the couch … again, when the incredibly lovely Carol stumbles across this post and discovers I shared an semi-intimate moment solely as a way to promote tourism to the Dominican Republic.

OK … and for the laughs.

As I see it … at my age … any day that starts off with me in a pool with a naked female is a Very, Very Good Day!

When it comes to the massage, one must acknowledge that the ability to render a proper massage is an Art!  The techniques are to be admired and enjoyed, but require training and experience.  Although many an intimate couple will play at the Art of Massage, without the proper knowledge and experience, the massage is just a means to an end.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that ….

I will be the first to admit my skills at massage never advanced beyond the clumsy basics.  After this experience while in Punta Cana, I can honestly state that I had no idea just how inexperienced I was.

The Couples Massage package was an extra to the all-inclusive concept at Barceló Bávaro Beach.  But it’s worth every penny!  The spa is located within the Palace Deluxe Hotel complex. and is accessible at any time by Premium Club members.  Besides the quiet, fragrant massage rooms, the spa includes a large outdoor pool and jacuzzi, indoor jacuzzi and small pool, but no drink service.  (You can bring in adult libations if you so desire.)

The experience begins in the gender-specific locker rooms where one can shed all the decorative physical trappings of modest society … at least on the female side.  The men however were encouraged to keep their swimsuits or shorts on …

Bummer … Completely understandable, I guess … Still a bummer …

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Draperies are closed to enhance the romantic mood, and were opened only after the massage was completed.

Once ensconced in a fluffy terry cloth robe, Carol and I met up in the couples suite.  Quiet, dimly lit by candles, with a romantic arrangement of towels in the shape of a heart and two obviously smitten terrycloth swans, richly appointed with fragrant flower petals.  The atmosphere exudes everything you need to slowly slip into a coma of complete relaxation.

What caught me off guard was finding Carol sans ALL Decorative Trappings of Modest Society, while I was still in a swimsuit.  WT … ?!?

But I guess the presence of two female masseuse explains the discrimination to which I was unexposed.  Not that I’m complaining …  At least one of us was completely stripped of all Decorative Trappings of Modest Society!

Even funnier was the experience of the gentleman in the couple who accompanied us to the DR.  He was instructed to shed his swimwear and sling his … uh … male-hood in a “banana hammock”!

When I heard of this AFTER our massage, I was relieved I wasn’t required to sling The Hammock!  Otherwise Carol would have been laughing throughout the entire massage experience!

The massage itself starts with an exfoliation, cleaning and massage of the lower legs and feet while reclining peacefully and blindfolded, which simply makes the experience a bit more mysteriously unsettling.

“What the heck is she doing?  What’s that stuff??  Oh, that’s nice …”

Next comes the main massage event, complete with security-inducing sheet and coverlet on the traditional massage table.  It was during this transition that I noticed Carol and I were differently dressed.

Have I mentioned that already???

To make a long post shorter, I will not go into a detailed playback of the massage itself.  Rest assured it was expertly applied and deeply relaxing.  This being my first professional massage experience, I can say without reservation that the good masseur at Barceló know what they are doing!

champagnesetup02Once the experts were done, the drapes to our private couples room were thrown open to reveal a small pool set off in an equally private walled-off courtyard.  And when we slipped out the door, we were surprised by the presence of two lounge chairs, a bottle of champagne and two glasses!

As one masseuse bid us farewell and drew closed the drapery, she made a very clear pronouncement, “I will be back in 20 minutes!”

That’s when the light went on!

Hmmmm … Carol still au naturel … champagne … massage oils … a pool and complete privacy … for 20 minutes!?!

Well, I appreciated the optimism, especially as to my personal stamina, but that presumption was a bridge too far.  We did however enjoy the personal intimacy of being secluded in an extremely relaxed state in a very cold pool, and enough bubbly to liberate one’s inhibitions.

But that water might have been a bit too cold …

As it turned out, it was one of the best days of the vacation.  The couples massage is definitely worth the price of admission, assuming of course you get a masseuse who knows what they’re doing!

For me … I hit the daily Double the next day with ANOTHER naked female in the pool.  But it was a dolphin …

Travel: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

dominican-republic-fact-fil-578x298I am not much the world traveler.  When the kids were young, all our vacations were Domestically oriented.  It was simpler, more affordable, easier to manage with kiddies.

That will hopefully change a bit now that Carol and I are entering (almost) Empty Nest Syndrome.  My better half has the leg up so far, enjoying several south-of-the-border vacations with a friend.  But if they are having this much fun, I may smarten up and start following her around more.

For our 30th anniversary (October 2015) we promised ourselves a nice tropical trip; and finally decided to book an Apple Vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with another couple with whom we have vacationed with the last few years.  For me, it’s been awhile that I hit the Jamaican beaches on our honeymoon.

A long time ago … in a land far, far away …

We left in late September, returning in the first week of October.  More on that experience and our closer-than-comfortable proximity to Matthew later.

Being a neophyte at international vacationing, I prefer Simple over Elaborate; so chosing an All-Inclusive route fits my emergent needs perfectly.  Our choice was Barceló Bavarro Beach, an adults only all-inclusive situated within a larger, free-range resort complete with family oriented and other less-inclusive … I assume … options.

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Barcelo Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana

 

To rate the experience as one of our Best Vacations Ever is no overstatement!

The Barceló Group is a family owned Spanish tourism company founded over 85 years ago.  Employing 23,000 people at 100 hotels in 19 countries and 685 travel agencies in 22 nations, they really have their act together!  Despite that I had never heard of them before last week.  Now they top the list as my favorite international resort.  (Yes, as mentioned, it’s a small sample size.)

The accommodations were very good, given the great idea to upgrade our package to the Premium Club, that – among other benefits – gave us an ocean-front view.  The upgrade allowed for dinner at all the resort’s restaurants; provided discounts on excursions; and access to other limited-access amenities.

The resort staff were nothing if not exceptionally friendly and obliging.  The resort was spotless and comfortably appointed.  The adult beverage stations were convenient; the service friendly, generous, and – most times – quick.

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View outside our room

The food was good, not great; although the resort’s best restaurants (Kyoto Japanese, La Comidie French) made for memorable meal experiences.  Skip México Lindo and the Sante Fe Steakhouse establishments.  The El Coral Restaurant (seafood) and La Dolcé Vita (Italian) were also very good.  We heard Le Fuente (Spanish menu) was excellent, but we missed that one.

The breakfast and lunch buffets were good, clean, and nourishing.  But you know buffets … Timing is everything!  Almost everywhere the meal wait staff was friendly and attentive.

Yet … It was a trip we almost did not make.

Attempt #1 … Scheduled for June originally, we had to push the trip back a few months due to one of our – ahem – less youthful companions ripping a vital tendon while playing power forward with “less experienced” individuals.

Attempt #2 … Scheduled for the very end of September through the first week in October (“That’s hurricane season, ya know.”, I helpfully added at the time.) drew near just as Category 1 (soon-to-be-a-4 ) Hurricane Matthew drew near to the southern Caribbean.  The night before the scheduled  participants (all with intact tendons) debated the Probabilities, Possible Outcomes, and Risks until eventually concluding we all really, really needed many fruity drinks in a clothing-minimizing locale and “To Hell with …” caution.  (And it was going to cost too much to change!)

That evening Matthew passed to the south of the D.R., then spent a few days nagging the northern coast of South America … and growing in strength before heading north. Much more fortunately for us than the good people of Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba, Matthew threw us nothing more than a day and a half of rain.  It was not even enough to keep us from doing what activities we had already scheduled.

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Carol & I … pre-drowning attempt on snorkeling/booze cruise

The excursions and packages we took advantage of were …

  • Snorkeling & Booze Cruise (A+ … Look for a separate blog post later.)
  • Dolphin Discovery (A)
  • Couples Massage (A+++ … Will touch on this also at great personal risk.)

Of course, one does not need the expensive (but honestly well worth the price) excursions to have an entertaining time!  Barceló Punta Cana has much to offer without leaving the friendly confines of the resort.  There’s golf, a casino, a discotheque, a bowling alley, miniature golf, water parks for both young children and adults, several live show venues and offerings (Most of these were a bit corny and amateurish.), Dolphin Island (We chose to go off-campus for our experience.), tons of shopping opportunities, a sports bar, and daily activities on the beach and in the pools.

The beach itself is a beautiful spot, yet we only spent parts of two days there.  Most of our resort “downtime” was spent in the pools, fountains, and walk-up/swim-up bars.  There is plenty of shaded areas for the sun-adverse, like me.  You really cannot beat the quiet relaxation of the pools on the adult-only side of the resort.  And if you want more noise while enjoying the refreshing waters, head over to Barceló Palace, the center of the resort, where most of the action takes place, including the swim-up pool bar!

In my humble, inexperienced opinion, you would really have to struggle to not have a grand time at Barceló Punta Cana!

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Pool at Barcelo Bavarro Beach

 

 

 

Golfing Myrtle Beach

Par 3  #5 at Grande Dunes Resort (Parred it too!)

Par 3 #5 at Grande Dunes Resort

Last month I took full advantage of an opportunity to enjoy four days on a golf holiday in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  For golfers, The Grand Strand is one of those must-do destinations for the number and quality of golf courses (over 100, not including 50 miniature golf locales for miniature golfers), agreeable weather, close proximity to ocean beaches, and a wide assortment of family distracting, non-golf related attractions.

This was not my first foray into the northeast corner of the Palmetto State.  Many moons ago in a land far away, Carol and I bundled the kids and six tons of provisions into and onto our Dodge Grand Caravan and drove the 11-hour trip to Golf Heaven.

Problem was my golf clubs wouldn’t fit.

Oh, they would have fit in the car just fine.  They just wouldn’t “fit” family vacation time with three kids and a spousal unit, who rode shotgun on the Shortall herd for most of the other 358 days of the year.

Bringing the Frustration Sticks?  Wouldn’t be prudent.  Not gonna do it … and I lived to golf another day.

But this time would be different.  This time would be Mike time!

So me and one of my regular golf buddies departed at Zero Dark Thirty (roughly 0330 hours EDT) for Atlantic City International Airport and a 0630 flight on Spirit Airlines.

We did this in an attempt to shave a few farthings from the trip bill.  To be honest, I’m not sure we saved all that much money; but I can say with certainty, we saved ourselves significant aggravation by departing and arriving through relatively small airports compared to Philadelphia International.  Quicker lines through check-in and security screening; shorter walks to on-site parking; and no dependency on courtesy shuttles to get where one needed to go.

A drawback to the long commute to AC was exhaustion for those (me) who are not finely tuned, frequent travelers.  The party we joined in Myrtle – our host for the weekend –  wanted to play a round as soon as we got off the plane!  Not a big fan of travel stress or of rushing right off the plane to do anything, that first round of golf was tough.  Then we added food shopping and adult beverage provisioning following the round, so I was dead by the time we reached our condo.  The beach and party time would have to wait.

Party time?

Let’s put it this way.  Take three guys well over 50; add golf, travel and a few beers, and it was a struggle to stay awake past 9 PM!  So we concerned ourselves with the Thursday Night NFL game (Giants vs. Washington … a blow out … Thanks a bunch, Redskins!), enjoying the night time ocean breezes from the downstairs bar’s dune-side courtyard, and one spectacular Italian dinner (Villa Romana … Try the Shrimps San Marzano!).

Of course after our fine Italian meal, we had to play miniature golf!  Not because we needed more golf, just that one of our party has an “adrenaline rush” dependency, insisting we play $1 skins with carry-overs.  I’m not usually a betting man with the state of my golf game, but I’m proud to say I walked out of mini-golf $17 dollars to the plus side of the ledger!

As for the golf?  Well, you can’t go wrong in Myrtle!

With over 100 courses, you can find tracks to accommodate all levels of golf competency (or lack thereof) and all price levels.  Obviously, to attract the widest range of golf talent and therefore their golf dollars, there are quite a few courses in Myrtle Beach that can result in wild golf tantrums.

We tended to play more difficult courses, which was a struggle for those of us who are challenged on our normal tracts.  If you really want to enjoy yourself, be true to your capabilities and pick courses that are appropriate for your “skill set” … or lack thereof.  Then tee it up from age and/or talent-appropriate tees.

The courses we played from 25-28 September:

Hole #5 on the Waterway Links at Arrowhead CC

Hole #5 on the Waterway Links at Arrowhead CC

Arrowhead Country Club – a 27-hole golf complex designed by PGA pro Raymond Floyd and Tom Jackson, a renown course designer.  This is the course we played right off the plane; and admittedly my LOFT (Lack Of Freaking Talent) quotient was very high.  Conditions were very wet with The Grand Strand getting a lot of rain the week before our trip.  I would love to get another crack at this beauty.  Beware though, I seem to have found an inordinately high number of sand traps; so take my warning about appropriate tee box selection seriously and enjoy.  As an added bonus the course features several holes along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Moorland @ Legends Golf & Resort – Very, very tough course that did not ease at all my high LOFT quotient.  More undulations than a herd of elephants in an earthquake … And when the elephants die, where do you bury them?  In the greens of course!  Geared more for the low handicapper, in my humble opinion.  Loved the course, the staff was excellent, the facilities top-notch!  The problem?  This place is a golf factory (with three full 18-hole courses) … and not the

Course designer P.B.Dye is a monster!

Moorland at Legends’ course designer P.B.Dye is a monster!

good kind!  Take a hint from what your $109 buys in addition to your round of golf:  Breakfast, lunch and two beers.  Not a bad deal, but it reflects an orientation towards High Volume Play.  When we arrived there at 8 AM, there must have been easily 100-150 golfers in various stages of play or prep, including enjoying that breakfast buffet in one of the largest golf clubhouses known to man.  If you like crowds, you will LOVE Legends!

Grande Dunes Resort Club – Easily my favorite and – of course – the most expensive course we played ($129).  That pays for your golf and nothing but your golf.  Good news?  It keeps the crowd down.  Other than that, this was the most easily played round of golf, with no doubt the best scenery of the three courses.  Like Arrowhead, Grande Dunes has several holes that parallel the Intracoastal Waterway; and like many of the courses in Myrtle, it is the centerpiece of an assortment of vacation homes.  The scenery, between the style and beauty of the neighboring properties and golf holes that are well-elevated above the Intracoastal, is spectacular and makes this course a Must Play.  Not as difficult as Moorland for sure; probably closer to Arrowhead in skill level needed.

So grip it and rip it!