No one is going to confuse the Kittaninny Mountains of northwestern New Jersey with the Rockies, but that’s not to say this lovely stretch of rolling, forested hills doesn’t have its own delights and surprises. Such as the fact that New Jersey even has mountains. Like, who knew?
I did, because I was born and raised in the Garden State. But that still didn’t prepare me for what I found at about 600 feet above sea level (and, significantly, a few feet below that) at Crystal Springs Resort. Its address is Hamburg, but the 4,000-acre facility spreads over a number of towns and terrains near the top of New Jersey, a surprisingly beautiful landscape of trees, mountains, and lakes, as well as manmade features such as water parks, ski trails, gourmet restaurants, spas, and—yes—golf courses. Seven of them, in fact.
The golf is as diverse as the other offerings. I played three of the tracks, highlighted by Ballyowen (top of page), which was recently named the state’s best public course by a panel of local experts. It’s hard to disagree with them. I’m leery of courses that try to imitate links design far from real links land, but Ballyowen does a pretty good job with long fescue grasses edging sinuous fairways and the ability to play “Scot shots” under the breezes. And I didn’t mind the starter in a kilt or the Irish flag on the ranger’s cart. (He was that rarity, a helpful ranger, managing to make slow groups get together and get moving.) The Roger Rulewich design is 250 acres of fun, challenge, and beauty.
The other courses couldn’t have been more different. Great Gorge is a mountain layout, three nines of up-and-down, blind shots, funky bounces, and knockout alpine views on the site of the old Playboy Club. Just as Ballyowen plays up its Irish imitation, Great Gorge revels in 1960s kitsch: the staff wears Loudmouth pants and psychedelic skirts, the clubhouse/pro shop is decorated in beads and neon colors (the carts are iridescent orange), and the music playing at the delightful outdoor restaurant rocks and rolls just like the surrounding topography.
Rulewich also designed Wild Turkey (above), a gentler version of Ballyowen: some holes gently climb a mountain ridge (including a vertiginous par three that tees off 100 feet above its green), most of the rest winding through a flat, treeless valley. It’s a good introduction to the course offerings, and has the added advantage of being located next to the Grand Cascades Lodge (below), the 250-room main hotel built in Adirondack style with wooden beams, stonework, and fireplaces. The lodge contains one of the resort’s two spas (the other is at Minerals Resort and Spa, which has another 175 rooms and suites), and out back is the $7 million, glass-enclosed Biosphere, which contains a heated pool, aquarium, water slide, steam room, and sauna, as well as café.
Perhaps the most impressive amenity lies a few feet underground, one of the world’s finest wine cellars. Its offerings fill nine rooms, are worth more than $35 million, and include 135,000 bottles, 6,000 varietals, and numerous “vertical collections” of great names like Petrus, Lafite, and Montrachet going back generations. Take the tour or have a meal in one of the tasting rooms, all the time wondering how such a celebrated cellar found its way to rural Sussex County. (For one thing, there’s plenty of room.)
Above the wine cellar is the four-star Restaurant Latour. There’s lighter fare in the lodge, too, as well as better-than-usual-golf-grub pubs and grilles at most of the courses. There’s also expansive meeting space, wedding planning, and Mountain Creek, which is a waterpark in the summer (with zip lines, mountain bikes, roller coasters, and the like), then a four-mountain ski area in the winter (downhill, snowboarding, zip lines, tubing). Plus other things I’m sure I’ve left out—like a Leadbetter Golf Academy, family golf options, and numerous stay-and-play packages.
And it’s all in New Jersey, giving native sons like myself more ammunition to defend my home state from those who think it nothing more than oil refineries and turnpikes. Crystal Springs is just a little more than an hour from New York City and is one pleasant surprise after another.
The biggest surprise may be that more people don’t know about it. That is sure to change.