When the last white specks of snow melt off the mountains of eastern Maine, an epic season of slope runs wraps up and the winter jacket army goes home. The green bursts from the brown, the flowers from the ground, and another army marches into Sunday River: the crews setting up the Mountain and Bike Adventure Parks, LL Bean people preparing for their seasons of tours and Discovery Courses…and thousands of swimsuit wearing, beverage bearing, amped-up American vacationers. Then come the golfers.
Golfers get the shortest season of all outdoor athletes across most of the northern half of America. It can make some of us pretty bitter. But it can also make us appreciate the sensational six-month seasonal greatness (that most of the rest of the country doesn’t even know we have) of our golf. I tell people all the time that The Wilderness at Fortune Bay in northern Minnesota would be a top-10 course in the country if it were open year-round. Not kidding. Then I heard similar boasts of Sunday River from Mainers and thought “Hmm… Seriously?” Rankings are arbitrary, of course, but I’d have been a fool to simply dismiss such proclamations (as others have mine) without at least kicking their cart tires.
Let’s just say I get it; the course is super “something.” It’s arguably the Spyglass Hill of the northeast — a sometimes spectacular, always intense, better bring your “A game” rear end-kicker. I can see why people love it. I can see why others hate it. Honestly, I’m somewhere in the upper half of the middle. I can visualize the vivid magnificence of the staggered tree-line amphitheater in the fall, when the killer kaleidoscope of colors delivers its spell-blinding Technicolor knock-out. I can otherwise imagine it as an obstacle course for a Tough Mudder race or a test-track for tanks and ATVs. It’s just not where a reasonable person would build a golf course, and how Robert Trent Jones Jr. even made it playable is well beyond me. But truthfully, he did something much more spectacular than that. He made it CRAZY memorable!
Weaving its way through Sunday River Valley vistas and Mahoosuc Range surroundings the dive-and-climb fairways covered in boulders, bunkers and bountiful mounds corral your shots to many a precariously perched green. The course makes you work for every stroke on every hole, constantly reminding you of what you can’t do well; it’s rather exhausting. But, strangely enough, when it’s over you find yourself wishing you could go right back out. After a nap, massage, hot tub soak and can or two of Red Bull, of course. I can see how Sunday River would make Golf Magazine’s “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” list and be considered Golfweek’s No. 1 course in Maine. I just can’t see anyone playing it every day. (Unlike the Wilderness at Fortune Bay.)
But that’s where the rest of the resort is such a perfect complement; there’s so much more to do. Sunday River Resort has townhomes, condos, the White Cap Lodge, Grand Summit Hotel and the mountaintop gem that is the Jordan Hotel (just above the golf course). It has a dozen or so seasonal restaurants (skiing being THE season at Sunday River) and a few year-rounders like the stupendously great CAMP, with comfort food and Maine specialties with a sophisticated twist in the Grand Summit Hotel. Our family tabled up at CAMP or the Sunday River Brewing Company (fantastic wings, beer and burgers) in nearby Bethel every night.
Sunday River is as family-friendly as resorts get, with pools scattered up and down the mountain and an Adventure Park with ziplines, lift rides, biking, wall climbing, disc golf, bounce houses and bungee trampolines. We spent a fabulous 4th of July weekend there, took in the annual River Rock Festival under a flashing firework sky, met Christian Music superstar Jeremy Camp and cautiously followed a baby bear and mother moose down the mountain on the day we left. Pretty sure they weren’t related. There’s no such thing as being out of your element at Sunday River. High on the list of great places we’ve been, this resort has it all.