I recently took an hour-long trip to Switzerland though I traveled but two miles from home. At Matterhorn Mini Golf in Canton my wife Mary and I were greeted by owner Autumn Sutherland who wore a warm smile and a traditional Swiss blouse and skirt. Every hole on the newly opened course evoked Swiss culture from skiing in the Alps to William Tell to chocolate and even the Hadron Collider atom smasher. Obstacles included a wedge of Swiss cheese, triangular Toblerone candy bar slices and a large safe representing Swiss bank accounts. Rows of real corn grew alongside the hole devoted to the country’s dairy industry and the carpet at Heidi’s goat shed was dotted with ersatz droppings. We had a blast.
Few features of our landscape are as expressive of whimsical, zany imagination as miniature golf courses. They take adults back to simple cartoonish childhood daydreams and make a child’s fantasies palpable. This is where kitsch meets culture, the more playful the better.
Connecticut seems a mini golfers paradise. The traditional wacky array of windmills with rotating blades, lighthouses, castles and wishing wells can be enjoyed at places like Farmington Miniature Golf in Farmington or Mar Lea Miniature Golf in Bolton. Head to Africa at Safari Golf in Berlin and putt among giant giraffe, elephant and a gorilla sculptures. Until it recently became history, a steep hillside of dinosaurs lurked at Prehistoric Miniature Golf in Portland. Ocean Beach in New London still has its gray whale. For those preferring a more soothing garden-like landscape with lush vegetation, ponds and waterfalls Great Brook in Groton or Hidden Valley in Southington are good bets.
Mini golf may be growing in popularity as our world becomes more complex and frenetic. It’s a delightfully trifling way to blow off steam and relax. Rarely do you see anything but smiles while playing. We dock our intensity and over-earnest preoccupations when picking up a putter and brightly colored ball. It’s a chance to unwind, laugh and enter a serious free zone.
Mini golf isn’t just for summer anymore and indoor venues are increasingly popular. Typically using black light, glow-in-the-dark effects, their vivid colors, dim lighting and bold sound systems provide a different kind of experience year round. Among them is Canton’s pirate themed Glow Cove with its leering buccaneers and nautical motifs, and Danbury’s Monster Mini Golf featuring booming music, ghoulish creatures and a mural depicting a toxic hat factory.
Mini golf courses are sometimes associated with driving ranges, batting cages, and go karts. They may be found in unusual places like the six-hole game that was once inside the Bob’s Discount Furniture store in Manchester. There’s one now under renovation along the railroad tracks in Old Saybrook behind the Son Siam restaurant.
The range of mini golf courses is more than matched by the variety of people who play. Mary and I putted beside elderly couples, teens on a cheap date, clutches of twenty and thirty-somethings, and parents with both young and adult children. They laughed, talked, jokingly teased and challenged each other. It’s not a passive activity like watching a ballgame or a silent one like a movie. Few people take the score seriously. Winning means a good time.
Among my favorite courses are those in beautiful natural settings. Riverfront in Unionville is close to the Farmington River. You can see a marina, the beach, and islands in Long Island Sound from Cove Mini Golf in Norwalk. Municipally run Saybrook Point Miniature Golf in Old Saybrook is at the mouth of the Connecticut River with sweeping views of the water. The course includes models of local landmarks like town hall and the police station.
When Mary and I play mini golf we get a little daffy. It’s an excuse to kick back and laugh at ourselves. Making no claims whatsoever to a Zen-like experience, we nevertheless feel in the moment and only the moment. Whenever I start thinking competitively about how much force to hit the ball with, bank shots, or strategies around obstacles my play deteriorates.
Mini golf may be trivial, but that’s its virtue. The more schmaltz the better. It’s free parking from life’s everyday worries. The ghost of childhood imaginings roams free while you enjoy a miniature vacation close to home.