My friends Jodi, Joe and Richard and I have spent Sundays this summer playing the miniature golf courses of central Maine. Years ago I played real golf, but these days it's too big a commitment of time and money. Miniature golf provides the same opportunities for socializing and focus at a tiny fraction of the price, in 90 minutes instead of four hours. Plus, while I was never much good at real golf, miniature golf offers the constant possibility of random brilliance. I've always been a sucker for the cheap-and-easy payoff.
It took us a while to get to five different courses, but we hit our fifth yesterday, which allows me to post this list. We're always looking for new ones, and we're willing to drive up to an hour or so — if you've got a recommendation, please leave it in the comments section.
From best to worst, these are the ones we've played so far:
1. Dolphin Mini Golf, Boothbay. Far and away the best course we've played, Dolphin Mini Golf hosted the 2008 U.S. Open of miniature golf. It's deceptively compact; the holes are short but challenging, with most of them Par-3s. No fancy statues, no real gimmicks, just tricky slopes and angles in a beautiful, shady setting. It's family-owned, and the Stoddards are passionate mini-golfers, playing tournaments around the country in the off-season. At $5.50 a round, it's the most expensive course we played, but worth it, and worth the drive. The course also has a free Shell Museum (the private collection of the owners' father, Kenneth E. Stoddard), a covered bridge over a lily pond, and an ice cream bar.
2. Gifford's Mini Golf & Batting, Waterville. Gifford's is known for serving the best ice cream in Maine, at five locations around the state. The Waterville and Skowhegan locations also have miniature golf courses. Gifford's in Waterville is the course most like the ones I remember from childhood, with brightly-colored statues and artificial hazards (a miniature ice cream truck, a spinning windmill, bridges, etc.). We played after a heavy rain, so the course was a little damp, but it's well-kept and pretty. A round is $5.00, but you get two-for-one on Tuesdays.
3. T's Miniature Golf, Manchester. T's miniature golf course is part of a larger complex that takes golf seriously, so this course has no plaster animals or whirligigs. It's the only course we've played twice, and I expect we'll go back again soon; it's just a good, clean, no-nonsense course that teaches you how to play it as you go along. The front nine are all par-2s, the back nine are a mix of par-2s and par-3s. T's too is very pretty, well-landscaped with wildflowers and water hazards, shady and clean. A round costs $5.00.
4. Deb's Ice Cream and Mini Golf, Randolph. I could walk to this course if I wanted to, and I actually might, next month. Deb's was the beginning of our mini-golf adventure this summer. It's a little shabby, but sweet and well laid-out and very affordable (at $4.00/round), and the ice cream is excellent.
5. Roy's All Steak Hamburgers and Golf Center, Auburn. We played this course on a gray, muggy day. That might color my attitude, but I'd say it wasn't worth the trip. It's a bargain, at $4/round, but the course is drab, grubby and unshaded. We didn't try the all-steak hamburgers; the ice cream was fine, but if you can't find good ice cream during the summer in Maine, you're not even trying.