ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- It boasts the long sandy beach where student runners huffed and puffed in the opening scenes of ''Chariots of Fire." St. Andrews University, founded in 1410 and Scotland's oldest college, calls it home as well. And in the Middle Ages, the town was the ecclesiastic center of Scotland, where violent religious battles were commonplace.
Yet, ask anyone what St. Andrews is most known for and the answer is irrefutable: golf. When golfers speak of St. Andrews, on the blustery eastern coast of Scotland about 55 miles north of Edinburgh, it is with awe and reverence. There are 47 courses in the Kingdom (think county) of Fife, which includes St. Andrews; 23 are within 10 miles of the town.
How seriously do they take golf in St. Andrews? So seriously that many renters have a clause in their leases stating they must vacate their homes for the week of the British Open (about every five years, and this year, Thursday through Sunday). This gives landlords a chance to get astronomical prices from visitors. The Quarto Bookshop on Golf Place advertises ''365 Different Golf Books." In Jannetta's West Port, the local ice cream hangout on South Street, the clear plastic toilet seat in the women's restroom is embedded with tees and ball markers.
Still, there is more to St. Andrews than golf, and it has the ruins to prove it.
''Visitors are surprised to discover that St. Andrews has had such an important place in Scottish history," says June Riches, who gives guided walking tours of the town during summer.
Centuries before there was an Old Course, St. Andrews was the hub of religion in Scotland. Legends vary as to how the enclave began, but most agree on this: St. Rule, a Greek monk, somehow got a message from on high to remove the bones of St. Andrew to ''the ends of the earth" for safekeeping. In the late 900s, he took a few bones from St. Andrew's tomb in Constantinople and brought them to Scotland's east coast, possibly by accident because that is where he was shipwrecked. St. Andrews soon became a religious mecca. Ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, which dates to around 1160, and St. Rule's Tower, once the home of the Church of St. Rule, are visible for miles.
The cathedral was destroyed by a religious mob during the Reformation. St. Andrews Castle, dating to the 1200s and actually a bishop's residence, didn't fare much better. Dismantled by Robert the Bruce in the 1300s, the castle was later restored by one archbishop, only to be damaged again during a bloody siege in the mid 1500s .
Over time, St. Andrews became a bustling market town and port, and was made a burgh in 1620. Much evidence of the town's early years still survives, but you have to explore the cobblestone nooks and crannies on foot to find it. In St. Mary's quadrangle on South Street, for example, there is a sprawling thorn tree said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots in the mid-1550s.
Organized golf didn't enter the picture seriously until 1754, when the Society of St. Andrews Golfers was created to start an annual tournament. That group grew into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which now governs the rules of golf worldwide. King James II of Scotland had tried banning golf in 1457 because men were playing golf instead of practicing archery. He worried he would not be able to defend his kingdom. He got nowhere.
St. Andrews itself is deceptively small. It has botanical gardens, a professional theater, an arts center, and several golf and historical museums. Yet there are only 15,000 residents and 7,000 students. You can walk its well-manicured streets end to end in about 25 minutes.
''People are always amazed by how tiny the town is," says Monica Ramsay, owner of Ducks Crossing Bed and Breakfast.
Three main streets are the heart of St. Andrews, and the shops and businesses that line them are the usual mix in any tourist town. Some unlikely gems include Loot, on Market Street, with 100 types of kaleidoscopes. Owner Martin Passmore claims to be Britain's only kaleidoscope manufacturer.
''Even kids brought up on a computer or GameBoy are fascinated by them," said Passmore. (The kaleidoscope was invented by Sir David Brewster, a former head of St. Andrews University.)
Much of St. Andrews's charm lies with its friendly people. When England's Prince William graduated June 23 from the university, residents lined the streets to give him a boisterous send-off.
''Without getting too sentimental, it's a lovely place," said Sandy Milne, the fifth-generation proprietor of Fisher & Donaldson, a chocolate-oozing bakery on Church Street. ''The people who visit are cultured and sophisticated. It's a very vibrant town."
American Sarah Marohl, who works at Miller's, a trendy women's clothing shop on Church Street, knew little about St. Andrews before arriving from Chicago with her husband so he could attend the university's respected divinity program. The couple adore the car-less lifestyle, and they were surprised by how much they have enjoyed life in Scotland.
''It's so aesthetically pleasing," Marohl said. ''The stonework, the flowers that bloom all year, the multiple chimneys on all the roofs. It's great." She acknowledged, though, that she misses ''non-Victorian plumbing."
The place to start when visiting here is the Tourist Information Center on Market Street. Like other tourist centers throughout the United Kingdom, the staff can help you book accommodations and provide plenty of information on what to see and do. St. Andrews buzzes year-round, but it's summer that draws the majority of the 225,000 yearly visitors.
As one might expect in a college town, restaurants range from pub grub to fine dining. The same is true for accommodations. I spent about $68 per night for bed and breakfast at Ducks Crossing, a Victorian house lovingly renovated by Ramsay. It has three guest bedrooms with private baths and is a one-block walk from the town center. At the other extreme are the luxury hotels, such as the Old Course Hotel and the five-star St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa 2 miles from town. They cater to the golf crowd and tend to be swarming with Americans. Rooms can be $400-$500 a night.
It's worth venturing outside St. Andrews if you have the time. The winding Fife Coastal Tourist Route, for example, takes you to an area known as East Neuk (pronounced ''nuke") There, you will see picturesque fishing villages and artist colonies, including Crail, Anstruther, Elie, and Pittenweem. Historic Crail, 17 miles from St. Andrews, is home to Crail Pottery, which opened in 1965 and is known for its brightly colored, handpainted earthenware. Down the quiet street from the potter is the newly opened Crail Harbor Gallery and Tearoom, where the owner said, ''We get a lot of golfers and golfer's wives."
Farther along route A917 is Anstruther and the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar & Restaurant. It's not uncommon for lunchtime lines in summer to sweep out the door and down the block.
''The locals know to come at different times," said Geoff Smith, whose parents own the cheerful but no-frills restaurant across from the scenic harbor. Prince William, Robert De Niro, and Tom Hanks have all eaten there.
Meanwhile, back in St. Andrews, the town is gearing up for this week's invasion. The Open is a magnet for Americans, including many golf-mad celebrities. Bryan Anderson, owner of the Tom Morris Golf Shop, said 70 percent of his business comes from US tourists. Located along the Old Course's 18th fairway, the business is named for legendary Old Tom Morris, born and raised in St. Andrews and considered the most influential person in Scotland's rich golfing history. In the mid-to-late 1800s, Morris won four Opens and was also a course designer and club maker. He is buried in the cathedral's cemetery.
As for the celebrities, Anderson has seen his share. Sean Connery left the sales clerks speechless, and Kevin Costner turned heads. But it was the elder president George Bush, Anderson said, who received the loudest cheers from shoppers.
''He came in several times," Anderson recalled, ''and it was electrifying."
Perhaps his most memorable noncelebrity moment came during the 1995 Open. His shop was shoulder-to-shoulder with customers when suddenly, a loud American voice called out, ''Who is Tom Morris, anyway?"
The whole store became silent. In the golfing capital of the world, Anderson said, ''Who would ask such a question?"
Carol Wallace is a freelance writer in Scotland.