Even if Puerto Rico's great golf courses were on the other side of the world, at the end of a long, bumpy road with no place to eat and nowhere to stay, I would still seek them out again and again.
But, happily, it's not that way at all.
On my first visit to the island, I marveled at everything: The flight from Miami was only a couple of hours. I felt as if I was in a foreign country, but since I didn't have to drag my bags and clubs through immigration and customs, I zipped through San Juan's airport effortlessly in minutes. And the driver of my air-conditioned bus graciously poured me a rum punch, directed me to a cushy seat and turned on a video about Puerto Rico's many attractions -- beaches, rain forests, historic Spanish towns, casinos, nightlife -- before setting out on a modern highway to my luxury resort.
A half-dozen visits later, I have yet to be disappointed. On every trip, I can take my pick from the world's finest collection of tropical golf courses all in one locale -- each boasting its own luxury resort with countless après-golf diversions.
Of the 18 courses in Puerto Rico, nine were created by top golf architects, including Gary Player, Greg Norman, Arthur Hills, Tom and George Fazio, the late Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son, Rees Jones. Why search the world over? To this seasoned golfer, it just doesn't get any better.
SWING WITH THE ROCKEFELLERS
The island's best-known golf complex is a quartet of Robert Trent Jones Sr. creations shared by two resorts -- the Hyatt Regency Dorado Beach Resort and the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino -- which sprawl across 1,000 acres of northeastern beachfront, 45 minutes from the San Juan airport. Both resorts, once part of the late Laurence Rockefeller's Caribbean "Rock Resort" empire, underwent a two-year, US$55 million top-to-bottom renovation last year.
The 71-room Dorado Beach Resort was built in 1958 as a private enclave for Rockefeller's friends. In 1971, the magnate opened the Cerromar Hotel, a seven-story, 504-room hotel, which now hosts large conventions. In 1956, Rockefeller commissioned Robert Trent Jones Sr. to build an 18-hole course at Dorado Beach.
Ultimately, this single endeavor grew into four Jones courses that are today labeled simply as North, South, East and West and are shared by both the Dorado and Cerromar properties-- constituting the largest golf complex in the Caribbean. All four courses, which measure about 7,000 yards from the back tees, are lush and beautifully landscaped, bearing, as you would expect, lots of sand and water hazards, occasional ocean views and an ever-present sea breeze. The "runway" tee boxes and large, sculptured greens are classic Jones trademarks.
Raymond Floyd restored three of the vintage golf courses so carefully that most players won't notice the changes -- other than the reversal of the nines on the East Course and a few altered yardages (the North Course renovation will be complete later this year). The signature holes, however, are as memorable as ever. The East Course's infamous fourth hole, formerly the 13th, is a 500-yard par 5 with a double dogleg around two water hazards. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus once called it one of the world's toughest holes because it tempts the player to chance two long-water carries. Also memorable is the North Course's 175-yard seventh hole, a par 3 atop a bluff overlooking Cerromar's beach. Look for the home of famed golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez on the eighth hole (his favorite, obviously).
More than US$5 million in renovations were poured into a striking 30,000-square-foot golf clubhouse at Dorado Beach. The Spanish-style building houses a pro shop and The Clubhouse, a 140-seat restaurant/lounge that serves international dishes, seafood delicacies, filet mignon and excellent sandwiches in an casual setting that overlooks the East Course. The clubhouse staff handles countless players and their gear with notable ease and courtesy.
During its heyday, Dorado Beach was elegant in an understated way, its low-profile buildings blending into tropical foliage along a beautiful beach. Though the resort has grown from 71 to 298 rooms, the look and feel have been carefully preserved. Dorado, much more sedate than the neighboring Cerromar, is graced by a beautiful waterfront and a full array of activities.
Always a colorful bustle of activity, the high-riseHyatt Regency Cerromar BeachResosrt & Casino is the perfect setting for family vacations and conventions, complete with a plethora of sporting facilities and planned activities. The resort centerpiece is the "river" pool, the world's longest freshwater swimming pool, which is actually longer than the Empire State Building is tall. The pool's channel of constantly moving water passes through tunnels and over waterslides, allowing swimmers to pause in Jacuzzis, swim-up bars and a gazebo. The entire waterway is enveloped in a profusion of flowering tropical plants just a few steps from the beach.
Restaurants in the dual-hotel complex have been tastefully refurbished, and the food --guests have more than a dozen dining options -- and service have risen several notches through the years.
The Hyatt Regency Dorado Beach Resort and the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino are 45 minutes north of San Juan's airport. For information, call 787-796-1234 or 800-55-HYATT or visit www.hyatt.com. Greens fees: Cerromar North Course -- US$75 for hotel guests, US$100 for non-guests; Cerromar South Course -- US$85 for hotel guests, US$115 for non-guests; Dorado East Course -- US$80 for hotel guests, US$115 for non-guests; Dorado West Course -- US$65 for hotel guests, US$95 for non-guests. Carts are included in greens fees. Instruction is available.
While the Hyatt resorts face the Atlantic Ocean, Doral Palmas del Mar, 45 minutes southeast of San Juan, is hemmed by the Caribbean Sea. In 1999, Puerto Rico's largest resort/residential community opened a new Rees Jones course, an upgraded Gary Player layout and the stunning 38,000-square-foot clubhouse -- all of which make Palmas del Mar one of the Caribbean's finest golfing destinations.
The new 7,117-yard Flamboyan Course envelopes a 23-acre lake, crosses the Candalero River, runs along the ocean, then ascends and descends into the hills. Along the route are natural wetlands, meadows and streams, all swept by ocean breezes. Designer Rees Jones compares the sandy soil and the seaside setting to Scotland and England, where golf evolved. Those influences, he says, have added some "some very traditional elements" to the layout.
As a result, the course brims with deep bunkers and tall, waving grasses, along with Jones' signature mounding and undulating greens. Though water and wetlands abound, one of the most dramatic holes is high and dry. The 16th hole a 609-yard par 5, funnels through a high valley and drops to a tiered, tabletop green guarded by vast bunkers, some as deep as 14 feet.
Jones also engineered the renovation of the 6,800-yard Gary Player-designed Palm Course, site of the 1995 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. The course's often narrow route slices through marshes, jungle and coconut groves, bound by snarls of sea grape and head-high reeds. The signature 14th hole drops 200 feet against a backdrop of the ocean and neighboring Vieques, one of Puerto Rico's "Spanish Virgin Islands," while the second-ranked 17th hole -- a 455-yard par 4 that crosses a river and then a lily pond to a narrow green surrounded by palms and sand -- offers another stunning view.
The new clubhouse, surrounded by lush gardens and palms, holds its own as the centerpiece of this fine island resort. High ceilings, paddle fans, mahogany woodwork and lots of mirrors and glass create a cool haven in the pro shop. Also housed in the clubhouse are well-appointed locker rooms, a gourmet restaurant, bar and meeting rooms.
Unlike many Caribbean resorts that have expanded in a helter-skelter fashion, Palmas del Mar is still following a 30-year-old development plan. In the 1970s, after designing Hilton Head's Sea Pines Plantation and Florida's Amelia Island Plantation, developer Charles Fraser applied his innovative "master-planned community" concept to Palmas del Mar.
The most precious natural areas on the 2,700-acre property have been spared development, thankfully leaving behind three-and-a-half miles of pristine beach, stretches of craggy coastline, acres of wetlands and forests of indigenous trees and flowering plants. Recreation and housing areas have been carefully plotted. The order and symmetry in the beautifully landscaped villa and hotel neighborhoods are well thought-out, as well as in the world-class sporting complexes and miles of linking cart/walking/bike paths.
Folded into Palmas del Mar are 14 restaurants, the Caribbean's most extensive tennis center and a complete scuba operation. The new equestrian center houses native Paso Fino horses -- known for their smooth gaits -- that can be ridden to explore the rain forest and deserted beaches. The resort's 100-acre marina is the departure point for deep-sea fishing, sailing and other water sports.
Doral Palmas del Mar is 45 minutes south of San Juan's airport. For more information, call 800-WYNDHAM or 787-285-2256 (clubhouse), or visit www.palmasdelmar.com. Greens/cart fees: Palm Course -- US$80 for hotel guests, US$100 for non-guests; Flamboyan -- US$90 hotel for guests, US$110 for non-guests. After 2 p.m., greens/cart fees are US$65 on either course. Instruction is available.
WHERE THE RICH AND FAMOUS PLAY
The Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club is a huge, 7-year-old complex that provides exceptional service to its wealthy and famous clientele, including TV journalist Bryant Gumbel, actors Bill Murray andSharon Stone, former president George Bush and singers Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin. All you have to do is look confused to set off the staff's radar and within seconds, a uniformed employee will appear, introduce him- or herself and set things right. Actually, the pampering begins the minute you board the resort's posh motor coach, equipped with a bar and VCR, for the 70-minute ride to the hotel.
The luxury resort, which has commanding view of a 300-foot-bluff on the northeast tip of the island, is the third -- and finest -- hotel reincarnation on this site since 1962. The Spanish architecture is beautifully accented with trellises, fountains, statuary and colorful foliage.
Accommodations are housed in two sprawling wings of the El Conquistador, which are really three disparate villages terraced into the dramatic hillside. The main lobby is dotted with 22 shops and is adjacent to the 13,000-square-foot casino. Thirteen superb restaurants serve French, Mexican, Italian, Asian, American, Caribbean and Mediterranean cuisine. Casa de Langosta -- true to its name -- specializes in imported lobster prepared every way imaginable.
Water is ubiquitous here -- two acres of pools blanket the main swimming complex and additional swimming holes dot the villages. At the base of the cliff, accessed by a nifty funicular, is a 55-slip marina from which fishing, scuba diving, sailing and sunset cruises depart. Ferries shuttle guests from the marina to Palomino Island for sunning, windsurfing and personal watercraft rides.
Arthur Hills designed the resort's 6,662-yard course, which rises and falls as much as 200 feet, offering views of the ocean on 16 holes and the El Yunque rain forest along the way. Golf carts are thoughtfully stocked with tees, range balls, towels, a yardage book and a cooler filled with bottles of Evian. But once you approach the first tee, the pampering ends. It's time to enter battle.
Ranked No. 1 in difficulty is the signature fifth hole, a lakeside 431-yard par 4 aptly named "Diente De Viento" (Teeth of the Wind) because you basically tee off into a breeze that knocks your ball dead. The scenic last hole, a 357-yard dogleg par 4, demands a second shot over a two-tiered lake and a waterfall onto a green shared with the ninth hole. If the golf course takes too much of a toll, you can always retreat to the resort's incredible Golden Door Spa to help you forget your score, for a while anyway.
The Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club is 70 minutes south of San Juan's airport. For information, call 800-468-5228 or 800-468-8365 (pro shop) or visit www.wyndham.com. In-season greens fees: US$165 for guests (US$95 after 2 p.m.). Non-guests pay US$115-$185. Guests at other Wyndham properties pay US$105-$175. Carts are US$25 per person (US$15 after 2 p.m.). Instruction is available.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
With the latest addition of a Greg Norman course and the renovation of its Tom and George Fazio layout, the 481-acre Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Country Club emerged in recent years as a major Puerto Rican golf destination. The 600-room luxury resort stretches along a mile of gorgeous beach with views of the El Yunque rain forest and the golf courses. Rio Mar just opened its 58 one- to three-bedroom oceanfront villas last October. Eleven restaurant options eliminate the need to leave the resort.
The Mameyes River is the defining feature of the new Greg Norman River Course, which also features views of the ocean and mountains. Play crisscrosses the water for 6,945 yards along a gently rolling river plain. Expect nearly 100 bunkers on the course, some of which are quite large. The straightforward Norman-style greens are relatively large and flat and usually feature run-up areas.
The first encounter with the Mameyes is the sixth hole, a par 4 with the river hugging the right side. The seventh hole, a 175-yard par 3, crosses a creek to a narrow green with the river on the right. The following hole, a par 5, also plays alongside the river and the 11th , a par 5, crosses the water. The championship tees require a 100-yard carry over the river; the other tees are played on the fairway side of the water.
The River Course treads within 200 yards of the ocean, but the view is blocked by a mangrove swamp, which is home to an iguana colony. Don't be shocked -- these sloth-like, docile creatures like to sun themselves on the course.
It's the Ocean Course, a refurbished creation of Tom and George Fazio, that claims the oceanfront as its domain. Many holes proffer ocean views, but all are touched by sea and rainforest breezes. Five lakes add additional water hazards along the route. The signature 16th hole is a 238-yard par 3 fronting the beach, providing one long sand bunker along its side.
A new 35,000-square-foot clubhouse, partially reserved for club members, overlooks the golf courses and the beach. The resort offers golf instruction from Jesus Rodrigues (Chi Chi's brother) a full complement of recreation, including a 13-court Peter Burwash tennis program, an extensive water-sports center and on-site scuba training, as well as a full-service spa.
The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Country Club is 20 miles east of the airport. For information, call 787-888-6000, ext. 1401 or visit www.westinriomar.com. Greens/cart fees: US$90 for hotel guests, US$125 for non-guests. After 3 p.m., rates are US$60 for guests, US$75 for non-guests. Instruction is available.
Posted online 07/11/01.