2005: Island of Enchantment

Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

Island golf doesn’t have to be a world away. • New Englanders, or others seeking escape from the bitter bleak of winter, can grab a quick bite at home in the morning and be on the first tee in a tropical paradise by 1 o’clock. • No customs. No currency exchange. No worries.

Welcome to Puerto Rico, where strip malls and ancient Spanish relics coexist in a climate of near perfection. • In this post-9/11 era, mainlanders appreciate the comforts of an American flag, especially one that’s draped over a Caribbean culture that warms the senses. • Driving down a major road in Puerto Rico (translated “Rich Port”) doesn’t feel much different than the mainland. The same fast-food chains, home improvement stores and foreign cars dot the landscape. It’s a soothing sight to many a tourist mainlanders appreciate the comforts of an American flag, especially one that’s draped over a Caribbean culture that warms the senses.

Driving down a major road in Puerto Rico (translated “Rich Port”) doesn’t feel much different than cruising the mainland. The same fast-food chains, home improvement stores and foreign cars dot the landscape. It’s a soothing sight to many a tourist.

“Some people don’t like too much change,” says Sidney Wolf, president of the Puerto Rico Golf Association. “ ‘Oh there’s Wal-Mart, I feel safe.’ ”

But the old has not given way completely to the new. Those looking for the ideal blend have come to the right place. The bustling capital of San Juan is offset by the historically rich Old San Juan. Extra Value Meals are as popular as mofongo (plantains stuffed with meat). And Spanish is almost always followed by an English translation.

Even the pinks, oranges and yellows that coat city businesses and homes hint that something lively is around every corner.

“No one does social better than Puerto Rico,” Wolf says. “The people, the music, the food – Puerto Rico is a destination.”

Which is why Wolf traveled to Malaysia to encourage delegates at the 2002 World Amateur Team Championship to “taste Puerto Rico” as he handed out Pina Coladas and rice with chicken. Wolf wanted the rest of the world to start considering the island a golf destination.

And for good reason.

By the end of 2005, the plan is for the 100-mile-by-35-mile “Island of Enchantment” to have 387 golf holes in operation. Twelve courses have been constructed or redesigned since 1990; seven since 2003.

Wolf’s bid to bring the “Olympics” of golf to the island proved successful last autumn when the men’s and women’s World Amateur Team Championships visited Puerto Rico for the first time.

The Westin Rio Mar is just one of many reasons Puerto Rico is affirming a niche as a golf destination.

One of the most concentrated collections of golf courses is found along the north coast in Dorado, 22 miles west of San Juan. Walking into the open-air lobby of the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort, visitors are welcomed by a warm breeze, the caws of Coco, a vibrantly colored hybrid macaw, and the sight of white-capped waves crashing just beyond the front desk.

Eighty-five percent of the rooms at the Hyatt Dorado, billed as a boutique resort, offer ocean views. The sprawling property consists of two-level buildings that open toward the Atlantic, accented by hammocks stretched lazily between palms.

Most Dorado guests, however, spend much of their fun-in-the-sun on one of the resort’s four courses originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Sixty percent of tourist play is on the East Course, where the 1994 World Cup of Golf was held, along with Senior PGA Tour Championships from 1990-93. But the West Course can be just as entertaining with its dizzying layout.

But that’s old news from Dorado.

The now-defunct North and South courses of the closed Hyatt Regency Cerromar have been given extreme makeovers by Raymond Floyd Design, and are scheduled to reopen this spring as the Plantation Club’s Sugarcane and Pineapple Courses.

“It really needed a facelift,” says director of golf Jeff Willenberg, who began overseeing reconstruction in March 2003. “When I first came down here and saw this place I almost choked.”

These days, Willenberg bubbles with excitement when talking about what’s to come. The tall Texan has deliberated over every phase of this multimillion dollar project, from choosing marketable course names to tweaking Sugarcane’s signature 15th, which features an intimidating 260-yard forced carry from the back tee.

Of the two inland courses, Sugarcane is considered the “championship course” with deeper bunkers and longer holes. A $6.5 million clubhouse and million-dollar pavilion add even more pizzazz to the island’s only 72-hole complex.

Another Puerto Rico plantation course, Bahia Beach, couldn’t be more different than the Dorado compound. As one of the island’s few public courses, Bahia Beach is a dying breed.

“As we are right now, we’d probably not last much longer,” says Craig Swiderski, general manager and head professional. “As a daily-fee golf course, it’s over.”

And so, Rio Grande’s Bahia is resorting to resort golf.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. recently began work to redesign the 6,808-yard layout, which is situated on a former coconut palm plantation. Swiderski describes the narrow jungle-trimmed track as a target course and says the 13 holes where water comes into play often give first-timers fits. The New Jersey native recommends tourists leave driver in the bag for much of the front side. Bahia saves the best for last, with its three finishing holes curving along a crescent-shaped beach.

“We don’t have all the bells and whistles, but it’s a good value course,” says Swiderski of Bahia’s current condition.

The partnership of local residents who now own the property, however, are eager to jazz things up. In addition to a residential plan, the Bahia project will include a multimillion dollar tropical-style clubhouse and hotel on its 75 acres of ocean-lined land.

Another new Rio Grande addition is the final nine holes at Coco Beach Golf & Country Club, a 36-hole collaboration by Tom Kite and Bruce Besse Jr. The final nine opened March 7.

With so many resorts popping up across the island in recent years, nothing is guaranteed for Bahia. Paul Veneziano, director of golf at Dorado Del Mar Golf Club, is overseeing the development of Caguas Real Golf Club, a resort course built on the Turabo River that is scheduled to open April 1.

“Everyone kind of had the same idea at the same time,” Veneziano says. “The major problem here is that if you don’t grow the game from the ground level, it’s difficult to stay afloat during the summer and hurricane seasons. Right now there’s more golf courses than there are players.”

To ensure its slice of the pie, Rio Mar is undergoing an $8.2 million renovation that includes a remodeling of each hotel room and the opening of Mandara Spa, a 7,000-square-foot Asian-style retreat that features custom-made furnishings from Bali.

Rio Mar’s Ocean Course, a Tom and George Fazio design, opened in 1976, but the resort’s 600-room hotel and a second golf course (Greg Norman’s River Course) weren’t completed until 1996 and ’97, respectively.

As for the two courses, upgrades that include the leveling of tee boxes and an enlarged practice facility were completed last fall in preparation for the World Amateur Team.

“It’s really only been in the last 10 years that this property has come to full fruition,” says Eileen Young of Willowbend Development LLC, which manages the two courses. “And now we’re going through this huge renovation phase because there’s so much being offered on the island and we want a piece of the action when the tourists come.”

With the El Yunque rainforest as a backdrop for these tropical layouts, guests staying in Rio Grande are naturally inclined to forgo the beach one afternoon to explore the rainforest. But don’t shed that bathing suit just yet.

Like many resorts Rio Mar’s daily excursions include a trip to El Yunque, a series of jungle-like forests that feature more than 240 species of trees. After spending time at the educational El Portal Rain Forest Center, the adventurous can embark on a half-hour hike to a towering waterfall (warning: perpetual mists cause trails to be quite slippery). Visitors are encouraged to take a refreshing dip under the roaring falls before beginning their journey back up the mountain.

For some additional off-road fun, those on the eastern side of the island can’t miss the turquoise waters of Culebra (Snake), which sits 18 miles off the mainland coast. For $2.50, tourists can take an hourlong ferry ride to reach some of the Caribbean’s softest sand. It’s recommended that beach-goers reach the Fajardo dock 1 1/2 hours before scheduled departure as ferries make only three trips per day on a first-come, first-served basis.

For a truly cultural experience, Rio Mar guests need only travel five minutes down the road to the Luquillo Kioskos for some low-priced Puerto Rican cuisine. Locals pack the 60 cement block shanties on weekends to fill up on all things fried. Shops with names like “Mi Favorito” (My Favorite), “El Brindis” (The Toast) and “Los Amigos” (The Friends) all serve the same fritters and fish, but residents are deeply loyal to their kiosk of choice.

Puerto Rico offers a wide scope of terrain. The Cordillera Central mountain range cuts through the island from west to east. To the north travelers will find lush vegetation and soothing streams, while the landscape below the central range is marked by dry forests and desert-like conditions.

With nearly 4 million people living in Puerto Rico, the potential player pool is deep. If natives took their golf games as seriously as the country’s true national sport – politics – there scarcely would be an offseason. It’s commonplace for more than 80 percent of the commonwealth’s population to turn out on election day. Businesses are required by law to give employees up to four hours to cast their votes.

Wolf has been peddling the finer points of Puerto Rico since his family moved from New York when he was a child. Willenberg and Swiderski traded lives as stateside club pros to indulge in the West Indies’ easygoing ways. All are fired up about the changing landscape of Puerto Rican golf.

“The Caribbean was really not known for golf courses in good condition, but it’s really changed a lot over the last few years,” Willenberg says. “A lot places in Puerto Rico now are top-notch.”

All the more reason for those chilly New Englanders to book a ticket and leave their passports behind.

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