Royal Isabela’s inspired setting provides a soothing respite
ISABELA, PUERTO RICO -- Schadenfreude is defined as the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. I coined my own term upon disembarking at Rafael Hernandez Airport in Aguadilla: Schadenfroid, the pleasure derived from being somewhere warm when everyone back home in New York is freezing.
I suppose it amounts to the same thing.
Royal Isabela is a remarkable retreat even if you’re not measuring the mercury differential. It isn’t a resort but rather a luxury residential golf community in the making set on 426 glorious oceanfront acres on the island’s surf-centric northwest, an area locals refer to as “the country,” although development is on the march. With 22 lovely modern casitas and just three dozen members at present, Royal Isabela will open its gates to outside guests with membership potential. (Royal Isabela is indeed gated, but then so is seemingly every building in Puerto Rico, and even many porches. Yet I found the people surpassingly warm and friendly.) My wife, Lorraine, and I chatted amiably with the president of Univision and his wife at lunch one day; I fear they are the better prospects.
Walk through the massive arched doors of Royal Isabela’s Spanish-style main building, La Casa – appropriate, because the vivacious staff immediately makes you feel at home – and you are struck dumb by one of the most stirring views in the game.
My first glance at this back nine set off a tidal wave of references: Piping Rock Club on Long Island, for the eye-popping 180-plus-degree panorama of holes; the front nine of Crystal Downs, for the ineffable rightness of how the holes sit in the landscape; and Harbour Town, as the morning light’s soft focus recalls the Lowcountry, underlining how the holes’ shaping and use of flora echo Pete Dye’s work. Beyond all that, the ocean backdrop. As my father would say: You could do worse.
Toward the end of my stay, I toured the course and surrounding property with majority owner Stanley Pasarell, a former pro tennis player and member of a distinguished Puerto Rican family. (His younger brother, Charlie, the co-founder of Royal Isabela, in 1969 played a match at Wimbledon that lasted 5 hours, 12 minutes, a tournament record that stood for 41 years.) While former Dye associate David Pfaff is Royal Isabela’s architect of record, the course was designed wholly in the field, without drawings, from ideas often emanating from the hands-on Pasarells.
Stanley, it must be said, is the anti-Trump: earnest, gracious, attentive and, while understandably proud of Royal Isabela, improbably modest. He cited Cypress Point and Royal County Down as inspirations – not equals, inspirations – which set my wheels turning again. Isabela’s oceanfront, chasm-spanning 17th surely alludes to Cypress Point’s 16th; its several blind and semi-blind shots showcase a classic U.K. influence. This is no doubt a member’s course, and a tough one on a typically windy day, albeit navigable with a straight tee ball, low ball flight, level head and trusty mandatory forecaddie at one’s side.
These are big names to toss around, never mind the island-green par-3 ninth that can’t help but nod toward TPC Sawgrass. To Royal Isabela’s credit, all this doesn’t come across as pastiche or mimicry. In the field, it reads like a paean to great architecture.
This is the course you would build if you were going to build one course in life and wanted to fill it with as much as possible. (That said, there are eventual plans for another 18; suffice to say the bar has been set high.) Consider the opening par 5: a fairway whose landing area is bisected by bunkers and bushes, with the elevated sliver to the right leaving a chance to reach in two; a bottleneck layup area leaving a tricky partial wedge to a narrow, raised green. There’s simply no time for gentle warmups here.
If the design’s sheer exuberance helps lift it above homage, so, too, do several instances of inspired innovation, especially on the two back-nine par 5s.
The 10th, with its field-goal tee shot between two seagrape trees, followed by a mid-iron layup over an almond tree felled in 1998 by Hurricane Georges yet miraculously still alive, underscores the environmental sensitivity on display throughout Royal Isabela, as well as a winning sense of whimsy. (Likewise, the sixth hole, “Yogi Berra/Fork in the Road,” offers the choice between a par 5 that goes left on the second shot and a par 4 that goes right, as the brothers couldn’t agree on the better option. As Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”)
The 13th features a double-wide fairway whose left third is sprinkled with a dozen or so coconut palms. Land there and you must circumvent the thin-trunked palms as you play across a sandy waste area toward a wee green dotted with mounds and pot bunkers. The hole is among the most charming and beguiling par 5s anywhere. Fun, yes; mindless island fun, no: It says something that many inland holes here hold their own against the world-class cliff-side stunners of 12 and 17.
Golf is the main draw here, but far from the only one. Royal Isabela’s restaurant is superb; it’s hard to fathom that the chef is 25 years old and the pastry chef 19 – on par with Tianlang Guan’s qualifying for the Masters at 14. Fresh local seafood is its long suit, and most of the vegetables come from the organic garden on property, just as the flora and fauna all come from its vast nursery. (You should still leave one night to visit the bustling 110 Thai in Aguadilla – yes, authentic, kicky Thai food and superb craft beers in Puerto Rico from a native Coloradan, owner Andy Klein.)
Lorraine spoke glowingly of her river-kayaking excursion as we sipped the local beer, Medalla Light, and watched the Atlantic glisten from the private plunge pool on the deck of our casita. Royal Isabela is the rare development where a stated emphasis on nature, conservation and sustainability comes fully to life.
It was below freezing when we landed back in New York. Schadenfroid, alas, cuts both ways.
– Evan Rothman is a freelance writer from Staatsburg, N.Y.