When most of us think of tourism travel to Puerto Rico we think of white sand beaches, piña coladas and the best meat on a stick (pinchos) the Caribbean has to offer. When we think of sports tourism on the island we think of baseball, boxing and surfing. Recently though there has been a wave of tourists and sports aficionados alike that have come to island for one thing, golf. Yes, that golf.
La Isla Del Encanto has seen a steady increase in popularity for the sport with its distinct topography and views of the coastline. It was only a matter of time before the travel and tourism industry took notice. Even the PGA, an organization not known for being forward thinking, has held its only sanctioned event in the Caribbean on the island of Puerto Rico.
This year I was sent to cover the PR Open (now in its 7th year) as well as explore the various options (and there are quite a few) on the island for golf tourism. Once I arrived and played a few rounds (I talk the talk but the word, “novice” doesn’t even begin to explain my level of skill) I quickly realized that Golf isn’t so much a sport (or game depending on whom you ask) but a lifestyle. Let’s face it; to travel anywhere to play a round of golf is to be of a certain economic stability that you would expect an assured level of pampering that we would all want to indulge in from time to time.
Below is my list of the top 3-golf/resort combo destinations on the island. My list is based on criteria that include: The beauty and level of difficulty of the course. Also, the accommodations, accessibility, food quality and activities on the resort. The last category is the pampering I mentioned earlier. Each category is graded on a number scale from 1-5, with 5 being the best.
#3: El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort
The third best golf resort on the island also happens to be the largest of the three. There are over 980 rooms on 5 separate villages making this is the best fit for large groups or corporate outings. There are 23 on-site bars, restaurants and lounges including a very popular Starbuck’s in the lobby. For the kiddies there is a water park and the babysitting activities change everyday so boredom is never an option. Palomino Island is private getaway exclusively for guests and has the resort’s only beach and a plethora of land and water activities for everyone.
The par-72 course is unique in that it features elevation changes of more than 200 vertical feet but it is also unique for being the only course I visited with roads (not cart paths but actual roads) going right through the fairway on certain holes. There are ocean and mountain views and while it isn’t the easiest course to navigate with so many hills and doglegs, it is fun to crank your driver and watch the ball sail over trees and ponds. There is no membership and it is open to the public.
Beauty of course: 3 | Difficulty: 4 | Accommodations: 4 | Activities: 5 |
Accessibility: 5 | Food: 4 | Pampering: 4
#2: The Royal Isabella Luxury Golf Course & Resort
This fabulous resort is Located on the Northwest coast of Puerto Rico meaning that the closest airport is in Aguadilla (BQN is the airport code) and there are only two airlines that fly there. Don’t let that deter you though as once you arrive you are greeted with a friendly and attentive staff. The site has 23 villas with ocean views and individual lap pools. The size makes it easy for the staff to know you by name and you can easily feel like you are their only guest, which for me is a plus. The restaurant had the best gourmet Mofongo I had on the island and the seared tuna with miso dressing was amazing. The private beach is a short hike down the side of the mountain and many spa options can be had right in your own villa. One of the many highlights is how environmentally conscious the resort is and the plan is to be completely off the grid within 3-5 years. If not for the fact that they are 90 minutes from the islands only international airport, The Royal Isabella could easily be #1 on this list.
That environmental consciousness extends to the golf course where the commitment to preserve the islands natural flora and fauna can be seen on every hole. The grass on the course is native to the island and they use as little water as possible making the greens very hard and fast. This course is set on the cliffs overlooking the ocean giving it the best views of any course I visited. Because of its topography it was also the toughest course of the three to navigate and one of the challenges here is trying to finish the round with only one ball. If you can do that, you’re a winner regardless of your score. It is open to the public although members and guests of the hotel have preference.
Beauty of course: 5 | Difficulty: 5 | Accommodations: 5 | Activities: 5 |
Accessibility: 4 | Food: 5 | Pampering: 5
#1 St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
Pampering is the name of the game at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort located about 30 minutes east of San Juan. It is the only 5-diamond resort in Puerto Rico and from the moment you arrive you can tell you are somewhere special… or just where the 1% spend their vacations. The resort is environmentally friendly using as much of the natural landscape as possible and they have a farm to table nursery where the 3 restaurants highlighted by Jean Jorge Vonrichten’s FERN, get their herbs, vegetables and fruits. If you come between March and August you may be lucky enough to see leatherback turtles that come to this part of the island to hatch their eggs. This was such an important part of the concept for the resort that they moved the hotel (redesigned in ’08 and opened in 2010) beyond the nesting area.
The 193 rooms are all very large and have all the amenities you would expect from a St. Regis resort including separate bathing and shower rooms and double vanities with imbedded LCD televisions in the mirrors. There are plenty of activities for adventure seekers or those with children and with 2 miles of dedicated beach you can also spend the day doing absolutely nothing.
The course is along the beach and lakes giving you great views of the water on one side and the mountains on the other. You always have to take the wind into account here as you are so close to the water and there is a constant ocean breeze. While there are some hills and bunkers, there are plenty of fairways making this the easiest course to navigate of the three. That does not mean it isn’t challenging, but it does lend itself to less experienced golfers such as myself. It is also open to the public (at a steep price) but guests have preference.
Beauty of course: 5 | Difficulty: 4 | Accommodations: 5 | Activities: 5 |
Accessibility: 5 | Food: 5 | Pampering: 5
There are many more choices for golfing on the island. The Gran Meliá Trump and Dorado East are two examples of world-class options. Puerto Rico has many new and exciting courses and resorts for the golf enthusiast in all of us. All three of the resorts/courses mentioned here are exhibiting a type of new aged thinking with environmentally conscious techniques for the greens that will be par for the course (pun intended) in the very near future.
The services are all first class and while golfing may be a new reason to explore Puerto Rico, there are plenty of activities, sites and happenings on the island besides golf. So go explore everything that Puerto Rico has to offer, just remember to bring your clubs next time.