Golf resort

The pebble beach of the Caribbean? Puerto Rico’s Great New Golf Resort

In recent years, a lot less golf courses have been built, but the quality has improved a lot. In almost every remarkable instance, from the Bandon Dunes in Oregon to the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand to Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, the best modern courses have been the marriage of one person’s passion for the game with a magnificent course naturally destined for the grandeur of golf.

Royal Isabela is no exception.

Brothers Charlie and Stanley Pasarell grew up around their family farm in Isabela, on a stunning stretch of cliffs and seaside beaches on the island’s less developed northwest coast, best known for world-class surfing than golf (Kelly Slater won the Rip Curl Pro 2010 Search – and therefore her tenth world championship – in Isabela). Both Pasarells were professional tennis players and amateur but very avid golfers, doubling their tournament trips to play on many of the world’s greatest golf courses. Charlie became the number one ranked American in 1967 and Stanley became a golf course architecture enthusiast.

In recent years, they have greatly expanded their family operation by purchasing dozens of adjacent plots, worth over 2,000 acres, and creating the planned community of Costa Isabela. Royal Isabela, with a golf course and luxury boutique hotel, was the first phase and opened last year. It’s a wonderful place.

I’ve written about golf in Puerto Rico several times over the past 15 years, and while the landscape has changed a lot, there’s no greater change than this, because Royal Isabela is unlike anything another on the island. While most tourist courses are part of large global chain resorts, Royal Isabela is a resort targeting true golf enthusiasts who will go to great lengths for great experiences. That being said, they don’t skimp on luxury and my casita had as large a bathroom and as spectacular a view as any I’ve seen at any of the many luxury resorts and hotels I’ve visited in the world.

Like its “pure golf” soulmates in Oregon and Nova Scotia, caddies are offered, a rarity in Puerto Rico, and no houses spoil the view. With just a few dozen members, guests at the 20 luxury casitas that make up the resort are sure to find the course nearly empty at just about any time. These casitas are expertly terraced on the hillside surrounding the stunning central pool, carved into the rocks and surrounded by rock-lined streams, so that each of them enjoys breathtaking ocean views from its large terrace. and its private plunge pool. The layout of the grounds and casitas reminded me of the wonderful Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay in Bali, on a smaller scale. The rest of the complex includes a golf shop, a circular outdoor bar with stunning views of the course and the Caribbean, a tennis court and the main building, La Casa, which includes the charming restaurant specializing in high-end Puerto Rican cuisine using mostly locally grown ingredients. , under the direction of New York chief consultant Dave Pasternack of Esca fame.

Each casita has floor-to-ceiling sliding windows that allow guests to almost completely open one wall to tropical breezes, while the bathrooms I mentioned seem impossibly large – the rain shower room at the Italian can accommodate more guests than the unit can accommodate, with two sets of controls, each with a myriad of nozzles, on opposite walls. This in turn has a second exterior door which opens directly onto the porch and plunge pool. If showers aren’t your thing, there’s also an oversized tub. Instead of a mini-bar, each casita has a fridge stocked with free snacks, soft drinks, and local beer, while the coffeemaker offers lovely Puerto Rican beans. Below the cluster of casitas is a short path that leads to the resort’s private beach.

This change in elevation is the key to Royal Isabela’s greatness. The resort occupies a cliff-top plateau overlooking the sea that warrants immediate comparisons to the site of the country’s most famous golf course, Pebble Beach Golf Links — except without all the garish, mismatched houses. Visualize the land of Pebble Beach transported to the pristine tropics and its three resort hotels swapped for 20 rooms and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Royal Isabela. The course was laid out by the brothers with the help of golf course architect David Pfaff – who lives in Carmel, near Pebble Beach – and it’s impossible not to be moved by it, as it offers a view to breathtaking after another. It starts away from the water with six jungle-style holes and the front nine ends with three island-style inland holes filled with tropical water hazards, including a very good par-3 island hole, with the green placed on a stone pedestal that looks old but has just been built.

The front nine is very good, but the back nine is excellent, as the course bursts at the edge of the world in ten, just that beginning of a series of beautiful seaside cliff holes. An iron-shaped double green riding is perfectly located on the highest point of the resort, which also sits on the edge of the cliff, offering a 270-degree panoramic view with every putt – twice. The short but precise par 3 eleventh is the Caribbean version of Pebble Beach’s famous seventh, while the twelfth is a riff on Hawaii’s famous Mauna Kea ocean portage, with a tee shot over a cauldron creek breaking waves. But by far my favorite was the par-3 seventeenth. There are many beautiful and memorable par-3s in the world like this, but there are hardly any one-shot holes that could be called strategic design – yet this one is. With a green at the end of a curved peninsula across a do or die creek, this is one of the greatest holes in golf, and it will vary incredibly from day to day. depending on the winds pattern and pin position – you can’t play it enough times. Golf and accommodation are more than enough to visit, but there’s also a good laid-back vibe and feel-good nature to the project. Charlie Pasarell talks endlessly about his family’s role as stewards of the land, and to that end he has worked hard to restore native species, with more than 20,000 native trees and plants replanted, each one – like every blade of grass on the course – grown on site. The family farm also produces most of the products served at La Casa, from plantains to fruit juices.

Royal Isabela is an easy 90 minutes from San Juan, almost entirely on the freeway, and there’s the small Aguadilla International Airport just 10 miles away, with limited service from Jet Blue and United. It’s a luxury resort and room rates can approach $1000 at peak times, but the resort often offers value-added packages that include golf. The summer package is a crazy bargain and right now you can book two nights of accommodation for two with three rounds of golf – each – for just $799, excluding taxes and caddy fees.

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(I originally visited Royal Isabela on assignment for a magazine as a guest of the Resort and the Puerto Rico Tourism Division).