By Anita Draycott
Miguel Suarez, director of golf at Royal Isabela, on Puerto Rico’s windswept northwest coast, describes the course as a “cross between Pebble Beach and St. Andrews…but on steroids.” Certainly, there’s no lack of the WOW factor.
Owned by brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, both born and raised in Puerto Rico, Royal Isabela proves that stellar golf and sophisticated creature comforts can cohabit with environmental stewardship.
The Pasarells, both with championship tennis backgrounds, are now self-confessed “golf wannabes” who teamed up with former Pete Dye associate, David Pfaff, to create their vision of a tropical Scotland. It opened in 2011 to rave reviews.
I recently spent a few days at Royal Isabela with other golf writers and our host, Stanley Pasarell. I don’t think I’ve ever met such a passionate, articulate visionary with a great knowledge and respect for Mother Nature. To play the course with Stanley is to truly appreciate every inch of the sometimes whimsical and always dramatic design.
“Royal Isabela isn’t about your score. It’s about your encounter with nature, the views, smells, sound of the waves, songs of the birds,” says Pasarell. As per Stanley’s advice, I’ve decided to scrap the scorecard and just enjoy this Royal romp.
The Pasarells let nature dictate the design. The front nine plays mainly inland while the back nine curls above towering bluffs several hundred feet above the sea.
Most holes at Royal Isabela are wildly creative, to say the least. For example, when you arrive at the sixth you have two options, Yogi Berra Left and Right. The sixth shares the same tee and landing area—“the fork,”— and then turns right to the par four and left to the par five, each with its own fairway and green. The Yogi Berra hole is named in honor of the famous baseball player’s oft-quoted aphorism: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Six sets of tees stretch the layout to a maximum of 7,667 yards as a par-73, and 7,538 yards as a par-72 (depending on how number six is played). Usually the player with “honours” gets to choose.
Once you’ve nailed the par-three ninth island green, order a seared rare tuna panini and plantain fries and prepare for the cliff-hugging back nine.
The twelfth, a 435-yard par-four, plays across the frothing sea below. A special tee was installed 300 yards away to tempt golfers to try and drive the green.
“We are not the creators of Royal Isabela, we are its caretakers,” says Stanley. Indeed, critics of the design might opine that a few fairways would benefit from the removal of some flora but that’s not going to happen.
“Those trees survived a hurricane and they deserve to stay,” says Pasarell pointing out a row of gnarled survivors guarding the left approach to the green.
Several varieties of palms, sea grapes, almond and avocado trees, iguanas, mockingbirds, egrets, falcons, and whales (in January) are just a sampling of the thriving flora and fauna at Royal Isabela.
Much of the golf course was constructed by hand so as not to disrupt the vegetation. In fact, no tree, plant or shrub could be removed without Stanley’s written approval. Other than the putting surfaces, every blade of grass and every plant were grown on the property. Golf carts are solar powered and tee markers are coconuts. If you’re looking for a hydrating drink, buy a bottle of house-harvested coconut water from the cart gal.
Royal Isabela’s logo is appropriately a windswept oak. You’ll definitely need to hang onto your hat on the signature number 17th. Separated by the Atlantic, the tee and green jut out along facing cliffs creating a daunting challenge.
Royal Isabel’s mandatory caddies enhance the experience. Because it’s a big course sprawling across plains, dunes, and rocky cliffs, most golfers opt to take a cart. Caddies don’t carry bags but perform just about every other service. Trust me, you’ll need an expert to read the heavily contoured greens.
After you’ve mastered the awesome 17th, there are plenty of other diversions at and around Royal Isabela. Work out in the small fitness centre and lap pool, book a massage on your patio, hike to the nearby caves, go paddle boarding, surfing or play a set of tennis.
When you’ve worked up a thirst, belly up to the palapa bar beside La Casa restaurant and savour a mango margarita as the sun sets. Dinner at La Casa features farm-to-table dishes made from produce from the resort’s organic gardens and seafood from nearby waters.
Currently the Golf Links at Royal Isabela offer 21 fairways, with plans for at least another 18. Guests and members stay in 20 spacious casitas, each with private patio, plunge pool and a shower large enough to accommodate a few foursomes. A 150-room luxury hotel and spa and are on the drawing boards and scheduled to open in 2017. Royal Isabela is a private club with a guest “stay and play” component.
Golf ‘til you Drop
After a few rounds at Royal Isabela, avid golfers will want to take a swing at some of the island’s other top tracts.
Should you happen to spot a dapper looking chap sporting a straw fedora and riding around Dorado Beach golf resort in a yellow Rolls Royce golf cart, say hola to Chi Chi Rodriguez, the resort’s official ambassador. The charismatic golfer, known for his signature straw hats, matador putting routine and good-natured impersonations of fellow players, became the greatest golfer Puerto Rico ever produced, winning eight PGA Tour events and 22 Senior Champion tours.
Dorado Beach offers four courses (East, West, Plantation, Sugarcane) and the world’s first six-star Ritz-Carlton Reserve Hotel.
El Conquistador, on the northeast side of the island (beside the Waldorf Astoria resort), is a rugged roller coaster full of vertiginous tees and sloping fairways. Arthur Hills’ design is fraught with narrow fairways and nary a flat lie. With its 141-slope rating, you might think twice before teeing it up from the tips.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and managed by Troon Golf, the 7,014-yard Bahia Beach Golf Course overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, 70 acres of lakes and El Yunque Rainforest. Fifteen fairways border some form of water with a sensational finale of three downwind oceanside holes. El Bahia is part of the posh St. Regis Resort.
The Ocean Course at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, designed by Tom and George Fazio, has a comfortable traditional feel. Like most tracts in Puerto Rico, you’ll share fairways with muchos iguanas. The sixteenth is a postcard-perfect par-three running parallel to a private beach. Also, at the resort is the 18-hole River Course by Greg Norman.
Home of the Puerto Rico Open, the Trump International Golf Club and designed Bytom Kite, the 36-hole course is composed of four unique nines with water views at every turn.