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Play Golf in Puerto Rico

Beth Perkins
El Conquistador's 316-yard seventh
At first, they sound like birds. When the sun sets and the evening wind cools the air, their chirps ring from every coconut palm, bush and thatch of green, gaining steam as the sky darkens. They're coqui tree frogs--thumbnail-size, rarely seen, incredibly loud and Puerto Rico's unofficial mascot. Their ko-kee song, like a chorus of mutant crickets, will later form the soundtrack for your memories of Puerto Rico, which these days can include good and diverse golf experiences. A visit to this 3,400-square-mile island isn't about playing 36 a day every day. It's about relaxing, sipping a pina colada and enjoying the big things in life, like friendly people, good food and the nightly coqui orchestra. Not that you can't play twice a day. In fact, Puerto Rico's top tracks are all clustered fairly close together, along its northern coast. Better yet, this Caribbean getaway is a quick flight from much of the Continental U.S.--three and a half hours from New York and four and a half from Dallas.

If you're looking for the best of golf, nature and nightlife, base yourself at two of the island's venerable north-coast resorts, the Wyndham El Conquistador, an hour's drive east of San Juan near the port town of Fajardo, and the Hyatt Dorado Beach, 45 minutes west of the capital city in Dorado. I headed first for El Conquistador, making a mandatory lunch stop at one of the roadside stands on Route 3, where a dollar buys a crispy corn fritter filled with seasoned beef, pork or chicken. Greasy and delicious.

Perched on 300-foot-high cliffs where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet, the Wyndham's theatrical setting was used in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. Check into the new Las Casitas Village, where you'll find spacious Spanish-style villas with balconies and full kitchens. They're close to the resort's golf course and Golden Door Spa, and are quieter than the 750-room main resort. Each villa has its own butler, available 24 hours to help with everything from unpacking bags to procuring those coladas. Because of the Wyndham's cliffside setting, Palomino Island, a 15-minute ferry ride east, serves as the resort's private beach. Surrounding coral reefs protect dozens of species of tropical fish, making for colorful snorkeling.

Equally colorful is the resort's Arthur Hills-designed course, a roller-coaster ride opened in 1993 with 200 feet in elevation change, tight, undulating fairways and ever-changing trade winds. Although just 6,746 yards from the back, it's not your typical, easygoing resort track. The trouble starts on No. 1, a 395-yard dogleg-right with sweeping views of the 3,500-foot peaks of El Yunque rainforest to the southwest and the ocean to the north. You'll be distracted for just a second, as the hole demands a precise tee shot to a landing area 75 feet below, with dense brush to the left and a 30-foot drop-off to the right. The key to managing "El Con," as locals call it, is to leave your driver in the bag and keep the ball in play.

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