Dear Joe, My wife and I are taking a two-week trip to the Hawaiian Islands in early January to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We both want to play a few rounds over the two weeks. This is our first time in Hawaii, so any recommendations are appreciated. —Sunil Kochhar, Savigny, Switzerland You're traveling a long way, so do it right with a "special occasion" itinerary. My first choice, Kapalua's Plantation on Maui, is likely off-limits, as the PGA Tour pros open their season there the first week of the new year, so stick with the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, which offers the most reliable early January weather.
Don't miss Mauna Kea ($155-$250; 808-882-5400, princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-golf-course) on the Big Island, home to Hawaii's most spectacular hole, the 272-yard, over-the-ocean, par-3 3rd. However, Mauna Kea is rugged golf.
If you want softer but still scenic seaside play, opt for the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai ($250; 808-325-8000, fourseasons.com/hualalai), though you'll have to stay at the pricey but superb Four Seasons Hualalai to tee it up.
Framed by stark lava rocks, the South Course at Mauna Lani ($165-$265; 808-885-6655, maunalani.com) is another friendly layout option. Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Lana'i also boast dozens of other can't-go-wrong choices—golf and otherwise—but at that time of year, go Big (Island) or go home. Hey Joe, My wife and I will be traveling to Scottsdale this December with our 13-year-old daughter. We're all on the north side of 18 handicaps. We'd like to experience desert golf that's fun but not too tough. Any suggestions? —David Danielson, Cleveland, Ohio Here are my top three courses in the Greater Phoenix area for playability, scenery and architectural interest. The North Course at Talking Stick ($40-$175, with a 1 p.m. and later December rate of $80; 480-860-2221, talkingstickgolfclub.com) is a flat Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design with no homes or roads affecting play and occasional wild horse sightings. The Phoenician ($60-$189, with a Family Tees program available; 480-423-2450, thephoenician.com) sports more forced carries over water and desert, but the short and in-your-face mountain encounters make it sporty for all.
Finally, there's Longbow ($58-$155, with special rates for juniors; 480-807-5400, longbowgolf.com) in Mesa. Bold bunkering, mountain vistas, terrific variety and value define this 1997 Ken Kavanaugh design. Dear Joe, My family is headed to Palm Desert, Calif., over Christmas. My brothers and I, ages 26-32, are average weekend golfers who would like to play two or three rounds. Our price range is $60-$150. Any suggestions on courses with good views that will leave us with a few bucks for a beer at the 19th hole? —Patrick Read, Baltimore, Md. Ah, yes—the golf-beer balance is a delicate one, indeed. I hope you like PBR, because you'll only have a buck or two left after your Saturday round at La Quinta Resort & Club's Mountain course ($139-$189 in December; 760-564-7610, laquintaresort.com). But it will taste great after you duel with a back nine that boasts the reachable par-5 15th—its green curled into a mountain cove—and the downhill par-3 16th, a forced carry to a sliver of green hemmed in by rocky desert scrub.
To save enough cash for the imported stuff, try the region's best bargain, Escena Golf Club ($60-$105; 760-778-2737, escenagolf.com), a six-year-old Nicklaus Design effort near the Palm Springs Airport. There are wide fairways and bunkers that a 15-handicapper can escape, with just enough water to keep things interesting.
The middle-ground pricewise is Marriott's Desert Springs ($135 in December, $79 after 2 pm; 760-341-2211, desertspringsresort.com), whose Palm and Valley courses won't wow you with design innovation but will knock you over with scenery, from waterscapes to towering palms to mountain views. Hello Joe, I'm going to spend a week in the Ft. Myers, Fla., area. What courses would you recommend in the $100-$150 range? —Herman Schnieders, via e-mail Bargains in southwest Florida are pretty rare, but there are still a few options. Start with Old Corkscrew ($85-$125; 239-949-4700, oldcorkscrew.com), a vintage Jack Nicklaus creation 25 miles south of Ft. Myers in Estero that's a playful blend of sand, water and wetlands, and whose back tees stretch to 7,393 yards. Riverwood ($65 in December; 941-764-6661, riverwoodgc.com) is worth the hour's trek north to Port Charlotte. The 7,004-yard Gene Bates design zigzags through woods on the front nine and salt marshes on the back.
Closer to Ft. Myers, your best values are the watery but spacious Stoneybrook ($67.50-$105; 239-948-3933, stoneybrookgolfestero.com) in Estero, and Eastwood ($40-$60; 239-321-7487, cityftmyers.com/eastwood), a tight, heavily bunkered 34-year-old Devlin/Von Hagge effort.
(Photo: Larry Lambrecht)