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.
A 30-minute drive west on Route 3 to Rio Grande takes you to more merciful (read: flat) tracks. The Westin Rio Mar owns 500 acres on the Atlantic, where guests enjoy 12 restaurants, a mile-long beach and two entirely different golf courses. Opened in 1997, the 6,945-yard River course is as tough as designer Greg Norman, with small greens and winding fairways crisscrossed by the Mameyes River. The fickle trade winds–and mounded, bunker-ringed greens–set the challenge on the gentler 6,782-yard Ocean course, designed by George and Tom Fazio and opened in 1974.
More than 240 species of plants and trees decorate this 28,000-acre tropical rainforest, which is just a 30-minute drive west of the Wyndha, El Conquistador. Stop at the visitors center for a map and take a 30-minute hike to La Mina Falls (above), where you can cool off under 65-degree waters. For more information, see welcome.topuertorico.org.
A few miles down Route 3, Tom Kite and Bruce Besse collaborated on four new nines at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, part of the 1,000-acre Coco Beach Resort. The Ocean, Lakes and Palms opened last year, and the Mountain is scheduled to debut this spring. The Atlantic and El Yunque act as a backdrop to the 3,519-yard Ocean and 3,499-yard Lakes, where you’ll never find an uneven lie or a big-breaking putt. Length, water and sand provide the danger here. The Palms stretches to 3,524 yards through protected palm and mangrove forests, with creeks, lakes and vegetation creating ample hazards. The most intimidating hole is the par-3 fourth. At 220 yards from the back, golfers must carry their tee shots 195 yards over a lake and creek to a small putting surface flanked by bunkers front and back. You’ll need a good swing–and a few deep breaths.
Puerto Rico’s unflagging heat–year-round temperatures hover between 80 and 95 degrees–calls for post-round tropical cocktails and a relaxing meal. Chef Victor Cruz serves Caribbean-influenced fare in the Coco Beach clubhouse: Pair his melon martini with the buffalo rib eye in a potato crust, served with mango salsa. The Wyndham’s intimate Le Bistro serves Puerto Rican cuisine (fresh fish, fried plantains) with a French twist–and great mojitos. (Ask veteran bartender Edward Rodriguez to give you a mojito-making lesson and a taste of his own fruity liqueur, called Morocco.) For a more casual setting, head into Fajardo and try cabana-style Calizo’s, which serves $3 Presidentes, pitchers of sangria and pina coladas, as well as six varieties of fish paired with your choice of six sauces.
You won’t want to leave the Wyndham, but no Puerto Rican golf vacation is complete without a visit to the well-known courses west of San Juan. Relaxation sets in upon check-in at the Hyatt Dorado Beach, where waves crash beyond the open-air lobby and Coco the parrot screeches “Hello” to visitors.
If you can pry yourself from the strategically placed hammock outside your beachfront room, five courses await. Dorado Beach’s East and West, built by Robert Trent Jones and opened in 1958 and 1961, respectively, cut through the dense, lush vegetation of tropical forests and former citrus groves. Mature palms line their gently sloping fairways and pancake-flat greens. The East, host of 10 Champions Tour and two LPGA Tour events, has deeper bunkers and a few medium-size mammals buried beneath the putting surfaces. Its famous 525-yard, double-dogleg fourth zigzags right, then left, with lakes guarding both the corner and the green.
A two-mile shuttle ride away, two formerly toothless Trent Jones tracks just got a $3 million overhaul. The North and South, rerouted and rechristened the Sugarcane and Pineapple, are 100 and 500 yards longer, respectively, with six new holes and new greens, lakes and streams courtesy of former Jones associate Harry Bowers. Golfers still end their rounds wind-whipped, but they can now recover in a $6.5 million, 45,000-square-foot clubhouse.
Puerto Rico’s native son, Chi Chi Rodriguez, lives 10 minutes east of the Hyatt near his 18-hole design at the Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach and Golf Resort.
Just 45 minutes from Dorado Beach, Old San Juan offers vibrant nightlife. Make two stops on Fortaleeza Street–Dragonfly for mouthwatering tapas and the Parrot Club for inspired Caribbean cooking and ffruity tropical drinks. Looking for some gaming action and a cigar? Head for the wood-paneled Old World-style lobby bar and casino of the El San Juan on Isle Verde Avenue, where a special stand sells freshly rolled stogies on weekends. Dragonfly: 787-977-3886; Parrot Club: 787-725-7370; El San Juan: 787-791-1000
Houses rein in this tight 6,940-yarder, built in 1998 with plenty more elevation change than you’ll find at Dorado Beach. Get your camera ready on the 525-yard, dogleg-left 10th, which climbs 50 feet to a blind green teetering above the ocean.
After crossing a lake twice on the 510-yard 18th hole, you may not feel up to reenacting Rodriguez’s celebratory sword dance. Luckily the local version of scotch-tasting is just a scenic 20-minute drive east along the coast. You can smell the burnt sugarcane from the parking lot of the Bacardi Rum Factory, which has views across the water to Fort San Felipe in Old San Juan. A 90-minute tour relives the colorful history of Caribbean rum-making, topped by free tastes. The Bacardi Reserva has a smooth, smoky flavor best savored straight, like a good scotch. Do yourself a favor: Buy a bottle in the gift shop, head back to your hotel and get to know that beachside hammock.
Wyndham El Conquistador Greens fees $100-$165; 787-863-1000; windham.com.
Westin Rio Mar $125; 888-627-8556; westinriomar.com.
Coco Beach$100; 787-657-2000; cocbeachgolf.com.
Hyatt Dorado beach East and West $155-$195; 787-796-8961; Sugarcane and Plantation $65-$125; 787-796-8915; doradobeach.com.
Dorado del Mar $87-$102; 787-796-3070; embassysuites.com.
Casa Bacardi 787-788-8400; bacardi.com.