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Palmas del Mar gets better with age

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico -- There always has been a lot to like about the Palmas del Mar Resort and Country Club, a planned community that actually has stuck to the plan.

Growth in the Caribbean (or anywhere for that matter) is often helter-skelter. At Palmas it is following a script nearly three decades old. In the 1970s, after designing Hilton Head's Sea Pines Plantation and Florida's Amelia Island Plantation, developer Charles Fraser applied his innovative "master-planned community" concept to Palmas del Mar. The most precious natural areas on the 2,700-acre property have been spared development, leaving three and a half miles of pristine beach, stretches of craggy coastline, acres of wetlands, and forests of indigenous trees and flowering plants. Recreation and housing areas have been carefully plotted.

As a result, today there is order and symmetry in the beautifully landscaped villa and hotel neighborhoods, the world-class sporting complexes, and the miles of cart/walking/bike paths that connect everything.

The replacement value of the infrastructure is estimated to be about $400 million. Two aspects are irreplaceable -- the Palms Course (a 1974 Gary Player gem that hosted the 1995 Shell's Wonderful World of Golf), and the Rees Jones --designed Flamboyan Course, which debuted in 1999.

Make that three irreplaceable aspects -- the 38,000-square-foot clubhouse built in 1999 is one of the classiest in the Caribbean and could stand alone as the centerpiece to a fine island resort. High ceilings, swirling fans, mahogany woodwork and lots of mirrors and glass create a cool haven throughout the pro shop, well-appointed locker rooms, gourmet restaurant, bar and meeting rooms. The low-slung stucco building is surrounded by lush gardens and palms.

Rees Jones regards Palmas del Mar as a "perfect site for a seaside course.

"The oceanfront breezes provide constantly changing conditions," he explains. "There are natural wetlands, meadows, trees, streams and, of course, the magnificent Caribbean Sea, along which we built several holes. The naturally sandy soil next to the sea, similar to the areas of Scotland and England where golf evolved, allows for some very traditional elements."

After circling a 23-acre lake, Jones' 7,117-yard Flamboyan Course crosses the Candelero River, skirts the seashore, then climbs into the hills overlooking the ocean. The terrain varies widely, but common ingredients are undulating greens and Jones' signature mounding.

Though water and wetlands abound, one of the most dramatic holes is high and dry. No. 16, a 609-yard par-5, funnels through a high valley, then drops to a tiered, tabletop green guarded by vast bunkers, some of which are 14 feet deep.

There is no lack of dramatic holes on route, but the par-3 12th hole is the designated signature. It plays from 123 to 174 yards across a canal to a green backed by the ocean.

"Jones gives you a chance on the tees, but buries you on the greens," says the club's former managing pro Mike Ambriz. "The fairways are of medium width, but there are no level greens. Wind is another big factor. The cross-wind on the eighth hole makes it the toughest par-3. On number nine, the hardest par-4, you're hitting into a wind so fierce you can plan on a three-wood second shot."

The designer was not completely without mercy, says Seth Bull, a Puerto Rico Golf Association Hall-of-Famer who was the club's director of golf for many years. "In the way of designer A.W. Tillinghast, Jones built Flamboyan with grassy avenues in front of the greens so golfers have the option of running balls on rather than flying them in."

Jones also engineered the renovation of the 6,600-yard Player-designed Palm Course, which smacks of the sultry, hot-blooded nature of the tropics. There's nothing tame about this path through marshes, jungle and coconut groves, with snarls of sea-grape and head-high reeds serving as boundaries on some holes.

Holes 11 to 15 are a formidable gauntlet that some golfers say is as tough as any five successive holes in the Caribbean. The 12th is the hardest par-4 -- narrow, trappy and into the wind, with a two-tiered green breaking toward the approach. Also against the wind is the 13th, a 250-yard par-3 with a tiered green. The signature 14th hole, a 418-yard par-4, drops 200 feet against a backdrop of the ocean and Vieques Island.

Jones' fine-tuning did not disturb Player's intent, which was that no shot be taken for granted. Tee shots demand placement and the greens are small and elusive. There's a wild and special beauty to the course which makes for a memorable round.

In fact, Palmas del Mar is pretty special overall, with every amenity you can imagine. Like many others, you may decide to drop roots and send for the family. This community is comprised of secure, storybook-perfect neighborhoods, with one of the best private schools in Puerto Rico and a 2,700-acre paradise in which kids can ride bikes or horses, play tennis, surf, scuba dive and, of course, play golf. Camps and classes are a given at the world-class facilities.

Where to stay

The enclave's resort lodging and amenities have been renovated or replaced in recent years and new rental villas have sprung up like tropical flowers under the Caribbean sun. There is a dizzying choice of accommodations, ranging from modern hotel rooms at Candelero Resort to villas on the beach, golf course, marina - you get the idea. Choose the neighborhood closest to the venue where your interest lies.

Call (888) 529-2448 for lodging information.

Where to dine

The resort has 18 restaurants, including the Palmas Café (casual indoor/outdoor dining with a Puerto Rican flair); Chez Daniel (French Continental); Le Grill (grilled-to-order meats and seafood); La Brochette (Puerto Rican cuisine); Blue Hawaii (exquisite oriental dining); Sebastian's (Caribbean dining); Olivia's (by the tennis courts, specializing in pasta); and Hermes (international favorites).

Off course

Resort amenities include a casino, 20 tennis courts (in the Caribbean's most extensive tennis center), volleyball and basketball courts, a fitness center, an equestrian center, nine freshwater pools and a scuba diving center. A 200-slip, 100-acre marina is the departure point for snorkeling, sailing, kayaking and deep sea fishing excursions.

Take time to explore the historic buildings in old San Juan. Or venture into the mountainous interior or the relatively undeveloped southern and western coastal towns. The classic town plazas and buildings date back to three centuries of Spanish influence, beginning in the early 1500s.

The El Yunque Rainforest covers 28,000 acres of Puerto Rico and is one of the most "user-friendly" rainforests in the world. The U.S. national park has miles of trails where you can see birds and animals that are being rescued from extinction. There are other national parks in Puerto Rico that are also worth visiting, given time.


Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means the currency is the dollar, the language is English (though the Spanish speaking folks don't seem to know that) and you'll breeze through immigration at the airport. Thanks to the resort community's influence, there is a four-lane highway to whisk visitors from San Juan to Palmas del Mar in under an hour. The resort is on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.

Fast Fact

Golf carts are the main mode of transportation at Palmas del Mar. Rent one for your stay and forget catching the shuttle.

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Language

    Luis wrote on: Apr 25, 2008

    "Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which means the currency is the dollar, the language is English (though the Spanish speaking folks don't seem to know that)..."
    Actually, Spanish is the main language of Puerto Rico, English being the secondary one, though English has been categorized as a main language, the spanish language is still a main language as well.


      • RE: Language

        Jeannie wrote on: Jan 14, 2013

        That's true. Spanish is the first language of Puerto Rico. I am an English teacher in PR and English is taught in the schools as a second language. (ESL)