PUERTO RICO - Leaving the Northeastern States or Canada in March is no hardship, believe me, especially if you're headed for an exciting new destination. In this case, it was a relatively unknown quantity: Puerto Rico's Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club.
Packing for such trips has become a touch ho-hum after years of traveling. Golf clubs and related paraphernalia, of course, followed by - hmm, let's check the weather forecast online - shorts, T-shirts, sandals, bathing suit.
With average daytime temperatures hovering around 81 degrees, dropping to a balmy 71 at night, and water temperatures of about 78 degrees, it turned out that we had, indeed, packed all the right stuff. The one thing we should have left at home, thrown out altogether for that matter, was all our preconceived notions about this delightful island about 1,000 miles south of Miami.
While golfers enamoured of the island's links-style courses call Puerto Rico "Scotland in the sun," the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club is less Scottish and Caribbean than Hawaiian. Tropical rain forests, one of the world's most attractive and moderate climates, fabulous beaches, great golf. A first-time visitor must be excused for thinking he had ended up on one of those Pacific islands, especially when immersed from the get-go in unabashed hospitality.
You look no farther for evidence of this than the smiling face of Edwin Torres, who works for the Wyndham Rio Mar's in-house transportation service. Calling Edwin a driver is like calling Tiger Woods a golfer: He is the consummate ambassador at-large not only for the resort, but for the island itself.
You have learned a lot about both during the half-hour trip from San Juan's international airport. By the time you emerge from Edwin's glistening black Lincoln Town Car outside the spectacular seven-story main building, you know not only that there are 600 rooms and suites (each with a balcony or terrace), a casino, and more than a dozen dining and entertainment venues under its red-tiled roof, but much more about Puerto Rico. Edwin also proved to be a reliable source of rum-related information: Buy a bottle of the three-star Ron del Barrilito. To call it rum is like calling ... oh, never mind.
More to the point for our purposes, however, is the "and Golf Club" addendum to the name "Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort." That label includes two superior layouts -- the Greg Norman-influenced River Course and the Ocean Course, designed 30 years ago by George Fazio and his now-famous nephew Tom -- plus a splendid 35,000-square-foot clubhouse that would be the envy of many.
The 7,000-yard River Course is widely assumed to be the more difficult of the two layouts, but both it and the Ocean are designed to fit the abilities of their clientele -- resort guests for the most part -- who have the sense to play from the appropriate tee deck. Both courses are in excellent condition by any standards.
The opening hole on the River Course sets the stage for 17 more that require accuracy off the tee and on approaches to greens that, for the most part, are generous in size and gentle in nature. Norman, with able assistance from Bruce Besse (president of golf and land design with Rio Mar's parent company, Willowbend Development of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts), crafted a very good routing, one that rewards superlative shots without harshly punishing a merely respectable effort. Having said that, poor shots don't go unnoticed and may end up in the Mameyes River or the numerous tropical wetlands.
The 6,800-yard Ocean Course is said to be the first design upon which Tom Fazio laid his now-famous signature. The first and 10th tees here are excruciatingly close to the clubhouse and al fresco bar ("Home of the World's Coldest Beer"), with the result that - even though you can't hear them - there are snickering remarks being made about anything less than a stellar tee shot. (Hanging out with a few engaging members of the Rio Mar's members' golf club is an experience not to be missed. Their lines are smooth and practiced, and they lampoon each other with the same rapier wit lavished upon those hapless golfers cold-topping their tee shots. It could be the best entertainment bargain in Puerto Rico!)
The preferred shot pattern on the Ocean Course is a draw, but the landing areas are large, so even a persistent fade won't hurt. The greens, in contrast to the River Course, are very convoluted.
While the charms of the rest of the island in general, and Old San Juan in particular, are undeniable, there really is no need to leave the sprawling 500-acre Wyndham Rio Mar property. Free-form pools, a waterslide, a kiddie pool, water sports including parasailing and wave runners, basketball court, fitness center, spa, designer shops and boutiques combine with the attractions of the exquisite mile-long beach to fill most of the day. The Peter Burwash International Tennis Center offers 13 Har-Tru courts. Children have the option of playing at Camp Iguana, an onsite service that offers a full range of indoor and outdoor activities.
While the kids are at Club Iguana, the parents can check out the club's namesakes on the golf courses. After golf, do a little research, the most pleasurable kind: The pina colada was invented here, and list of other rum-enhanced cocktails available at the resort's numerous bars appeared to lengthen with each passing day. That is not to be construed as a complaint.
And the food! The Wyndham Rio Mar offers no fewer than five excellent restaurants. The Grille Room in the clubhouse provides the usual burgers and sandwiches for golfers at lunch, but is transformed into an elegant gourmet restaurant at dinner. Other dining establishments include Palio, an intimate Northern Italian restaurant; Shimas Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar, which features an extensive and eclectic menu; the Ocean Club, home of gourmet seafood specialties from Executive Chef Gregory Carroll; Marbella, for all-day casual dining; Cactus Jack's, a Tex-Mex sports-oriented spot beside the tennis center; and a couple of pool- and beach-side eateries.
The Wyndham Rio Mar -- "the most comprehensive beachfront meetings destination in the Caribbean" -- boasts the largest ballroom in the region (21,000 square feet), plus a 48,000-square-foot conference center capable of accommodating more than 3,000 people. Not a bad spot to combine a little business with a lot of pleasure.
All in all, we felt we had discovered that Maui had been magically teleported to the southern Atlantic. And we are eternally grateful.
The ultimate endorsement came from a fellow golf writer, a veteran who has spanned the globe over the decades. "In a few years, when I'm thinking of retirement, I'm coming to Puerto Rico."
Me, too. More specifically, I'm coming to the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club. And yes, dear, I'm bringing you and the kids.
December 11, 2003
John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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