BRASILITO, COSTA RICA -- The Garra de Leon course on the Northwest coast of Costa Rica looks the picture of a sleepy paradise on most mid-June mornings.
The fairways and greens are an exotic emerald nearly beyond belief. The course is practically free of golfers - some resort visitors say they can stay a full week and not see a foursome on it - though the sculpted bunkers, traps and quiet lakes with grazing shore birds beckon in a quiet way.
Not far away, a noisy troop of howler monkeys offers a disconcerting rumble through the forest adjoining the back nine, and they do it just about every morning with their strange, wild calls that echo across the course and out to the sea.
Consistently ranked as a top 100 golf resort in the world, the luxurious Paradisus Playa Conchal All Suite Beach & Golf Resort on the Pacific Coast of northwest Costa Rica brings a defining border of beach, hibiscus, palm, red brick pathways and stucco villas to this golf course.
The course was designed in the classic tradition of the game by Robert Trent Jones II, and is today something of an ecological treasure as it snakes from the sea to the hills of an old teak ranch and then back to the sea again, finishing with a bending par 5 that arcs like a lion's claw to the last pin.
Teak from the original finca or ranch and the Guancaste tree with its elephant ear shape and trunk large enough to make wagon wheels out of, are throughout the course. Cactus 25-feet high are on dry hilltops above the course. Butterflies of all manner and fashion come for the ginger and hibiscus.
Inside the clubhouse is a bird registry of species seen on the course: long-tailed manakin, forked-tailed flycatcher, rufus-capped warbler and cinnamon hummingbird are but a few of the 105 species spotted here. Throughout the course, ball-like oriole nests hang suspended from limbs. They look like small woven satchels or perhaps a purse left dangling and forgotten by an absentminded girl who lost her way to market.
Sometimes, loud parrots as green as a sun-dappled patch of fairway stitch the air with their fast flight. Odd calls punctuate some shots. Hummingbirds pump nectar just about everywhere.
Translated, Garra de Leon means Lion's Paw or, to some, Lion's claw, and as any fan of a wildlife show knows, the paw of a lion is one of the most lethal things in nature. Though a feline is the namesake for this course, its roots are far more benign. In Costa Rica, the Garra de Leon is a fairly common sea shell: a broad, fan-shaped shell that is flat and hunted by morning shore walkers worldwide. While it's named for the shell, these 18 holes have more in common with the jungle prowler, as would be expected.
Most of the holes have plenty of bite: whether it's a side hill lie because of a missed fairway or the bend of a putt that unexpectedly heads toward the sea. When in doubt, play any break toward the ocean at Garra de Leon. That is the folklore anyhow, and it may even be true.
Time on this course, one of the best, if not the best in this tiny nation, is no leisurely stroll on a sandy Pacific beach. Let the guy plunking down plastic at the counter in the pro shop paint a better picture of why he's already played it, oh, maybe a half-dozen times:
"There is better golf here than any course I have ever played in North Carolina," says Canadian Glenn Knight, who is visiting for a week and plays everyday, despite it being the beginning of the rainy season. "It's all about target golf here.
"The fairways are forgiving and it's a quick play because basically there are two cuts all over: the fairway cut and the rough cut. The rough is not so long, either, that you can't find your ball or hit it cleanly once you find it. Still, you've got to be straight."
While golfers seem rare in some seasons, the same cannot be said for the iguanas. Iguanas haunt tees. They are near sand traps, on fairways, in the rough. They sprint away from carts. Some lizards are said to walk on water when they cut across the lake at No. 18 like an errand grip-and-ripper on a hole that rewards bravado with an eagle.
Who assigns these iguana-guys to guard each hole anyhow? Whoever he is, he's doing a fabulous job. They are spread out that way throughout the course: about one to every other hole. Or does it only seem that way?
Par 3's: 4
Par 4's: 4.5
Par 5's: 5
Practice Facilities: 5
Club House/Pro Shop: 4
Pace of Play: 5
Overall Rating: 4.5
Hard work on the golf course and on the beach calls for plenty of good food. Luckily, meals in any of the resort's six restaurants are splendid, with themes ranging from Asian to Italian, and the food beyond the resort's doors is worth checking out as well.
Breakfast is fabulous with fresh and assorted fruits, made-to-order eggs, a variety of French toast batters and, of course, plantains, a local favorite.
As for lunch, avocado gazpacho with crab and fried plantains served at the Caracola near the pool will not disappoint. Also try the seafood quiche with a mint-scented watermelon salad, the fish and chips or tuna salad with fennel on a crusty baguette.
While tourists come to this resort as part of a travel package and therefore stay onsite for fun, food and drink, some do venture out of the gated acreage and into the nearby fishing village of Brasilito. It is little more than a bus stop village beside the sea but there is something there that should not be missed:
A sunset dinner at the restaurant Camaron Dorado (literally Golden Shrimp) is more an event than a meal. Waiters come to tables with hair flowers for the women and girls, followed by a bowl of hibiscus and rose water filled with floating blossoms.
Diners dip their fingers in it before diving into the great seafood appetizers. Bowls are coming and going all night long. They are seemingly everywhere.
When the sun hits the horizon, everything stops only to resume a few minutes later, after photos. Though the staff fusses over customers, it is more Joe' s Diner than five-star fashionable. The entertainment is Spanish Karaoke sung by one or two locals inside near a little gift shop. The music wafts outside to the terrace dining area and the presumed antics of the owner, or maybe he's the restaurant captain, can be hilarious.
July 8, 2002
John Eckberg has been a life-long bogey golfer, whose addiction to the sport began with nine-iron pitches to and from neighbor Frank Haines's back yard and on the golf courses in and around Akron, Ohio. His fondest golf memories date to his teenaged-years when he and his brother would annually sneak into PGA events at Firestone Country Club, then spend the day eluding marshals as part of the army that trailed Arnold Palmer.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Designed by Pete Dye, Carmel Valley Ranch offers two different experiences in one, and it's built right into the mountainside as well as the flat meadow below the resort's restaurants and residences.
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