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Lagunas de Miralta Golf Club is an undiscovered delight

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

TAMPICO, MEXICO (Nov. 7, 2002) -- The evening trade winds whipping off the sea in Tampico, Mexico are warm and moist. Conveniently, for golfers especially, the mornings are usually calm and brilliant in this charming city, which is 350km northwest of Mexico City in the state of Tamaulipis. So naturally, the time to 'peg it up' is bright and early.

With the vivid sunrise splashed over the Gulf of Mexico and an attractive resort course waiting in the inland mist, getting out of bed to catch your shuttle to the Lagunas de Miralta Golf Club will be anything but strenuous.

When it comes to Mexican holiday destinations, especially ones where golf clubs tend to tag along, Tampico and the Club Maeva Miramar are barely on the map. Other I've-been-there locales, such as Cancun, Acapulco, and Los Cabos, are famous for their well-trodden fairways and greens. In Tampico, however, the golf is virtually undiscovered - just one of many reasons why this place is worth your while to explore.

Historically, the city of Tampico boomed during Porfirio Diaz's administration (1877-1911) until the end of the oil boom (1911-1937). During this period, many beautiful buildings were constructed in Tampico's Historical Downtown. The predominant architectural influences of the time where from the French. For this reason, there is a magnificent "New Orleans" flavor throughout the downtown core and in what is known as "The Liberty Square," where a gorgeous iron gazebo is the centerpiece. Throughout the square, numerous buildings with forged iron works and impressive stone facades are seen. So good is the setting at "Liberty Square" that Humphrey Bogart was here filming scenes for the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

While some may consider the horizon just outside of Tampico as being tainted with the steel and smoke from a five and a half billion dollar oil industry, the benefits of having oil in this area are almost immeasurable. True, some areas in and around Tampico, Altamira, and Madero (three cities that actually make up a metropolitan area home to nearly a million people) are run down and poor, yet other neighborhoods prosper and have a modern look. Not surprisingly, some of the wealthiest folk of Tampico hang out at a rather luxurious and exclusive place called Club Campestre de Tampico.

While the Club Campestre buzzes amidst a social scene that hasn't changed much in 80 years (the club features Mexico's oldest course - a hilly 9-holer with mature trees and splendid views), the Lagunas de Miralta Golf Club is woven from a different cloth.

Designed by American Joe Finger, Lagunas de Miralta offers 18 holes, is easily accessible, and sometimes sits vacant for entire afternoons. Fortunately, for the few out-of-towners who have discovered this place and the many who soon will, it isn't due to the quality of the golf that is found here.

"The Americans and Canadians who have played here absolutely love it," offers Juan Fernandez, the club's Head Professional and Director of Golf Operations. "They often have the course to themselves and take full advantage. We've had some groups that golf till dark, playing as many as 54 holes in a day," he finishes. Of course, with no one in front, behind, and beside, the only thing getting in your way will be some tight driving holes, the beautiful white-sand bunkers, the lagoons, and the magnificent Bermuda greens that seem to dip and dive with the swells of the sea.

At nearly 7,000 sea-level yards (from the tips) and with a slope well over 130, one of the first things you'll realize at Lagunas de Miralta is the stiff challenge it affords. The heavy air isn't conducive to 300-yard drives and iron shots sit down quickly, so golfers not used to playing at sea-level will have to make adjustments - or suffer the punishment of Miralta's numerous hazards.

An interesting claim to fame here involves Lagunas' course designer, Joe Finger. He is one of just three architects - Rees Jones and Alister Mckenzie being the others - to have been granted the privilege of doing design work on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. (Finger helped Byron Nelson remodel Augusta's 8th green). Noted for his great routing and love affair with sculpting greens, Finger's work at Lagunas de Miralta, on a site that isn't overly spectacular, is worthy of praise.

Not surprisingly, the Bermuda greens are an absolute joy to putt on. With an abundance of slope, some subtle tiers, and the ever-present grain, you'll be hard-pressed to play the round without a three-putt. Many of the green sites are tucked in engaging spots; hugging the shores of lagoons, perched on natural rises, and pinched between palms and white-sand bunkers.

A couple of holes that are bound to make the highlight reel include the 9th and the 16th. The 9th is a short par-4 that requires a bold tee shot over a lagoon. With a couple of distant palm trees as your target, getting off the tee is everything on this nervy hole. The 16th also requires that golfers avoid some wet stuff. Fortunately, at least for those who don't have the courage to stripe it 240 yards to an island fairway, there is a lay-up zone where par can still be realized.

While some golfers accustomed to experiencing the opulence and abundance of mega-million dollar US golf resorts may find that Lagunas de Miralta falls short in the area of amenities (don't worry, the course's affiliation with the Club Maeva Miramar, which is an all-inclusive beach-side paradise 15 minutes down the road, will not leave you wanting), the course itself is quickly addressing some of these concerns. "A new clubhouse will be built this winter and all the cart paths will be paved," says Fernandez. Presently, the club features a quaint, but very nice restaurant and the pro shop is the size of your spare bedroom. On the back nine the club is in the midst of an extensive tree planting program that will soon make dividends in hole definition and aesthetics (the front nine is more mature).

Unlike other more recognizable Mexican golf holiday destinations, the Lagunas de Miralta is a place that will feel like golf in a foreign country. While the club strives to join the ranks of popular Mexican golf destinations, there are some obstacles and subtleties here that will prevent the transition from happening quickly. From the small airport, remote location, local poverty (the club has to remove the flags and bunker rakes every day so the locals don't steal them), to the English language (a number of workers don't speak English), the club has a few hills to climb. Of course, for many visitors, myself included, these are the things that make the experience of Tampico and the Lagunas de Miralta golf club all the more memorable.

From culture to culture, from region to region, the game of golf represents a kaleidoscope of characteristics. For golfers who truly love the game and enjoy discovering its many forms, a trip to Lagunas de Miralta is bound to be fulfilling. And the morning, well, it won't come too soon.

Where to stay

Tampico does have a number of fine hotels, however, far and away, the place to stay for visitors, golfers and non-golfers, is the Club Maeva Miramar. An all-inclusive five-star beach-front resort, the Club Maeva is truly world-class. You will have to spend a day at sea to find a nicer place. The staff is exceedingly warm and friendly and the resort offers everything from kayak rentals to a day-club for the kids. Shuttles to the golf course are easily arranged.

Where to eat

The Club Maeva Miramar offers five restaurants. From the elegance of the Juana Cata Dining Room to the beach-side charm of the appropriately named Happy Hut Restaurant, Club Maeva's restaurant facilities are exceptional. On your tour of Tampico's Historical Downtown, you may want to try a fabulous Cajun restaurant alled Lafayette.

Other activities

A trip to the famous El Tajin pyramids is something that should be included in your stay at the resort. El Tajin, which is in the state of Veracruz, is a fascinating site that includes numerous ruins from Pre-Columbian culture. Other day activities include deep-sea fishing, a very interesting tour of a Mexican working ranch, windsurfing, kayaking, swimming pools - and yes, there's a swim-up bar - tennis, and evening dinner shows and dancing.

How to get there

The best way to get to Tampico and the Club Maeva (where they will arrange every activity for you including golf at Lagunas de Miralta) is through Air Transat Vacations. To book your vacation in Tampico call them at 1-866-322-6649 or visit www.airtransatholidays.com. Flights depart from Toronto's Pearson International Airport to Tampico throughout the year.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

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

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