ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico -- Your first drive across the border from San Diego into Tijuana can be a jarring experience. Signage is spotty. The roads are rough. Drivers are frequently cavalier about staying in their lanes, and pedestrians can be equally cavalier about the distinction between sidewalk and road.
The transition from interstate highway to chaos can give you whiplash and if you don't pick the proper turnoff out of the three that are immediately available, you'll be navigating the wild streets of Tijuana in seconds.
But assuming you correctly choose the Rosarito, Ensenada, and Highway 1 option, you'll be moving out of the city and toward the coast almost as quickly as you can say "dos mas margaritas."
You'll soon see the ocean again and from there you're just 15 minutes or so from Real Del Mar. A resort in the classic tradition, Real Del Mar features a Marriott hotel, a nice restaurant, tennis courts, a swimming pool, spa, and a fine golf course.
The holes are laid out in a series of canyons. Views of the valleys, canyon walls, and occasionally the ocean are mostly unobstructed, save for a few homes, some portions of the resort and a couple of utility poles.
Situated about a dozen miles south of the border, golfers at Real Del Mar (weather permitting) will enjoy unparalleled views of the Coronado Islands. Not to be confused with San Diego's Coronado Island, atop which sits the world-famous Hotel del Coronado, Mexico's Coronado Islands are a maritime marvel worthy of a quick aside.
The Coronado Islands rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean, just a few miles off the coast of Rosarito Beach. Despite the steep terrain and total lack of fresh water, the islands enjoyed a few years of prosperity during Prohibition, when a hotel and casino played host to some Hollywood stars and other border crossers desperate to quench their thirst and gamble in this exotic and unlikely resort. Al Capone is said to have paid a number of visits. But the casino's run as a quirky getaway did not last long. Prohibition ended and the winds and waves pulled the structure into the ocean. All that stands today are a few chunks of the original foundation.
Not that you can see it anyway: the Coronado Islands are off limits to visitors. The only people on the islands are a lighthouse operator and a revolving band of about a dozen Mexican Marines. Boaters are welcome to troll around the islands and fish its teeming waters but any move resembling an attempt to anchor and make landfall will immediately arouse the suspicion of the Marines, who always carry their weapons. Enjoy the islands from a distance. In fact, use features of them as targets as you aim from the tee boxes down some of the tight slot canyons.
Back to course itself, which has long been popular among Southern Californians who enjoy quick, easy getaways. It is well conditioned. The greens are quite receptive and roll at a good speed. Randy Keith, a Texan who was visiting the course for the second time, considers Real Del Mar a good value.
"It has beautiful views and interesting holes," Keith said. "It's in good shape, and it doesn't break the bank."
There are, however, at least two groups of unwanted visitors that run in great numbers on the course. The first is an unusually corpulent batch of squirrels, who probably annoy the groundskeepers more than the golfers. The second is a fleet of bees that seem to have an unquenchable thirst for Diet Coke, or "Coca Cola Light," as it's known outside the U.S.
One's accuracy is tested immediately from the first tee. This examination continues, with the fairways becoming ever more narrow as the canyon walls get steeper. Few of the fairways are wide, and some are downright claustrophobic. The 13th hole is a good example. Named "Double Trouble," it's the first of three par 5s on the back nine. A creek lines the left side, the canyon wall runs up the right, and the hole measures 587 yards from the tips, playing uphill. The first landing area is wide enough, but once there, the adventure truly begins. The second shot is tight, and blind.
Keith paused before his second shot, saying, "I think I want to hit it that way, but I'm not sure precisely where. I can't really see what's up there, and the mere thought of fairway metal right now makes me nervous."
For some golfers, navigating these tight chutes can be stressful, not to mention costly, as a certain number of lost balls are a given. But others enjoy the test Real Del Mar offers.
"Sure it's tight, but the holes aren't a great mystery," Keith said. "The tightness is what makes it a nice challenge."
Another Real Del Mar trademark are the risk-reward par 4s. There are three such holes on the front nine alone. Touting names like "The Gambler," "Blind Draw," and "Temptation," the course is taunting you to try to reach the green on these holes. If you're playing well, go for it. If not, go for it anyway. You can always buy more balls at the turn, or reach into the mucky creek for a likely handful. You can also find balls on the canyon slopes, though you may come across a poisonous snake first.
Other standout holes include No. 6, a par 3 that plays well downhill, giving you a classic view as your ball sails against the backdrop of the Coronado Islands. No. 9, called "Isles of Coronado" (are you picking up on a theme?) is a reachable par 5 with some eye-catching homes perched on the canyon edge.
No. 14 is a nice par 3 that measures about 180, but feels a lot longer. The 16th hole is one of those risk-reward offerings that has water in play, but not visible from the tee box. Oddly, the course ends with a 131-yard par 3. The clubhouse sits directly behind the green, almost taking on the appearance of a backboard. A sign on the tee box pleads with you not to use any club other than nine-iron or pitching wedge, reminding the golfer that broken windows are the player's responsibility and are not considered amusing.
Real Del Mar is close enough to San Diego that you could reasonably dip across the border, play 18, then head back, making it just a day trip. But with all the fine courses on the north side of the border, your trip to Real Del Mar is more likely part of an overnight or long weekend spent in northern Baja.
It's an enjoyable course, featuring nice views, a relaxing setting, and good pace of play outside of the prime weekends. Its narrow fairways can be intimidating at times, but if your game is in decent shape this won't be much of a problem. Just don't feel compelled to pull the driver out on every hole simply because it's in your bag. The resort is easy to find (not always the case in Mexico), the service is very good, the course is well maintained, and with prime weekend morning rates topping out at $69, it's a fair price for a nice round of getaway resort golf.
Rates are $59 from Monday through Thursday, with twilight rates of $35 Monday through Thursday and $40 Friday through Sunday. Seniors (55 and older) get a nice discount.
For sheer convenience, stay at the hotel at Real Del Mar ((800) 434-2252). It's run by Marriott, has nice rooms and a nice restaurant, and offers Hotel & Golf packages starting at $129 per person.
If you prefer a beach front location, consider Rosarito Beach Hotel ((866) ROSARITO). Rooms start at about $125 on the weekends, and the hotel is right on the beach.
If you want something less expensive, a variety of options are available along Rosarito Beach's Benito Juarez Boulevard (the main street).
Make it easy for yourself and hit up the restaurant at Real Del Mar. They have very good food and a wide variety featuring American and Mexican cuisine.
Of course, if you feel like moving around some, try Ruben's Baja Grill. It's a new restaurant featuring excellent breakfasts, as well as lunch and dinner. Menu highlights include machaca, chorizo, huevos rancheros. Bobby's by the Sea is another favorite, with a big menu and bigger view of the Pacific.
October 12, 2005
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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