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Shake off winter with these hidden Caribbean golf destinations

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
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Royal St. Kitts
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Royal St. Kitts: mountains and sea meet perfectly. (Tim McDonald/GolfPublisher.com)

Fall is here, which means the cold breath of winter isn't far behind. It's a good time to prepare for the winter blues by looking into a Caribbean golf vacation.

There's always the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the two giants of Caribbean golf.

But, if you're looking to escape the crowds and find something a little more relaxed, there are still some out-of-the-way places in the islands down south. You might have to sacrifice a little quality and quantity, but you'll make up for it in other ways. Here are a few of our favorite hidden gems.

Nevis

Briefing: Before the Four Seasons resort arrived, unemployment hovered at around 20-25 percent on the island, a short ferry ride away from its sister island of St. Kitts. Nevisians were leaving the island in droves, in search of work. The sugar industry was kaput.

The Four Seasons arrived in 1991 and now there is work for virtually everyone who wants it. Of the approximately 11,000 people on the island, the resort employs a whopping 700.

But, not all of the island's residents are happy about the changes, which are expected to become even more acute. Growth always brings concomitant problems and Nevis is no different: increased traffic and crime, to name two negative impacts.

Of course, that is probably true of most places on earth nowadays, especially those that have gone through the sort of changes Nevis has. And even though some crime has increased, Nevis is still one of the safest islands in the Caribbean. If you took a poll, the majority or Nevisians would most likely tell you the Four Seasons has been a life-saver for the island.

The Golf: The Four Seasons Resort golf course, the only one on the island, isn't particularly long at 6,682 yards, but it is full of island mysteries, like the Green Vervet monkeys that can sometimes be seen scuttling around in the deep foliage.

The course climbs, dips and dives around the base of the mountain, giving you relief from the tough course with distant, misty vistas of the Caribbean Sea and the neighboring sister island of St. Kitts - views that no post card can capture.

The Resort: The Four Seasons is definitely worth the price of admission - rates start at $295 a night and go up to $635.

The resort's rooms are spacious and open to the sea, with private patios. Luxury villas are also available. Thankfully, there is a "quiet" pool for adults. The resort grounds are lush and well-manicured and the service is unrelentingly friendly and efficient.

The Four Seasons dining room is a 140-seat, open air restaurant with a view of the sea. It offers Caribbean dishes, with "French and Asian influences." The food is excellent; try the lamb chops - made from Australian lambs. Don't ask my why they're Australian.

St. Kitts

Briefing: St. Kitts, once the center of the British sugar trade in the West Indies, harvested its last sugar cane crop in 2005. A combination of Europe doing away with sugar subsidies to African, Caribbean and Pacific states and the inefficiency of government-run sugar companies caused a massive upheaval to the crop that once drove Caribbean economies.

St. Kitts will now rely mostly on tourism to feed its people. The island expects an infusion of around $17 billion during next 20 years. Plans are on the drawing board for new resorts, race tracks, casinos and all sorts of other enterprises designed to lure sun and fun seekers from the U.S. and Europe.

The Golf: Royal St. Kitts is all about water, just as its neighbor, the Four Seasons course on the island of Nevis, a short ferry ride away, is all about the volcano that dominates the island.

Royal St. Kitts doesn't have only two of the world's great bodies of water for your viewing pleasure; the inland section features a series of interconnected lakes, which are starting to lure back some marine life after the sprawling Marriott Resort and Royal Beach Casino completed its desalination plant.

The Resort: Right now, the Marriott Resort and Royal Beach Casino is pretty much the only game in town on St. Kitts, as far as big-name, branded resorts go. But, that's OK, because on an island only 68 square miles, the Marriott is plenty big enough for everyone.

To start with, it has five floors with 523 rooms and 113 suites. There are three pools, each with its own jacuzzi, including two quiet pools, with the main pool having a swim-up bar. One of the big advantages of the resort is its on-site casino, the Royal Beach Casino, one of the biggest in this part of the Caribbean with 34 gaming tables and slots, and an Italian decor.

Grand Cayman

Briefing: Grand Cayman is the largest of the three little islands just an hour south of Miami. The islands have no freshwater rivers, which makes the surrounding water a spectacular clarity.

Scuba divers and snorkelers love it, but golfers may be surprised to learn there is golf here. Not a lot, but enough to keep you occupied when you aren't wet.

The Golf: The Blue Tip is a private course designed by Greg Norman, aka the Great White Shark, available only to guests of the Ritz-Carlton.

The only problem: It's a nine-hole course. It is a superb nine-hole course, but a nine-hole course just the same. There is talk, officials say, of adding another nine, which would go a long way toward making this a more legitimate golf destination.

Brittania is essentially two courses in one: a nine-hole regulation course that can be played twice, from different tees, and an 18-hole executive course. Brittania is several notches below the island's other two courses.

The Links at Safehaven: First of all, it's quite an accomplishment just to squeeze an 18-hole golf course onto this small island. The Links at Safehaven is the only 18-holer here.

"It's a traditional links course with a Caribbean flair," is how head pro Sean Wilson describes it.

It does indeed have flair, mostly in the shape of those great, Caribbean views you expect from golf in the islands. Since it's an open layout - sprinkled with exotic trees like mahogany and coconut palms - the views are pretty much never-ending.

The Resort: The Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Beach Suites is located on Seven-Mile Beach, perfect for drinking a rum and Coke while watching the boats bob on the gentle waves on this part of the island.

There are two swimming pools, one of which has my favorite amenity, a swim-up bar for the incredibly indulgent.

There's a Royal Crown meeting room, a waters ports center on the ground floor, various shops and two restaurants, Hemingway's and Bamboo, with open-air seating looking out on the water, under swaying palms. The Bamboo also features live jazz.

Cozumel

Briefing:Cozumel isn't exactly an unknown destination, but it's mainly known for its great scuba diving. Golfers may again be surprised to find there is a golf course there.

The Golf: What you, as a golfer, are going to be interested in the most are those three little words: Free green fees.

When you stay at the Playa Azul, you can play as long as you have light or motive, at the Cozumel Country Club, though you will have to pay cart fees of $25 per person.

Cozumel Country Club is a good length from the back tees, a touch over 6,700 yards, and it winds around the clubhouse and restaurant at its center, through protected wetlands that hold some interesting Mexican critters.

"Anywhere there's water, there's crocodiles," said General Manager Benny Campos.

The Resort: The Playa Azul is a four-story, boutique hotel, with soft, appealing Spanish architecture. It has 50 rooms, including 12 suites with jacuzzis, all of which have views of the Caribbean Sea and its dizzying array of hues.

This isn't an all-inclusive resort; the owners encourage you to get out and explore the island, including the shops, restaurants and bars in San Miguel, a short drive away. A breakfast buffet is included, though, in its open-air restaurant, where you can see and hear the little waves rolling in on this calm side of the island.

St. Lucia

Briefing:St. Lucia is one of those mountainous Caribbean islands that looks great from up high, both from an airplane or one of the Twin Pitons rising nearly 2,500 feet. From that height, with the sun bouncing off the Caribbean Sea, creating a thousand, dazzling crystals of light, the views are magazine and postcard-ready.

Because of rapid growth, the island has also fallen victim to the sort of crime that is on the rise most everywhere in the Caribbean. The government seems to be on a certain path toward re-instituting hanging, despite protests from human rights groups.

Still, the island is still one of the most popular Caribbean destinations, mainly because of its breathtaking scenery and a plethora of great resorts. And in truth, much of the crime is directed at fellow islanders. As long as you take the usual precautions, you should not have a problem.

But, you'd better hurry if you want that relaxed feeling. There isn't a lot of golf on the island; as of this writing, there is only one 18-hole course and a resort 9-holer. A planned Jack Nicklaus design on the island is currently "in limbo," according to a Nicklaus Design spokesperson and a Greg Norman design at Le Paradis, a major resort development on the island's relatively isolated southeast coast, is also under construction.

Two others, by Arnold Palmer and Christy O'Connor, are also in the planning stages. If all eventually come to fruition, they will go a long way toward establishing St. Lucia as a legitimate golf destination, as island officials hope.

The Golf: There's little doubt when you step out of the hot tradewinds into the cool of the St. Lucia Golf and Country Club pro shop that you've entered the different world of Caribbean golf.

First, there's the coffee and rum truffles for sale. Don't see that in many stateside pro shops. The course is a rolling, tumbling gem that plays through the shadowing green hills that rise around you. There are enough elevation changes and sloping fairways and greens to make you wish you hadn't had that last rum punch at closing time last night.

Sandals: If you're staying at one of the three Sandals resorts on the island, you play for free.

The Sandals Regency course was designed by Richard Colon, from Barbados, a man who apparently never met a tight fairway he didn't like. Of course, he didn't have much room to work with, and it shows - the Sandals course is tighter than Uncle Harry's hat band, a tortuous, claustrophobic little track that keeps your driver in the bag, or should.

The Resort: St. Lucia has a wide range of lodging for tourists, from all-inclusives like Sandals - which has three properties on the island - to shaky, local tourist hotels. Bay Gardens is a clean, moderate size hotel in Rodney Bay that businessmen like to use - though Internet connections are not always reliable. The food is excellent. It is not on the beach, nor are there great ocean views, but the hotel does provide a beach shuttle.

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Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

 
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