DORADO, Puerto Rico -- As a man who knew how to spend money wisely, the late Laurance Rockefeller would no doubt be pleased with the changes at the Hyatt Regency Dorado Beach. The resort complex, once part of the magnate's Caribbean "Rock Resort" empire, lies 22 miles west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on 1,000 priceless oceanfront acres.
Rockefeller opened the 71-room Dorado Beach in 1958 as a private playground for his jet-setting friends, and 13 years later completed the Cerromar Hotel, a seven-story, 506-room hotel designed for large conventions. In 1956 he commissioned Robert Trent Jones, Sr. to build an 18-hole course at Dorado Beach, which ultimately grew into a quartet of Jones creations unequaled in the Caribbean.
The Hyatt's multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation proves it is possible to make things better without sacrificing the soul of the original. This is especially true of Raymond Floyd's work on the vintage golf courses. The East Course at Dorado, a popular Senior PGA Tour venue, is now much edgier, with crisp bunkers guarding elevated greens and tee boxes repositioned to test today's golfers.
"We've restored the courses' beauty and classicism while preserving Jones ' challenging design," says Floyd. The designer considered Jones' concept of how each hole should be played, then factored in modern-day differences in equipment and technique. In some cases this meant adjusting the size or position of trees, bunkers and other hazards to maintain the proper illusion and challenge for golfers of varying abilities. The changes ensure that the degree of difficulty from each set of tees is uniform and fair, but geared to today's player.
The golfer who makes a yearly pilgrimage to the Hyatt complex will have discovered that the nines have been reversed on the East Course and the West Course is longer and more modern, with reshaped bunkers.
Junior Colon, director of golf, says, "The longer fairways and placement of the fairways bunkers essentially brings the bunkers into play for the longer hitters, while forgiving high handicappers."
The changes are even bigger for Cerromar's North and South courses. Cerromar is no longer Cerromar, for starters. The former hotel is now a time-share vacation club on the grounds of Dorado Beach. The North (now the Ocean) and the South (now the Plantation) courses are undergoing a remodeling effort that changes six holes and adds more lakes. Servicing the revamped courses will be the new $6.5 million, 45,000-square-foot Dorado Plantation Clubhouse and an adjacent large golf pavilion for outdoor events. With work delayed by heavy rains in fall and winter, the clubhouse, pavilion and courses are expected to be ready by late spring 2004.
There are inevitable similarities among all four courses: all are lush and beautifully landscaped, from Jones' "runway" tee boxes to the large, sculptured greens. There's plenty of sand and water to get into, and the variable wind is a constant factor. All four layouts are about 7,000 yards from the back tees.
The signature holes are as fresh and memorable as the day they were created. The East Course's infamous dilemma is the fourth hole (formerly the 13th), a 500-yard par-5 tester with a double dogleg around two water hazards. It's been many years since Jack Nicklaus called it one of the world's toughest holes, but it still begs the question: should I chance two long shots over water or take the safe route and possibly be faced with a 150-yard third shot?
Fairways on the West Course run in all four directions, subjecting players to the vagaries of the wind. Found here are the most difficult par 3s in the complex, including the 170-yarder that plays into the teeth of the ocean breeze.
Another stand-out par 3 into the prevailing wind is the North (Ocean) Course's 175-yard seventh hole, which occupies a scenic bluff overlooking Cerromar's beach. The windy South (Plantation) Course has water on all but five holes, including three of the longest tests. The seventeenth hole is a 200-yard par 3 with water on the right and behind the green and two bunkers in front.
One striking early addition to the Hyatt complex was the $6 million 30,000-square-foot golf clubhouse at the East and West courses, which replaced a very forgettable structure and is now one of the largest and finest clubhouses in the islands. The Spanish-style building has a pro shop and a 140-seat restaurant/lounge which serves excellent food in a great setting overlooking the East Course. The professional staff handles a high volume of golfers (and their bags) with ease and courtesy, which is not always a given at island courses.
The soul of other resort facilities is also intact. Forty-five years ago, Dorado Beach was the epitome of understated elegance, with low-profile buildings blending into tropical foliage along a beautiful private beach. Remarkably, it still is, even though it has grown to 298 rooms. Now it also has all of the amenities expected of a fine 21st century resort, including a lap pool, swimming pool and fitness center. The service and food are as pleasing as the surroundings.
The resort's famous river pool, the world's longest freshwater swimming pool, is even better with the addition of another jacuzzi, a fifth waterslide and a new gazebo. Though it may sound like an amusement park feature, the river pool runs through a profuse beachfront garden surrounded by flowering tropical plants and doused by 14 waterfalls. It is a real treat for adults as well as children.
This mega-resort has it all. Just pick up your room phone and express your wishes for the day -- tennis, biking, windsurfing, jet skiing, snorkeling, catamaran sails, deep sea fishing, or scuba. That is, if the beach and river pool are not entertainment enough after a hard day's work on the golf course. If you have a gambling itch, satisfy it at the modern casino, a dusk-to-dawn adult playground with whirling lights, clanging slot machines and inviting green velvet tables.
Dorado Beach has 262 low-rise, elegant guest rooms with sliding doors opening onto a terrific beach.
All of the restaurants in the Dorado Beach complex have been tastefully refurbished, and the food and service seem to have risen several notches as well. There are a plethora of dining options, so there is no need to leave the resort complex unless you have a hankering for rice-and-beans at roadside eateries. By the way, you can get traditional dishes on-site.
Su Casa -- The best experience in the complex may very well be this old oceanfront hacienda, which serves traditional Spanish/Puertorican cuisine indoors and out, accompanied by strolling musicians.
El Catador -- This cozy room for eight people resembles a local turn of the century mansion's wine cellar.
Surf Room - This three-tiered restaurant features a variety of continental dishes and overlooks the beach.
Zen Garden -- This is the place for Chinese-Japanese specialties including sushi and sashimi.
Steak Company -- Set against a backdrop of gardens and waterfalls, this steak house serves large cuts of beef with a Caribbean flair.
Swan Cafe -- This three-level outdoor cafe features a continental breakfast, luncheon buffets and dinner a la carte.
Johnny Rocket's -- a 50s themed café near the River Pool
You may want to stray no farther for lunch or dinner than the golf clubhouses, both of which are very comfortable and have diverse menus.
Change is good! The massive reworking of the old North and South (now Ocean and Plantation) courses should relieve the inevitable "sameness" shared by all four courses, but particularly these two. Fortunately, Ray Floyd tread lightly in reworking the classic East and West courses, enhancing Jones' fine designs. I was never a fan of the high-rise Cerromar hotel. Taking it out of the lodging equation means that everyone stays at the classy Dorado Beach and has the run of a 1,000-acre resort with fantastic facilities.
March 15, 2004
Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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