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BEST OF 2003 - Thoughts and visions of best of the Caribbean excites our cold bones

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

SNOWSHOE, W.V. -- As I shovel snow (more than five feet since Thanksgiving), my thoughts tend to dwell on the Caribbean golf resorts I have frequented in 20 years of travel writing. I love the region -- and recognizing the "bests" is like choosing which children deserve the most praise.

That said, the Caribbean is ever-changing. There are courses on islands that never had golf before, and exciting new venues on islands that have a long history of the game.

One thing that doesn't change is the relaxed atmosphere of the islands and the way visitors respond to it. Most shed their watches, ties, shoes (except when playing golf) and worries. It's hard to be a grump when the sound of the ocean wakes you to the dawn of another sunny day full of promise. You find that the golf course du jour has been freshened overnight by a rainshower, everything is incredibly green, and the tropical underbrush is decorated with colorful blooms. Life is good.

After the round, the local beer seems colder and tastes better than beer ever does at home, and the first dive into the ocean or pool is heavenly.

Fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood remind your tastebuds of life before Lean Cuisine. And the feel of warm, wet sand underfoot brings out the kid -- or romantic -- in you.

If you haven't had your island fix lately, here's what you're missing.

Best Island for Golf

1. Puerto Rico
2. Dominican Republic
3. Jamaica

Sheer numbers would not be enough to tip the scale in favor of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico -- if the courses weren't so good! Who can argue with 18 championship courses by the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., Rees Jones, Greg Norman, Gary Player and Tom and George Fazio, plus seven new layouts that either opened in 2003 or will soon?

The new arrivals are the Inter-Continental Cayo Largo Resort (18 holes by Ron Garl) in Cayo Largo, the Paradisius Sol Melia (36 holes by Tom Kite) in Rio Grande, the Caguas Real Golf Club Club (18 holes by Jon Sanford) in Caguas, the El Legado Golf Resort (18 holes by ChiChi Rodriguez) in Guayama, and the Costa Caribe (27 holes by Bruce A. Besse, Jr. of Willowbend Design) at the Hilton Ponce.

The Dominican Republic has experienced a tourism and golf boom in recent years, with new courses by Gary Player (Guavaberry) and P.B. Dye (Punta Cana). Pete Dye's long awaited Dye Fore opened this year, his fourth course at Casa De Campo. Jack Nicklaus has a four-course complex underway at Cap Cana, and several other big names are reputed to be tromping through prospective sites. There are seven notable courses on the island now, a number likely to double in five years.

Jamaica always has been a fine golf destination, with layouts like Half Moon Resort and the Tryall Club considered Caribbean classics. Architect Robert von Hagge upped the ante in 2000 with his stunning hilltop White Witch Course at Rose Hall and his transformation of an old track into a jungle/coastal test newly named Cinnamon Hill, both in Montego Bay. SuperClubs has a pair of good resort courses on the island for the use of the all-inclusive resort guests as well as outside play.

Best New Courses of 2003

1. Dye Fore, Dominican Republic
2. Emerald Bay at Four Seasons Exuma, Bahamas
3. Costa Caribe, Puerto Rico

The building of Dye Fore, Pete Dye's fourth course at Casa de Campo in the DR, took five years but the wait was worth it. Is the wide new track on the cliffs above the Chavon River better than Teeth of the Dog? In this writer's humble opinion, no. Though I love the new course, I think that TOD will continue to reign as the only Caribbean course in the world's top 25 -- a position it has held for almost 30 years.

Great Exuma, a small island in the Bahamas 90 minutes from Miami, is the location for the Four Seasons Exuma at Emerald Bay, which opened in November. Only resort guests and homeowners are allowed to play the Greg Norman-designed Emerald Bay Course, but it's well worth the price to have a go, especially on the windy peninsula where six holes are edged by the sea.

When the Costa Caribe Golf and Country Club opened 18 holes next to the Ponce Hilton in April, it became Puerto Rico's first course with an island hole. A fine achievement for architect Bruce A. Besse, Jr. of Willowbend Golf & Land Design, the course was built in a former sugar cane field next to the sea. The layout incorporates 19 lakes and has been planted features 1,000. Another nine holes will be ready for play in February, and March 15-21 the course will host the American Express Open. Then the word will really be out.

Best Renovation

1. Hyatt Dorado/Hacienda del Mar, Puerto Rico
2. Casa de Campo's Teeth of the Dog, Dominican Republic

The sister Hyatt properties in Puerto Rico -- Dorado Beach and Hacienda del Mar (formerly Cerromar Beach) -- share four Robert Trent Jones, Sr., courses that have been undergoing restoration and redesign. Ray Floyd has finished a masterful tweaking of the West and East courses, preserving Jones' classic design while upgrading the greens and irrigation. The North and South courses are now the focus of a $3 million remake that involves six new holes, four redesigned holes, a driving range, and new lakes and rivers.

Even the best needs a rest sometime. Teeth of the Dog was closed for part of the year while Pete Dye oversaw work on his Caribbean masterpiece. Upgraded irrigation and other improvements insured the course will stay in top form despite constant play.

Best Course for Women

1. Links Course at Casa de Campo, DR
2. Buccaneer Course, St. Croix

Just because a course is 4,400 yards from the forward tees doesn't mean it's easy or dull. The par-71 Links at Casa de Campo, a Pete and Alice Dye collaboration, is neither of these. In fact, it's a fine resort course that happens to exist in the shadow of the Teeth of the Dog and Dye Fore. The course has lots of inland water and more doglegs than a packed kennel.

The par 70 Buccaneer Course on St. Croix measures 4,500 yards from the forward tees, 5,271 from the whites. The course is windy, hilly and quite trappy in places, and has great views of the ocean.

Most Overlooked Island Courses

1. Caye Chapel, Belize
2. Provo Golf Club, Turks and Caicos
3. Raffles, Canouan, Grenadines

Bet you didn't know there were courses on these islands - if you realized these courses even existed. In fact, Caye Chapel is an island off the coast of Belize. The course occupies most of the dry land and is beautifully maintained for guests at the small resort on the island and the Cayo Espanto Resort on the neighboring island.

Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos (at the end of the Bahamas archipelago) is best known for its superb diving, but the golf course is another good reason to go there. When the Karl Litton-designed, target-style course was being carved out of a rocky site in 1992, the workers called it "Alcatraz." Twelve years later it is an oasis, with 12 acres of ponds and wetlands occupied by many species of birds and wildlife.

The Raffles Resort (formerly Carenage Bay Hotel) on tiny Canouan has a Jim Fazio course under renovation; it's expected to reopen in Summer 2004.

Best Par 3s

1. Dye Fore, Teeth of the Dog, Casa de Campo, DR
2. White Witch, Jamaica
3. Mahogany Run, St. Thomas
4. Port Royal, Bermuda

The Caribbean has ideal terrain for eye-popping par-3s. You'll find them on the edge of sea cliffs; spanning ocean inlets, rivers, lakes or chasms; or deep in tropical foliage. Par-3s can be dramatic anywhere, but the islands have more than their fair share of memorable ones.

Best Course for Celebrity Watching

1. Ocean Club, Bahamas
2. Mahogany Run, St. Thomas
3. Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan frequent the reborn, swanky Ocean Club Resort on Paradise Island. Jordan has a house on the golf course, Winfrey owns property there, and Tiger Woods is reputed to own a lot there -- but this rumor is more overused than "George Washington slept here."

Former President Bill Clinton has played Mahogany Run several times and quipped that he would do PR for the course when he retired from politics. Actors Leslie Nielsen, John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone have had a shot at the "Devil's Triangle," as have Tom Watson and Tiger Woods and a passel of NFL and NBA stars.

Clinton's latest favorite is Punta Cana, the P.B. Dye creation in the Dominican Republic. Playing with P.B., the former President dumped a half-dozen balls in a water hazard before he managed the carry. It didn't diminish his enjoyment of the course one bit. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta has a home here, as does dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

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.

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