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As the underdog, Puerto Rico comes through

By Brendan McEvoy,

For most Americans, the idea of visiting the Caribbean is a lucid daydream of pristine beaches, palm trees, soft blue-green waters and a pampering resort. It's a getaway to recharge stress-drained batteries by motionless relaxation.

Golf in the Caribbean, namely Puerto Rico, is the second- or third-most popular vacation amenity. With the exception of Scotland and Ireland, Americans rarely travel this far with only golf on their minds. Perhaps that's why Puerto Rico hasn't lived up to its potential as a premier golf destination.

Puerto Rico has 20 quality golf courses that challenge and eventually win over guests with the never-ending views of the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and the undulating viridescent terrain. The classy names in architecture applied their artistic touch to this colorful and dramatic canvas, making Puerto Rico a diamond in the rough.

Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed 72 holes along the Atlantic coastline at the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort and Country Club. At the Wyndham El Conquistador in Fajardo, Arthur Hills stayed true to his last name with dramatic elevation changes and tight fairways. Rees Jones lent his deft touch to Palmas del Mar Country Club's Flamboyan Course, the complement to the Palm Course, an older Gary Player design. Greg Norman and Tom Fazio respectively authored Rio Mar Country Club's River and Ocean Courses, which feature views of the bubbling clouds surrounding the El Yunque Rain Forest and the soft tide of the ocean.

In mid-December, the members and club professionals at 46 of the top American country clubs played in the Ambassador's Cup, a four-day, multi-format annual tournament in Puerto Rico. The event is Puerto Rico's effort (with the help of a number of sponsors) to spread the word about its world class golf and resorts. With clubs like Muirfield Village and Olympia Fields participating, the island is gaining credibility with golfers.

"I was highly impressed with the golf," said Josh Manning, Muirfield Village's assistant professional. "If we had to rate our overall experience from 1 to 10, it would be a 10. When I thought of the Caribbean before, I thought of St. Thomas and St. Croix -- not golf. But this trip has changed my mind."

Need more convincing? Getting to Puerto Rico isn't as complicated as other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico is an American territory, which means passports and birth certificates aren't necessary for travel. Communicating with locals isn't taxing -- many are bilingual. The San Juan International Airport is small and easy to maneuver through. And most major U.S. cities on the East Coast have direct flights into San Juan. For those who have anxiety from being out of touch with life in the states, most Puerto Rican resorts carry ESPN, ESPN2 and the New York City NBC affiliate for news.

If you still feel up tight, it's time to try a rum mixed drink like Puerto Rico's famous "Mojito," a sweet and refreshing concoction of light rum, mint, sugar and club soda. It'll relax the "diablo" in anybody.

Where to stay

Located on a 300-foot cliff that overlooks the meeting place of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the Wyndham El Conquistador in Fajardo is a dynamic resort with four different resort environments. Las Brisas and La Vista are the two wings of the hotel with the former offering golf course views and the latter overlooking the ocean. Las Olas Village is built directly into the side of a cliff. La Marina Village is nestled next to the water where private charters dock. But La Casitas Village is the choice of movie stars and divas to relax in prime seclusion; it's only steps away from El Conquistador's renowned Golden Door Spa.

If taking a dip is your idea of a way to relax, the property has five pools to choose from. Be sure to take the ferry to Palomino Island where only El Conquistador guests can attend. The one-mile island is host to water sports and even a nude beach.

No matter where you stay at El Conquistador, dinner at Isabela's Grill is a must. The steak and wine selection are rivaled only by its friendly service. Be sure to meet for drinks before dinner at Drake's Cigar Bar, a popular and comfortable setting for mingling or sitting around a table retelling the stories from the links.

After dinner, depending on personal taste, the Casablanca Nightclub and the casino next door will entertain the night owl in anyone. The casino offers slots, blackjack, craps and roulette. Next to the casino is Bar 21, where sports fans are watching the big games next to those who crapped out and are crying in their beer.

There's always something going on at El Conquistador, making it the most complete resort experience. But if you seek a simpler resort experience, the Hyatt Dorado Beach is the right choice. Their slogan, "Where life is gracious and unhurried," couldn't be more appropriate.

Laurence Rockefeller built the resort in the 1950s and his love of the beachfront property's native vegetation is evident. No building is more than two stories tall and each one is overwhelmed by palm trees a native brush, giving the resort a rustic feel. Each of the 85 units along the beachfront don't look like much from the outside, but once inside, the view of the ocean rolling into the beach 20 yards away will force your eyes wide open. The rooms themselves are decorated in classic decor.

Restaurants, bars and the casino are all in the main complex. Be sure to enjoy dinner in the Surf Room -- a covered, open-air eatery where the sounds of the waves crashing into the shore echo off the walls.

Off the resort

In some Caribbean nations, venturing off the resort is a dicey proposition. That's not always true in Puerto Rico. Old San Juan, a strip of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, is a tourist-friendly spot in the island's capital. Be sure to visit The Parrot Club, a trendy restaurant with savory Puerto Rican cuisine.

The Bacardi Rum Factory offers an entertaining Epcot Center-like tour that ends with rum tasting. A bottle of the older aged rums that can only be purchased at the Bacardi Welcome Center is a perfect souvenir or gift for a friend.

And after completing 18 holes in the moist heat, cool off in the El Yunque Rain Forest. A trip up the historic mountain unveils rejuvenating waterfalls, cooler temperatures in the 50s and 60s, a rain shower every half hour and amazing panoramic views of Puerto Rico.

The verdict

The golf in Puerto Rico is filled with scenery and vegetation that are foreign to most Americans. The course designs are challenging and enjoyable. The main obstacles are the beaches. The sandy coastline belongs to the people of Puerto Rico, and no golf course can nestle up next to the ocean the way it can in the Dominican Republic, where the land laws aren't as strict. But in the Dominican Republic, Americans are told to stay on the resort. It's not as safe as Puerto Rico. And you can't put a price tag on safety and freedom.

If golf is just one of many amenities you seek in Puerto Rico, then you won't be disappointed. Chances are you've never considered Puerto Rico ahead of Jamaica, the Bahamas, St. Thomas, Barbados or St. Lucia. But if you want to tee it up during your visit and see more than just the resort, Puerto Rico is the right choice for you.

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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