ISABELA, Puerto Rico – By the second time you play Royal Isabela’s treacherous, rugged coastline hugging back nine you will know to keep it low and smoke it.
That’s a testament to playing golf high above the Atlantic Ocean coastline where the views are turquoise spectacular and the wind is so stiff in your face that a 130-yard shot to a contoured green is going to require a six iron instead of a nine with a trajectory akin to a cannon shot.
Imagine the creativity you need downwind. Putt it from 50 yards out? That could be your best option.
Opened in 2009, Royal Isabela was recently named the “best resort in Puerto Rico” by Islands magazine. It also won the World Travel Award as “Puerto Rico’s Leading Golf Resort” and was nominated as the island’s “leading boutique hotel.” And it has received numerous awards for its stunning golf course, resort, restaurant and amenities.
Some have called it the Pebble Beach of the Caribbean. Perhaps, but you will need a purist love of a brown-tinged layout that plays fast and firm and requires keeping the ball under the wind, avoiding some stacked-sod bunkers, trusting your mandatory fore caddie on some blind shots, playing contours and making heroic shots sometimes with an aim over the cliffs trusting the wind will bring it back to fairway.
And below those spectacular cliffs, 200 to 300 feet down, is lots of beach access that will challenge any for its beauty and blue water. And as a guest of Royal Isabela, you have access to that beach.
This 7,667-yard, par 73, however, is anything but typical either. Envisioned by two world-class tennis playing brothers, Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, who grew up nearby, and designed by David W. Pfaff, who sadly passed away last year, Royal Isabela is a must play.
It begins in a parkland setting that goes inland with a sweeping par 5 that narrows toward the green giving you a first view of the ocean through a V-shaped gap to the left of the green.
The sixth hole gives you a choice of going right for a par four or going left for a par five with two completely separate fairways.
As the back nine heads toward the ocean there’s a choice again at No. 11 – an inland 285-yard par three – or travel right toward the bluff for a short but breezy “private” par three that requires a ride on the wind over the bluff to have a chance at landing on the green.
The 17th, however, a par three of 200 yards is one of the best and daunting in the Caribbean. Played over a huge chasm it requires a perfect shot or you will card a five from coming up short or going too long.
Origins of Royal Isabela
The Royal Isabela project had roots as far back as 1988, with Nicklaus, Player and Palmer all submitting ideas on how to build on such a spectacular 426 acres. But the project sat idle through the 90s. When 2000 rolled around the Pasarell brothers had Royal Isabela back on track.
Mother nature, the brothers proclaim, is responsible for the result.
“This is the best golf course for the land we found,” Stanley Pasarell says. “It evolved from the ideas and experiences my brother and I have playing Scottish and Irish courses. We kept telling David we wanted to do all these things and had all these concepts. To his credit, David stuck with us and we came up with a great result.”
“We located and developed the golf course that nature gave us,” is how Pfaff, who worked with Pete Dye on Teeth of the Dog, once described the process.
Pfaff wanted each hole to have a sweet spot. “The closer you are to that spot, the more you are rewarded for the next shot,” he said. He also believed that “if a green is easy to hit in regulation, then it should be more difficult to putt. But you don’t need a hole to have both.”
Another extreme entertainment hole is No. 12, a 435-yard uphill par four that includes a Kodak moment tee box. The tee shot is struck over the bluff and ocean angling toward the fairway.
“Tropical Scotland,” Stanley Pasarell calls it. “If the Open ever leaves the British Isles, this could be a venue.”
But this experience might not be concluded. In dreams the brothers see adding more holes down near the beach at the base of the bluff. If and when this vision comes true there will be a re-routing of the original 18. And there’s plenty of room for more golf in the future.
Royal Isabela: Stay and play
La Casa is center for the entire Royal Isabela golf community. There’s an included breakfast, with lunch and dinner also served at the Restaurant at La Casa. Or you can enjoy comfortable chairs in the Library Lounge or watch the sun set from a seat at the Bar at La Casa. A great swimming complex will also cool you after a day on the links. Tennis, fitness facility and croquet are also on the grounds.
Located just steps from La Casa are 20 freestanding Casitas — true “little houses” designed in luxury. You will love that each Casita encompasses 1,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor space and is situated to best catch Royal Isabela’s stunning ocean vistas with minimal impact to the environment.
Cool off in your own private splash pool and enjoy the airy living room and bedroom with natural wood floors and ceilings, as well as a huge bathroom with separate tub and large shower room that also opens to your private deck.
Each morning the Chef visits Royal Isabela’s River Farm and Gatehouse Garden to gather vegetables and fruits for the day. The menu is devised combing European cooking techniques with Puerto Rican ingredients to create the restaurant’s signature farm-to-table cuisine. Local fishermen also particpate, along with cheesemakers and small family farms.
Available now through September 30 Royal Isabela is on sale with its summer packages. Check out www.royalisabela.com for the special details.
Royal Isabela is an hour and a half from San Juan International Airport on the far northwest coast of Puerto Rico. Far from the big city it’s perfect for gazing at a starry sky, relaxing on a hot day by the pools, and being challenged on a world-class golf course.
Story by David R. Holland