By John Brasier
For those living in four-season climates, there’s nothing like a winter trip to “paradise” to warm one’s soul and extend the golf season. That was reinforced on a recent trip to Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory and air travel hub of the Caribbean.
After an early flight that had me leaving frosty conditions, I landed in San Juan at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) and was immediately greeted by swaying coconut trees and temperatures in the 80s. Puerto Rico is the most travel friendly destination in the Caribbean. American citizens do not need a passport to enter, it’s bilingual, and it uses U.S. currency. Travel Bonus: the Island has one of the highest rate of vaccination of any place in the United States and one of the lowest covid infection rates.
Our group of four was staying at El Conquistador Resort in Farjado on the Island’s northeast coast, a pleasant and scenic 45-minute drive that fueled our anticipation as we observed the tropical scenes unfurling before us.
After touring the resort to get acclimated to all it offered, we enjoyed dinner at El Conquistador’s Ballyhoo’s restaurant. The open-air setting included enjoying fresh caught seafood, mojito drinks, warm evening breezes, and the sounds of Puerto Rico – ocean waves lapping below and the serenading of coquí (the common name for several species of small frogs native to Puerto Rico.)
After the long day I embraced the plush bedding in my 5th-story room. A deep night’s sleep restored my wanderlust, and I was rewarded from the instant I opened my eyes. Awake, but still comfortably tucked into my king-sized bed, I could see the ocean through the patio windows. Bright sun shining over the blue Caribbean water – what a way to start the day.
In the distance was Palomino Island, where later I would enjoy a frozen strawberry daquiri while stretched out on a reclining chair on the beach in the shade of a giant umbrella. As I found out, when you go to Puerto Rico, it’s almost an obligation – and a pleasure — to enjoy Don Q, an aged rum produced on the island.
Here we were in mid-week November, only a few months after this amazing resort had reopened after extensive renovations. And we had everything, including a private beach and terrific golf course, practically to ourselves. Let’s go!
First things, first. We had a 7:30 am tee time at El Conquistador’s picturesque golf course, the better to beat the peak heat coming later in the day. The 18-hole layout was authored by Arthur Hills. It featured a collection of unique, unforgettable holes with dramatic elevation changes as well as spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, the El Yunque Rain Forest, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (El Conquistador sits on a point with the Atlantic to the north and the Caribbean to the south). I just had time to grab a quick breakfast sandwich at the Cafecito Cafe before taking a short shuttle to the pro shop, where my clubs were waiting for me, loaded on a cart.
Some golf courses begin with a pedestrian opening hole. But not El Conquistador. Standing high on a perch above the first fairway, I had an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the rain forest. Such a view made a deep breath necessary before trying to find the landing area on the sharp dogleg right par-4 bending between forest and thick vegetation.
Hills carved a wide assortment of interesting holes, several concluding with moderately sized greens perched upon plateaus. Though challenging in length at more than 6,700 yards from the tips, the El Conquistador layout tested shot-making more than distance. As our cart attendant advised while we prepared to tee off, putts break toward a radio tower that can be seen from virtually anywhere on the course (while putts toward the resort roll slower).
Though local knowledge is probably worth at least few strokes given the elevation changes, good scores are very possible at El Conquistador, especially for players able to manage their games and avoid the temptation to hit driver from the tee on every par-4 or par-5. We left the course pleased with the experience and wanting another chance to use our experience. A relaxing lunch followed at the resort’s Brisas Courtyard Café before heading out to Palomino Island.
Getting to Palomino Island is almost as fun as being there. From the hotel on high, you take a glass tram that descends on tracks, providing an increasingly closeup view of the marina as you travel down to take the resort’s two-level boat on the 15-minute ride to the island beach. Upon arrival, beach towels are plentiful, and dozens of umbrella shaded chairs are stretched along a curving, pristine white beach. After picking a resting spot, you can enjoy a variety of frozen drinks and food selections ordered from attentive servers. Though sipping a daquiri in the shade while enjoying the ocean breeze was a piece of heaven, I couldn’t resist the allure of taking a dip in the refreshing blue water.
That night we set out to enjoy the local scene away from the lush resort with dinner at Smoky Joe Caribbean Grill in a beach-side plaze of connected restaurants in nearby Luquillo. The chef and owner Joe Padilla specializes in Puerto Rican barbecue – we feasted on smoked pork, beef, shrimp, and lobster, all of which were delicious. But Smoky Joe’s is also known for its paella, a rice dish that won Chef Joe world honors at this year’s competition in Spain, the nation most associated with paella. We were lucky, the paella was served last, or we might have filled up and not left room for the tasty meat and seafood.
The first day was hard to beat, but we tried. The next two mornings were spent on the two beautiful seaside golf courses at Palmas Athletic Club and the affiliated Wyndham Palmas Beach and Golf Resort in nearby Humacao. We played first at the Palm Course, a Gary Player design that grabs your attention early with a challenging dogleg par-5 over wetlands then awes you with two gorgeous, consecutive par-3s along the beach. The course meanders along rolling hills, though with much less elevation change than El Conquistador.
The next day we took on Palmas’ Flamboyan course, a Rees Jones design, which also featured several beautiful water obstacles, but allowed a little more leeway off the tee. A 20-acre freshwater lake and the Candelero River come into play as the course winds along and near the coast. The signature hole (the par-3 12th) is framed by palms and the nearby sea, is a ready-made postcard. The tee shot, hit into a stiff wind coming off the nearby sea, must avoid large curling bunkers to the left and right. A shot that carries a few paces too far can roll into palms and the nearby beach.
Dining at Wyndham Palmas is a real treat. Executive Chef Yia Medina, a native of the island, recently took over as executive chef after serving as Chef at a Ritz-Carlton property in Dallas. At lunch, Medina treated us to a delicious selection of appetizers including garlic shrimp and ceviche and muscles before serving the coup de grace, mouthwatering Tomahawk Steak.
On the return to El Conquistador, we indulged in a little more authentic Puerto Rican flavor with a stop at a small seaside bar, El Chinchorro de J, enjoying mojitos and native Medalla beer as the waves crashed into the sea wall only a few feet below our table. It was here we had a chance to mingle with the locals, who were most hospitable throughout our stay. In fact, I owe a debt of gratitude to one local man for alerting me when my wallet fell out of pants as I left the table.
Back at “El Con,” a late afternoon siesta had me dozing off luxuriantly to the sound of the ocean through the open patio doors. For dinner – and more local flavor – we went to La Estación (“The Station”), so named for the former gasoline station that once existed there. The open-air restaurant had a great vibe, with young-ish servers dishing out food and drinks while salsa music played.
Obviously, great food enhances any golf trip worth its salt, and our Puerto Rico sojourn certainly featured wonderful, savory tastes at every turn. On our final night, we made the one-hour drive into San Juan for a special dinner at Cana by Juliana Gonzalez in the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, where we dined al fresco on a covered deck above a lighted pool with the beach only yards away in the near distance.
While enjoying a refreshing Albahaca, a white rum cocktail with waterfront steeped tea, pineapple, lemon fresh basil, and shrimp appetizers, I selected a Prime New York Steak “Encebollao” with onions and demi-glace. For dessert, I capped off a great meal with a fine choice, Copa de Carmelo, or salted chocolate mousse, raspberry marmalade and chocolate crumble.
With one half day left, I faced a golf junkie’s dilemma. I could either try to squeeze in 9, or maybe 18, at El Conquistador, or make one last trip to Palomino. I chose the latter – that’s how amazing the ferry ride, the relaxing beach and calm blue water is, especially to a man facing winter temperatures in only a few hours. The scenes along the ocean are breathtaking with distant views of homes high on the cliffs as well as mountains and rain forest in the distance. Yes, I had another daiquiri, too.
A large duty-free shopping market with a wide variety of beverages and souvenirs made my time waiting for a return flight at the airport pass quickly. In a few hours, my trip to paradise was over. But I had wonderful memories – and a few shots of Don Q I brought home in my golf bag.