At first light there is the chirp of birds, the whisper of wind and the crash of waves. The waves. Always the waves. The hum of outboard motors, pushing fishermen across the bay, competes with, and soon complements, the natural symphony. A fresh sea breeze, filtered through the palms, is the most gentle of wake-up calls, like a kitten walking across the bedclothes. There is the urge to rise. At first it is repelled. It is easy to embrace the elements in a comfortable bed, to inhale them, to fill the lungs and gorge the imagination with the sweet smells.
Then you remember why you came in the first place. You remember that not so far from this bed is the golf course. You remember that it sits freshly cut and exquisitely preened. You remember that you came here to chase your ball down fantasy fairways. You remember, most of all, that golf is sometimes much more than a recreational challenge or a social gathering. You remember that it can be an escape from everything that is regular and routine in your life. Rise and shine.
There is golf, good golf, up and down the Pacific Coast of Mexico. This Mexican Riviera, defined by throbbing Acapulco to the south and bustling Puerto Vallarta to the north, was a destination for golfers long before Mexico's Baja became an exclusive and expensive outpost of American country clubs. It was to Acapulco, especially, that golfers would come to play the courses at the resorts south of town like the Acapulco Princess and the Fairmont Pierre Marques. Bob Hope in his prime would come to Acapulco to play the once oh-so-private (now the sort-of-private) Tres Vidas Golf Club. He even had his own locker there.
Hope found escape in golf, a way of stepping off stage by stepping onto a tee. Just north of Manzanillo and a few hours south of Puerto Vallarta is a place where golf is the ultimate escape, a place that is little known and immensely desirable, a place to step off the stage of life. There are two places, actually, two resorts that share a summit of casual luxury by camping out on opposite sides of the peak. Isla Navidad, curled around a bay across from the precious seaside town of Barre de Navidad, and El Tamarindo, curled around a private Pacific cove a few miles to the north, provide extraordinary golf, extraordinary accommodations and an extraordinary level of escape.
Just how different are they? Isla Navidad is a classic resort with the beautiful Grand Bay Hotel and 27-holes of artful and thoughtful golf by Robert von Hagge. El Tamarindo couldn't be more different in execution while being similar in world-class style. Tamarindo is extracted from rain forest with guests staying at 29 one- and two-bedroom casitas along the Pacific cove, and the golf course tumbles through the forest landscape all the way down to the ocean.
Golf at Isla Navidad begins at its enormous clubhouse, 60,000 square feet of comfort and class. Its huge circular bar area, with a domed brick ceiling in the style of the Catalan region of Spain, is a beckoning 19th hole.
Von Hagge, blessed with a large budget provided by resort developer Don Antonio Leano Alvarez del Castillo, has fashioned 27 prodigious golf holes. The course at Isla Navidad is no less grand in concept than the hotel, the clubhouse and the resort's marina where multimillion-dollar boats rest from the rigors of the Pacific.
Though much of the oceanfront property at Isla Navidad is scheduled for home development, von Hagge was able to reach the sea with several holes on the Ocean and Mountain nines, and he was also able to bring water into play extensively on his Lagoon nine. In between he moved around scads of earth, forming ridgelines between many holes that give you the feeling of privacy. Von Hagge doesn't call these ridges, or dunes or even mounds. His term is "vertical expression." More about that later.
You first touch the sea--in a sublimely subtle fashion--when you play the par-3 third hole on the Ocean nine (generally the front nine in tournament play). You don't see much of the ocean from the green, though you can certainly hear the waves crashing on the beach. The cart path to the left of the third takes you up and over a mound, and right into the maw of a breaking wave. It might be one of the few courses on earth where a golf-cart ride is exhilarating, however briefly. Von Hagge loves the Mountain nine (usually the back nine in tournaments), and with good reason. A lovely stretch of holes starts at the par-4 12th and extends through the par-3 15th. The green for the 14th and tee for the 15th sit at the edge of the beach, providing a fascinating tableau of sea, sand, mountain and manicured grass.
The Lagoon nine can be every bit as interesting. The second hole on the Lagoon is a par 3 of 231 yards from the back tee. It's as intimidating a one-shotter as you will find, or want to find, anywhere. The green juts out so far into Navidad Lagoon that you think it's about to set sail. There is a small bailout area to the right, with the emphasis on "small." There is also a series of cape holes, par 4s where the fairways and greens bend around water. Be sure to bring an extra sleeve of balls if you play the Lagoon nine (an extra dozen if the wind is up).
If you choose not to loll around the clubhouse after your round, it may be that you can't wait to get back to the hotel. Rooms are artistically appointed with Mexican tile, marble, granite and all manner of brick and stone. The hotel has its own swimming lagoon, and if you prefer to swim in the ocean, you can take a quick skiff ride across the bay to Barre de Navidad, where the beach is clean and the bars and restaurants are filled with American fishermen. Now comes the quick drive north to El Tamarindo. Entering the property off Highway 200, you come to a guarded gate. That gate opens onto a jungle and a drive down a marvelous brick and cobblestone road that twists and turns for miles through the resort. You come to the golf course, first passing by the 17th green and the 18th fairway.
Already you sense the exquisite privacy. Tamarindo gets even less play than Isla Navidad. The two courses seldom accommodate more than 50 players a day. And at Tamarindo you aren't awed by a gargantuan clubhouse. Instead, you get a tiny palapa, essentially a counter covered by a steeply pitched thatched roof. This is the pro shop and clubhouse, sitting beside a small practice range. It's from here the adventure begins.
It took architect David Fleming, in the company of machete wielders, four months to stake out the holes on this site. There is considerable elevation change, and Fleming was concerned about saving as many of the imposing trees as possible. Most of the old growth was at the bottom of valleys, so he routed the course on the mid-slope of the hills. You might want to know that during the construction he spotted a jaguar and a boa constrictor, and the area remains densely populated with wildlife. Flocks of parrots will squawk during your backswing and deer might stroll across a fairway.
The course first collides with the Pacific at the green for the third hole. By then you've already traversed a great deal of jungle. The cart path between holes is in many places a tunnel through the vegetation. When you arrive at the sea, a flight of fancy may allow you to believe that you are the only golfer on the planet's only golf course.
You head back into the jungle on the fourth hole and burst out of it again on the eighth, a short par 4 that drops steeply down to the cliffs above the sea. You don't even notice the par-3 ninth until you get to the tee. It's a delightful little hole with the green chiseled from the edge of a cliff. Up the hill from the ninth green is one of the game's best halfway houses, a palapa-style building overlooking the Pacific. Given that there is little play at Tamarindo, you could interrupt your round for an hour or two or three for a cold beer or two or three.
The last encounter with the Pacific is at the par-3 12th, its green suspended above deserted Dorada Beach. As long as you've lagged behind at the halfway house, you might as well spend a little more time splashing around in the surf. Take the whole day, if you must, to play Tamarindo. You won't be holding anybody up. Is this paradise, or what? And after a round, you can lounge around your casita, listening to the waves. A masseuse from the tiny spa can rub out the soreness of a bad swing, and cooks from the restaurant will, upon command, bring a grill to your front yard and prepare dinner to your specifications. In addition, you can choose whether to close the sliding walls of your casita or sleep exposed to the jungle night.
Isla Navidad and Tamarindo are among the newest of the courses along the Mexican Riviera, though there have been fine places to play for more than three decades. Acapulco was once the center of golf along the Pacific Coast. The Pierre Marques course was the site of the 1982 World Cup of Golf. The Pierre Marques, the course and the hotel, sit next to the towering Fairmont Acapulco Princess Hotel, which has its own nifty little resort course.
Canadian Pacific Hotels has purchased the Princess and the Pierre Marques, and vows to be more golf conscious. The Pierre Marques has some very good holes, largely because of a renovation before the World Cup by Jones. The course could stand some conditioning work, and the CP people say that will be a priority as they attempt to make it a golf destination.
The Acapulco Princess course, just a short walk out the massive entry foyer of the hotel, is in better condition and is a better choice for higher handicap players or those who play only on vacation. It is by no means a pitch and putt course and, like the Pierre Marques, it has several water holes, but it's shorter and more manageable for resort players.
South of these courses and near the airport is Tres Vidas Golf Club. An air of mystery has surrounded this course since it was opened in the late 1960s. Jones built two courses here, designing it to be an exclusive private club that drew its clientele from Acapulco's international jet set and Mexico City's wealthy upper class. It didn't work. The venture went bankrupt, lay fallow for many years, before being resurrected in the early 1990s with von Hagge brought in to design a single, and totally new, 18-hole course. The new course was built to free up much of the seaside land for development, which has yet to take place. And Tres Vidas is still a private golf club, but it's not difficult to get on, and it's well worth the effort.
Tres Vidas is a tough track, and von Hagge's "vertical expression" reaches its height here. "We built up the edges of the holes to hide housing that has so far not materialized," says von Hagge. "Our vertical expression may seem a little extreme, but it was meant to seem like it was not part of a development. Overall I think we achieved our goal of building a good golf course in a development setting." Yes, Tres Vidas is a good course and when the wind blows, which is often, it's a difficult one. The mounds along the sides of fairways are often carpeted with shaggy Bermuda grass rough, which catches balls and produces awkward lies. A baseball swing with the ball lying at chest level isn't all that uncommon at Tres Vidas, and it's pretty difficult to practice that swing on flat driving ranges.
A fourth course in the area is the Mayan Palace, an amenity of the Mayan Palace timeshare and hotel resort. It's not as interesting as the other courses, though it's less costly than Tres Vidas and tends to be less crowded than the Princess and the Pierre Marques. A terrific amenity of golf in Acapulco is the city itself, at least if you are looking for some nightlife and good food. When you're in the elegant outdoor eating area of El Ovido, watching the surf wash onto the rocks below while hoisting a Margarita on high, double bogeys don't seem as bad as when you marked your scorecard hours before.
Up the coast from Acapulco is Ixtapa, which has two courses. The Palma Real Golf Club, another Jones design, is lovely. It's a development course, but it doesn't seem constrained by the big homes that surround it. Lakes with alligators, flocks of seabirds and closing holes along the Pacific are a treat. Von Hagge designed the other course, Ixtapa Marina Golf Club, which is distinguished by huge bunkers and grassy moguls in the rough.
In Manzanillo is the Las Hadas resort, made famous by Bo Derek running up its beach and cavorting with Dudley Moore in the movie 10. Brothers Pete and Roy Dye designed the resort's La Manterreya Golf Club, which is spectacular in its own way even if it doesn't deserve a 10. The 18th hole plays to an island green that reportedly cost $1 million to build. The course is a worthy destination even if the hotel is getting a little long in the tooth.
For years, Puerto Vallarta got along with one course, the Marina Vallarta Golf Club. Not a bad place to play, it became crowded and expensive even while its maintenance was neglected. Now there is a new course in the area, and two more under construction to feed a golf-hungry crowd of Americans who increasingly turn vacations in Puerto Vallarta into house-hunting expeditions.
The Four Seasons Punta Mita resort an hour north of Puerto Vallarta was opened last fall and has already become a must destination for well-heeled travelers. The Four Seasons's reputation as an ultraluxurious facility with superb rooms, fine dining and a delightful staff is only enhanced at Punta Mita. Its Jack Nicklaus-designed course combines beauty, challenge and playability in just about perfect proportions. Also, it has that island hole that everyone is talking about.
Though Pete Dye made the island green a popular gimmick in golf course design with his 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass, there is no truer island hole than 3B at Punta Mita (that's right, it's comes right after 3A). Nicklaus has placed a green on a rock outcropping about 190 yards offshore from the regular tee on this par 3. At low tide you can reach it along a rock walkway. As the tide moves in, a staff member in an amphibious vehicle will shuttle you back and forth. Sea birds often perch on the rocks behind the green, no doubt wondering what these silly creatures are doing bashing eggs around and rolling them into holes. For the timid, hole 3A doesn't require you to hit across the ocean, but there is a large marshy area protecting the green. Play both holes; everyone does.
Though the Punta Mita course is meant to be private for guests of the hotel and the owners of the upscale timeshare units and private homes being built, it can be played if you are staying at one of the better hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Any savvy concierge will know whom to call.
And soon that concierge will be able to call two upscale courses being built by ClubCorp of America, the golf course and hoteliers who own, among many properties, the Pinehurst resort in North Carolina. Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf are designing the adjoining new courses, set in the mountain foothills east of the city and not far from the airport. ClubCorp has also taken over the Marina Vallarta course, and once the new courses open, it will close down for much needed renovation.
Over the past decade the courses of the Mexican Baja, at Los Cabos and Cabo San Lucas, have garnered much publicity, hosted televised events and drawn golfers from all over the world. That hasn't happened along the Mexican Riviera, but that doesn't mean these courses are any less desirable and fun to play. Besides, Mexican Riviera courses are less crowded, often less costly and are attached to many interesting cities and towns that have more flavor of Mexico than the Baja.
When it comes to cost, it doesn't really doesn't matter how much courses like Isla Navidad and Tamarindo charge to play. Greens fees at both are more than $100, and there are caddies available for no more than $25. It's still going to cost you less than $200 to play, and don't you think that's fair value for paradise these days?
Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday. For more information visit www.mexicogolftours.com.