Royal Isabela: Puerto Rico’s Drama Queen of the Links

About Puerto Rico · about Golf

The Royal Isabela described as a “cross between Pebble Beach and St. Andrews…but on steroids.”

By Anita Draycott

Miguel Suarez, director of golf at Royal Isabela, on Puerto Rico’s windswept northwest coast, describes the course as a “cross between Pebble Beach and St. Andrews…but on steroids.” Certainly, there’s no lack of the WOW factor.

Owned by brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, both born and raised in Puerto Rico, Royal Isabela proves that stellar golf and sophisticated creature comforts can cohabit with environmental stewardship.

The Pasarells, both with championship tennis backgrounds, are now self-confessed “golf wannabes” who teamed up with former Pete Dye associate, David Pfaff, to create their vision of a tropical Scotland. It opened in 2011 to rave reviews.

I recently spent a few days at Royal Isabela with other golf writers and our host, Stanley Pasarell. I don’t think I’ve ever met such a passionate, articulate visionary with a great knowledge and respect for Mother Nature. To play the course with Stanley is to truly appreciate every inch of the sometimes whimsical and always dramatic design.

“Royal Isabela isn’t about your score. It’s about your encounter with nature, the views, smells, sound of the waves, songs of the birds,” says Pasarell. As per Stanley’s advice, I’ve decided to scrap the scorecard and just enjoy this Royal romp.

The Pasarells let nature dictate the design. The front nine plays mainly inland while the back nine curls above towering bluffs several hundred feet above the sea.

Most holes at Royal Isabela are wildly creative, to say the least. For example, when you arrive at the sixth you have two options, Yogi Berra Left and Right. The sixth shares the same tee and landing area—“the fork,”— and then turns right to the par four and left to the par five, each with its own fairway and green. The Yogi Berra hole is named in honor of the famous baseball player’s oft-quoted aphorism: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Usually the player with “honours” gets to choose which fork.

Once you’ve nailed the par-three ninth island green, order a seared rare tuna panini and plantain fries and prepare for the cliff-hugging back nine.

The twelfth, a 435-yard par-four, plays across the frothing sea below. A special tee was installed 300 yards away to tempt golfers to try and drive the green.

Several varieties of palms, sea grapes, almond and avocado trees, iguanas, mockingbirds, egrets, falcons, and whales (in January) are just a sampling of the thriving flora and fauna at Royal Isabela.

Much of the golf course was constructed by hand so as not to disrupt the vegetation. In fact, no tree, plant or shrub could be removed without Stanley’s written approval. Other than the putting surfaces, every blade of grass and every plant were grown on the property. Golf carts are solar powered and tee markers are coconuts. If you’re looking for a hydrating drink, buy a bottle of house-harvested coconut water from the cart gal.

Royal Isabela’s logo is appropriately a windswept oak. You’ll definitely need to hang onto your hat on the signature number 17th. Separated by the Atlantic, the tee and green jut out along facing cliffs creating a daunting challenge.

Mandatory caddies enhance the Royal Isabela experience. Because it’s a big course sprawling across plains, dunes, and rocky cliffs, most golfers opt to take a cart. Caddies don’t carry bags but perform just about every other service. Trust me, you’ll need an expert to read the heavily contoured greens.

After you’ve mastered the awesome 17th, there are plenty of other diversions at and around Royal Isabela. Work out in the small fitness centre and lap pool, book a massage on your patio, hike to the nearby caves, go paddle boarding, surfing or play a set of tennis.

When you’ve worked up a thirst, belly up to the palapa bar beside La Casa restaurant and savour a mango margarita as the sun sets. Dinner at La Casa features farm-to-table dishes made from produce from the resort’s organic gardens and seafood from nearby waters.

Currently the Golf Links at Royal Isabela offer 21 fairways, with plans for at least another 18. Guests and members stay in 20 spacious casitas, each with private patio, plunge pool and a shower large enough to accommodate a few foursomes. A 150-room luxury hotel and spa and are on the drawing boards and scheduled to open in 2017. Royal Isabela is a private club with a guest “stay and play” component.

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