Far from the hustle of San Juan, city landscape converts into waves of reddish orange- blossomed Maga trees leading to the discreet gated entrance of Royal Isabela, along the shoreline cliffs of western Puerto Rico. Privileged with a sneak preview by co-owner Stanley and his dog Dumas, when only the rough course was open and a shell of a clubhouse, he shared the wonder of the property and a grand vision as we played 18 fabulous holes. We fell in love with Royal Isabela the moment we began that first round in 2010. No casitas, restaurant, or villas had been built yet. But, the course and location foretold of the truly spectacular compound that was to unfold and we yearned to return. Fast forward to 2/11/2013. On this day (coincidentally Stanley’s birthday), the wind howled through the swaying trees and the ocean roared as if to call out in Toby Keith fashion, “How do you like me now?” Having emerged from the raw nature is a golf sanctuary and so much more. Dramatic cliffs reached out over the ocean at Isabela calling for brothers Stanley and Charles Passarel, along with architect David Pfaff to place a tee box or a flagstick here and there, weaving a magical green carpet of linked fairways with sloping surprises at every turn through the pristine tropical landscape. After surveying and playing the great links courses of Scotland, Ireland and Pebble Beach, they have created a global golf stage in their words, “Where golf is meant to be played.”
The tips, labeled “Naturals” on the tee box, play out to 7600 yards with 80.3/155 slope rating. Now we don’t know who in their right mind would call that Natural, perhaps Bubba Watson or John Daly, but this is a good course to invoke the “play it forward” policy to enhance your chances for a great score and a fun round.
The front nine routes through rugged terrain of rolling hills and native grasses with well placed bunkers and original mounding. Number one sets the stage with a water hazard left, out of bounds far right, a glimpse of ocean, and a narrow neck to the blind small green, slightly off center. It’s all slightly off with additional blind shots making the caddie’s advice crucial. Every hole is aptly named and proudly assigned at the tee box in both Spanish and English. Number one is the Peephole. Number three is Abracadabra where a long, center drive to the narrow fairway may catch the speedway delivering the dimpled orb close to the green. If chipping up, the littlest bunkers in the world lie in wait behind the green. Rather than hazards, they serve as a safety net so the balls don’t zoom down the hill to more impossible lies.
The back nine begins with the number one handicap Par 5. Concentration is difficult and patience is a virtue as the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean mesmerizes while fairway troubles lurk. Forceful trade winds contribute to the challenge. Some actually bemoan holes such as 17, which they cite as “unfair” when the tee box is on one cliff and the tiny two tiered green on another cliff separated by a deep chasm. We find it befitting or even behooving for the untamed shoreline it guards. Besides, you get a free drop. Oh wait, is that fair or legal? No question, the course is tough and it will probably knock you down along the way, but don’t take it personally. Consider it a frolic and enjoy the ocean views. Take some time on the cliffs along the back nine, perhaps at 16, named “Whale Point” to absorb the immensity of the oceanic drama below and then it makes sense that it should be mirrored by the play above on the course. What a tremendous round of golf!!!
After the round, rest and refresh at the 19th hole, an al fresco bar in the round next to the croquet field, or at the adjacent restaurant, La Casa where award winning chef David Pasternack and consultant John Sergi have concocted the best combinations of locally grown produce and the freshest seafood and meat. Flavors of the open flamed stove permeate the atmosphere. The custom rug in the dining room is an example of the fine artistic detailing throughout Royal Isabela. It was a collaboration of Stanley and his supportive and delightful wife, Georgene as they selected umpteen colors and patterns to reflect the vivacious yet harmonious spirit of Royal Isabela.
Or why not call your private casita the 19th hole? Each of the 20 casitas is a little different, all one bedroom wonders with mahogany floors, a private plunge pool and gazebos or decking situated in the forest with open views of the ocean. The huge walk-in shower is absolutely extraordinary with his and her nozzles at each end and a ceiling rain shower meeting in the middle. A windowed door expanding across the shower to the veranda displays, yes, the ocean view again. Wow! We loved our little home, (which just happened to be number 19), with its exquisitely appointed canopy bed looking out over, you guessed it, the ocean. Wide open, folding window doors delivered the sounds of the ocean and breezes all night long – truly dreamy.
For a treasured morning or afternoon experience, follow the white limestone steps into the submerged mango forest and vines leading to the beach. The path soon turns into a wooden stair that hugs the rugged rock formations. Each level reveals a new wonder of nature. The secluded beach is an incredible hike or stroll with your mate, but beware of the strong current in this raging sea. Swimming is reserved far down at the point. No matter, the vista takes your breath away with vegetation climbing the mountain, jagged rocks below spewing fountains of ocean, an Indian face outlined in the distance and far above the flag waves on the 17th green, a reminder of how small we all are compared to nature’s grandeur.
Flanked by small surfing and fishing villages Charles and Stanley have taken their passion for and commitment to sound ecological principles and applied them to the natural beauty of Royal Isabela. A nursery of indigenous plants are grown on property, carefully tended and talked to by cousin Maria Elena whose husband Tito serves as the general manager of Royal Isabela. It is all in the family in Puerto Rico according to sales director Joy Madera whose husband bakes his artisan bread for most of the hospitality industry on the island.
Articles cannot do this resort property justice. A volume of books might chronicle the evolution of this reserved preserve where butterflies and birds are reappearing that were feared extinct all because the owners care. Come with an attitude of gratitude. Surrender to the nature and serenity is yours. Just three nights will change you. Imagine more. Vacations may be reserved at www.royalisabela.com. Membership is by invitation only. If you receive the call, just say si. We say, Royal Isabela -You had us at “HOLA”!