There are over 700 major islands in the Caribbean. But when it comes to golf vacations, one of them stands out for me: Puerto Rico. Why? It’s not just the quantity of golf courses you’ll find there, or the quality of the courses—though those are certainly things that differentiate the “Island of Enchantment” from its neighbors. It’s also the richness and beauty of the Boricua culture.
Unlike so many other islands where your interactions with locals are likely to be limited to the service staff, when you visit Puerto Rico, you have the chance to immerse yourself in a thriving society that opens its arms to all. To “Live Boricua.” Whether you’re staying near the capital of San Juan or traveling to another corner of Puerto Rico, the unique experiences on offer are each made more memorable, more meaningful, by the fact that they’re not part of some orchestrated show being put on for visitors. They’re opportunities to enrich yourself in a culture that pre-dates Columbus’s arrival in 1493.
It’s a difference you feel wherever you go. In the warm way you’re welcomed at the island’s charming hotels and resorts. In the delicious flavors of the tostones (deep-fried plantains) and other local specialties you enjoy at the roadside chinchorros. In the variety of creative ways your piña coladas are expertly prepared when you’re out enjoying the island’s bustling nightlife. All of these experiences and others confirm that while you may still technically be on U.S. soil, you’ve come to a place with its own unique and authentic culture—and not some Disney version of paradise.
It all makes for the perfect backdrop for any vacation, but especially a golf vacation. Within an hour’s drive of San Juan on the island’s north shore you’ll find a host of stellar courses that rival any in the Caribbean, each with its own special character.
We’ll begin our tour of Puerto Rico at the El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, a short drive east of San Juan. There, in the shadow of the famous El Yunque Rainforest, this lavish resort caters to every desire, with luxurious guest rooms sprinkled over five village areas, a choice of first-rate restaurants and bars (including a swim-up bar in the extensive pool complex), a water park, a private island with its own pristine beach, and an Arthur Hills-designed course that’s an 18-hole thrill ride. Every hole here feels like a present waiting to be unwrapped. And wait ‘til you see the panoramic view from the 15th tee. Wow.
Closer to San Juan in Rio Grande, the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Resort is an expansive beach playground with a giant, lagoon-style pool, Rainforest spa, superb dining, and great golf—both indoors in the Top Swing Suite and on the Grand Reserve GC course, home to the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open. This is a thoroughly engaging layout that plays firm and fast and will test every aspect of your game, especially when the wind is up.
Also in Rio Grande, you’ll find two outstanding courses at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf & Beach Resort, which in addition to its dazzling accommodations offers nine restaurants and lounges, the Mandara spa, a lively casino, and swimming in the ocean or three freshwater pools. The resort’s Ocean Course, from Tom and George Fazio, is home to a large population of iguanas and a host of challenging holes, including the signature par-3 16th, whose green adjoins the beach. The resort’s River Course, a testing Greg Norman design, winds along the banks of the Mameyes River, which comes into play on several holes.
Next up is the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, scenically located between the El Yunque Rainforest and the Espíritu Santo River State Preserve. Along with its two miles of beachfront and luxe rooms, suites and other amenities, the Robert Trent Jones II golf course here is a stunner that makes the most of its natural tropical setting. You’ll enjoy threading your way through water hazards and bunkers galore, and the course’s memorable closing stretch brings you right to the edge of the sparkling Caribbean.
While these resorts attract most of the golf visitors, I highly recommend you consider bivouacking for at least a couple nights in San Juan, where you’re steps from many historic sites and can experience the pulse of San Juan’s nightlife. My recommendation: the oceanfront Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, an art deco masterpiece whose every inch exudes grandeur. Its rooms and suites are luxury personified. Chef Juan José Cuevas’ brilliant culinary creations in the 1919 restaurant are not to be missed. And cigar enthusiasts will want to end the day in the hotel’s Avo Lounge, with its extensive cigar and whiskey menus.
You’ll find more outstanding golf at the TPC Dorado Beach to the west of San Juan, where guests of the Ritz-Carlton Reserve can take on the outstanding RTJ II-designed East and Sugarcane Courses. The East is widely considered one of Puerto Rico’s strongest courses.
Farther to the west, the Royal Isabella Resort offers spectacular headland golf in a clifftop setting that’s its own eco-centric sanctuary. And finally, there’s the Palmas Athletic Club’s two courses, located on the northwest coast in Humacao. The Rees Jones-designed Flamboyán Course is the stronger of the two, but Gary Player’s Palm Course is a ton of fun, too.
Live Boricua!—play them all.