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Golfers In The Caribbean Encounter Birds With Their Birdies
March 23, 2003
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks & Caicos - The four young men fishing in a pond along one of the more challenging fairways of the Provo Golf Club never looked up as I hit an errant ball about an inch over their heads and into the water. With beer and bait buckets beside them, they just kept on fishing.
There was a time I would have been shocked and annoyed by such interlopers on a golf course -- especially during a really bad shot.
But that was before I spent much time playing the Caribbean.
Now, very little surprises me when I haul my clubs to the islands:
*Not the goats grazing and monkeys cavorting on the fairways of the Nevis Four Seasons Resort championship course, where players navigate their carts through swaths of dense rain forest, hit over wide cliff chasms, and putt against a backdrop of swaying palms, turquoise sea and the towering mist-enshrouded peak of Mount Nevis volcano.
*Not the flocks of pink flamingos carpeting the back nine of the Turks & Caicos' Provo links, where the clubhouse lawn is adorned with brightly painted conch shells arranged to form a giant green palm tree and a golf tee.
*Not the roosters -- escapees from the chicken farm next door -- cock-a-doodling across the Sandals Golf and Country Club in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, or the crocodile patrolling the water hazard near the 18th hole of northern Costa Rica's Melia Playa Conchal course.
Golf's wild side is part of the fun of tropical tees, and Caribbean golf clubs and resorts are playing that card to the hilt to snag a healthy chunk of the more than 12 million Americans that the National Golf Foundation estimates travel to play the game. Vying for a share of the $24 billion the foundation says enthusiasts spend on golf travel (including course fees, lodgings, transportation, food and beverages), the latest crop of island courses is seducing players as much with dramatic settings as with challenging layouts.
*In Belize, the new Caye Chapel Golf Resort's 7,000-yard course sprawls through a three-mile-long private island 12 miles off the coast of the Central American nation, with freshwater lakes adding to the hazards of the surrounding ocean. The only way in is by a 12- minute charter flight or boat (BYO yacht, or negotiate passage with a local fisherman). Off the links, guests can find some of the best diving, snorkeling and fishing anywhere along the world's second- largest barrier reef. $250 a day buys a casita suite for two with unlimited golf and a golf cart -- a bargain considering greens/cart fees alone are $200 per person for non-guests -- par for the course at many swank golf clubs.
*As recently as six years ago, Costa Rica -- best known as an eco- tourist Mecca with 850 species of birds, vast cloud forests and active volcanoes -- had just one 18-hole course, and that was private. Now the country boasts five topographically dynamic championship courses designed by top names in the game. One course runs through a rain forest with howler monkeys and scarlet macaws kibitzing from the trees and ocean views from many holes. Another meanders through a 6,000-acre cattle ranch with horses and cows grazing on the sidelines. A third is carved out of a coffee plantation with narrow pine-lined fairways.
No need to choose between birds and birdies. Costa Rica Golf Adventures organizes tours that take in some or all of the courses, plus wildlife-watching excursions, whitewater rafting, and rainforest canopy traversing, where participants zip from tree top to tree top along wires 100 feet above the ground, then rappel down. Lodgings are at humble to high-end hotels, depending on your budget.
"One of the best things about playing the Costa Rica courses is that the mood is much more laid-back and tee times are much more flexible than at more famous Caribbean courses that attract die- hard golf addicts," said David Stokum of Costa Rica Golf Adventures. "The Costa Rica courses are rarely crowded, so you can relax and really savor the game and the beautiful natural surroundings."
*Politically adventurous golfers can hit the links in Cuba, which in the 1950s was wildly popular with both pro- and vacation golfers. Toronto-based Carlson Wagonlit/ Ellison Travel & Tours, Aruba- registered Last Frontier Expeditions, London-based Cubawelcome.com, and Cuba's own Havanatur organize fully hosted golfing, cigar and cultural tours to the island. Stays usually are in both Havana and the beach resort town of Veradero, which has an oceanfront 18-hole championship course and a resident PGA pro.
The tour operators make sure the visits are legal for U.S. residents, who usually fly out of Toronto or Cancun, Mexico. Be aware, though, that in Cuba, U.S. citizens cannot use credit cards or travelers checks drawn on American banks. Packages must be prepaid outside Cuba, and limited in-country expenses must be paid in cash.
Not wanting to be bypassed by the burgeoning golf vacation market, Caribbean resorts with no golf course of their own and golf clubs with no accommodations are teaming up to offer packages that especially appeal to couples, families and groups of friends who want opportunities to play, but also loads of other activities -- and possibly baby-sitting. In most cases, nongolfing guests get a discount.
*Families get a full roster of activities for all ages at Jamaica's all-suite, all inclusive Franklyn D. Resort at Runaway Bay, where children under 16 stay, play and eat for free. Package prices include all food and beverages, land and water sports, scuba diving, tennis, the fitness center and a trip to scenic Dunns River Falls. While infants through teens are at the kids' camp (or being cared for by complimentary private nannies), grown-ups can hit the links at nearby SuperClubs Breezes Golf Club (at an extra $98 per person per round, including greens fees and mandatory caddie).
*Couples can combine pampering spa treatments (included in the price of a stay) with unlimited golf nearby when they stay at all- inclusive spa resorts such as Swept Away in Negril, Jamaica, and The Body Holiday at LeSPORT in St. Lucia. (LeSPORT also is popular with singles because of the camaraderie that develops among guests.) Swept Away guests play free at the Negril Hills Golf Club, LeSPORT golfers at the St. Lucia Golf & Country Club. Both spas include all meals, beverages, fitness classes, land and water sports and scuba diving in the package price.
*In the Turks & Caicos, an archipelago of 40 islands just south of the Bahamas, the Provo Golf Club on the main island of Providenciales is just across the road from the beachfront Ocean Club Resort, where all the lodgings have fully equipped kitchens (an appealing amenity for families). $330 per person buys three rounds of golf, including greens fees and carts. For encounters with nature on its own terms, guests can kayak in nearby flats, take boat rides to watch glowworms mate offshore or snorkel amid Day-Glo fish along a reef just off 12-mile-long Grace Beach.
*In Barbados, a notoriously expensive place to stay and play, the two-year-old Barbados Golf Club, the island's only public 18-hole championship course, has teamed up with 16 beach resorts to offer affordable packages. For those with a more generous budget, the elegant beachfront Fairmont Glitter Bay and Fairmont Royal Pavilion resorts have reciprocal arrangements with snazzy Royal Westmoreland Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Resort guests can play the private club at rates starting at $100 per person for 18 holes, including greens fees and cart, while members of the golf club, which has no beach, can use the resort beaches.
Established golf resorts, meanwhile, are offering amenities and excursions that widen their appeal, especially to nongolfing companions.
*One of the best deals in Caribbean golf vacations includes play on one of the best courses in the world -- the Peter Dye-designed Teeth of the Dog course at the all-inclusive Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic. Packages beginning at $208 per day per person (remember, greens fees alone often are more than $100 per person at many golf clubs), include lodgings, all meals and drinks, horseback riding, tennis, water sports, and daily golf, alternating between the resort's "Teeth" and Links courses. (A third course is opening this year.)
*For a golf vacation on American soil, consider the Buccaneer Resort, which sprawls over 300 lushly landscaped acres of a 17th- century sugar plantation on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The course winds amid hills and valleys, with views of cresting waves and palm-dotted beaches. Off the course, guests can join sailing and snorkeling trips to Buck Island Reef National Monument. Or bike around the historic waterfront, gingerbread houses, and whitewashed cemetery of Frederiksted, then up the narrow coastal trail to the island's dramatic northwest point.
At the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, a mega- hotel complex and golf course perched high atop a 300-foot bluff on Puerto Rico's east coast, guests can hike in the nearby 28,000-acre El Yunque Caribbean National Forest, or take day trips to culturally rich Old San Juan, an hour's drive west. Or, wander over to El Conquistador's branch of the Golden Door Spa for rain-forest facials and full-moon yoga under the stars.
Among the highest-end Caribbean golf resorts, new courses are keeping well-heeled players' adrenaline and cash flowing.
The 600-acre White Witch Course at the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, provides ocean views from 16 holes, rolling tumbling terrain, and tee boxes bulkheaded with retaining walls of native stone.
In the Bahamas, the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay is set to open this summer, with a Greg Norman signature course that has an island green on the front nine and six holes running along the ocean on the back nine.
At Barbados' chichi Sandy Lane Resort and Golf Club, the Tom Fazio-designed Green Monkey course, carved out of a one-time quarry, will join the resort's existing 18-hole and nine-hole courses this year.
When the course at Carenage Bay Resort on the island of Canouan in the Grenadines reopens this summer after renovations and additions, golfers will find some of the most breathtaking views in the Caribbean.
After navigating their carts through the first nine holes, situated in a semi-volcanic crater, they'll ascend the back nine to the top of a mountain 360 feet above sea level, with sweeping vistas of the ocean and surrounding Grenadine Islands. The resort itself is not scheduled to reopen until the end of this year, but in the interim, determined duffers can fly or sail over from neighboring islands, or shuttle over from the resort's more humble sister resort on Canouan, The Tamarind Beach Hotel.
For those who want to combine tees with seas, many cruise ships offer golf as shore excursions on Caribbean itineraries -- with on- board miniature golf for the junior set or companions who like their games really short and sweet.
Alberta, Canada-based Car-ibbean Cruise Lines Ltd/Golfahoy.com arranges golf packages (some with on-board seminars and lessons from PGA pros) on Caribbean sailings of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Carnival and Holland America cruise ships. A typical seven-night sail would include games at three ports of call (including transfers to and from the ship), leaving plenty of time to go horizontal on a deck chaise to plot the next perfect putt.
Judi Dash is a freelance writer from Beachwood, Ohio.