Caribbean / Destinations / Hotels & Resorts / United States

Puerto Rico’s Best Golf Resort: Royal Isabela

The historic welcome center at Royal Isabela

The historic welcome center at Royal Isabela

Imagine a golf resort with tropical temps, year-round sunshine, luxury accommodations and ocean views at every turn. Now add white-sand beaches, wildflowers, stellar golf and unrivaled service. The result is the next best place you have to visit, the Royal Isabela resort, located on the rolling cliffs of Puerto Rico’s magnificent northwest coastline, roughly 70 miles west of San Juan. The resort covers 426 private acres filled with farms, mountains, beaches, forests and rivers, owned by brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, both former tennis pros and natives of Puerto Rico.

At its core, the resort is more preservation than property. The philosophy behind Royal Isabela is rooted in ecology, conservation and sustainability. The brothers’ mutual respect and love of their homeland guided their vision in creating a destination where guests would not only feel nurtured by nature, but completely at home and made to feel welcome in a serene, luxury setting. Mature trees, verdant flowers and working farmlands line the path when you first drive in, a welcome immersion into a transcendental tropical paradise. More than 20,000 native plants and trees have been grown and propagated at the resort’s nursery and used for landscaping purposes throughout the grounds, and 40 acres of turf grass were grown for the golf course. Solar panels power the golf carts and minimal watering is used to maintain the greens.  In adherence to the Dark Sky Initiative program, there are no up-lights found anywhere on property, in order to not distract or disturb wildlife during the evening hours.

The brothers’ attention to detail in terms of preservation, design and service is garnering timely accolades. It was named “Best Resort in Puerto Rico” by Big Island Magazine and earned the coveted 2014 Travelers’ Choice Award by Trip Advisor in the category of luxury hotels. It consistently ranks number one in Trip Advisor ratings, and the biggest complaint from guests across the board is that the trip couldn’t last longer. It’s an intimate resort with only 20 Spanish Colonial-style casitas on property, the perfect place for travelers wanting solitude and space. Each casita is a 1,500-square-foot luxury home with direct views of the ocean, yet cleverly hidden behind natural screens of mature plants and trees to ensure the utmost sense of privacy from surrounding neighbors.

Walking in the casita, a sense of Old-World Puerto Rico fills the room. Phantom hints of weathered leather, sugar cane and dried coffee beans hang in the air; the deep furniture tones, fixtures and wood-beamed vaulted ceilings lend an easy, at-home feel. The main bedroom anchors the space, and sleek, sliding pocket doors sensibly hide the room from the spacious living area below. Luxury is within reach at every turn: Frette linens blanket the bed, a mini-fridge is stocked and replenished daily with various refreshments, and fresh-baked cookies arrive each afternoon for a light snack.

The best room in the house is the bathroom, a sinful sanctuary of sleek marble, dimable lights and luxe Gilchrist & Soames bath products. It offers everything a hedonist would want, including a deep soaking tub, a rain shower room with four shower heads and French doors leading out to a private deck and heated plunge pool, a separate vanity area, and his-and-hers sinks. It’s the perfect place to rest up before hitting the golf course.

The private casitas blend luxurious comfort with historic charm

The private casitas blend luxurious comfort with historic charm

The stunning links-style course, designed by the Pasarell brothers under the tutelage of renowned architect, David Pfaff, is a living, breathing piece of artwork, built on the snaking, wind-swept crags of the island’s coastline. Named in GOLF Magazine as one of the top new courses to watch in the 2013 edition of the “World’s Top 100 Golf Courses” and noted in Robb Report as “Best of the Best” in golf, the course was developed with the golf purist in mind to offer up a challenging game amidst a brilliant backdrop of wind-bent trees, historic ruins, ocean vistas and tropical skies.

The brothers viewed themselves as caretakers rather than builders throughout the process, treading across the landscape mindfully to allow the course to unearth itself by listening to the land. Natural sand dunes were transformed into sod-faced bunkers, adding a taste of Scotland to the tropical layout, with a tip of the hat to their favorite links overseas. Lakes and ponds found on property were enhanced and incorporated into the design, and native trees and grasses were left to grow naturally with minimal watering. Natural plateaus give way to wide fairways and large greens with holes that allow for a variety of strategies on how to play each shot.

Ocean views at Hole 17's challenging cliff-to-cliff shot

Ocean views at Hole 17’s challenging cliff-to-cliff shot

Make no mistake: The course is a beautiful beast.  Deep gulfs, dramatic bluffs and daunting cliffs soar to heights of 350 feet above the Atlantic with shots crossing mammoth crevasses. Temperamental trade winds kick up in the afternoon, making golf balls magically disappear in mid-flight. In terms of layout, it’s a tale of two nines: the front nine plays inland, away from the ocean, featuring more slope, while the back nine plays closer to the ocean with more cliff-side out-of-bounds and considerable wind interference, requiring the player to adjust his or her strategy as the game unfolds.

Notable holes include the infamous sixth hole, called the “Yogi Berra/Fork in the Road,” where the two brothers had competing ideas on how the shot should play. Rather than settle on one idea, they compromised and created a “fork” in the design, allowing two ways of play. It starts uphill, over water, sharing the same tee and landing area, then turns right to the par 4 (designed by Stanley) and left to the par 5 (designed by Charlie), each with its own fairway and green.

One of the most intimidating holes is the par-3 ninth hole, “Devil’s Pond,” an island green that is a straightaway carry from the tee and is perched on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by water. Equally formidable is the twelfth hole, a 435-yard par-4 that plays across the sea, perched high above a rocky cove. It’s a breathtaking carry over the cliffs to the landing. A special tee was built from 300 yards away to challenge golfers to attempt to drive the green, and the approach to the double green is surrounded by bunkers left, right, and bank. 

Arguably the most scenic hole is the par-3 seventeenth called the “Chicken Tree,” a cliff-to-cliff shot that plays across the sheer edge of a drop with a breathtaking view of the ocean and coastline below. It’s an average 180-yard carry to a two-tier green; short and right of the green is a grassy landing area. Players should anticipate “clubbing up” to play in the face of fierce afternoon winds off the water.

Each casita features a private patio with plunge pool

Each casita features a private patio with plunge pool

After a hard day of play, the best place to indulge is at the resort’s restaurant, simply called “The Restaurant,” reflecting its simple approach to fresh food and farm-to-fork dining. Inside, the mahogany tables, vaulted ceiling, and wrought-iron chandeliers create a soothing Spanish-Colonial vibe where Executive Chef’s José Carles Fabregas creates his famed dishes. His day typically begins with a visit to Royal Isabela’s on-site River Farm and Organic Gatehouse Garden to pick what’s fresh out of the ground; whatever is not grown is sourced locally from family farms.  

Chef Fabregas’s meals are a blend of island and continental cuisines prepared in a classic European style, lending guidance and inspiration from restaurant consultants David Pasternack, a James Beard award-winning chef and owner of New York City’s Esca, and John Sergi of Sergi Hospitality & Culinary Strategy.  Central to the menu is whatever is fresh-caught from the sea that day; depending on the season, selections may include lobster, mahi mahi, snapper, grouper and tuna. Other entrée choices include their famous, made-to-order wood-fired brick oven pizzas, house-made pasta dishes, coffee-crusted rib eye, farm-raised rack of lamb with mint sauce, and churrasco with fresh chimichurri sauce, a must-try menu favorite.

If you’re looking to venture out for other eateries, try the casual, family-friendly restaurant, One-Ten Thai, in nearby Aguadilla. Its Pan-Asian menu offers standard favorites and generous portions at reasonable prices, and beer drinkers will appreciate their craft beer selection and beer flight menu. The summer rolls make a great starter, and for the main course, try the Pad Thai, Vietnamese Noodles, or Panang Curry Stir-Fry, all fresh and expertly seasoned. It’s a popular, fun place, so reservations are recommended.

If time allows in San Juan, try the new restaurant, Papillon Bistro, a charming eatery located in the Courtyard Marriott of San Juan’s trendy Miramar district. The vibe is country-luxe farmhouse and the French-inspired fare is savory and creatively plated. Traditional French favorites include the Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame sandwiches, both served with tasty pommes frites. The tuna tartare appetizer is an ideal starter, served with a delicious French mustard brulée on a toasted baguette, and the escargot with foie gras, black truffles, roasted garlic and toasted bread crumbs will make anyone love snails. Save room for the heavenly lavender custard, a smooth, creamy, light dessert infused with fresh-picked local lavender.


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