The last time LINKS Magazine visited Royal Isabela, at the northwest corner of Puerto Rico, was nearly two years ago. At that time, the luxury-community-to-be was little more than a golf course, albeit a very tough and very beautiful one. Work was just beginning on the main building—called La Casa and containing an indoor-outdoor restaurant as well as other public areas—and 20 cottages side-stepping down a hillside so as to provide unimpeded views out to the deep-blue Caribbean Sea.
Today, the work is done—the club officially opened last fall and welcomes outside guests, like a resort—although new construction on other parts of the property indicates that private homes are going up. The main building, its center-courtyard design reminiscent of a 1930s Puerto Rican hacienda, is capped by a stone tower that harkens back to the island’s coffee- and sugar-producing past. The restaurant is open, creating fine cuisine from local products. The circular outdoor bar could not be more comforting.
The 20 one-bedroom casitas (left) feature high ceilings, wood beams, and ceiling fans (as well as more modern amenities such as air conditioning, wifi, and personal plunge pools). Every private patio provides a wide panorama of lush vegetation and brilliant ocean.
Among the other treats found on the grounds are a private swimming pool, tennis courts (lest anyone forget that founders Charlie and Stanley Pasarell were among the top U.S. tennis players in the late ‘60s), acres of untouched land on cliffs that rise 300 feet above the sea, as well as orchards and a nursery (the commitment to environmental sustainability is deep and sincere), long stretches of pristine beach, and an overwhelming sense of peace and quiet.
But Royal Isabela is first and foremost about golf, and the course—designed by the brothers Pasarell with David Pfaff, a long-time associate of Pete Dye—retains its charms and challenge. While I’m not sure I like changing the front nine so the original first three holes are now numbers seven through nine (although it does mean finishing the front on a short par three with an island green usually guarded by some pretty big iguanas), I appreciated the design of the front side more. Moving up and down over steeply mounded fairways, there’s much more Dye-namic than I remembered—blind drives and wide-open landing areas, hidden trouble, and fast, true greens. The front can hold its own, but it just isn’t as spectacular as the back.
Oh, that back! From the tee shot on 10—a wide but deceiving long par five that demands playing through, around, and over trees that no one dared cut down—the ocean is in view and in play. Ranging across the cliff tops 300 feet above the water, the back is ohmygod gorgeous and ohmygod tough: There are tee shots across rocky crevices, the waves pounding and roaring below. The wind rarely dies down and must be accounted for on nearly every shot, even putts. Holes 12 and 14 play out and then back along the rock edge, finishing on a double-green (shown at the top of the page). And 17 might be the most memorable hole of all, a long par three with 11 tee boxes, all firing into a thin green (some would say too thin), perched across an overgrown chasm. The hole is both beauty and beast.
There is something wildly childish about the Links at Royal Isabela. It’s young and headstrong and could use both maturing and refining. It can be very difficult (what callow youth can’t?), yet very rewarding. Disobedient and in your face. But also exciting and amazing, full of surprise.
About an hour-and-a-half west of San Juan, Royal Isabela is all about escape. The perfect place to hole up for a few days of catch-in-the-throat golf softened by the slow pace and elegant accommodation. There are good restaurants in the nearby town of Isabela and great surfing, too.
Supposedly it’s a prime whale-watching area, too, although we weren’t that lucky. And I’m not sure my brain could have handled any more visual and visceral sensation.