Golf in Harmony with Nature: Royal Isabela Isabela, Puerto Rico
Caribbean golf took a giant step beyond flat, ho-hum courses with beautiful views but not much challenge when brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell created the Golf Links at Royal Isabela on Puerto Rico’s northwest coast.
The Pasarells’ vision of a daunting links-style course opened in 2011 and is now fully mature and drawi_ng accolades from around the world. The course was designed on-site with the capable assistance of architect David Pfaff, Pete Dye’s original partner. “My friends and I would come out with some clubs and balls and envision the holes on the undeveloped land,” says Stanley Pasarell. “The land itself shaped the course.” The brothers worked to keep the golf course in harmony with its surroundings, us+ing only native trees and indigenous plants propagated in an on-site nursery from seeds and cuttings gathered on the property. Aside from the greens, every blade of grass on the course is of native origin.
Native trees and indigenous plants harmonize Royal Isabela with thenatural landscape. The land itself shaped the golf course, says Stanley Pasarell, who created it along with his brother Charles.
Royal Isabela is a semi-private golf club where guests of the resort are granted temporary membership. Guests stay in expansive one-bedroom casitas with ocean views, private pools, multiple large-screen TVs, and bathrooms bigger than some Manhattan apartments. In addition to golf, Royal Isabela features tennis courts, croquet, pools, hiking, and a secluded beach that’s worth a trip for its own sake. Spa services, water sports, and just about anything else you’d like to do can be arranged by the extremely accommodating concierge.
The Restaurant at La Casa features farm-to-table dining, a wood-burning oven, and an excellent wine collection. Chef José Carles Fabregas visits the property’s own River Farm and Organic Gatehouse Garden every day to create the menu, which fuses Puerto Rican and classic European cuisine.
But it’s the golf that is the real attraction. Your round at Royal Isabela takes you over natural dunes, deep canyons, and along breathtaking cliffs above crashing surf. Trade winds shape every shot while native grasses and sod-faced bunkers conspire to push your score over par. Fairways are wide but undulating while greens are speedy, true, and heavily contoured. It’s a course you’ll want to visit again and again to challenge your game—or perhaps just to experience the natural wonders.
The course stretches over 7,538 yards, par 72, although an optional par-5 can make it play 7,667 yards, par-73. It’s sited on 426 acres of oceanfront property that will eventually be home to other courses the brothers have in mind.
You’ll want to rack up as many birdies as you can on the shorter, easier front nine because you’ll find opportunities are few and far between on the incoming holes, which play along the ocean edge. The front side plays up and down hills where you’re faced with numerous blind shots and uneven lies. It also ends with an island green par-3 that is loads of fun in the wind and often has a gallery of three-foot-long iguanas watching the play.
Royal Isabela really comes to life on the back nine. The par-5 10th hole looks like a pushover birdie, but watch out for the green—it’s narrow and slopes strongly from front to back. Above all, stay out of the bunker left of the green or you’ll be blasting out over a sod face that’s higher than your head. There’s an optional “owner’s hole” you can play instead of (or in addition to) the regular par-3 11th. The bonus hole calls for a 125-yard wedge shot you start over the ocean in an effort to let the wind bring it back to the green. Stanley Pasarell calls it the shortest par 5 in the world.
Other treats on the back nine include the 354-yard 12th hole, which starts with a knee-knocking drive off a cliff followed by a nearly vertical pitch up to a double green perched on a wind-swept precipice. You’ll see the double green again when you play the 14th hole. If Royal Isabela has a signature hole, it’s the par-3 17th, which plays from 178 to 200 yards depending on the tee you choose—all carry from one cliff edge to another. The green is steeply sloped right to left toward the ocean and has a difficult back tier just to make things more interesting. —Dave Donelson
Details: There are 20 large one-bedroom casitas available for guests, all with large outdoor patios and ocean views, private plunge pools, and living rooms. Winter rates through April are $1,150 plus 19 percent service fee and taxes. Low-season rates start at $600. Breakfast is included. Green fees are $125 per player plus cart and caddie fees.
Getting There: JetBlue, Delta, and American fly direct from JFK to San Juan, PR, which is about ninety minutes from the resort. Car service from the airport to Royal Isabela is around $200 each way. JetBlue also flies non-stop from JFK to Aguadilla, which is only 10 miles from the resort and has taxi service available starting at $50.
Contact: Royal Isabela, 396 Ave Noel Estrada, Isabela, Puerto Rico, (855) 609-5888; royalisabela.com