As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, most seasoned travelers have at one time or another, considered or have escaped to Mexico for a winter getaway – myself included, on more than one occasion. With so many direct flights from major US and Canadian cities, not to mention an amazing array of quality accommodations and things to do, the Riviera Maya has become a favorite destination for those of us seeking warmer climes.
Over the last decade I have watched as this area transform itself from ‘simply’ another tropical paradise renowned for its turquoise waters and white sandy beaches into a vacation destination that boasts a huge variety of outdoor activities that begs for your participation. The Riviera Maya stretches over 140kms of shoreline along the eastern Yucatan Peninsula from Tulum to just south of Cancun so naturally what first comes to mind is snorkeling or diving on the largest coral reef in North America or exploring ancient Mayan ruins but many golfers have no idea that the Riviera Maya is also home to a number of world-class golf courses just waiting to be played.
Let’s start with perhaps the most recognizable, El Camaleon Mayakoba the only course in Mexico to host an official PGA Tour event. In late February of 2007, the likeable Fred Funk was triumphant at the inaugural Mayakoba Classic. Unfortunately the event lacked ‘star power’ as the top 64 players were attending the World Golf Championship Match Play but this ‘wrong has been righted.’ Recently the PGA Tour officially announced that the Mayakoba Golf Classic would be moving to its own date in November as part of the start to the 2013-2014 PGA Tour FedEx Cup season.
Canadian born Gregg Lown, the new Director of Golf at El Camaleon is thrilled with this change in fortune. Lown said “With full Fed Ex Cup Points and a higher purse, the attraction for the top players on the PGA Tour will be even greater. We are looking forward to a great tournament with full four rounds of coverage on The Golf Channel.” Gregg also feels that “the timing of this event is fantastic since it will occur at the time of year when most northerners are planning a winter retreat and now the Riviera Maya will be front and centre in their minds.”
Truer words were never spoken for many of us non-pros whose local courses may have gone into hibernation while we are desperately looking for our next fix. Mexico’s advantage is the weather in December, January and February when the temperature in many southern US destinations could be suspect. Here is quick rundown of the courses I’ve recently played just to ‘whet your whistle’ a little more.
El Camaleon opened in the spring of 2006 and certainly lives up to its’ name. Like the lizard capable of changing colors accordingly to blend in with their surroundings, this course celebrates nature at its finest as it delicately winds through the sensitive jungles and mangrove swamps and alongside magnificent ocean vistas. Another amazing feature of this Fairmont managed property is the unique nine kilometers of freshwater natural canals that meander throughout the property shuttling guests to and fro in custom-built mahogany gondolas “lanchas”. No wonder Mayakoba has been dubbed “the Venice of the Yucatan”.
Picking my favorite hole was definitely a challenge but in the end it was a toss-up between the 7th and the 15th. Both are par 3’s, where the prevailing winds, sea spray and soothing waves along the world’s largest coral reef will leave a lasting impression, regardless of your score. Greg Norman has been quoted as stating “With three distinct landscapes and a commitment to preserving the delicate ecosystem of the Yucatan, there is uniqueness in every hole” and I couldn’t agree more!
Iberostar Paraiso Golf Club is located right next door to Mayakoba, about 30 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport. Carved from an ancient Mayan jungle, every effort has been made to preserve the natural heritage of the property. P.B. Dye’s “DYEabolical” design boasts more crests and swales then the adjacent Caribbean Sea. Dye has also incorporated three natural open “cenotes”- the magical underground caverns or pools that were once the only source of fresh, sweet water in the Yucatan jungle as part of the course layout offering you another glimpse into the past. You might think all this too relaxing but know that the big and very undulating greens, deep sand traps and the waste bunkers that line some of the fairways will test every aspect of your game.
Playa Paraiso’s accolades also include hosting the 2007, 2008 & 2009 Iberostar Riviera Maya Open Canadian Tour event. Next year this club will again be the site of the PGA Tour’s Monday qualifying round so you know you are in for a challenging day here.
Another 15 minutes south is Playacar Spa & Golf Club , the elder statesman of the region. Opened in 1994 this Robert Von Hagge designed 18-hole par 72 is the oldest and tightest course in the Riviera Maya. Surrounded by lakes and lush jungle vegetation it has the highest slope rating at 148 and a layout that stretches to 7,144 yards. Playacar is also the closest course to Playa del Carmen so make sure you enjoy a stroll along the La Quinta Avenida street mall with a smorgasbord of dining establishments, non-stop shopping and more than a bar of two where you can indulge with a cold cerveza while people watching.
Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Golf Club is the southern-most golf course, just minutes north of Tulum. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. course only opened in 2010 but has already become a perennial favorite. The design consists of an 18-hole par 72 championship layout as well as a 9-hole par 3 course with plenty of natural lakes so you can decide how much of the day you want to play! Without a doubt my favourite hole was 15th that spans 190 to 245 yards from terraced tee blocks across a lake to an enormous green. If you are lucky enough to make it over the water then you’re probably in for a long putt.
There is much to do in and around Tulum that you should consider the morning round your warm-up. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than exploring the most beautiful archaeological site in the Mayan Riviera or the caves at Aktum Chen or unless it was snorkeling in a fresh water cenote.
If everyone in your party is not as ‘avid’ a golfer as you I can suggest the Grand Coral Golf Riviera Maya, a Nick Price design that opened in 2011 just 5 minutes north Playa del Carmen . Player-friendly, this 18-hole par 71 is by far the most forgiving course in the area with its wide and relatively flat fairways. It’s probably the least photogenic of all the courses but there would easily win a Miss Congeniality contest and it’s the perfect for a not too strenuous round.
El Manglar Golf Course is a Jack Nicklaus Design and one of the best collections of par threes you’ll ever play. In fact I’ll go out on a limb and say almost ever hole could be a signature hole anywhere else. This par 54 is fun for everyone in the family but will definitely test your short game. Ideal for golfers of any caliber who want to play 18 holes in under three hours. I truly applaud this concept since everyone can learn to enjoy golf in a less intimidating environment and still have plenty of ‘beach time.’
Green fees are not cheap on the ‘Riviera’ but all of the clubs include a power cart and some are all-inclusive with food and drinks provided on the course. Most will even pick you up at your hotel and bring you back after your round. All offer good quality, brand named rental sets so for the extra cost for luggage on the flights so you might want to consider leaving yours at home.
When I asked Gregg why he moved here he blurted out “Look around you, this is paradise! It took a lot to leave a place like Whistler, but this was an opportunity that I could not pass up.” When I asked him if he was ever concerned about safety his answer was definite. “Absolutely not. There have been incidents in Mexico, but the Riviera Maya has not been one of those places affected. Geographically, Mexico is a very large place. Much like Canada each region has its own personality. The warmth and generosity of the people I have met here is something that I enjoy every day. “
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By Dave Finn (dave @ golfinn.com)