Carly in the Caribbean!
The one question that I get asked more than any other as a journalist is what is your favourite golf course in the world? Up until a few weeks ago I used to answer Kingsbarns in St. Andrews, one of Scotland's most stunning links. Well I'm sorry Kingsbarns but I have a new answer to that question now and it comes with the explanation that there's not one but three courses on my 'favourites' list and they are all located in the Dominican Republic.
I must confess that before visiting the Dominican Republic, one of the largest islands in the Caribbean, I knew little about the golf on offer here, especially the fact that it is blessed with some of the most spectacular golfing turf on the planet. I was a typical tourist who took the 9 hour flight from the UK to escape our dreary weather in search of the crystal clear waters, white sandy beaches, tropical landscape and guaranteed sunshine (yes it really does stay between 70 and 90 degrees all year round) that I'd seen in brochures. The golf was an after-thought. But I'll tell you now the golf on this island is absolutely AMAZING! I could spend a whole article just writing about each individual course, but that would probably bore you to tears, so instead I'm just going to give you a brief, tantalising summary of my favourites, as I really want you to go and visit and play these courses and share in my amazement at the golfing landscape for yourself...
This spectacular course can be discovered on the Cap Cana coastline and is definitely one of course designer Jack Nicklaus's finest works, regularly ranked as the best course in the Caribbean. The 'Golden Bear' was blessed with a coastal landscape that has allowed him to carve the course in such a way that there are not one but nine dramatic coastal holes. The view from the elevated championship tee at the second hole (yes I really did hit a ball from up here) summarises the breathtaking setting, which only gets better as you reach the sea.
Tantalising drives over waves crashing against the rocky Caribbean coastline await the brave, and my favourite was the par 3 13th hole. My caddy (who by the way was compulsory, but a brilliant asset) tells me that he's only ever seen two golfers hit (and more importantly hold) this green from the Championship tee, a 250-yard shot, virtually all carry over water, and that those who do get a free t-shirt from the posh Pro Shop.
He was also the font of knowledge on all the celebrity golfing residents at Punta Espada, pointing out the homes of movie star Denzel Washington, pop star J-Lo and even the 'Playboy Mansion' as we went around, telling funny tales like the golfer who asked to tee off backwards and 'accidentally' chip into the back garden of the Playboy house just so that he could wander over and ask the lovely ladies if anyone had seen his ball! If you want to play Punta Espada then you'll have to be quick because Jack has designed two more courses in Cap Cana (Las Iguanas and his own signature course) and when they open Punta Espada will close its doors to all except the handful of private members who own homes on the course. And they say that money can't buy you a piece of paradise?!
Visit www.capcana.com for more information.
I've been fortunate to play quite a number of reputed course designer Tom Fazio's finest layouts and this is definitely my favourite. Corales is part of the extensive Puntacana Resort and takes its name from the Coral quarries that feature around the coastal holes.
The condition of the course is absolutely immaculate, with some interesting inland holes that meander through a lush tropical landscape to spectacular seafront holes that take your breath away. The final three holes are the most famous, aptly named 'The Devil's Elbow' and incredibly tough yet fun to play. Even if you are not brave enough (or stupid enough) to have a hit from the championship tee at 18, at least make sure you go back and look at the shot you would face. I watched with amusement as my playing partner (ex-Challenge Tour player and Palmera Destination Services travel host Anders) took on the 280-yard carry over the waves crashing against the Coral bay to reach the fairway. Even his drive (and he's a big hitter) found a watery grave!
Visit www.puntacana.com/golf/corales-golf-course for more information.
Another world-class course designer (P.B.Dye), another spectacular setting and yes, you've guessed it, another amazing golf course. There are three 9-hole loops to choose from, which is great if you fancy just playing a few leisurely holes.
The finest nine, in my opinion, is the newly opened Hacienda, which has a fantastic fun layout and is presented in amazing condition. It has more inland than coastal holes to enjoy, but they are cleverly designed with water hazards, natural plantations and lush surroundings and the putting surfaces are amazing. For sheer fun you'll love the coastal challenge of La Cana as you'll get buffeted by the strong breeze with the best saved for last, the par 5 18 th , with its slight dogleg left bearing an uncanny resemblance to the famous finishing hole at Pebble Beach. Beware of pulling a shot left, as there's no recovering from the crashing shoreline of the sea! Make sure you stay for a drink in the 19 th hole after your round, sitting out on its rooftop terrace enjoying sweeping views of the course and the Caribbean Sea is bliss, and if you have time stay for a meal as the chef here is first-class.
Visit www.puntacana.com/golf for more information.
And there's more...
I know I said I wouldn't go on and on about the courses but I can't resist mentioning just a few others that you really won't want to miss...
*Barcelo Golf Course - part of this all-inclusive resort and a typical resort course in many ways, except that it is kept in great condition, and if you are a guest here golf is included in the price. Barcelo has been ranked as one of the best inland courses in the Dominican Republic and has a very interesting design with lots of lagoons (home to the pink flamingos!) and a lush landscape.
Aside from relaxing by the pool, at the spa on taking a stroll through the crystal clear waters of the beautiful beaches, a day trip out to sea is a must for fishing enthusiasts.
The more daring adventurers will enjoy a trip into the jungle where you can whiz down a wire rope, a shopping spree is recommended, especially as Duty Free prices are available in the many hotels and shopping centres and there's also the famous Dominican rum and cigars to take home.
You can even visit the Don Lucas cigar factory and see how they are made from raw leaves to the finished product - and grab yourself a bargain to smoke while you are there!
WHERE TO STAY?
There is a wide selection of hotels to choose from in the Dominican Republic from the 'money-is-no-object' five star hotels to the excellent value all-inclusive hotels on offer and also self-catering apartments for families or groups of golfers to stay. These are the ones I visited...
The Sanctuary at Cap Cana
If you really want to treat yourself, perhaps you have an anniversary or special occasion in mind, then this is the ultimate luxury 5-star hotel. Even the standard rooms are out of this world , and if you have the cash to splash then stay in a suite fit for a King or Queen; you'll have your own indoor infinity pool, private garden overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Jacuzzi bath and much more. The Sanctuary Spa on site is world-class and a haven of bliss. The dining choices are plentiful and the quality of the food is outstanding. If you love to combine your golf with time out fishing then a day trip out of the Cap Cana fishing village is a must.
Hard Rock Hotel Puntacana
A fantastic fun, family orientated hotel, where you'll feel as though you are staying in a lavish theme park! The location on a pristine stretch of pure white sandy beach is enough to appeal to most visitors and that's before you take into account all of the restaurants and entertainment that are included in your stay here (all-inclusive). There's a massive Casino in the hotel and every guest gets Reward Credits to spend during their stay on their choice of entertainment. Golfers can choose to trade-in their credits for unlimited free golf on-site, which is a great deal. I'd highly recommend this choice for those girls' or guys' Tours as there's a lot of fun to be had here. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that the quality of the rooms is outstanding? The ultimate room is the 'Rock Star Villa' but even the basic rooms will impress.
Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe
If your holiday is as much about relaxing on the beach as it is playing golf then this is definitely the hotel for you. It is located on arguably the best stretch of beach in the Dominican Republic and a beach that has regularly been ranked amongst the 10 best beaches in the world! The rooms are all excellent although the seafront rooms with their own private Jacuzzis on the balcony are well worth the upgrade. I've eaten in a lot of all-inclusive hotels around the world but I can honestly say that the quality and variety of the food on offer in the 11 restaurants on site here is some of the best. This five-star hotel has a modern spa for relaxation, and is a great family choice as there are water parks and an excellent kids club, plus it has its own theatre that can seat as many people as a West End Show! The all-inclusive package for golfers is great value (from as little as £150 a night per person for everything including your golf.)
For the ultimate convenience you really can't beat the Puntacana Resort & Club. One of the Caribbean's top-ranked resorts and it's literally five minutes in the car from the airport. Guests staying here benefit from a VIP arrival service which means that a concierge greets you as you walk down the steps off the plane and are whisked through a special VIP channel in Arrivals, have your bags collected for you and a private transfer waiting at the door. From plane to hotel room took me just 15 minutes, ideal if you want to get 9 holes in the day you arrive, or on the morning that you depart, as the same service works both ways. The hotel here is a little dated (and is due to be demolished when a new hotel a mile up the coast is completed) but enjoys its own wonderful private beach and if you splash out on a stay in a beachfront casita they are very private. Guests get their own buggy or courtesy shuttle to the Puntacana courses or to the very indulgent and relaxing Six Senses Spa. There's also the Puntacana Ecological Reserve on site where you can get a guided tour from a nature expert and among other things swim in a natural hot spring lagoon with a Sea Turtle!
The Number One ranked hotel in the Caribbean and the ultimate luxury stay. This boutique-style hotel boasts lavish villas with amazing comfortable four-poster beds and very private verandas overlooking the beautiful deserted private beach. If you're looking for something extremely private and incredibly relaxing then you'll be hard-pushed to beat Tortuga Bay anywhere in the world. You really will feel like a VIP here and guests enjoy that same exclusive VIP arrival and departure treatment from the airport to the hotel door as I mentioned above.
HASSLE FREE HOLIDAYING
If you want your golf break to be totally stress-free then I cannot recommend Palmera Destination Services enough. This Dominican Republic-based company is run by the extremely enthusiastic partnership of former Danish Challenge Tour player Anders Bogebjerg and his wife Rawnie, along with a small but efficient team of experts. These guys really are the authority on golf and excursions on the ground and will look after everything for you from your tee times to your transfers to and from the courses, a first-class service with a smile! Along with individual bespoke trips, they also organise and run annual tournaments on the island that are great fun to participate in.
Travelling to the Dominican Republic doesn't have to cost you the earth. I flew with leading tour operator Thomson who have a twice-weekly direct flight. This no thrills option was surprisingly comfortable and although you had to pay a small extra price on board for entertainment (movies) and drinks, the saving on the ticket price was substantial. Plus they have an impressive new Dreamliner plane that will begin flights in 2013 and it looks amazing. Check it out at www.thomson.co.uk/dreamliner
Thomson Airways offer return flights to the Dominican Republic from £555 per person. Price is based on flights departing from London Gatwick in December 2012. To find out more or to book visit your local Thomson Travel Shop, www.thomson.co.uk or call 0871 230 255.