When I leave the United States, it always feels like a particularly stressful day of travel. I have to remember where my passport is and if it’s even still valid. Then I have to get to the airport much earlier than usual — one, because the flights are typically first thing in the morning, and two, because the TSA and baggage crews assigned to inspecting and transporting luggage for flights out of this country apparently move at half-speed.
Eventually, I get to my destination several times zones away, absolutely discombobulated. I try to make my brain adapt to the change on my phone’s clock as soon as possible, but inevitably I crash at some point. About a day later, I feel normal and the trip goes on just fine. Then I have to head home and deal with it all over again, including being herded back into my home country worse than Southwest could ever handle its boarding cattle call. Moo.
But stress-free feelings arriving and leaving were, in part, emblematic of my trip to Puerto Rico. The PR is an American territory — they don’t want to be the 51st state, thank you — which means American citizens can travel there just like any other domestic flight. Just as I would going to Kansas City, I showed up a few hours before my flight, only had to whip out my driver’s license at security, and I didn’t face any strange scrutiny before exiting the airport.
Since the American experience of commercial aviation is horrible on most every level, these kinds of moments of reprieve go a long way in my book. Add in that Puerto Rico is just one hour ahead of the Eastern time zone, and by the time I got into my ride in San Juan, I was a very happy man.
I had traveled there at the invitation of Discover Puerto Rico, the territory’s first-ever privately run destination marketing organization. The country’s marketing pitch had always been a political football, changing by appointment of each new gubernatorial administration. There was no continuity. No “Virginia is for Lovers.” No “West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful.” It was always changing, and it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
With Discover Puerto Rico, however, the message has been refined and is being spread by Puerto Rican natives, many of whom left for the mainland and came back after Hurricane Maria to do something positive to help their home. They want fellow Americans to know Puerto Rico was, is and will be a most hospitable destination that offers everything you could want in a sunny-spot vacation.
When I travel by myself, that No. 1 thing is typically golf. Comes with the job. But for me, loving a destination is so much more than that. I want a humble vibe. I don’t want an air of superiority. I like nice things, but I revile things that are too nice — it’s the Catholic in me. I love a good meal, great beer, fun golf and the view of a body of water. That, to me, is a perfect solo trip. (It’s different when I travel with my family.)
I knew Puerto Rico had water. I knew we would be playing golf, including in a PGA Tour pro-am for the government-sponsored Puerto Rico Open. However, I didn’t know a whole lot else of what to expect.
I knew the capital, San Juan, had recovered almost entirely from the hurricane. I had followed the comeback story from afar, and the resolve of the people was impressive and inspiring. It was raining when I landed, and my car driver took me to the Condado Beach area of town where the Hilton I would be staying in is located. It was late, but the city already felt familiar. It felt part like New York, part like Miami and part like a dozen other American cities I’ve visited. The billboards were in Spanish, yes, but even someone who hasn’t the faintest clue of counting to 10 in another language shouldn’t be concerned. English — and, quite intoxicatingly, plenty of Spanglish — is heard and read most everywhere. Natives aren’t taught English in public school, so most pick up on it through popular culture.
PLAYING WITH THE PROS
Early the next morning, I would be playing with some friends from the golf world in my first (only?) PGA Tour pro-am round. I hopped out to the balcony before going to sleep and looked out on the ocean in front of me. The crash of the waves on the rocks in the harbor just down to my left was the sweetest sound. Too bad it was raining hard, or I would have slept with the door open.
Teeing it up in a pro-am is an odd experience. It’s golf, but it’s different. You’re playing with someone who does this every week as part of their job while you are someone who, in most cases, has hardly ever done this. However, it’s hard not to relax at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, site of the tournament located some 40 minutes outside of San Juan. With the water of the nearby bay visible from the clubhouse and on a number of holes, as well the national forest El Yunque in the distance, Coco Beach is the perfect setting for a round — with or without some of the best golfers in the world as company.
The experience was a great one with veterans Martin Piller and Josh Teater showing us the way. They were encouraging but laid back about the whole thing. Our team scoring well certainly helped out matters, as did a fair amount of Medalla, which is the Puerto Rico equivalent of Yuengling or Natty Boh, but it tastes way better. After Maria, a company in Florida established itself to import the beer to serve the growing Puerto Rican diaspora in the immediate aftermath. It’s that good on the lips.
The property has two courses, and while we played on the Championship Course, the International Course (also a Tom Kite design) draws rave reviews. The Championship Course is more open, and it has a bit of a resort course feel. There are demanding shots, but you’re not on pins and needles the whole time wondering whether the water, jungle or some animal will swallow your ball if you’re not careful. The showstopper for me was the 12th hole, a par 4 playing directly toward a white-sand beach that is a great place to stop and enjoy your view of the world for just a few minutes. That view was made better by a brisket cart parked right before the beach for pro-am participants.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF SAN JUAN
That afternoon, we came back to the hotel. It was the perfect time to explore the few blocks around my hotel. There were people out late in the afternoon just enjoying themselves: running across a bridge on Ashford Avenue with a view of El Boqueron, the water I looked down on the night prior. Dogs were on a walk. Kids were playing in sand. It just felt happy. On an 80-degree sunny day, how could it not be?
For dinner, we traveled to Azucena, a smaller-footprint restaurant that’s leading the growing food scene in the city, particularly in Calle Loiza. The decor was simple and clean, and the menu took you in pretty much any direction you felt comfortable. You could eat as adventurously as you liked, with octopus on the menu, a delicious (and big) paella, great chicken and pork options, as well a strong wine list with local-brewed craft beers available, too. The staff was attentive and welcoming, and it was the perfect place for a date. Or to observe a date happening, poorly, in real-time as we did.
There’s gambling to be had on the island, but it’s not at Vegas-style casinos but rather ones that made me think of Costa Rica. The casinos are in big hotels, and they’re just a mid-size room for the most part. Most of the table games that felt-finders like are there, and the stakes can be as juicy as you wish. Take your pick, but the Stellaris Casino at the San Juan Marriott Resort was a lot of fun.
DOING IT RIGHT AT IN DORADO
Our second round of golf meant another morning drive against traffic, out of San Juan. We were headed to the town of Dorado to play TPC Dorado Beach. The TPC moniker usually tips off the course is newer, but Dorado Beach’s East Course — one of two open and available to the public — is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. gem restored by RTJ Jr. in 2012. It’s an eight-minute cart ride from the main clubhouse to the first tee, and along the way you’ll see a trio of helipads to accommodate the wealthy visitors and residents of the community. You’ll also see the Ritz-Carlton Reserve hotel, which is one of six in the world. The rooms, which run $1,600 per night at a minimum, have private pools and lead out onto an incredible beach while making you feel like the world around you has disappeared.
That feeling extends to the golf course. The first four holes play along the coast, with the par-5 fourth shaped in a Z to challenge the boldest of players. RTJ Jr. lowered the green complex in the restoration so golfers would see the ocean from the fairway rather than having to wait. It was a keen choice. The view is breathtaking, and I spent a good half-minute just staring out, putter in hand. The course goes back inland for the middle third of the course before meandering back toward the water to close. The round ends as waves crash a few hundred yards away, with kitesurfers trying to tame the sea beside you. Make sure you get a caddie when you play — they’re some of the best I’ve ever had the fortune of playing alongside. You’ll make more putts with their solid reads. With the $300 green fee you’ll pay, the extra for a caddie is worth it to have a great day.
Dorado Beach makes evident there’s plenty of mainland money flowing into Puerto Rico. A lot of that has to do with the Act 22 of 2012. Formally called the Act to Promote the Relocation of Investors to Puerto Rico, Act 22 was designed to encourage high-worth individuals to move to the territory for at least half the year plus one day. Families have to put their kids in Puerto Rico schools, and the Act 22 immigrants have to demonstrate their residency. In exchange, Act 22 residents enjoy not having to pay Puerto Rico taxes on passive income (e.g., capital gains, interest and dividends) attained after establishing residency, as well paying no federal tax because Puerto Rico residents are not subject to IRS regulation. Until Hurricane Maria, few Americans took advantage of Act 22. However, with publicity and some investors eyeing the island as an opportunity, thousands of families have since made the move. Those families have bolstered several towns’ economies, and Dorado is one of them.
Driving around Puerto Rico, the varied scenes are captivating. Plenty of water views, yes. There are cruise ships, too. Then there are mountainous regions shrouded by jungle canopies. There are plains where animals graze. Houses are rooted on any kind of grade. There are mom-and-pop restaurants on the side of the road serving fresh seafood caught yards from their doorstep, and there’s Boriquan barbeque that can compete with any soul food you put in front of me.
However, for our last big meal on the island, we went to Azabache. It’s the opposite of those roadside and beachside digs. It’s in the middle of San Juan, modern and cosmopolitan. The bar has a great flair, and the modern presentation is an artform. The staff were friendly, multi-lingual and most attentive while serving a farm-to-table menu. The portions aren’t enormous, but they’re more than ample enough to satisfy your appetite. I never knew I needed tomato gel in my life until that night, and I’m wondering when I can have it again.
PAR-3 PAYOFF AT RIO MAR
For the final day, we again left the heart of San Juan and went to play at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf and Beach Resort. There are two courses on property, both managed by Troon, with the Tom and George Fazio-designed Ocean Course and the Greg Norman-designed River Course. Both courses looked beautiful, as though Maria had never come through the property. But listening to the devastating damage Maria did and the Herculean effort put forth by the staff, a mix of natives and mainland transplants, to save and restore the courses was inspiring. From clearing ungodly amounts of debris to unclogging drains filled with runoff and natural damage to the $5 million investment secured to effectively rebuild the clubhouse, it was all impressive.
In that final round, we played with resort General Manager Nils Stolzlechner. Little did we know going into it that Nils was once of the best ski jumpers in the world. He then did a hard pivot into the world of kitesurfing, where he became one of the sport’s most prominent competitors. And then he got into hotel management. What a freaking life story. And he’s telling us all of this as he is showing us his golf game, which he hopes to improve to become a single-digit handicapper.
Amid the round, he’s telling us about bringing the property back and marketing the island to Americans and foreigners alike, and he’s as humble as can be. The golf course itself is humble, too. There’s nothing particularly flashy about this Fazio design, which might be surprising, though TPC Myrtle Beach has a similar understated presentation. It’s well-built. The holes are varied. There’s plenty of challenge and plenty of opportunity for scoring. The greens aren’t quite back to as fast as they would probably like, but they’re within a foot or so of that Stimp reading and the putts rolled very true. And then you get to No. 16.
You’ve played the entire round teased by the fact that the ocean is right over there, but you can’t quite see it. You can see the condo buildings that are definitely there because the ocean is. You can hear the waves crashing. And then you make your way to this magical par 3, and it’s like a whole other world. To the left is a beautiful beach and endless clear water. To the right is a potential audience of condo owners on their balconies. In front of you is a windy par 3 that can play almost 230 yards from the tips. It was perhaps the single hole of the trip that felt like a do-or-die shot, from the threat of pulling it into the ocean to getting ridiculed by vacation-goers. I was fortunate to make a putt from the fringe for par.
WHERE THE PEOPLE MAKE THE PLACE
We wrapped up our round and had to get going to the airport to catch flights home. After we got through standard-issue security, we were sitting in a bar talking about the week. The golf courses were fun and in great condition. The food offerings covered every taste, class and price point. The nightlife was enjoyable. However, I kept coming back to the hospitality. Every single person I met was more than Midwest nice; they were Puerto Rico chevere. I don’t like painting with broad brushes, but each person was proud of their home, happy to see it come back from devastation and hopeful a tragedy would make their fellow Americans more aware of just how special their island is.
Puerto Rico isn’t a place you drop in, feel like a fish out of water and leave. It’s a natural playground, with so much to explore. It’s a beautiful culture, mixing old and new. It’s an American place that is distinctively its own. It’s a place you’ll leave feeling like you belong because you were welcomed so warmly. And all of that is why I can’t wait to make another trip there.