Standing Tall in Puerto Rico
REOPENING ITS DOORS TO TOURISM
PUERTO RICO and its people really know how to take a punch. The last few years have presented a lineup of natural catastrophes and “can-you-top-this” extreme challenges: an economic crisis, the Zika virus, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, two earthquakes on the southern end of the island, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. Any scientist worth his salt might declare that lineup stronger than the 1927 New York Yankees.
Ah, but on the other side of this run of bad luck there stands a story of inspiring resiliency, a hardened ability to fight back, persevere, and improve — and this road somehow is even traveled with a smile. The island of Puerto Rico has rebounded and is rising, steadily widening its open doors to tourism.
Statistics show that as domestic travel begins its revival, Puerto Rico is faring better than many destinations, according to the April Travel Recovery Insights Dashboard from the U.S. Travel Association. A beautiful island with sandy beaches and plenty of good golf has re-hung its shingle. It reads, Come see us. And U.S. citizens can venture there without a passport.
“We’ve been through so much, but we never give up, and we help each other. That’s our sense of community,” said Evy Garcia, director of sales and marketing for Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort. “We’ve been through almost everything. I don’t know where we get the strength, but you have to keep going.”
And Puerto Rico is going all right, in so many positive ways. With its beaches. Its food. Its golf. Its spirit.
A GIVING SPIRIT
Standing on the back tee at the 238-yard par-3 16th hole at Rio Mar’s Ocean Course — the resort boasts 36 holes and a long roster of strong competitive events — one need not ask why this is the “Ocean” layout. To the left, the azure-blue waters are roaring. Wind off the left, trouble right, a well-guarded green … Rio Mar’s signature hole is daunting and difficult, where good rounds can go to die.
“What am I thinking on that tee?” asked Seth Henrich, the resort’s director of golf and tennis. “That’s a brutal hole. I’m thinking, ‘Let’s try to finish this hole without getting any sunscreen on my ball.’”
Henrich is a transplanted Iowan who visited Puerto Rico to give some lessons over the winter holidays 20 years ago and basically never left. In many ways, Puerto Rico reminds him of Iowa. It’s friendly, welcoming, and has a tangible sense of community.
“Growing up in Iowa,” Henrich said, “we really didn’t have everything at our fingertips. You might drive 20 miles to get to a store. Living on an island works fine for me.”
Many PGA Tour and LPGA professionals are familiar with the courses at Rio Mar, as the resort has staged top men’s and women’s collegiate events for years. Often those are staged on the Greg Norman-designed River Course, so named because it winds around the Mamayes River. (Tom and George Fazio designed the Ocean.) Though there is ocean on one side of the Wyndham Grand property, equally breathtaking are the views of the majestic El Yunque rainforest. Upstairs at the club, the newly revamped Iguana’s restaurant serves authentic Puerto Rican cuisine and offers a 360-degree view.
Wyndham Grand Rio Mar, with its large outdoor pools and water activities, is an ideal place to take the family. Our suite even had a cool nook with bunk beds.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
The other Troon-managed property on island is the stately Bahía Beach Resort & Golf Club. At this private enclave, guests enjoy 18 holes of manicured golf, in primo shape, and the finish is spectacular. The 442-yard, par-4 16th runs down the beach, requiring a demanding approach; the 17th is a par-3 tucked inland; and the 18th is another strong par 4 that stretches along the ocean shore.
Located at the foot of the 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest, Bahia Beach is as much a nature preserve as it is a golf club and resort. Architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. calls the course he designed here, “A haven of golf that will challenge but also delight your soul and spirit.”
The scenic layout weaves through a master-planned resort community, offering holes that are as lovely to look at as they are fun to play. The course has been designated as a Certified Audubon International Signature Sanctuary, an honor achieved by a small number of golf courses
worldwide. Fifteen of the 18 holes border some form of water, taking a circuitous route around the lakes before emerging onto the Atlantic coast for the spectacular final three holes. A posh St. Regis Resort, along with private residences and villas, provide luxurious accommodations at this one-of-a-kind property.
Twenty years in, Henrich is still impressed that the residents of Puerto Rico display so much pride in their island. Thank goodness.
They have faced so much and persevered through adversity. The morning after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4, wreaked havoc at Rio Mar in September 2017, workers showed up voluntarily the next morning, helping to move fallen trees and clear debris to open the road into the resort. They were asked by the resort’s GM, “Why are you here? You should be home with your families.”
Their answer? “This is our family, too.”