Golf Along Mexico’s Riviera Maya
By Neil Wolkodoff
Cancun first gained fame as a Mecca for spring break collegians to engage in endless libation, partying and sun. The hotel zone in Cancun proper has tried to change the image, but the real change in vacation reality is south, in Playa Del Carmen. Now a string of resorts stretch southward for almost 80 miles. Unexpectedly, there is excellent golf along waterways with hills with impeccable conditions because of the natural vegetation and rainfall. The courses south of Cancun just do not get the PR because there are so many other things to do in the area. They are there, and they are good.
The all-inclusive trend really got rolling in this area, so they are very competitive as each property tries for one-upmanship. One price, and you get everything – lodging, drinks, food, basic activities. In the case of some of those with attached courses, you get to play every day at no charge or a minimal up-charge. This concept is really forcing a change in travel habits and has really dented places like Hawaii because they are having a difficult time competing from what travelers interviewed have said repeatedly.
While tips are included, it is still a good idea to tip something for good service, for example, anywhere from $2 to $10 per meal as an example.
Compared to Los Cabos or Arizona, this is golf carved out of the jungle with sand and water features. No cactus or ocean views per say, but undulating fairways that wind through thick vegetation with you as the golf conquistador. Your choices are those that have an inclusive component and are adjacent or part of a resort, and those that are stand-alone tracks that have a connection with the adjacent hotels.
As a golf inclusive combination, Moon Palace, got the trend rolling. A Nicklaus design with great clubhouse, on-course food, numerous gentle hills and waterways with jungle boundaries. It is rich in native vegetation and highlights an important population of white-tailed deer. Mexico has 32 states, and almost all golf courses in Quitana Roo stress conservation and sustainability, so lush in foliage is the order of the day. Players can enjoy 27 holes within the following combination of golf courses: Dunes & Jungle, Jungle & Lakes, and Lakes & Dunes.
Another course with an inclusive option, The Iberostar Golf Course is further south, about 30 minutes south of Cancun. Get ready for tough work as you negotiate deep traps, narrow passages, undulating greens and beautiful vistas. So much variation from hole to hole you could play this almost every day and be content. At the course, all foods and beverages are included. A four-hour battle of wits against this demanding course which is one of P.B. Dyes most intriguing designs. Big Break Mexico was filmed here, so you know the course has character.
A relative newcomer to golf scene is the Grand Coral Golf Club, a short taxi ride from the main shopping district in Playa Del Carmen. Designed by Nick Price, this has some unique concepts in bunker and vegetation placement. Challenging yet fair as you have a number of decisions off the tee, and a few less getting to the green. Visually enticing, no two holes are alike with water and sand coming into play on many holes. Just big fun! It is recommended to add the all inclusive cart service where they hit you every three holes. When was the last time a cart person made sure you had a drink or snack every three holes? GC is exceptional with groups and will allow your golf pro to come with your group for lessons and clinics, and will help arrange other course visits. Rather than a hotel on the property, this golf course has ownership suites designed by Lorena Ochoa and another part by Nick Price.
El Camaleón is home to the only PGA Tour event in Latin America, the Mayakoba Golf Classic. A spectacular 18-hole championship golf course designed by PGA legend Greg Norman. Golf adventure with oohs and ahs as you wind through tropical jungle, dense mangroves and picturesque stretches of Caribbean sand. Superbly manicured and a very friendly staff. The buzz is golfers feel this is somewhat pricey, but worth it. Some of the nearby hotels have preferred rates, but no all-inclusive option.
Like anything in Mexico, there are quirks and oddities when it comes to golf. Many of the courses do not include range balls in the fee. Always bring an extra bottle of water. Golf balls and club rentals tend to be pricey. With the jungle being as hungry as an angry Mayan god, golf balls hit in are swallowed in an instant, so bring extras.
Home base versus golf gypsy in your resort/hotel selection? One course four days in a row could get a little stale, even in your golf happy state. In this area, it’s good to have a preferred course and resort connected where you play two to three rounds, and then try two others, Get the inclusive option or preferred rate, and see what the other courses will extend you. And yes, try to book the times before your depart. All the courses are really good, it’s simply a matter of how you prefer to rest and dine.
Moon Palace is really the original all-inclusive resort in the area, and close to the airport. Really big, almost like going to Disneyland, with buses running from one end to the other. Lots of options on the property for activities, dining and aqua options plus they have the 27-hole course. If you are taking children, a great property, as they can stay entertained all day, and they have favorable options on adding golf. With something this large, intimacy and a quiet time is not as likely as the other resorts, yet with children the lots-to-do atmosphere will keep them occupied.
The Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraiso is grouped with four other hotels, and is consistently rated as a top-ten in the area because they do it all well. The evidence – it consistently rates as excellent for both families and romantic trips! This adult hotel has a Spanish feel with columns and grand architecture, a large courtyard expanding to the ocean, and even the pool area as has an ocean view. Much better than average gastronomy options, with the Latelier restaurant being consistently great for every visit. Their own golf course where the Big Break was filmed just a golf cart ride away.
The Banyan Tree Mayakoba is THE quiet zone. A premium on relaxation, great for couples. You will feel you are in your own corner of the Mexican Riviera. Each room or villa option is essentially its’ own little world, so you really don’t need to go very far to relax. How about gourmet dining on a private boat in the lagoon? If you want to just be, and not see or be seen, this is the place.
Experience the jungle and get your Mayan on at the Sandos Caracol Eco Resort. This resort is carved right out of the native foliage, and they stress eco-sustainability. Snorkel in the fresh water cenote, most properties in the area don’t have their own cenotes. Animals abound and are friendly enough you might think they are on salary. The Sandos has great Mayan shows, and really gets primped for holidays like Day of The Dead. A real quiet feel with the jungle still preserved around the buildings. Good for families because as you golf, the kids have endless activities. A Mayan cleansing spa treatment that you do not find everywhere without the missing head. While it has a value reputation, the resort is definitely a notch better in all respects than the reputation, especially with staff attention. As many Mexicanos vacation here, there are dining options at the buffets and restaurants that reflect those preferences, so you get a real local food-feel.
If you want to walk into the spa, and stay there, then the Paradisus LaPerla is the place. In all the senses you hear, feel and experience relaxation just five minutes from the Playa Del Carmen shopping district. Exceptional in service and cuisine, and the breadth of restaurants is amazing. The buffets, let alone the specialty restaurants, would rival the food at better NYC or Las Vegas restaurants. You can just go from room to pool to dine and back and be perfectly happy. With the Royal Service option, La Palapa close to the ocean offers the perfect blend of food and ambiance, while Fuego gets high marks for nifty South American themes, and Mole’ has upscale Mexican food with local ingredients. The YHI spa has a bevy of unique massage treatments. If traveling with children, the Esmeralda side has similar options for families.
Rental cars can be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, so shuttle services that understand golfers like USA Transfers are best for airport connections, and transport to the various courses. On the property, someone will cart you to their affiliated course, but not to outlying courses. Taxis in Playa Del Carmen are nibble and fast for shopping jaunts but most of the time will not fit two adults and clubs.
A trip that includes golf is somewhat off the radar for most travel agents in the Riviera Maya. Things do change from year to year down there, so find a travel agent acquainted with these itinerary stops and the nuances of how best to put this together.
Worldseeker Travel in Denver is one example of an agency that knows Cancun areas twists, and they are golfers, so the best combination.
Sleep, Relax and Dine