When I lived in Michigan, I'd keep a dreamy vision tucked in the back of my mind during the winter months. It was the only way to stay sane in the gloomy weather.
I had seen this image in real life many times, touring the islands of the Caribbean on family cruises or for golf trips. It sticks with you. You know the one -- palm trees, a green and maybe a curvaceous bunker or two. The Caribbean Sea would meet the cloudless sky on the horizon.
Dozens of golf resorts populate the tropical Caribbean islands. I've experienced nearly 20 of them, but I've narrowed down my favorite 10 for you. A couple of high-end resorts (notably Sandy Lane in Barbados where Tiger Woods was first married) might be missing in this story, although I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed with these recommendations.
Four Seasons Resort Nevis
Resort: Nevis – reachable only by water taxi from St. Kitts (or commercial flights from neighboring islands) – is a bit more refined and exclusive than its sister island, St. Kitts. Those who can afford it will love it. Staying at this elegant beachfront resort is nice, but I one-upped the experience with two nights in a Four Seasons Resort Estate villa, where guests get their own golf cart, a private pool and a beautifully furnished and spacious place to stay. You still get the spoils of the Four Seasons. I dined every day at the poolside Cabana restaurant on fresh fish tacos and lobster sandwiches and spent one morning in the Spa, where treatments are given in private chalets. And, of course, Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill is always tempting guests to walk down the beach for another Killer Bee, its famous (and dangerous) rum punch.
Four Seasons Resort Nevis
Golf: The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design on Nevis dates to the early 1990s. The 6,766-yard course climbs into the tropical jungle of Mount Nevis, featuring more than 450 feet of elevation change and plenty of wild holes and scenic outposts high above the Caribbean Sea. It is a visual stunner.
Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic
Resort: Many of Casa de Campo's facilities are the best in the Caribbean, namely the shooting club and the La Terraza Tennis Center. Altos de Chavon, a replica of a 16th-century Mediterranean village, took more than a decade to build and perfect. The cobblestone paths lead to a wonderful meal at La Piazzetta, boutique shops, late-night watering holes, the St. Stanislaus Church (popular for weddings), and the amazing 5,000-seat, Grecian-style amphitheater that hosts intimate concerts and events.
Casa de Campo's Shooting Club
Golf: Pete Dye has always said the Teeth of the Dog is his best work. With seven holes directly on the water, I won't argue. His original nines on the Dye Fore -- the Chavon and Marina -- are nearly as marvelous, following cliffs overlooking the Chavon River and tumbling down fairways leading to the resort's marina. The newer inland nine on the Dye Fore plays similar to the Links at Casa de Campo, showcasing more lagoons, jungle and sand than spectacular views.
Tortuga Bay Hotel at Puntacana Resort & Club, Dominican Republic
Resort: When guests land at the adjacent Punta Cana airport, they skip customs and ride in a private car to this AAA Five Diamond property with 13 luxurious beachfront villas designed by Oscar de la Renta. Dining is an experience at the AAA Four Diamond award-winning Bamboo Restaurant at the hotel or the AAA Three Diamond La Yola Restaurant at the club. For a more affordable stay, Starwood point hoarders can spend them on the nearby Westin Puntacana Resort & Club.
Corales golf course at the PuntaCana Resort & Club
Golf: Tom Fazio's Corales is kept in immaculate condition, almost as if it's the Augusta National of the Caribbean. Only a few groups a day play it. The three ocean holes starting at the 16th are called "El Codo Del Diablo" (aka "The Devil's Elbow"). The two coastal beauties that finish the front nine, the par-4 eighth hole and par-3 ninth hole, might be even better. Fazio built an extra green at both the third and 15th holes to add shot variety. They rotate play daily. The La Cana course by P.B. Dye has some seaside frontage as well, although not nearly as dramatic. The inland nine-hole Hacienda Course, which opened in 2012, uses some of the same mounding and trickery as La Cana.
Dorado Beach – A Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Puerto Rico
Resort: The Reserve is the most luxurious offering of the Ritz brand. Its 115 rooms, all with private plunge pools, are spread throughout 53 buildings near the beach. The Spa Botanico offers treatments in treehouses. If you don't have that kind of budget, the Plantation Resort Residences closer to TPC Dorado Beach are Mediterranean-style condominiums for rent. Children will gush over the $12 million Watermill, a private water park/playground at the club complete with water slides, multiple pools and a lazy river, all patterned after a Puerto Rican sugar mill. The 8,000-square-foot Dorado Beach Fitness and Wellness Center is nice. The best place to exercise, however, is along the 11-mile Rockefeller Nature Trail, a running/walking path along the beach and ocean. It's a lasting tribute to Laurance S. Rockefeller's vision for Dorado hatched in the 1950s.
Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Golf: The East Course at TPC Dorado Beach is the headliner, having hosted the PGA Tour Champions back in the day. Robert Trent Jones Jr. refreshed his father's design in 2011, clearing trees and overgrown vegetation to open up ocean views. Bunkers were repositioned and reshaped. Jones Jr.'s staff is said to be renovating the West course but it's been closed for years now. The Sugarcane and Pineapple courses are other choices.
IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Rose Hall, Jamaica
Resort: Guests can explore the pools and bars of the other IBEROSTAR hotels connected to this 295-room AAA Four Diamond, adults-only IBEROSTAR. In addition to the buffets, every Grand Hotel has four premier restaurants, including Italian, Japanese, and steak and seafood. All-inclusive also means free use of water sports, such as kayaks, and access to the fitness room and spa facilities and endless entertainment. Butlers will stock the mini-fridge with requested items or pack/unpack suitcases.
IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Rose Hall
Golf: The nearby trio of the White Witch, Cinnamon Hill and the Half Moon Golf Club is spectacular. The White Witch starts off at a glorious elevated tee before exploring the jungle. Robert von Hagge built nine new holes and modified most others on Cinnamon Hill. The par 4 at the fifth hole reveals incredible views of the sea. The 17th tee sits 350 feet above the beach with the green framed by ruins of an 18th-century aqueduct. Half Moon is a RTJ Sr. classic that sits on mostly flat ground scarred with bunkers.
Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas
Resort: It's easy to see why Sandals rescued and rebranded this former 500-acre Four Seasons. Everything is immaculate -- the rooms, the grand infinity pool with a swim-up bar overlooking the beach along Emerald Bay and the butler service. Several excellent restaurants are offered in addition to the usual all-inclusive buffets. Barefoot by the Sea is a romantic restaurant on the beach, and La Parisienne conjures up French cuisine that requires early reservations. The Drunken Duck Pub was built in England and shipped to the island.
Drunken Duck Pub at Sandals Emerald Bay
Golf: The Emerald Reef golf course, the resort's 7,001-yard Greg Norman design, is a photographer's dream. After a difficult front nine through a jungle of mangrove swamps, holes 11-16 follow the rocky shoreline of the bay and then the Caribbean Sea for some of the most scenic seaside golf anywhere. Golf balls tend to get blown around like kites, but it's still a fun and certainly memorable round.
Royal Isabela, Puerto Rico
Resort: Built within the last five years, Royal Isabela is relatively new destination 1 ½ hours west of San Juan. Guests come to unwind and enjoy the secluded beaches. Each of the 20 casitas is a private domain with its own plunge pool and terrace. The farm-to-table dining at La Casa is as delicious as the views toward the seaside cliffs.
The La Casa restaurant/bar at Royal Isabela
Golf: A wild array of nuances make Royal Isabela, a David W. Pfaff design, feel more like an adventure than a round of golf. Conventional rules of golf architecture don't always apply. There is an amazing number of 132 total tees, blind shots galore, a tiny island-green par 3, deep pot bunkers and even extra holes. Taking caddies is a must just to head in the right direction. There are two holes at the sixth: Brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, who are developing this environmentally conscious residential and resort community, couldn't decide between building a par 4 or par 5, so they kept both.
El Conquistador -- A Waldorf Astoria Resort, Puerto Rico
Resort: The sprawling "El Con," home to 23 bars and restaurants, sits atop 300-foot cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the northeast corner of the island. The lower-level La Marina Village along the water, reachable by a unique tram ride, is the site of more bars and restaurants and the Coqui Water Park (which costs extra). There is no beach on the mainland, but a private beach on Palomino Island is accessible by resort ferry. Once there, I paddled a kayak to a tiny island of sand filmed in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. It was an exhilarating, hour-long adventure. I kayaked again another night, this time in the bioluminescent bay, the magnificent Laguna Grande in the Cape San Juan Nature Reserve just outside the resort's gates. Bio bays are filled with tiny plankton that light up when you splash or row in the water.
Golf: The "El Con" golf course by Arthur Hills isn't easy. It's a challenging journey of awkward lies, one that doesn't really offer much forgiveness. The slopes of the narrow fairways kick balls into ponds and bunkers and jungle. The views from the elevated tees (the 15th overlooks what feels like the entire island) make up for the lack of oceanfront holes and beachfront greens.
St. Kitts Marriott Resort & The Royal Beach Casino, St. Kitts
Resort: The 393-room hotel, the centerpiece of the island's activity as its largest resort, was built in 2003. The beaches, pools, spa, restaurants and sprawling guest rooms and suites make any stay a good one. The casino is the largest Vegas-style casino in the Caribbean. To get a real feel for the locals, head out on a pub crawl to the tiny beach bar shacks -- appropriately named Ziggy's Beach Bar & Grill, Mr. X's Shiggidy Shack Bar & Grill, Monkey Bar and others -- along the South Frigate Bay Beach.
St. Kitts Marriott Resort
Golf: The Royal St. Kitts Golf Club is still the only course on the island, which is situated in the Lesser Antilles about 1,300 miles southeast of Miami. A 2003 redesign by Canadian Thomas McBroom transformed a tiring layout into a spellbinding new par-71 layout of 12 lakes and 83 bunkers. McBroom stacked bunkers on either side of the 15th green to mimic the lapping ocean waves. The par-4 16th and 17th holes play directly along the shore for a dynamite finish.
The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, Abaco, Bahamas
Resort: Technically, The Abaco Club (formerly managed by Ritz-Carlton) is a 483-acre private playground for property owners and members. Southworth Development does allow guests to visit up to three times before purchasing anything. I stayed in a cute one-bed golf cabana near the first fairway and dined regularly at Buster's Beach Bar, a thatch-hut hangout sitting mere feet from the turquoise waters of the bay. The remodeled Cliff House restaurant features an even better view from above. Guests who don't golf can kayak to the tiny Sugar Cay out in the bay to snorkel, play tennis or drink the day away at Pete's Pub & Gallery, a nearby boater's hangout. Sunday parties at Nippers Beach Bar & Grill, a ferry ride away on Great Guana Cay, are legendary.
Buster's Beach Bar at The Abaco Club
Golf: The course, a "tropical links" by Englishman Donald Steel and Tom MacKenzie, is good enough that Darren Clarke, the 2016 European Ryder Cup captain and 2011 Open champion, and South African pro Thomas Aiken are members. The par-3 fourth hole introduces the bay views. The par-4 fifth hole throws the beach in your face as a cool drivable par 4s. Nos. 15 and 16 play around an old rock quarry. The par-3 17th hole falls downhill to a green smack on the ocean. The downwind par-5 18th hole plays to razor-thin fairway along the ocean, an intimidating finish.
Ocean Club Resorts, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Resort: The original Ocean Club Resorts and its sister property, Ocean Club West, sit less than a mile apart on the famous Grace Bay Beach in this laid-back British Overseas Territory. These two all-suites, condominium-style resorts are ideal for families, honeymooners and couples looking for the ultimate beach escape. The water is so clear that it looks surreal. Make time to explore the island and visit the Da Conch Shack, one of my all-time favorite finds.
Grace Bay Beach
Golf: OCR properties offer reduced green fees at the Provo Golf Club, a stout 6,700-yard test right across the street. It's the antithesis of most Caribbean resort courses. It doesn't have any sea views. There are no wide fairways. In fact, the lush vegetation, exposed limestone and water hazards keep the course tight. Are you up for the challenge?
Cap Cana, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Resort: When I visited Cap Cana to play Punta Espada in 2011, little had been developed outside of the golf. I’m dying to get back to see the explosive growth. The new 457-room Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa opened on Juanillo Beach in November 2016 to join two luxurious all-suites properties, the Eden Roc of Cap Cana (34 freestanding suites) and the Alsol Tiara Collection (112 suites).
Punta Espada Golf Club
Golf: Punta Espada remains one of my all-time favorite rounds of golf. The Jack Nicklaus course, host of the Champions Tour's Cap Cana Championship from 2008-10, interacts more intimately with the ocean than any other course I’ve experienced. The dramatic par-3 12th hole and par-4 17th require heart-stopping shots over the water. One big wave near a tee or green could shower you with spray.