SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- They’re flying kites by the old fort, enjoying coffee in the quaint cafes of Old San Juan, and teeing it up in the warm sunshine by the Caribbean Sea. It's as if nothing bad happened here.
Something bad did happen, of course. Hurricane Maria devastated this eastern Caribbean island of 3-million-plus residents a year and a half ago. It's been a long road to recovery -- and it continues -- but the folks in Puerto Rico want you to know that they're back.
While undoubtedly there are still many areas of distress in the non-tourist areas, the resorts have rebuilt, the golf courses are as good as they've ever been, and the city of San Juan and Old San Juan look clean, devoid of debris with restaurants and entertainment spots, some of them new, welcoming tourists who look to escape the doldrums of winter and beyond.
And the Puerto Rico Open, after a one-year hiatus on the PGA Tour due to recovery efforts, is back in 2019. Last year, the host venue, the Championship Course at Coco Beach Golf Club in Rio Grande was in playable condition. But instead of conducting the PGA Tour event -- which requires extensive logistics -- a charity event featuring various tour pros, professional athletes and celebrities was held instead with the goal of raising $500,000 for relief efforts. The unofficial pro-am event won by George McNeill and Cheyenne Woods was successful; the PGA Tour promised the event, held opposite the WGC-Mexico Championship, would return for 2019 and 2020, and indeed it has.
So here we are. The weather forecast for the Puerto Rico Open this week is warm and mostly clear. This is a good time to come to P.R.
Easy to get there
There all sorts of great destinations for those looking to escape the cold and snow, like, for example, Hawaii, which is one of the my favorite spots in the world for golf, food, recreation, relaxation and beaches.
But a flight to Hawaii is usually pretty pricey, and for those on the east coast of the United States, it's a 11-hours plus on a flight, and that's if it's direct. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, is just a couple hours from Miami, four hours from New York and much cheaper. For example, a recent check from Newark (EWR) to San Juan (SJU) in late February yielded round trip airfares of $268, and similar rates were found on Jet Blue.
In other words, there's plenty of incentive to book a trip to Puerto Rico.
Rates on nice hotels, though, aren't necessarily discounted because many hotels are still closed, but that's starting to change. Currently, there are actually 139 hotels open, and many can be viewed here. And, “short-term rentals” like AirBnb, HomeAway and Join provide more than 8,000 options, too.
Resorts like the St. Regis Bahia Beach, Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach and Wyndham Grand Rio Mar have been renovated and are better than ever. They range from $900 and up for the St. Regis and Ritz to $300 a night for the more family-friendly Wyndham (which is really a bargain).
The golf courses have come out better, too. And while cleanup was tough to be sure, they came back much sooner than the resorts. At Bahia Beach Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design with several holes along the ocean, there's little evidence of the damage caused by Maria.
But it wasn't a pretty site after the storm passed. It made landfall on Sept. 20 as a category 4 hurricane, just weeks after Puerto Rico took a glancing blow from Hurricane Irma. The result for the island was close to $60 billion dollars in damage, a death toll in the thousands, no electricity for months for the majority of the country and debris everywhere.
The course at Bahia Beach Golf Club (also in Rio Grande, about 45 minutes from San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport) was completely covered with vegetation, said Alberto Rios, the director of golf there. But underneath the course remaining largely intact, except all the bunkers lost sand due to the tidal surge.
"The clean up work was extensive," Rios said. "With so much vegetation that surrounds the course we practically had 18 holes full of debris."
For four weeks, about 50 crew members worked to clean up the course. But because there was no power to run the irrigation system, the greens started to dry out with a lack or rainfall. Still the golf course opened on Oct. 21, one month after the storm.
"It is sad to lose so many trees and vegetation," said Rio. "But Bahia has so much that even after all we lost it is still surrounded by it. What we lost actually helped the course by widening it a bit and giving the golfer a few more yards of playing area."
It's been a similar story at many courses on the island.
At the Ocean Course at Rio Mar Country Club, for example, the water covered the fairways, palm trees blew over and the bunkers were destroyed. The last was a perfect excuse to redo the bunkers and import pure white pro-angle sand to enhance the course. A greens project may be forth-coming as well, which would really elevate the status of this George and Tom Fazio-designed course that opened in 1975.
"It's been quite interesting working here the past three years because the conditions had deteriorated," said Jamie West, director of country club operations. "That's why Troon (Golf) was brought in. We got the golf course in good condition, then the hurricanes. But a year and half later, we're in pretty good shape. "
At Coco Beach, all is well, too, now. In early February, though the Coco Beach Resort had not re-opened, the Championship Course there (formerly Trump International) looked tournament ready. Crews were busy finishing the bleachers around holes, club officials were prepared name tags for the locker room, and the local membership, as well as visitors, were flocking to play this Tom Kite design that may actually be a little underrated (I was particularly impressed with the front nine, as well as the ocean holes to open the back side).
And my favorite course on the island (with the possible exception of the super-picturesque Royal Isabela on the northwest side of the island), TPC Dorado Beach East Course, (there are 54 holes at the resort) has never looked better. Like the other courses, the hurricanes thinned out a few trees and underbrush, opening up the holes a bit, making for better growing conditions. The course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr., design magnificently restored by son RTJ Jr., was in perfect condition and just as enjoyable as ever, including the signature par-5 4th, which features a green with a lake in front and the ocean behind it.
So much more than golf
To me, though, a golf trip to Puerto Rico is about so much more than the golf.
I stayed at the flawless St. Regis Bahia Beach, which reflects the rates that can exceed $900 a night. Also located in Rio Grande not far from Coco Beach Golf Club, this is luxury at its finest, from the accommodations that include a bathroom that I would put in my own home if I won the lottery to personal butler service to take care of every need to the exquisite meals that includes a marvelous patio breakfast setting at Seagrapes to its fine dining restaurant, Paro's, which serves contemporary Greek and seafood in the main building.
There's also a beautiful pool (redone after the hurricane), a full spa and fitness room and miles of unspoiled beaches to explore or relax on.
This, as well as the Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach are certainly on the high end of accommodations, so if this isn't in your budget, there are other options, from vacation rentals to moderately priced hotels and resorts.
One of those is Wyndham Rio Mar, which was going for about $300 a night. More family friendly, there are multiple pools, a terrific beach, a spa, luxury rooms with ocean views and more exceptional dining. A new restaurant there is worth checking out even if you don't stay there.
It’s called Roots Coastal Kitchen, and it was the idea of the resort's well-traveled general manager, Nils Stolzlechner, who among his many life adventures was once a member of the Austrian Olympic ski-jumping team.
Stolzlechner has experience in the hospitality business, including experience as a chef and was instrumental in the design of this restaurant, which is headed up by Executive Chef Ramón Carrillo, who opened this kitchen in collaboration with New York’s Top Chef finalists and James Beard Awards nominees, Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth .t It's Caribbean comfort food that includes specialty handcrafted cocktails, artisan ice creams and shakes to go with such items as crispy fried chicken (better than the Colonel), outstanding burgers, ribs and shrimp and grits.
Of course Roots Coastal Kitchen was hardly the only dining highlight of my three days in Puerto Rico. A chocolate-themed cafe in Old San Juan as well as a new restaurant in downtown San Juan certainly caught our attention.
Breakfast at the Chocobar Cortes isn't something I would recommend for anyone trying to watch their waistline, but for a one-time treat, it's well worth the extra calories. Located in the heart of Old San Juan, the restaurant celebrates the rich history of Chocolate Cortes, a family-owned company that has been making chocolate from farm-to-bar in the Caribbean since 1929. This translates into chocolate pancakes, chocolate waffles and of course, hot chocolate. They do a little different, though, in P.R., stirring in a little bit of cheddar cheese. Pretty decadent, to say the least.
As for dinner, the new Raya restaurant at O: LV Fifty-Five Hotel overlooking the lagoon next to downtown San Juan is the creation of renown chef Mario Pagan. Opened in November, Pagan participated in the Food Network's "Iron Chef," blends Caribbean flavors with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai. The result is some pretty extraordinary flavors, including Korean Fried Chicken, Morcilla Dumplings and Chochinillo Bao, which is sucking pig with Hoisin sauce, pickled Chayote cucumber and sweet potato. Trust me; it's all delicious.