PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico - It's hard not to overindulge when you're at an all-inclusive resort like Casa Velas.
The food is excellent, and if you want, it keeps coming. At the pool. In your room. At Emiliano's restaurant. You can walk to a sister beachfront resort, Velas Vallarta, with your all-powerful wristband and raid its smorgasbord of family favorites like pizza and burgers. Plus, when you stay three or more nights at Casa Velas, there's more on the menu, a complimentary dinner inside a four-diamond restaurant at the stunning Grand Velas Riviara Nayarit a 15-minute shuttle ride away.
If you're pounding pina coladas at a pool or crashing the tequila tastings at happy hour like I did, well, that just fuels your appetite.
I've found the best way to escape all this sloth-esque sin is by playing golf. You stay active and still get the relaxation you seek when on vacation.
Casa Velas, an adults-only boutique hotel just five minutes from the Puerto Vallarta International Airport, even provides its own version of all-inclusive golf. Play as much as you want at three strong courses owned by ClubCorp - the Marina Vallarta Golf Club next to the hotel or the Nicklaus and Weiskopf courses at Vista Vallarta Golf Club. All guests pay per round is a $57 cart fee. Anybody who has played golf in Mexico knows that price is a steal. While vacations in Mexico tend to run cheap, playing golf is not.
As for the "elephant in the room" regarding Mexico: Is it safe to visit? I've been three times in the last two years and never had an issue. The travel advisory issued by the U.S Department of State in March 2018 doesn't specifically include Puerto Vallarta like it does other prominent tourist destinations (i.e. Acapulco and Mazatlan) in at-risk states. My wife and I walked throughout the marina district without fear and our taxi/shuttle rides off property were uneventful. Puerto Vallarta just happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2018, so the timing's right for a visit.
Casa Velas: The resort
Casa Velas wins the ratings game on TripAdvisor by delivering serenity now. With no kids running amok and only 80 suites in the entire hotel, guests are assured a relaxing time. There's no need to get to the pool early to claim a seat under an umbrella. There's no pool guy guilting you into group water aerobics. And the staff seems to outnumber the guests four to one, so someone is always ready to serve.
The comfortable one-room suite for my wife and I had two tubs, one indoor Jacuzzi and one outdoor plunge pool where I cooled off after a hot day of golf. The mini bar stays stocked with snacks and drinks at all times.
As great as the hotel pool is, especially with its swim-up bar under a hut, here's my best advice: Spend every minute possible at the Ocean Club, where a small pool overlooks the beach. My wife and I spent one morning walking the sandy shore and rinsing our feet in the warm waves of Banderas Bay. By 6 p.m., the pool deck transforms into a restaurant serving romantic meals at sunset. Maybe the scenery helped, but the mango shrimp was the best entrée we experienced during our stay. Casa Velas grows its own spices, so every meal is fresh with flavors.
While I was playing golf, my wife disappeared into the spa for a unique treatment, the Quiro-Golf Four Hands Massage, where two therapists (hence the four hands) used golf balls to work on tight muscles and joints. It is geared toward eliminating stress and anxiety and the recovery of physical and mental energy. Boy was I jealous when I heard about this treatment and the personal service during the pre-massage water therapy in the steam room and sauna.
Other activities during our stay included a Wednesday cooking class, morning yoga (Monday and Friday) and nightly happy hours near the lobby featuring live music and themed drinks like tequila tastings on Fridays. We were so busy that we didn't get a chance to visit downtown's El Malecon (translation "boardwalk") on the beach or snorkel the islands of Las Marietas. It's hard to leave when life is this easy.
ClubCorp: The golf
What kind of golfer are you: The trophy hunter or casual player?
Casa Velas delivers on both accounts. Marina Vallarta is the convenient play that's challenging enough thanks to all the water hazards, yet casual enough for a snowbird hacker with a rusty swing. I rolled out of bed 20 minutes before my tee time and walked over to the clubhouse, following the brick path behind the hotel pool. If only I could do that at home. Although Marina Vallarta, designed by Joe Finger in 1989, is showing its age in certain spots, notably the cart paths and bunkers, it's still a fun place to play. Golf Advisor reviews average a strong four stars, probably because the 6,573-yard layout offers a variety of looks. What it lacks in aesthetics winding through homes and roads it more than compensates with some really good holes.
The par-3 fourth plays to an island-like green jutting into a pond. The back nine amps up the drama with the "X hole" at no. 11, a short, waterlogged par 4 nicknamed for the two palm-tree trunks crisscrossing behind the green. Stay on high alert on the par-4 12th hole. I hit my shot into the pond on the left, where a crew of crocodiles were sunbathing and swimming about. The signature par-3 13th hole skirts the beach, affording striking views of Puerta Vallarta. I really like No. 16, a par 4 cutting a narrow trail through the trees.
Vista Vallarta is well worth the extra time, effort and money it takes for a round. The 20-minute cab ride costs roughly $20 each way. The 36-hole facility checks all the boxes of a bucket-list destination hidden in the mountainous jungles where the 1980s action flick 'Predator' was filmed. The clubhouse was modeled after a Spanish hacienda with flowing fountains in an outdoor courtyard. Turn left for the pro shop; right is a nice restaurant/bar. The 36 holes of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf golf mesh well, each with a different feel.
I favor the Nicklaus course ever so slightly, ranking it among my "Deegan's Dozen" of the top 12 courses in Mexico. Although the Nicklaus is the more famous of the two - having hosted the 2002 World Golf Championships-World Cup won by the Japanese team of Toshimitsu Izawa and Shigeki Maruyama over the American team of Phil Mickelson and David Toms - there are plenty of people who vouch for the Weiskopf. Its back nine stretch from holes 12-15 is the most dramatic on the property.
The reality is you can't go wrong if you only play one. They've both got the same general topography of rolling elevations and daunting arroyos. The Nicklaus is slightly longer. The Weiskopf slightly harder to score upon. Aesthetically, they're off the charts without roads or house to distract from the views.
I played both courses back to back, figuring that was the best way to fend off a feeding frenzy back at the hotel and a bulging belly on the plane ride home. If you do go full-on gluttony on vacation, choose wisely: An overdose of golf over too much grub makes the most sense to me.