DORADO BEACH, Puerto Rico -- As first impressions go, the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (the only Ritz-Carlton Reserve in the western hemisphere and the only Ritz-Carlton Reserve beachfront residences in the world) is about as good as it gets.
A premium product to be sure (you're looking at just less than $1,000 a night here during offseason), expectations were high on my visit, and it didn't disappoint.
A nearly 1,000-square-foot living space opened up to a furnished outdoor deck, a plunge pool and the Atlantic Ocean just a hundred yards away. Protected by a man-made reef, the crystal clear seawater was as inviting as the dip pool or the jumbo tub in the spacious bathroom. Or even, perhaps, the outdoor shower, which was in addition to an indoor shower.
Yes, for three days, this was my home, a short shuttle ride to the reason I was there. It was my home base for three perfect days in Puerto Rico.
Golf and the TPC experience
This trip to Puerto Rico and the luxurious Dorado Beach Resort, located about 30 minutes outside of the capital city of San Juan, came on the heels of the announcement that the PGA Tour has just named its 34th TPC facility, the TPC Dorado Beach.
The resort will have eventually be pared down to three courses, all originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. One of them -- the West Course -- is currently being renovated by Robert Trent Jones Jr., who also did a splendid job renovating the featured East Course. A former site of the Senior PGA Tour Championship, the East will play host to the 2015 PGA Tour Latinoamerica Tour Championship from Dec. 3-6, when five players will be awarded status to the Web.com Tour in 2016.
The Dorado golf courses have a little history as well. It all started in 1955, when Laurance S. Rockefeller (who has long since sold the resort) hired Jones to create the finest golf resort in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
The par-72, 7,200-yard East Course now has Champion Bermuda greens, but it retained its ocean views and signature holes, including the fourth, which is as good of a risk-reward hole as you will ever play. Known as the "Z" hole, it's a double-dogleg par 5 reachable in two with two well struck and well placed shots. Choose a driver off the tee and you have to turn it right to left over the water on the left to find the center of the fairway. A great drive can set up an iron shot over another body of water for an opportunity at an eagle putt.
The East's par 3s are also strong, highlighted by the 17th, which has water left of a huge green protected by large bunkers on the right. Hide the pin in the upper right-hand corner and three putts loom large for anyone who can't get it back there.
I really liked the 15th, a short, downhill par 4 reachable with a big drive, but only if you turn it over right to left to avoid a large lake front right of the green and trees that protect a direct route.
The greens complexes are also challenging on the East Course, and the bunkering was restored magnificently. The 16th has a series of fairway and greenside bunkers that seem to blend together off the tee, creating an illusion that there's little fairway in which to hit.
Dorado's Sugarcane Course features a back nine surrounded by rivers and lakes offering a scenic retreat from the oceanfront. The Pineapple was designed to be the friendlier course for golfers and eventually will be merged into the closed West Course to create a 54-hole resort.
Dining at Dorado Beach Resort, and other things to do
The East Course is certainly good enough to play over and over again, but at a resort like this, there's so much more to do and experience. Besides the beach and ocean, there are miles of hiking and biking trails, terrific restaurants, a truly world-class spa and tennis, just to name a few of the activities.
Each restaurant features a unique menu, some more local than others, but all world class in terms of preparation and presentation. My favorite of the lot was probably the Encanto Beach Bar located at the resort's Beach Club. Not only was it a great place to watch the sunsets, but also the menu featured terrific fresh seafood, pasta and grilled meats. I had the Caribbean Seafood Bouillabaisse, ingredients of which included lobster, conch, shrimp and mussels.
The other dining options were no less impressive, starting with Mi Casa, one of the most heralded Spanish restaurants in Puerto Rico by world-acclaimed chef Jose Andres. New gourmet tapas highlighted the experience, which also included traditional Puerto Rican dishes and seafood. In addition, guests can enjoy a portfolio of unique rum varieties and an impressive wine list with almost 200 labels.
Another highlight was the award-winning Spa Botanico, which features "tree house" massage suites. The setting is one of the most beautiful in the world, and the treatments are world class.
I also got a lesson at the tennis center, which is across the golf clubhouse and The Watermill, a private water park for guests and residents. Plans call for hard courts to be replaced by Har-Tru clay courts in the near future.
Old San Juan
Of course, as tempting as it was to just chill out at the Dorado Beach Resort, you can't go to Puerto Rico without spending some time in San Juan, and more specifically, Old San Juan, which sits on an island and was protected by ancient forts. During a tour, we learned that San Juan is actually named for Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon (yep, the same guy who went to Florida to search of the Fountain of Youth). Christopher Columbus was there, too, and of course, the United States eventually won over the island as a result of the Spanish America War.
Children growing up are required to speak both Spanish and English, so not knowing Spanish is never a problem in Old San Juan, which has an array of gift shops, art galleries and plenty of restaurant options. For lunch we settled on Cafe Puerto Rico, with its authentic menu of local dishes that included several varieties of Mofongo, a fried plantain-based dish that can be filled with vegetables, chicken, crab, shrimp or beef.
The visit to San Juan culminated with a trip to Bacardi Rum Distillery. After a Bacardi cocktail, we toured the facility and learned that Bacardi actually started as a family enterprise in Santiago, Cuba in 1862 before eventually consolidating much of its operation in Puerto Rico after its assets in Cuba were seized during the Cuban Revolution. We also learned that the Cuba Libre, got its name, which means "free Cuba," during the Spanish American War. Most of us, of course, just know it's a rum and Coke, which there is no shortage of at The TPC Dorado Beach and Dorado Beach Resort.