Avid golf fans who watch Golf Channel during the fall season undoubtedly were impressed with the amazing routing and scenery of the El Camaleon at Mayakoba Resort during the PGA TOUR stop there earlier this month.

I had the pleasure of playing that course a few years ago and can say the natural beauty even exceeds what was shown on the telecast. Here’s what I wrote about the course and the Riviera Maya that stretches along the Carribean coast south of Cancun.

 

fresh water canals border many fairways

fresh water canals border many fairways

El Camaleon at Mayakoba is the only site to have hosted an official PGA Tour event outside of Canada and the United States. Mayakoba is a Fairmont property, one of three upscale hotels located behind the resort’s gates.

Opened 12 years ago, the Greg Norman-design winds between the fresh water mangrove swamps and features the only two ocean-side holes in the Riviera Maya, No. 7 and No. 15. Both are short—about 100 yards-and rely on the ocean breezes to challenge golfers with club selection and accuracy.

From the tee at No. 7, you can see the buildings on Cozumel standing out from the Caribbean in the distance (it’s about a 45-minute ferry ride from Playa de Carmen).

These are beautiful holes, but they don’t hold a candle to No. 7 at Pebble, which plays downhill at a similar length, but features the Pacific Ocean on two sides and a cliff on the third.

 

The cenote on the 2nd hole at Mayakoba

The cenote on the 2nd hole at Mayakoba

Probably the most striking hole on the 7,024-yard layout is the par 5 first. It features the requisite fairway bunker on the left, but then takes advantage of a cenote (a natural sinkhole) to create a bunker in the right center of the fairway. The result is a dramatic narrowing for the big hitters on this downwind hole.

Of course, pro Bubba Watson, playing in the PGA event a number of years ago, flew the cenote bunker with his tee shot—a tidy poke of more than 360 yards (at sea level in heavy air).

Norman created a fair test of resort golf, leaving plenty of space on most holes that require driver, but then tightening up the approach shots. That said, the significantly errant tee shot will find the mangroves and a watery resting place.

In addition to the golf course, Mayakoba also houses the Jim McLean School of Golf, offering private and group lessons.

Here are the other courses we visited during our four-day trip in 2010.

The onsite golf course for Iberostar Playa Paraiso was designed by P.B. Dye, who provided plenty of challenge with a rating and slope of 72.4 and 36 from the tips that play just under 6,700 yards. The fairways generally are tighter, but the jungle has been thinned on many holes so the errant tee shots can be located and played back on the fairway.

Playa Paraiso has hosted the PGA Tour Monday qualifying event four times, the Riviera Maya Open on the Canadian Tour three times as well as its Celebrity Golf Invitational this year. That speaks to its challenge.

Two of the par 3s are visually intimidating as Dye brings lots of water into play. No. 13 is a 283- yard dogleg par 4 that long hitters can take a shot at with a driver. Others can hit hybrid off the tee and have a wedge to the green.

The next resort south from the Iberostar Paraiso is El Manglar, which features the most unique course in Riviera Maya. It’s an 18-hole, all par 3 tract, designed by Jack Nicklaus Design.

These are no gimme par 3s. The course record from the tips is only two under par.

There’s water on 12 holes and once you finish the 121-yard first hole, there’s only four others that are wedges or short irons. Try the 276-yard 13th on for size.

For dads vacationing with their families, it’s an ideal way to play 18 in three hours or less and be back with the family by mid-morning in time for the day’s activities. Greg Bond the director of golf at neighboring Playa Paraiso, says he likes to play it to work on his irons.

About 45 minutes south, is the Robert Trent Jones II designed the Riviera Maya Golf Club, which has only been open for nine months and was in excellent condition for a new course. Like most of the Riviera Maya courses, it features paspalum grass that can be irrigated with salt water, saving the groundwater for other uses.

The front nine is carved out from the rain forest on the hillside that climbs across the highway from the ocean.  It plays to 7,272 from the tips with a rating and slope of 75.0 and 137, respectively.

The most striking hole on the front nine is No 6, a 453-yard uphill par 5. The fairway slopes right to left and a tree and surrounding waste area guard shots from the right, on the left is a deep cenote that gobbles up anything left and short. It’s so deep that there’s a boat floating on it, probably 50 feet below the green level.

Once you make the turn, then it’s down to the flat portion of the course with water coming into play on several holes. The most spectacular holes are 14 and 15, a 584-yard par five followed by a 245-yard par three with plenty of carry over a former quarry. The fairway of the par 5 was literally carved out of the limestone just where most golfers will be hitting their approach shots to the uphill green.

The limestone walls coupled with the green fairway and the huge rocks that were blasted away and now line the back of the green make for a striking vista.

The next hole, fortunately, has plenty of bailout area left and short to compensate for about a 180-yard forced carry over the water from the back tees.

Most writers on this trip identified this new tract as the one they would go back to first. Like Mayakoba, it featured GPS on all carts, a very helpful feature when playing a course for the first time.

For excellent golfers only, consider Palace Resorts’ Playacar Spa and Golf Club. It features a full service spa that would be ideal after a round of golf. The course is the second-oldest in the Maya Riviera and is inside the gates of Playacar, a resort and residential community.

Like many courses, it features plenty of opportunity to see wildlife. Designer Robert Von Hagge provided a demanding test of golf that plays 7,144 from the tips to rating of 76.1 and a slope of 148. Even from the white tees, it’s rated at 73.4 with a 136 slope.

If you are a low handicapper, it will certainly test you with narrow fairways, tiny greens that are amply protected by bunkers. Plan on the post-round beverage and spa treatment—this one can beat you up. And, particularly in high season, be aware you could be caught in a six-hour round as the high-handicappers battle their way around the course.

There are 10 courses in the Riviera Maya, but they unfortunately do not work together on packages. Greg Bond of Playa Paraiso continues to push this concept, correctly believing that all courses will do better if they collectively serve the golfer well.

When planning a trip, consider that many courses will provide van service from your resort to the golf course and back. And there are some courses that are all-inclusive so the green fees cover carts plus range balls and all food and beverage on the course (typically, water soft, drinks, beer, sandwiches and fruit).

Others will routinely charge for range balls. And club rental can be stiff $40 per round or more with the caliber of equipment ranging from relatively new Callaway and Taylormade sets to significantly older clubs.

Plan to pay $200 per round for morning tee-times with twilight rates dropping to the $110-135 range.

 

The Riviera Maya

With the historic Mayan ruins in Tulum, the Rivera Maya offers a relaxing golf and ocean vacation once you get there. It’s a two-leg trip from the West Coast,  while the Pacific Coast of Mexico and its resorts can often be accessed on a direct flight.

The Riviera Maya stretches about 120 miles south of Cancun, the international airport serving the peninsula. The main highway No. 307 runs a few miles inland from the Caribbean Ocean, not that you can see the ocean from the highway—the views typically are of the tropical rainforest, notable because trees and brush rarely tops 20 feet.

Once you start into the Riviera Maya, one of the most striking aspects is the sheer scale of the entrances to the many, many resort all-inclusive properties that stretch from the highway to the beach.  Having seen the Mayan ruins in Tulum that were reclaimed from the jungle more than 150 years ago, the current architects took their Maya ancestors a giant step up in scale.

The entry structures are a several football fields long and often four or five stories high. All strive to be distinctive in their landscaping and most take advantage of the native limestone and other materials to tie into the heritage. All are staffed by security guards who check in all visitors.

For Iberostar’s Playa Paraiso, that means a five-story tall ceiling in the bar that is housed in its  signature pyramid—the grand bar also features live vines dropping from planters at various levels along the slanted walls. It is air conditioned, a necessary feature for those of us coming from drier summer climates to temperatures in the high 80s or low 90s with Equatorial sun and ample, but not oppressive humidity. It’s not Houston in August.

As you travel the peninsula, similar structures pop up from the rain forest that tower over the native

WHEN TO GO: Riviera Maya has a longer prime season than the California desert or Arizona. It starts in November and runs strong through April and May with people seeking relief from the cold. It’s become a destination not only for North Americans, but for Europeans as well. Many resorts do well during the summer months with Mexican families coming to the ocean.  If you’re willing to deal with high temperatures in the low 90s and humidity in the 70 percent range, then the shoulder season of September and October will provide significantly more affordable packages.

WHERE TO STAY: The all-inclusive resorts truly are that. One writer compared it to a cruise ship on land and then observed you didn’t even have to pay for wine, beer and spirits. At the Iberostar Paraiso, all-inclusive was truly that. Food or drink was served in the pools, on the beach and in a variety of restaurants as well as 24 hours a day in the more upscale rooms—room service was available 12 hours a day in the more economical lodging.

There are five hotels that total 2,000 rooms on the sprawling ocean-front property. These range from the relatively economical with limited air conditioning in the public spaces to the very well-appointed Maya to the upscale Grand Mayan. The art work in the Grand was extensive and each room offers a pillow menu. One of the dining rooms features a view of the swimming pool that opens on to the ocean. Spectacular.

The resort has many dining rooms, as well as more than one-half mile of a swimming canal that travels almost the width of the property, connecting several swimming pools. The pools are bath-water warm as is the ocean in September.

It is set up with plenty of activities for couples and families alike—theater shows every evening, a kids’ club daily, a variety of themed restaurants plus the requisite ocean and fresh water offerings. All inclusive room rates range from about $160 per day for two people in the shoulder season of September and October to $500 per day in the prime winter season.

If you’re looking for more personalized service that in a major resort, there are many boutique hotels in the Riviera Maya.

WHAT TO DO: Aside from golfing, the Riviera Maya offers the expected full range of water sports—jet skiing, deep-sea fishing, swimming with dolphins, scuba diving and snorkeling off Cozumel, diving into the cenote (sink holes) to name a few plus 125 miles of white sand beaches. There also are a few adventure parks that allow visitors to challenge themselves physically while experiencing the Mayan jungle.

A visit to the Riviera Maya would be incomplete without visiting the Mayan ruins at Tulum. Taking the tractor-pulled cart to skip the significant walk to the entrance from the parking lot is a good choice because it’s a bit of a walk into the ruins. The main palace overlooks the sea.  Tulum survived the infrequent Yucatan hurricanes well because it is protected by the cliff that it perches on from the storm surge.

Enlisting a guide to explain the Mayan history is a good choice to get the most from the afternoon.

Playa de Carmen offers some of the best night life and shopping in its La Quinta (5th Ave.) pedestrian district. It’s an easy stroll from the ferry that takes people to Cozumel. It offers upscale shopping during the day and the all-hours nightlife that doesn’t get started until after 9 p.m.  but runs until sun up.

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