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Riviera Maya Masterpieces

By John Ehle

A mid-winter sojourn to the Riviera Maya in Mexico is exactly what a vitamin D-deprived golfer needs to escape the dreary, snowy landscape of the Midwest.

The Yucatan peninsula has seen a constant process of development since my first trip there in 1976. Back then, Cancun and Playa del Carmen were arrivistes in the array of travel destinations and the ancient archaeological sites of Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza were places which required a sense of adventure. Walking onto one of these sites early or late in a day, the intrepid traveler was virtually alone. The profundity of the history was overwhelming. There were no ticket booths, gates or shops; no distractions. Just Mayan pyramids, cenotes, columns and the occasional native working the land and tending cattle. And, of course, there was the Caribbean.

Golf in those days was something you left behind. There were no golf courses on the Yucatan peninsula. Today, the east coast is home to myriad resorts and a burgeoning collection of world-class golf courses which are as challenging and beautiful as anything available anywhere. The finest golf course architects in the world are plying their trade here; Jack Nicklaus, Nick Price, Greg Norman, Robert Trent Jones ll and PB Dye, to name a few. The advent of grasses which thrive on salt water is a large piece of the development as fresh water is an issue in this ecosystem. Yes, these hardy, resistant grasses not only endure the occasional 100 degree day but do it while being irrigated with salt water from the nearby Caribbean. Early in the development of this cultivar (seashore paspalum) a fairway on a seaside course was flooded with salt water from a tropical storm. When the water receded, the fairway flourished; with only the weeds in decline.

Fairways wind through the jungle and greens jut out onto Caribbean vistas which are stunning enough to distract even the most focused of players. The courses are populated with an abundance of tropical birds, iguanas and monkey squirrels which have adapted to the golfing traffic. This is a tropical paradise replete with golf.

Our first outing was at the Nick Price design, Grand Coral. With nine of 18 holes completed, this 6,995 yard golf course is a gem in progress. Ample fairways and a set of tees for golfers of every skill level the course reflects Mr. Price's design philosophy. Price says, "Golf is two games. One is played in the air and another on the ground. Having the ability to run the ball onto a green requires as much skill as flying the ball to the hole". The hospitality was as good as the golf. Returning to play the completed 18 will be on my bucket list.

The destination on day 2 was El Camaleon Golf Course at Mayakoba. We arrived amidst a flurry of activity and preparation for the Mayakoba Classic, a new PGA Tour stop which played opposite the Accenture Match Play event. We were the last group to play the golf course prior to the tournament so to say that it was in fine fettle and with an attendant buzz would understate the ambience.

This course was designed by the legendary Greg Norman. The 7,000 yard layout is on piece of property which may be unique to the entire golfing kingdom. As its name suggests, El Cameleon is ever-changing. This stunning Playa del Carmen golf course wends its way through three distinct landscapes: dense jungle, mangrove forests and dramatic oceanfront stretches of sand. Perhaps most unique are the limestone canals which create natural design elements which could not possibly be duplicated anywhere. Several cenotes, underground cavern systems, are incorporated into the golf course as well; giving it heartstopping visual highlights. Peek into a large cenote and you will sense what Mayans felt as they stood on these precipices just prior to their last moments on earth.

Four sets of tees afford golfers of all abilities an opportunity to test their games at the Chameleon and Roberto Molina and his staff will see to your every need. At the Chameleon, hospitality is an achieved goal.

The Mayan Palace is an all-inclusive resort which offers golf on-site with an 18 hole Jack Nicklaus-designed par 54 executive course. We followed up our morning round by playing this testy par 3 and we had all we could handle. With several holes in excess of 200 yards, this golf challenge is not an afterthought. With water, sand and native vegetation on nearly all holes, this golf course will require every club in your bag.....especially your wedges and your putter. This is where you can either play off existing bets or press and start afresh. It's a great golf experience which is perfect to either begin or end a golfing day.

Day 3 took us to Bahia Principe Golf Course, a 36 hole golf resort which includes a 9 hole par 3 of 1300+ yards. The outgoing 18 can be played at 7,843 yards. Designed by Robert Trent Jones ll, the course is set within the Mayan jungle, natural lakes and fresh-water wells. The grasses on these holes are velvety and esquisitely groomed with fairways and greens which are fair, challenging and absolutely gorgeous. Nature lovers, here you are!

Playacar is the oldest of the Riviera Maya courses and it is quite likely the most difficult. Designed by Robert Von Hagge, Playacar is routed around a large plot of Mayan jungle and a series of lakes which create diverse challenges on this course which is the closest to Playa del Carmen. With the tightest fairways we had seen all week and the most abundant iguana population, Playacar has diversions galore. The slope rating of the 7,144 yard course approaches the industry top of 150 and only the longest, most accurate drivers of the golf ball should wander to the back tees. Greenside bunkers are placed in very challenging locations and once you're on the greens, take a hard look....they're subtle and fast.

The final chapter of our Riviera Maya golf experience took place at Playa Paraiso GC at Iberostar. This P.B. Dye design is incredibly routed onto 90 acres of land. You would never know it. The transitional areas between fairways are subtle...and very effective. Mounding and treelines set each hole apart and the result is a golf experience armed with diverse features. The placement of water hazards and waste areas permits the inclusion of short 4 pars of under 300 yards which require thoughtful club selections and precise approaches. Greenside swales collect errant shots and give the golfer an opportunity to demonstrate deft touch. Wedges get a workout on this challenging, beautiful course.

Just as at all the courses we played this week, the hospitality and gracious treatment we received was world-class in every way. It's necessary to mention to prospective travelers that the problems that have been so prevalent in the international news in the recent past do not apply in Riviera Maya. Safety is NOT an issue.

Ease of transportation from our resort, Aventura Spa Palace, to all of these golf courses was quick and efficient. No commute was in excess of 45 minutes from this all-inclusive, centrally located resort. If there are members of the family who don't golf, there are activities for everyone at Aventura. In addition, day trips to Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba and evening excursions to Playa del Carmen are readily available.

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Revised: 03/09/2011 - Article Viewed 28,383 Times

About: John Ehle

John Ehle John Ehle writes for, GolfTrips,com and other golf-related sites in the US. He has attended 6 Open Championships in the British Isles and many men's and women's US Opens and PGA Championships as well as Ryder Cups and President's Cups.

His primary international writing is golf course reviews and travel articles. He also writes about golf equipment and other golf-related products. Most recently he traveled to Cuba and will be in SE Asia for 6 weeks in February and March, 2012.

He writes a weekly column for a metropolitan newspaper in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. He is a 10 handicap golfer and has competed in many Wisconsin State Golf Association events.

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