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Costa Rica: Golf on the Wild Side
by Dale Leatherman

February 24, 2005—Life is good in Costa Rica. So good that visitors find themselves exclaiming "pura vida!" every few minutes. Though the Spanish expression literally means "pure life," Costa Ricans use it for everything from "thank you" to "lucky putt."

We caught on quickly. A beautiful sunset, a delicious meal, a golf shot that worked out just right—"pura vida!" Sitting under a waterfall flowing warm from an active volcano—"pura vida!"

We went to Central America seeking golf and outdoor adventure, and found both in abundance. In less than a decade, the number of notable golf courses has jumped from one to six. All are by major designers and most are couched in luxury resorts. The most recent is an Arnold Palmer creation opened in 2004 at the new Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste. And more courses are on the drawing board.

Granted, that's not a lot of courses in a country the size of West Virginia—perhaps not enough to make it a golf destination in the truest sense. But you can—as we did—have a wonderful time playing all six and enjoying other activities along the way.

The oldest 18-hole course in Costa Rica (and the finest in Central America for more than 25 years), Cariari was designed by George Fazio and built by Tom Fazio on a tight strip of former coffee plantation in San Jose. The course was the site of the 2002 Costa Rica Open, which drew competitors from all over the world. This is the perfect place to start a golf/adventure trip, with an early morning round after flying into San Jose the previous evening.

The layout cups briefly around the comfortable 220-room Melia Cariari Conference Center & Golf Resort, then sallies off into beautifully landscaped parkland, changing elevation many times along the way. Mature, flowering trees lean into narrow, tilted fairways. The "bad bounce" is a fact of life, and with so many trees there's little need for fairway bunkers. Bunkering comes on with a vengeance near the greens, which are generous but fast.

A new course 15 minutes from San Jose is Parque Valle del Sol, a revival of a "gringo's folly" built in the 1970s by a North American as a private course for him and his friends. Under new ownership the Tracy May redesign is the centerpiece of a flourishing upscale community. It's not a cliché to say you'll need every club in your bag here. But which one? If it's windy—and it usually is—normal strategy is out the window. If you are not humbled by the deadly placement of 13 water hazards, the 630-yard final hole, uphill to a green blocked by a big tree, will surely do it. On a calm day this is an entertaining and equable course.

Located on a spectacular 1.5-mile long beach in the coastal Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, the Paradisus Playa Conchal is a resort I fell in love with at first glance. All 300 guestrooms are luxury mini-suites, where clever configuration and an elevated sleeping area create the feeling of a much larger space. The all-incusive resort has every amenity and activity imaginable, including five decent restaurants and a massive freeform swimming pool with waterfalls, rock outcroppings, and lounge areas shaded by palms.

Robert Trent Jones II's Garre de Leon ("Lion's Paw") is as beautiful as the resort, with flowering foliage and huge, scalloped sand bunkers punctuating fairways and greens. The 7,080-yard course runs along bluffs high above the Pacific Ocean, with views of distant mountains, the red tile roofs of the resort and, occasionally, the ocean. Home to many species of colorful birds and small animals, Garre de Leon is Latin America's first Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

We found the fairways wide and inviting, but the way is mined with strategic fairway bunkers as well as lagoons and grassy ravines. Most greens are sizeable, but often tiered or undulating. Simply put, Garre de Leon is a pleasure to play, especially late in the day as shadows lengthen and the course sculpting stands out in sharp relief. Jones' clever work compels you to plan a stroke or two ahead, and dares you to take chances.

Not far from Melia Playa Conchal, an upscale resort community is slowly taking shape on a 5,000-acre beachfront cattle farm, Hacienda Pinella. The centerpiece is a 7,500-yard Mike Young design. Some day the place will teem with people, but right now it is often deserted, like a stage before the props arrive. The golf course is groomed to perfection for the handful of players who come over from hotels in Tamarindo or Playa Conchal. Working with a relatively flat piece of land, Young dimpled the wide fairways with deep pot bunkers that are invisible from a distance. Head-high grasses out of bounds rustle in the wind or with the movement of unseen birds and animals, so that playing here has the feel of an African safari.

The greens are wavy and fast, calling for the cautious bump and run. As at Conchal, the best time to play this course is evening, when shadows rest in the bunkers and there is the promise of a beautiful sunset over the beach near the fourteenth hole. On a still day, the course is not difficult, but there are very few still days. The norm is 30 to 50 m.p.h. winds.

Eight years ago, the scene at Herradura Bay southwest of San Jose was much like Hacienda Pinella—a cattle farm and an American with a dream. California developer Bill Royster has since established a luxurious resort and world-class marina, and started several residential communities at the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort (Los Suenos is Spanish for dream).

The resort's piece de resistance is a 6,700-yard Ted Robinson Jr. design. The front nine plunges into the shadow of the rainforest along a narrow river valley. From the hills there is an occasional chorus of howler monkeys, and sometimes colorful toucans streak across the fairways. Los Suenos' back nine loops into another valley for five holes, including a couple of very technical challenges, then circles a pretty plain near the ocean.

The new Four Seasons Papagayo is located on a slender promontory with beaches on both sides and cliffs rising as high as 1,000 feet. The Arnold Palmer design is carved into the flanks of these hills, with frequent elevation changes and views of the Pacific. Scattered across the hillside are 165 guest rooms and suites that spacious, with furnished balconies and Four Seasons' signature oversized bathrooms. I have not yet visited the property, but from all reports it is spectacular. I've never found a Four Seasons lacking in any respect.

In Search of Adventure

Playing the country's top five courses took my photographer and I on a loop that gave us a chance to see the country and sample activities that make Costa Rica a major destination for nature lovers and sporting folk. On route from San Jose to Playa Conchal, we stayed the night at Tabacon Resort, where on clear nights you can see the molten peak of Arenal Volcano from your patio. The next morning we soaked in natural pools of spring water heated by the volcano, then rode ATVs into the National Park for a closer look (with binoculars) at the fire-breathing mountain.

After a morning round at Los Suenos, we hopped into an outrigger canoe for a quick paddle out to a snorkeling spot off the coast, then stopped for cocktails at Villa Caletas, a cliffside hotel with a small amphitheater where guests gather daily to watch spectacular sunsets.

Taking a day off from golf, we joined guides from the Rios Tropicales rafting company for a natural roller coaster ride through the jungle on the Pacuare River, one of the world's top five whitewater rivers. Later we found still waters and glimpses of rare birds and lurking crocodiles on a Calypso river cruise.

Another morning found us playing Tarzan with Chiclets Canopy Tours, sliding along cables in the treetops high above the floor of the rainforest. In need of a sanity check, we spent a quiet afternoon observing butterflies and hummingbirds, and hiking to a succession of waterfalls in the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens, a privately owned nature park and wildlife refuge.

For a change of pace from big resorts, we stayed in an open-air cottage at Vista del Valle Plantation, a charming cliff-top eco-resort owned by ex-pat Americans Johanna and Mike Bresnan (an avid golfer). Johanna is a horsewoman, so together we rode through coffee plantations on a scenic mountain trail.

Despite all efforts, we only sampled a fraction of all there is to do besides fine golf. It was no mistake that Columbus named this the "rich coast," Costa Rica. About the size of West Virginia or Nova Scotia, Costa Rica lies between Nicaragua and Panama on the narrow land bridge linking the Americas. Bound by the Caribbean on the east and the Pacific on the west, it is a naturalist's wonderland. A dozen climactic zones range from lofty cloud forests to steamy rainforests and dry savannahs. National parks encompass more than a quarter of the small country, providing sanctuaries for 850 species of birds, 1,200 species of orchids, and countless animals.

The best time to visit is between December and February, the early part of the dry season. The rainy season lasts from May to November, but mornings are usually sunny during this time. The international airport in San Jose is about a 3-hour flight from Miami, Atlanta, Houston or Dallas. It's about 4 hours from New York.

We arranged our trip through Costa Rica Golf Adventures (www.GolfCR.com), the oldest and largest golf tour company in the country. We got to know owners Landy and Susan Blank, and played several rounds with Landy. These happy ex-pats gambled on the possibility of Costa Rica becoming a hot golf and adventure destination for Americans and have seen it come to be.

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