Puerto Rico’s Royal Isabela, the “Pebble Beach of the Caribbean”
More than 520 years after Columbus chanced upon the island that would become Puerto Rico, golf has finally discovered the coast bearing his queen’s name.
In 1988, a group of investors headed by former tennis champion Charlie Pasarell purchased more than 2,000 acres of land in Isabela, a Puerto Rican municipality on the island’s lush northwestern tip. They wanted to prevent any undesirable “improvements” by less environmentally- conscious speculators but mainly they wanted to create one of the Caribbean’s finest vacation destinations. The development, which Pasarell called Costa Isabela, would provide hundreds of jobs, giving the local economy a much-needed boost while boasting one or more golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, each of whom drew up routings.
With three-and-a-half miles of dreamy Atlantic beachfront rising to imposing 200-300-foot cliffs, and attractive, rolling inland terrain, it was the sort of property a visually-impaired monkey could have made something of—provided, of course, it had the financing. Pasarell, a proud Puerto Rican who had made a successful move into business and tennis administration (becoming heavily involved with the ATP Tour) following his retirement from competition, had long had his eyes on the area. After acquiring 76 parcels from 42 sellers, he began recruiting lawyers, land planners, architects, engineers, developers, operators, and consultants using the seed money his group had provided.
He also brought in TSA, a Japanese investment firm, to continue bankrolling the project. But after the Japanese economy collapsed in 1991, Costa Isabela ended up filing for Chapter 11 in Federal Bankruptcy Court. Pasarell’s dreams seemed all but dashed.
In late 1993, however, Charlie’s younger brother Stanley, himself a former tennis champion now in the family’s product distribution business—Puerto Rico Supplies Group—got involved in the project. It took about nine years, but the company used its considerable financial clout to extricate Costa Isabela from bankruptcy and also purchase it outright with Edwin Pérez, Stanley’s partner at PRSG, joining the Pasarells as sole partners.
Together they set Costa Isabela’s ball rolling by establishing a nursery that would provide trees for a future reforestation project, indigenous plants for landscaping, and turf for the golf courses. But, though they were natives of the island, descendants of one of its literary legends (Dr. Manuel Zeno Gandía), and principals of one of its most successful family- owned companies, the Pasarells had a hard time obtaining the necessary permits for anything else.
“It took several years to finally get the necessary permission to build a golf course,” says Stanley. “I certainly hadn’t anticipated it taking so long, and it meant we had to alter our initial plan for the first course and build it on the cliffs.”
Charlie, who envisaged a sort of Caribbean Pebble Beach, and Stanley, who sensed from what he had seen in his travels that good courses tended not to funnel through corridors of condos but retain the look and feel of their natural surroundings, knew they wanted no part of the plans Nicklaus, Palmer and Player had suggested a decade before. “Jack’s course ran north-south away from the ocean,” says Stanley. “It would have been a fine course I’m sure, but the best land with the ocean views was saved for building lots.”
Although the marketing advantages attached to any of the Big Three would have no doubt delivered a windfall, the Pasarells rejected their ideas and instead went with one of their own. With complete control over the development and without any obligation to secure as large a ROI as possible for the project’s former backers, they were free to use the oceanfront for golf.
Could they have bought Nicklaus back to implement their own plans? “Not only would it have been way more expensive,” Stanley says, “I’m also pretty sure Jack wouldn’t have welcomed being told what to do.”
The Pasarells were not golf construction experts, however. One of the first people on Charlie’s shortlist was David Pfaff, an architect whose name few people would recognize, but one with whom Charlie knew he could work.
A one-time Pete Dye associate, Pfaff had worked from 1976 to 1984 as the lead golf course architect for the Landmark Land Co, building courses such as Belle Terre (Louisiana), Oak Tree (Oklahoma), Carmel Valley Ranch (California) and a number of California desert layouts, including the Mountain and Dunes courses at La Quinta Hotel and the Mission Hills Resort Course in Rancho Mirage. To design its tennis facilities, Landmark hired Charlie Pasarell, who worked alongside Pfaff in planning and supervising construction of any grass courts that were included in the plans.
Because they had worked so well together, Pasarell would later call upon Pfaff several times when he and his fellow investors considered sites for development in France, Spain, Portugal, the UK, the Bahamas, Bimini, Mexico, the British Virgin Islands and Hawaii.
And Puerto Rico. “I first set foot on the Costa Isabela property in 1990, I believe,” says Pfaff. “I really didn’t hesitate in advising Charlie to buy it.”
Although Stanley had yet to meet him, he was sold after one conference call. “David Pfaff was it for me,” he says. “There really was no need to consider anyone else. From the very beginning, we had good chemistry and he had the disposition, patience, experience and self-assurance to put up with Charlie’s and my crazy ideas about the golf course.”
The Pasarells had devised their own routing, which included a few holes from Nicklaus and Palmer’s plans and which moved from the high ground where the clubhouse would be built down to the low-lying areas adjacent to El Pastillo Beach. “Because of permitting issues, however, we could only build seven of those holes,” said Pfaff who made 13 trips to Puerto Rico from his base in California during the first year of construction and 12 in each of the next two. “So the course now sits entirely on the high property.”
Those considering Royal Isabela (the 426-acre private golf club and resort that is the first development of the Costa Isabela master plan) for a vacation shouldn’t let that put them off though. While it’s a shame the original course doesn’t get closer to the water, many of the back-nine cliff-top holes are the stuff of inspiring office artwork and memories that could potentially linger for decades. The front nine possesses a number of fine holes of its own, holes that would make the cut at most other courses. But it is after the turn where Royal Isabela moves from good to great and finally, at the Par-3 17th, to mind-blowing (before finishing with a merely fine uphill Par 4). The lucky man whose job it is to maintain this beauty is Dean Vande Hei who worked in Naples, Fla., San Antonio and Scottsdale prior to beginning his new life in Puerto Rico in January 2008, about two and a half years before members began playing the course .
Vande Hei, who now heads a team of 28 golf course employees and 20 landscaping workers, says the climate can present a few challenges, especially during the winter months. “Though it can get very hot and humid at times, the climate is actually fairly consistent throughout the year. But in the winter, we don’t get as much daylight, so the grass doesn’t grow as aggressively as it does in summer.”
Even so, winter might be the best time to visit, adds Vande Hei, as the course is at its firmest then. “I water it less and, with a fairly constant 15-20mph wind, the surface remains dry,” he says. A few holes even begin to feel a little linksy, the magnificent Par- 4 14th in particular where a softarmed 4-iron approach under the wind from 150 yards might be the order of the day.
To complement the quality of the golf course and establish the resort’s intimate feel, the Pasarells built 20 elegant casitas each with 1,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor space made available to guests and members in November 2012, at the time of the resort’s official grand opening (future phases include plans for 18 villas to the right of the 6th fairway, and 26 one-acre homesites). Each possesses a living room, bedroom, bathroom with separate shower room, and plunge pool on an expansive deck. Some are positioned better than others meaning the view from your deck sits somewhere between very, very nice and sensational.
In the clubhouse (La Casa) area you find an inviting outside bar where F&B Manager Rafael (Manny) Bernaloa will tell you why Puerto Rican rum is the best in the Caribbean, a cozy library, and the fine-dining restaurant where Executive Chef José Carles serves up Puerto Rican dishes with ingredients sourced daily from the resort’s own Gatehouse Garden, the Atlantic Ocean, the nearby Guajataca River, and local cheese and bread makers. Trained by renowned Manhattan chef David “the Fish Whisperer” Pasternak, Carles says his most popular dish is the Banana Leaf Papillote—fresh local fish with organic vegetables grown in the resort’s own garden and roasted in a banana leaf— although the lobster roasted in the woodstone oven goes down pretty well too.
The Pasarell brothers have made an impressive start in their quest to create a genuinely world-class destination. Last month it took first place among Puerto Rican golf resorts at the World Travel Awards (WTA) Caribbean and North American Gala, and it will only get better as additional golf courses are built. Although Pfaff died unexpectedly in May at the age of 74, he routed four more courses on the Costa Isabela estate, including a second course at Royal Isabela, which will, he insisted, take golfers down to the beach at last. That course has the potential to be as good as anything in the Caribbean, including Pete Dye’s fantastic Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, where Pfaff oversaw construction.
It’s an obvious analogy given their backgrounds, but at Royal Isabela on the northwest cost of Puerto Rico, Charlie and Stanley Pasarell have clearly served up an ace.