Submitted and Written by Bill Nestor
Traveling to Mexico’s west coast was a welcomed respite for this winter-weary Vermonter, and a superb choice of destinations for anyone in search of an idyllic sun-drenched location, delicious culinary indulgence, exceptional hospitality and weather made for ultimate relaxation, rejuvenation and rapture.
My time at the St. Regis and Four Seasons five-star beach and spa resorts with two Jack Nicklaus Signature courses in Punta Mita, and at LaTranquila Resort with Greg Norman’s Litibu layout a few miles north, was the whole enchilada.
Punta Mita, in the Mexican state of Nayarit, occupies a lovely setting on Banderas Bay, 40 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta International Airport. Miles of white sand beach and ocean surround a gated 1,500-acre lush tropical peninsular property developed by DINE, Mexico’s premier real estate developer.
The luxurious Four Seasons Resort occupies a captivating slice of the isthmus, and it has set the standard for excellence at Punta Mita since opening in 1999. Its understated elegance, extraordinary dining, exquisite service and spectacular sunsets have made it a consistently shining star as one of the most desirable destinations in the world. The Four Seasons Punta Mita has been on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List from 2005 – 2011. (www.fourseasons.com/puntamita/)
Ten years later, the St. Regis Resort further enhanced Punta Mita’s prominence as an upscale luxury paradise, welcoming visitors to its beachfront setting, capacious guestrooms and suites with pleasant terraces and entrancing ocean views. The charming tile-roofed casitas, adorned with stylish rustic Mexican décor and handcrafted furnishings, create a relaxingly seductive and tranquil ambiance. The private outdoor stone shower and a 24-hour butler accentuate St. Regis’ attention to detail and service. (www.stregis.com/puntamita)
Punta Mita Golf-Pacifico and Bahia
There are eight ocean-side golf holes at the Nicklaus Pacifico course, including one of the most unique ever devised, the Tail of the Whale, hole 3B. It plays from the shoreline to the world’s largest natural island green. Pacifico includes 19 holes, with back-to-back par three holes 3A and 3B. The black lava island green is accessible by cart via causeway at low tide or amphibious buggy at mid-tide.
The course is no push over, but the fairways are generous. The approach shots are testing, but the surroundings are always magnificent. The course slope ratings leap from 114 for the 4,974-yard tees up to 131 for the hefty 7,014-yard markers. Since 1999, the scenic beauty and softly undulating coastal routing on 200 acres has offered a challenging and pleasurable play adjacent to the Four Seasons.
“You would be hard-pressed to ask for a more beautiful backdrop for a golf course than Punta Mita,” Nicklaus said of the course. “To be given spectacular oceanfront land as a canvas not once, but twice, here at Punta Mita is exciting for a designer. I’m confident people are going to enjoy the challenge and beauty of this golf course, as well as the incredible scenery.”
Bahia was the second opportunity Nicklaus had, opening in 2008, and making Punta Mita, “that much more of a golfer’s destination,” said director of golf Phillip Ferrari. Bahia’s greens are a bit larger and more undulating, guarded by deeper and more abundant bunkering–up to seven deep-faced traps around some greens. Hence, more challenging play.
Bahia’s verdant fairways are wide and rolling, coursing around residential housing, the St. Regis Resort and along six ocean holes. Precisely delineated transition zones are more prevalent here than on Pacifico. Players can choose tees and slopes ranging from 5,037 yards (116 slope) to 7,035 yards (131).
Pacifico and Bahia are an impressive duo, adding to the mystique and attraction of Punta Mita as a golf vacation destination, reserved for homeowners and guests of the St Regis and Four Seasons. The Punta Mita Golf Club is owned by DINE and operated by the Four Seasons under the guidance of Phillip Ferrari.
I had the pleasure of teeing up on Pacifico and Bahia for exuberant rounds with St. Regis GM Carl Emberson; Punta Mita’s head golf professional Arturo Castro, and assistant golf pro Remberto Macias. (www.puntamita.com/jack_nicklaus_golf.html)
La Tranquila Resort /Litibu Golf
Unlike the Punta Mita development, where no buildings exceed three stories, the towers at La Tranquila Resort-Spa & Beach Club, a few miles up the coast in Litibu, ascend seven floors. Viewed from oceanfront rooms, the white sand beach shoreline stretches for miles and the aqua blue ocean panorama seems endless. There were daily sources of wonderment: watching Humpback whales offshore, Great Frigatebirds floating by at eye level, and impressive sunsets. Modern design and décor in the high-ceiling oversized rooms blend with a ubiquitous, azure sky and sea vistas. Water flowing to a mega swimming pool complex runs through the lobby under a clear glass floor to a large beachside, infinity pool.
La Tranquila Resort is part of Playa Libitu, a project sponsored by Mexico’s Tourism Development Authority, Fonatur. The plan includes Litibu Golf Club, a public course. Fonatur has invested $67 million to establish the golf course, five resorts and 4,000 rooms in Litibu. La Tranquila, the first resort ready for guests had one tower with 25 one, two and three bedroom units available during my visit. Phase 2 will add four towers and 255 more units. (www.latranquila.com.mx)
Greg Norman’s design, adjacent to the resort, is a delightful layout of well-crafted holes routed over 168 acres of rolling terrain. It ambles through a mix of open and jungle landscapes, playable from 5,295 to 7,022 yards. Salt-tolerant Paspalum sea-dwarf grass, ideal for the seaside location, runs from tee to green–broken up, however, by 130 bunkers.
The picturesque 13th hole, a 483-yard par-4 is framed by Monkey Mountain as a backdrop, a green complex fronted by six bunkers, and large Gringo and Parota trees behind the green. Together they form a striking symbol of golfing at Litibu, an artistic golf routing through a tropical Mexican wonderland.
Shortly after opening in 2010, Litibu Golf Club hosted a Canadian Tour event. Then, a few months later, torrential rains triggered mudslides that wiped out hillsides, homes, roads and bridges in the area. Washouts and layers of mud closed the course. When I visited, the back nine was playable but the front side was not quite ready for prime time. It should be shipshape by spring, and will ultimately have a pro shop, clubhouse and snack bar, practice tee and driving range. (Website under development.)
Mystical Culinary Journey
Many changes are evident since I first traveled the Nayarit coast to surf in 1967, but genuine Mexico still flourishes. Native culture and history are interwoven and celebrated in architecture, towns, villages and resorts throughout the region.
The same is true of the cuisine. Mexican food and drink are an essential part of the Four Seasons, St. Regis and La Tranquila experiences. Their palate pleasing menu selections reflect distinctive, original regional tastes and infused gastronomic marvels. Culinary delights fashioned by talented and passionate chefs yielded multiple eruptions of cascading flavors, exotic aromas, and zesty seasonings, serving after serving. I savored a mystical parade of succulent culinary magic.
Resort Executive Chef Sebastian Fontes supervises culinary conception, preparation and presentation for all restaurants at the St. Regis Resort. A sumptuous collection of melt-in-your mouth choices, celebrating Mexican heritage with an international upscale flair were created under the direction of Chef Sylvain Deboise at St. Regis’ AAA Five Diamond Award signature Carolina Restaurant and by Pablo Lopez Ortega at the Sea Breeze, a casual California bistro-style eatery.
At The Four Seasons Executive Chef Philippe Piel oversees all its restaurants. Ketsi serves traditional Mexican dishes with a contemporary twist. World-renowned Los Angeles-based Chef Richard Sandoval, who has been instrumental in redefining the cuisine of his Mexican roots and become a leader in the upscale Latin Culinary Movement, guides on premise Chef Jose Salas.
At Bahia, an open-air restaurant on Las Cuevas beach, Chef Raul Lúcido creates a tasty mesquite-grilled fare, ideal for casual sunset dinners and margaritas. Chef Jorge Gonzalez serves up a hallowed offering of gastronomic delicacies at Aramara. The enchanting restaurant features exotic contemporary Asian cuisine integrating traditional methods, innovative techniques and native ingredients.
Dining at La Tranquila was another dazzling extravaganza of culinary art with flair and imagination. Executive Chef Mariana Solis spun her spell with a luscious lineup of modern Mexican cuisine paired with flavorsome, indigenous wine varietals in the Green Bistro Restaurant. Each dish, prepared with locally grown, raised or caught ingredients, was seasoned with a blend of spice recipes handed down from Mariana’s Grandmother and proffered exquisite flavors.
Travelers will have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the magical combination of Punta Mita hospitality, culinary passion, and golf during a special event April 28 to May 1. According to Carl Emberson, general manager of the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, “The Punta Mita Gourmet & Golf Classic will feature gourmet meals prepared by distinguished chefs from Mexico and around the world, a series of wine and tequila tasting, and festive gatherings at the luxurious St. Regis and Four Seasons Punta Mita resorts and The Punta Mita Cup, a two-day golf tournament on Bahia and Pacifico.” (www.puntamitagourmetgolf.com)
Development of Mexico’s newest tourism initiative will bring additional resorts, boutique hotels, spas, and golf courses to Riviera Nayarit along more than 100 miles of pristine shoreline from Punta Mita to San Blas. The region abounds in authentic and enduring culture at resorts and in coastal towns and villages under a backdrop of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Riviera Nayarit is a vision of brilliant sunsets, white sand beaches, resident and migratory wildlife, unspoiled fishing communities and a history dating back to the Aztecs.
It’s difficult to imagine that Punta Mita could be much more desirable than it already is. But future plans, calling for another golf course and another luxury resort, can only burnish its place in this appealing slice of paradise.
This piece has appeared, in slightly different forms, at GoGolfandTravel.com and in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Golf Today Magazine.
Bill Nestor (email@example.com) writes about travel, golf and lifestyle from his home in Vermont.