Mention to friends that you’re taking a golf trip to Mexico and they’ll likely assume you’re headed to one of two places: Cabo or Cancún. But if you’re seeking old-fashioned charm, you’ll be off to Puerto Vallarta, an under-the-radar hot spot that combines spectacular seaside courses and resorts with quintessentially Mexican haunts. Locals will tell you that those other tourist hubs were master-planned by hoteliers with American travelers in mind, but Puerto Vallarta remains an authentic town that just happens to be visitor-friendly.
As the backdrop for The Night of the Iguana (1964), Puerto Vallarta made headlines when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began a scandalous affair while Burton was shooting the film. Although the town back then had plenty to offer vacationers—pristine beaches, terrific surfing, fresh- and saltwater fishing, a thriving art scene—it was missing one important draw: golf. Not until the late nineties did some of the leading course designers in America descend on the area, and thanks to their work Puerto Vallarta now ranks squarely among Mexico’s finest places to play.
Flying into Puerto Vallarta is an easy one-stop shot (with a connection in either Houston or Los Angeles) from most major U.S. cities. The preferred method of transport once you arrive is taxi, so there’s no need to rent a car. Grab your bags off the belt at Ordaz International Airport and hail a cab.
Have the driver take you to Vista Vallarta Club de Golf, just ten minutes away. Here you’ll find two superb eighteens (one was designed by Jack Nicklaus, the other by Tom Weiskopf) in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Unlike its more exacting sibling, the Nicklaus layout has fairways as wide as cornfields, making it the best place to get your legs under you after the trip and dust off your game. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can sleepwalk through the round. The course has sharp enough teeth to have hosted the 2002 World Cup, and a misfired approach on most holes will leave you in a nasty bunker. Also, be sure to heed this insider’s piece of advice: From the fourth hole on, every putt breaks toward Banderas Bay.
After the round, set off for the Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort in Nuevo Vallarta and check in. Although there’s no shortage of places to stay, Grand Velas offers not only luxury but also convenience. The resort is just a fifteen-minute ride from the heart of Puerto Vallarta—close enough for you to pop into town for a gallery tour or a meal but far enough removed to offer a quieter setting in an upscale hotel district along the beach.
Have dinner at French-themed Piaf, one of three fine restaurants at the resort. Food and drink are included in the cost of a stay, so no need to hold back, although while you’re in town you’ll also want to venture out for some of the delicious regional Mexican fare.
After a night of Don Julio tequila and salsa dancing or Modelo beer and cigars, you’ll be relieved to know that you can sleep in until minutes before your tee time this morning at El Tigre Club de Golf, which is around the corner. The course, designed by Robert von Hagge, Rick Baril and Mike Smelek, unfolds in a series of exacting doglegs. Water flirts with two-thirds of the holes, most notably at the island-green par-three sixth. Even the straightest hitters will have trouble avoiding the sand, thanks to no fewer than 150 bunkers, many of them hidden behind fairway mounds.