Not five minutes had passed since the shuttle dropped us off at the Puerto Vallarta airport after three and half days in Punta Mita paradise when my wife uttered the words I knew I’d hear eventually.
“When are we coming back?”
And she’s not even a golfer. I am, of course, and I second her emotion. Third it, even. We gotta get back here, and soon.
After years of somehow avoiding the Mexico mainland (or any other part of America’s southern neighbor) for a tropical visit, we hit the getaway jackpot by taking part in the eighth edition of the Punta Mita Gourmet & Golf Classic, a late fall foray into the best cuisine, hospitality and seaside swinging that Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit has to offer.
Tucked between the towering Sierra Madre mountains and Pacific Ocean, the stunning stretch of coastline starts just north of Puerto Vallarta and includes the Punta Mita peninsula itself which, from the air, looks like a deep green camel’s head drinking deeply of the heaving, azure sea. Title sponsor American Express, Punta Mita’s real estate developer Dine (pronounced deen-ay), the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau and St. Regis and Four Seasons resorts welcome hundreds of sun-seeking customers, clients and other guests to a luxury-steeped swatch of water, beach, manicured jungle and coiffed fairways and greens that, I realized as we sipped Mexican beer and soaked up sunset rays slanting through stacks of purple clouds, is every bit the equal of Hawaii — without the five-hour flight from America’s West Coast.
Speaking of beer: Negra Modelo, Pacifico and a few local brews that most Yanks have never tasted, but should, were just one ingredient in the beverage binge we enjoyed during our all-too-brief stay. After checking in at the Four Seasons and settling into our “standard” garden view suite that was anything but, we grabbed a ride back to the breezeway-slash-lobby on one of the resort’s ubiquitous multi-seated golf carts.
“We’ve got a special shuttle waiting for you,” an attendant told us, pointing to a brand-new Tesla Model X for a quick jaunt to the St. Regis’s Sea Breeze restaurant, sprawling public courtyards and cabanas for the event’s welcoming cocktail bash sponsored by Aeromexico and Delta. After stepping into the sultry evening breeze we were immediately offered champagne, and moments later we found our way to one of several well-stocked bars where the mixologist whipped up a pale pink concoction.
“What is that?” I asked. “Paloma,” came the answer. I held up two fingers, appropriate because the refreshing drink is made with Patron blanco tequila, pink grapefruit juice, a dash of sugar and fresh lime juice — Margarita’s lower-calorie cousin. We were in; the drink became our go-to as each evening’s festivities played out.
And the food? What a way to begin: Several tended stations prepared fresh takes on “true” Mexican cuisine from the kitchens of three renowned chefs from both sides of the border — John Signorelli from the St. Regis Houston, Erik Guerrero from DOS restaurant in Veracruz and Alex Branch from Hakasana Group in Los Cabos. In the dizzying array of tastes and textures, our favorite was a succulent bit of grilled pork belly on a warm tortilla, topped with fresh salsa.
Over the Gourmet & Golf tournament’s two days of competition in the strong Mexican sun, beer took precedence for me and my Guadalajaran playing partners, Pedro and Pedro Pablo, as we encountered the dozen or so food and drink stations dotting both of Jack Nicklaus’s Pacifico (opened in 1999) and Bahia (2009) layouts, breaking up the suds with the occasional mini-margarita, glass of south-of-the-border wine, shot of exquisite regional tequila or, better yet, mezcal, which is smokier — an anejo-based take on single malt whisky. With such libations and all sorts of incredible edible morsels from top-shelf chefs — incredibly fresh ceviche, lightly grilled octopus, succulent veggie burritos, addictive street tacos al pastor — under my belt, concentrating on each shot was tough, especially on the dozen seaside holes between the two tracks, including Pacifico’s famous “Tail of the Whale” hole with its green cradled among rocks and surf on a natural island some 185 yards from the beach-side middle tee. We took turns giving that island our best shots, as did everyone who came through, though since the tide had come in and the green wasn’t accessible by cart — we’d have needed stroke backstrokes or scuba gear to get there — it didn’t count on the official scorecard.
Actually, our threesome wasn’t officially part of the formal tournament due to a clerical error, and that was a blessing. We could just have fun playing our own balls rather than grinding over every shot and sweating the final team scores, based on a best ball format one day and two-person handicapped scramble the other, as the other 200 or so golfers did. And I didn’t have to stress when I thought my snap-hooked tee shot on Bahia’s handsome, beachside par 4 17th was lost to the waves; I just reloaded, hooked one even further left (this time with an unmistakable splash) and moved on, only to discover that my first ball had ricocheted off a rock and back into play at the very edge of the fairway, leaving a simple wedge home.
Ah, yes, the good life in Mexico, and it never waned.
Not when I showed up for each day’s outdoor pre-tournament breakfast feast on the expansive practice range, digging into truly fresh fruit (you just don’t see mangoes like this back home in Reno), made-to-order omelets, colorful Mexican pastries and fried chilaquiles.
Not when we teed off just as the sun breached the tree-line and spread broad, dewy shadows over gently rolling fairways, trickily tiered greens and broad waste bunkers, including a big palm-dotted expanse on Pacifico that ties several holes together. Not when our rounds tumbled down to the ocean in one heart-swelling view after another, or when Mexico’s greatest player ever, Lorena Ochoa, and 1982 Masters champion Craig Stadler — the event’s special guests — greeted us during our rounds.
Not when I reunited with my wife for several incredible meals, including Chef Atzin Santos’ six-course dinner lineup of Mexican and Spanish delicacies on Friday — again the pastor porkbelly with fermented pineapple and macha sauce was a standout — and Saturday’s delicious and delicate vegan lunch authored by Chef Leslie Durso, both at Bahia, the Four Seasons’ open-air restaurant overseen by Richard Sandoval (I skipped the tournament’s epic awards lunch back at the range, which, I’m told, was off the charts).
Not when we kicked the party up a notch at the American Express Platinum House, otherwise known as Punta Mita’s Kupuri Beach Club, sipping yet more signature cocktails and supping on mini-miracles of deep, cross-cultural flavors lovingly prepared by Chefs Antonio de Livier, Yasuo Asai, Abraham Salum, Sergio Chávez, Andrew Ormsby, Betty Vásquez, Alfredo Villanueva and Pato Pérsico.
In fact, through the weekend, every bite of tender seafood, farm-to-table vegetables and spices and locally sourced meats was a revelation of freshness, chipping away at my stubborn gringo preconceptions of what Mexican food is, and should be. We savored that celebratory closing dinner to the sound of the crashing surf, which in turn was the backdrop for a full stage erected on the beach. As the music began we sipped and swayed and laughed into the night, enjoying every starlit minute among our fellow revelers. It was the second day of December but felt like its own holiday.
But the glorious gluttony wasn’t over. Sunday morning brought a farewell brunch to the Sea Breeze — a traditional buffet inside, yet more delicacy-dealing food stations outside, the Pacific singing its timeless song a short par 4 away, and a warm realization that we’d just taken part in the kind of getaway that should be shared not only by golfers, but by their significant others. All the smiling charm and gentle spirit of the Mexican people, all the beauty of Riviera Nayarit, that state’s best golf without question, and the luxuries of its two finest resorts are brought to bear on one sweet little peninsula. And early next December will bring it alive for the ninth time.
Then again, we may not wait that long. We fell hard for this place, we know how to get there with relative ease, and we know the welcome extends to every month and every sun-seeking soul, whether or not you’re packing clubs.
Únete a nosotros por el tiempo de tu vida, ¿verdad?