Golf travel: A taste of Mexico at Punta Mita

Tania Ritchie and her husband were sailing around the world when friends of the Canadian couple asked to make a detour to view property. 

Between mountains and the endless Pacific on a crescent of pristine beach is Punta Mita, a former fishing village on a private peninsula at the southernmost point of the Riviera Nayarit, 30 miles south of the resort city of Puerto Vallarta in the Mexican state of Jalisco. A funny thing happened on their way around the world: The Ritchies ended up being the property buyers, calling off the sailing trip and never looking back. 

“We were thinking we’d settle in Paris, maybe,” she says. “We had no intention of buying in Mexico, but we just knew and here we are 13 years later.”

Tania shared her origin story to this palm-shaded oasis of warm breezes, oceanfront holes and guaranteed good times between bites at a post-round feast last December at the 10th annual Golf & Gourmet, where I competed and hobnobbed along with golf greats Lorena Ochoa, Craig Stadler and Jean Van de Velde. It is the gated community’s signature and most anticipated event of the year, a four-day extravaganza of dining, drinking, teeing off and tastings. It is a modern-day bacchanalia with celebrity chefs, mixologists and sommeliers flown in for a weekend of culinary excellence, and it’s a bucket-list trip worth taking for golfers and non-golfers. (If anyone needs a partner, I’m available.)

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

Punta Mita’s Bahia Course in Mexico (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

I went solo because it was too soon for my wife and I both to be away from our then-10-month-old daughter. I promised my better half – not to mention the better golfer in the family – that one day I’d make it up to her. Never did I expect I’d deliver on the promise less than a year later, but that I did in October. The first time we were both away from our daughter – who we left in good hands with two of my sisters-in-law – felt like a belated babymoon.

A little more than 20 years ago, this southwest point on the Riviera Nayarit was nothing more than an off-the-grid spot for hardcore surfers. No one could have imagined that two championship golf courses, multimillion-dollar villas and two luxurious resorts, the Four Seasons and St. Regis, would be carved out of 1,500 acres of jungle on Banderas Bay.

On my first trip here, it didn’t take me long to discover why the Ritchies and tourists that enjoy activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing and fishing tend to fall hard for the intoxicating beauty of Punta Mita, especially at the Four Seasons Resort, where guests are welcomed at its thatched-roof – what the locals call a palapas – and open-air lounge and descend to a sparkling infinity pool at its center. Prepare to be blown away by views that register an 11 for “Wow” factor. 

Punta Mita in Mexico map
Punta Mita in Mexico map

My accommodations were modern and elegant, and I opened the sliding glass door to draw in breezes off the electric-blue sea. But this is a place where you want to spend as little time in your room as possible. 

I could’ve taken up permanent residence in the infinity pool, where the bartenders wade into the water to deliver drinks and snacks. I kept seeing sunbathers sipping straws out of coconuts, so I finally asked a middle-aged American tourist the name of this fanciful concoction. “Coco Loco,” he said of the mixture of gin, vodka, tequila and lime. “It’s kind of like a Long Island Iced Tea, but with tequila. You’ve got to have one … but only one!”

The St. Regis is every bit the equal of the Four Seasons for living in the lap of luxury, including a personal butler at your beck and call and a champagne toast for guests every Friday at sunset to ring in the weekend. There are two more five-star resorts scheduled to be built as part of a next phase in the development, one of which will be operated by Montage Hotels and Resorts. 

But when I visited with my wife, we stayed in a gorgeous rental property at the Tau Residences, which included our own terrace pool and a view of Bahia’s 17th green that could even be seen from the shower in the master bath. In effect the decision is to stay at one of the resorts and enjoy its amenities or choose from the many rental properties and receive access to the five beach clubs that dot the property and be treated as if you are the member-owner. It’s a bit like choosing between filet mignon and lobster tail for dinner. As someone who has done them both – the equivalent of surf and turf – I promise you can’t go wrong either way.

Sand, surf and signature drinks

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

The coconut drinks at Kupuri at Punta Mita in Mexico (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

Set on the northern tip of Banderas Bay, Punta Mita is a spear-shaped peninsula, bordered on three sides by more than nine miles of white-sugary shoreline. My wife and I made the rounds exploring the various beach clubs, beginning with Sufi. This was not by accident. Not long after my first trip to Punta Mita, a member at my home club that I had never met before stopped me when he recognized the Punta Mita logo on my shirt and raved about the food there. He called it the best meal of his life and waited for me to agree. Only problem was that I hadn’t had a chance to eat there on my first trip. I intended to rectify that omission on our first night. We headed there as soon as we unpacked our bags and noshed on fresh guacamole and chips while soaking in the sun by a pool long enough to satisfy my love of swimming laps.

John McIntrye, Punta Mita’s director of golf, met us at Sufi for a tequila tasting at 6. Neither my wife nor I imbibe in Mexico’s signature alcohol made from the blue agave plant beyond the occasional frozen margarita – still scarred from the cheap stuff of college frat party days – but we figured when in Rome. We tried a variety of tequilas from blanco to reposado and anejo, and we were instructed to swish it to the back of our tongue to wash the flavor of the agave. The first sip is to clean the palate, the second is to taste it. Better than I remember. (Mezcal is trendy in the States these days, but drinking it straight to me tasted like jet fuel. Many love it in an artisan cocktail.)

With each sampling, the tequilas became smoother and sweeter. One was recommended with smoked salt and an orange, a more gourmet version of salt and lime and the classic lick, sip, suck. After another tasting arrived with a chocolate brownie, John said, “We’re really doing this backwards.”

On to dinner, where Sufito Restaurant lived up to the hype, combining the flavors of Mexico and the Mediterranean, and gets a perfect 10 for its to-die-for setting overlooking Banderas Bay. But is it my favorite restaurant in the world? I’m not even sure it was my favorite meal of the week.

The black cod at Asai, a fresh take on Japanese-Asian cuisine at Kupuri Beach Club in one of the loveliest corners of the peninsula, had my wife and me battling over the final bites. Or was it our meal at El Surf Club, a long ride away so make sure your golf cart, which is the chief mode of transportation, is fully charged. Al fresco lunch is served beachside and the menu – described as “sophisticated surf shack” – is written in chalk appropriately enough on a longboard. The super-grain bowl with tuna and salmon that I devoured ranks as the tastiest lunch of the year. But we’re still talking about the breakfast burrito at the golf club, which was otherworldly.

Don’t miss the sunset at Pacifico Beach Club or the Michelada, a Mexican concoction of beer, lime juice, assorted sauces, spices and chili peppers (and occasionally Clamato juice) in a salt-rimmed glass on the golf course or the complimentary smoothie served at the turn by Andres that tasted a lot like a mojito. At Kupuri, we dined under a shaded, beach-front pergola and sampled a Mitarita, another favorite local cocktail in which the soursop and mango are meant to remind you of the tropical flavors of Punta Mita, the agave syrup of the sweetness that represents the community, the dry pepper of Mexico and its flavors, all while the tequila gives warmth to the cocktail.

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

The waterfront pool deck at Four Seasons Punta Mita in Mexico (Courtesy of Four Seasons)

This was followed by the inevitable snooze in the sun, lulled by the sound of gentle waves in Litibu Bay. Afterward we drifted over to the bar and its poolside swings, and sipped a Coco Loco – remember, only one! – out of coconuts. Nothing says you’re on vacation in a tropical paradise like fresh coconut.

There’s really no reason to leave the gates, but the town of Punta de Mita is quaint and golf carts are welcome there. We went for a drink and were told to order a margarita at either La Rustica, known for its wood-fired oven pizza, or Si Senor, and I still dream about Hector’s Kitchen, where I feasted on the most delicious take on red snapper during Golf & Gourmet.

Had this been the sum of our experience – lounging by the beach and pools, delicious meals and massages, rinse and repeat – we would have departed with smiles on our sun-tanned faces. But the golf is top notch too, with Punta Mita Golf Club featuring two Jack Nicklaus Signature Designs that rank in the top 10 of Golfweek’s Best list of top courses in Mexico, the Caribbean, the Atlantic Islands and Central America. Pacifico, dating from 1999, reopened in November 2021 after a six-month closure to restore the greens, bunkers and surrounds with TifEagle Bermuda grass. 

“Pacifico has very strong bones, just like we knew in the beginning,” says Jim Lipe, lead design associate for both the original build and the renovation, who was given license to add some complexity to the greens, which had shrunk by 35 percent and were flat and benign by Nicklaus’ standards.

Tail of the Whale

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

The Tail of the Whale – hole 3B – at Punta Mita’s Pacifico Course in Mexico (Courtesy of Punta Mita Golf Club)

About the only bummer of the trip was that the world’s only golf hole with a natural island green, Hole 3B nicknamed “Tail of the Whale” or Cola de la Ballena, wasn’t entirely in play during our round. That’s because the rocky cart path to the black-lava island green was submerged by several feet of water from the Sea of Cortez. That’s what happens when the tide is up.

Nicklaus calls the photogenic 194-yard carry over the Pacific Ocean “probably the best par 3 I’ve ever designed,” and he’ll get no argument here. I’m quite jealous of my brother-in-law, who once won a closest-to-the-pin contest there. After all, it’s the type of hole that makes you want to do cartwheels and brag to your friends when your ball lands safely. Unfortunately, mine ended in a splash, but my wife lifted her arms in triumph. Surely someone fetched our balls when the tide rolled out. On my first visit, I did just that, stumbling across the jagged rocks on my way to the green to retrieve a few stray shots.

At one time, the club had hired Boston’s famed Duck Boats to create a boat out of a utility cart that golfers could take to the green to finish the hole when the tide was up, but it broke repeatedly. McIntrye says efforts are underway to have an amphibious vehicle to add to the lore of the Tail of Whale again.

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

Punta Mita’s Pacifico Course in Mexico (Courtesy of Punta Mita Golf Club)

Too much of the discussion of Punta Mita’s golf typically revolves around this iconic hole – and for good reason – but it’s also a bit gimmicky. With eight holes directly facing or playing alongside the Pacific Ocean, Pacifico is no one-trick pony. 

Bahía, Nicklaus’ second course at Punta Mita, has five ocean-view holes and is every bit as good if not better. (My vote is for better.) Bahia’s opening stretch plays along the coast and bay, highlighted by the par-5 second, which faces Banderas Bay with mountains in the background. The soundtrack of waves as you putt combined with the view across the bay at the mountains rising to 6,000 feet give you a sense of place that is tough to beat. From December to March, you may see humpback whales breach in the distance. Holes 5-14 play through the center of the property, which then returns to the coast at 15. The short par-4 17th hugs the coastline, with surfers catching some of the area’s best breaks a chip shot away from where you might be chipping. Bahia’s greens are more challenging and there’s enough undulation that to run them at more than 11 on the Stimpmeter would be unfair.

Punta Mita
Punta Mita

Adam Schupak takes a lesson from Jean Van de Velde at Punta Mita in Mexico. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

For those in need of a lesson or two, former French touring pro Jean Van de Velde, who is best remembered for blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead on the final hole of the 1999 British Open, has taken up permanent residence as resident instructor. Van de Velde is married to a Mexican native, and their son wanted to finish high school there. During COVID, Van de Velde grew bored of Mexico City and called over to see if he could be a guest at Punta Mita. Ten days turned into two months. Carl Emberson, the amiable head of marketing at Punta Mita and creator of Golf & Gourmet, pitched Van de Velde on forming a working relationship. 

“He’s been a huge hit with the community,” Emberson says. “We’ve had top-50, top-100 instructors over the years, but he’s in another league. He’s full every day when he’s working. He’s part of the community.”

Like the Ritchies, Van de Velde too has said au revoir to gay Paris and hello to a new philosophy on life best summarized by the chalkboard sign at the Four Seasons lobby bar: All you need are sunsets and margaritas.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek