Riviera Maya Golf: Moon Palace

The Golden Bear himself and yours truly, at the Grand Opening of the Moon Palace course way back in 2002.

I love the Rivera Maya as a travel destination, and explained why the region is so charming in my last post.

Now its time to look at the golf.

The course that got it all going on down here was the Jack Nicklaus Signature design at the Moon Palace resort. It was not the first course in the Yucatan by any means, but it was the first big time course, conceived not as a mere amenity but rather as an attraction. In short, it was a course designed to lure golfers – and it worked.

Nicklaus makes ample use of water hazards, which keeps the Moon Palace course interesting - and challenging.

I was at the grand opening in 2002, my first of several trips to the region, and at the time, it was what I expected an upscale 18-hole resort course to be. The holes are varied and interesting, with plenty of room to play but thick penal jungle if you stray beyond the ample fairways, and as was in vogue at the time, the greens were flattish and immaculate, often protected by sand or water.

I should mention that the Moon Palace is one of the many all-inclusive mega-resorts in the region, and it skews towards the upscale end of the model, with a wide variety of restaurants and bars, more than a dozen different eateries, and it really is all-inclusive. About the only things you can pay extra for are greens fees and spa services, while you can eat and drink everything imaginable, including wine and top shelf liquor, and even order 24-hour room service without spending an extra dime. And while the golf is sold at a surcharge, it too is all-inclusive: you cannot pay for food or drink at the clubhouse or on the course, and the beverage carts seem designed specifically to get players drunk, showing up every other hole with fresh, cold cervezas. In the US, if you are putting out, they wait for you. In Mexico, they just proactively swap out your half a warm beer for a full cold one. That’s what I call customer service.

All of this makes for a very pleasant golf experience, but the very best thing about the Moon Palace’s golf operation is the newest nine. A couple of years ago Nicklaus returned and expanded the place to 27-holes, adding the “Dunes” nine. Despite its name, you are not likely to mistake it for Scotland or Ireland, but it is noticeably different – and better – than the existing nines. The difference is obvious on the very first tee, and to reach it, you have to drive quite a ways from the clubhouse into suddenly hill terrain where you can see only the one hole flanked by high ridges. The topography on this nine is more dramatic, the landscape more natural, but most of all, in keeping with his new philosophy about limiting the changes technology has made in golf by making tougher greens, the putting surfaces are markedly different the other eighteen, with more severe undulations and tougher pin placements. This is the hardest nine to score on, but the additional challenge is a worthwhile trade for the better quality holes. I heartily endorse any combination of nines at Moon that includes the Dunes.

Everything in the Riviera Maya - including the courses - is conveniently close to the airport, a fact which you cannot forget while play golf.

Along with the new nine, the Moon Palace has opened a luxury enclave of golf villas that offer more sumptuous accommodations than the already well equipped hotel rooms, including in-room bars, whirlpool tubs and large terraces. Because the golf villas are located by the clubhouse and away from the main resort – which is huge – every guest gets his or her own street legal golf cart, which makes for some interesting late night rides to resort restaurants and night clubs, especially since it is really easy to get lost in this several thousand acre complex. Anecdotal evidence did clearly suggests that guests without golf carts are envious of those with, which might be enough reason to spring for the new golf villas.

The day it opened, the Moon Palace course became the best in the region, but almost immediately it attracted stiff competition, and more recent efforts surpassed the quality of the original 18. The new nine puts it right back in the thick of things, makes it a contender, and also offers the perfect option between “just” playing eighteen and a long day of 36. So compromise, play all 27, and get a full dose of golf in Mexico. All three nines end right in front of the clubhouse, and all three have a dramatic use of penal water alongside the greens on the final holes.

NEXT: Palace Resorts, which runs the Moon Palace, recently built a new stand alone Nicklaus Signature Corse about 15 mutes away, Riviera Cancun. It’s the very latest – and highest profile – addition to Yucatan golf and, surprise, I checked it out!

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