NUEVO VALLARTA, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico -- I've experienced three very different trips to Puerto Vallarta over the past 20 years -- a cruise stop, a romantic trip with my wife, and as a young single guy traveling with family.
But I'd never made it across the Ameca River.
Turns out, Nayarit is not only in a whole different state. The Nayarit Riviera delivers a whole different state of mind.
The modern and lavish resort areas of Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita mix well with authentic Mexican towns to give tourists a chance to interact with the locals without the worry of safety concerns that plague other parts of the country.
My four-day golf bonanza (with a full travel day on either end) felt like a whirlwind, but any golfer looking to sample the region's best courses could easily pull it off.
Riviera Nayarit: Day 1
The first day at a massive resort such as the luxurious Grand Luxxe Nuevo Vallarta can feel a bit overwhelming, especially when Mother Nature throws a curveball.
Rain spoiled the morning round at Nayar Golf Course after 11 holes. That made a layout already in transition even more chaotic.
The original Jim Lipe layout is a solid resort track that's been hacked up often. The opening of a new par 3 at no. 18 and the tweaking of a few other holes earlier this year completed its most recent transformation by the design team of Jack Nicklaus.
My only complaint would be that all the changes over the years have left the golf experience feeling disjointed. Long cart rides are required to find the first tee and driving range.
The forecaddie who accompanies every group will help you get pointed in the right direction.
We waited out the rain with an overstuffed lunch at the El Tigre Golf Club at Paradise Village, home to the area's largest clubhouse and pro shop. What the residential course lacked in views and character, it made up for in shot-making demands around lakes and more than 100 bunkers. The combination of five par 3s and five par 5s provides plenty of chances to score. The side show at the end of the round -- caged tigers next to the 17th tee -- adds something unique to tell your friends.
Back at the Grand Luxxe, a fine Mexican buffet, featuring live music, capped our night.
Riviera Nayarit: Day 2
Two surprises made this the best day of the trip.
A scheduled visit to Flamingos Golf came with little hype. What a little gem. The region's oldest course, dating to 1970, still has that classic feel, although a recent update has upgraded the clubhouse's outdoor bar/restaurant and course. The fairways snake through narrow jungle passages. Natural lagoons filled with crocs temptingly add risk-taking elements. If I were a paying gringo, this might be my local hangout because it's more affordable.
Sayulita -- an eclectic town of bars, surfers and art galleries -- turned out to be even more of a hidden treasure. Lunch at Don Pedro's, an open-air restaurant/bar on the beach, served up the perfect combination of bikinis, cervezas and fresh fish tacos. A stroll through cobblestone streets led to a plaza where the Huichol Indians display their colorful art and handmade jewelry.
Home for the night wasn't far away, the new beachfront all-inclusive Iberostar Playa Mita. The first Iberostar on Mexico's Pacific Ocean will eventually become a popular vacation spot for families and golfers once word gets out. I've stayed at several Iberostar Resorts near Cancun, and the food never disappoints. Tsuba, the resort's Japanese steakhouse, combined good eats with entertaining chefs tossing around rice, knives and eggs. Nobody got hurt -- except that poor dessert bar.
Riviera Nayarit: Day 3
Course architect Greg Norman, who is designing another course near Nayar, made a surprise visit to the Litibu Golf Club the next morning just after my threesome teed off. Too bad we didn't meet. I would have praised him for creating such an interesting course. Some cool inland holes cut from virgin jungle complement the three holes showcasing ocean views. It's the best Norman design I've played to date, getting the nod over the old Doonbeg Golf Club (now the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland), the Norman Course at Red Sky Golf Club in Colorado, and others.
Normally moving hotels would get me grumbling again, but when it's the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, there's no complaining. I spent the afternoon in full vacation mode at the spa with the signature Punta Mita Massage. The massage began and ended with sniffs of tequila, an interesting twist. I finally got time after my treatment to enjoy what most tourists come for, a walk along the beach and a relaxing swim in the ocean.
Pre-dinner drinks set the stage for an interactive appetizer at Aramara, cooking delicious strips of beef on hot stones right at the table. Much of the fresh seafood on the menu comes right from Sayulita. More tequila -- of the drinking, not sniffing, variety -- was served for a nightcap at a tequila and mezcal tasting.
Riviera Nayarit: Day 4
The grand finale -- the reason I made the trip -- didn't disappoint. I'd walk from Michigan to Mexico to play the Pacifico Course and Bahia Course at Punta Mita Golf Club again. Between these two Jack Nicklaus designs, 14 holes snuggle up to the ocean. Playing the famous 3b hole on Pacifico turned out to be anticlimactic when I rinsed two tee shots in the ocean trying to hit the natural island green 190 yards away. Remembering the magical setting, however, takes the sting out of recalling the two poor swings.
Lunch at the open-air Tale of the Whale restaurant provided a welcome break in the shade between rounds. Nicklaus designed Bahia, which is several years younger than Pacifico, to give the members a tougher challenge. His greens border on the insane, although they're fun, too.
The day ended at Bahia by Richard Sandoval, a beachfront restaurant back at the resort. The seafood risotto was, without a doubt, the best dish of the week. Maybe the sun's spectacular descent below the horizon over the Pacific Ocean and the sand between my toes made it taste just a little bit better. Not a bad way to say goodbye.