Rees Jones’ Danzante Bay Golf Club turns Loreto into Mexico’s next great golf destination.
By Jon Rizzi
TUCKED BETWEEN THE TRANQUIL Sea of Cortez and the spellbinding Sierra de la Giganta mountains on the Baja Peninsula, the city of Loreto in 1697 became the first capital of New Spain’s Las Californias.
Alas, it didn’t remain so. Over the next 320 years, La Paz, some 200 miles down the coast from Loreto, became the state’s official government seat, and another 100 miles south—where the peninsular fingertip dips into both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean—Los Cabos (the cities of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo) became the golf capital of all Mexico.
Meanwhile, Loreto remained a somnolent town known chiefly for its historic mission church and arborvitae arches. Built in 1991, The Loreto Bay Golf Resort, with a seaside course redesigned in 2006 by then-Denverite David Duval, represented the only proper lodging.
Developed by San Diego’s Owen Perry, whose Villa Group portfolio comprises 12 Mexican resorts, Villa Del Palmar sits 20 miles south of Loreto International Airport. It occupies 3,000 acres on a picturesque horseshoe bay with views out to the Islands of Loreto—Del Carmen, Monserrate, Danzante, Coronados and Santa Catalina.
Beneath the gentle waves lies a 1,300-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with rock walls, coral reefs and at least 900 aquatic species. In addition to swimming, snorkeling and diving, guests can sail, kayak, paddleboard (even at night with LED equipped boards), sportfish, watch whale migrations and much more.
Water also plays a major role in the worldclass 39,000-square-foot Sabila Spa, where, among myriad massage and wellness treatments, men and women can separately avail themselves of a seven-station hydrotherapy treatment that consists of hot and cold plunges and showers, a tub soak with slices of soothing sabila (Spanish for aloe vera) and other cosseting indulgences.
The majority of the resort’s 200 plush villas and suites face the turtle-shaped pool area and the sea beyond. The cuisine served buffet-style in The Market ranges from such regional specialties as caldo tlalpeño (a spicy chicken soup) and chiles en nogada (meat-stuffed poblanos with a walnut cream sauce) to dozens of equally delectable offerings. You can also order wood-fired pizzas, panini and salads at the Mediterranean-inspired Casa Mia, or splurge on the inspired fresh seafood and tender steaks in the Danzante Restaurant & Bar, where Mexican appellations earn top billing on the menú de vinos.
The headliner here is undeniably the golf course. Known for his renovation work on championship venues (the “Open Doctor” has actually operated on more PGA Championship sites than U.S. Open sites), Jones got the job because Perry, an 18-handicap, “wanted a real architect—someone who could create a course that’s both challenging but friendly.”
Those qualities, Perry felt, had defined his experiences at Jones’s design at San Diego’s Santaluz Club and renovation at Torrey Pines South. “I just liked both courses a lot,” Perry explains. “Plus, I had a birdie on 13 at Torrey, the same hole that Phil (Mickelson) made nine in the 2008 U.S. Open.”
Perry had never built a golf course at any of his resorts, and Jones had never built a course in Mexico. It took almost nine years between the first time Jones visited the property (“I was just blown away,” he said) and the course’s debut last December (“I was just blown away,” I said), so it’s safe to say both men made the most of the opportunity.
Already, the par-3 17th, with its green clinging to the edge of an outcropping hundreds of feet above the sea, is approaching the kind of iconic status accorded the 7th at Pebble and the 16th at Cypress.
But the other 17 holes offer plenty of eye candy as well.
The flavor comes from their diversity. Although built near the sea, the course traverses an unusual combination of mountains, valleys, arroyos, dunes, canyons and foothills, with 250 feet of elevation change along the way. To account for the wind and saltwater, SeaDwarf Paspalum carpets wide, forgiving fairways and large, mildly contoured greens with receptive entrances.
After a fairly straightforward opening hole, the course immediately climbs into the canyons of the Sierra de la Giganta piedmont. The arroyo- carry par-3 third nuzzles a bluff that dares you to try a bank shot. The subsequent par 4 and par 5 both skirt arroyos as they careen downhill, presenting gutsy players with scoring opportunities.
Your journey through the rugged terrain ends with the plummeting 475-yard 8th, where an arroyo borders the entire left side of the fairway and bunkers ring the green.
Desert and dunes await on the back nine—the holes of which Jones’s team completed well before trekking into the mountains on the front. The tenth and eleventh border a lake, and the monstrous, sloping par-5 12th plays directly to the beach. Following a sweet par-3 snuggled into sand dunes, you’ll find a cliffhanging tee box on the par-4 14th and a wavy green on the 15th, a dogleg-right that runs uphill, away from the water.
Throughout the round, Jones and his longtime design associate Steve Weisser do a brilliant job of building anticipation for the aforementioned penultimate hole, which Jones has “no doubt … will be one of the best in the world.” Leaving the 16th green, you crest a ridge and the 17th reveals itself in all its surreal magnificence, its bunker-yoked green seemingly floating on the cerulean horizon like another Island of Loreto.
While it’s tough to follow an act like that, the par-4 18th serves not as a grace note but a final flourish. The tee box delivers a stunning panorama of the property, while the hole tumbles 520 yards over a rock outcrop towards a ramp-like green approach that funnels towards the putting surface.
In 2015, four years after its debut and two years before opening the golf course, Villa Palmar at Danzante Bay earned a World Travel Award as Mexico’s top Beach Resort. More and greater accolades have and will follow, especially as word spreads about the course and the master plan— which includes at least five more hotel condos, a marina, marketplace and 253 deluxe private residences—takes shape.
Thanks to Perry and Jones, it finally appears that Loreto, the first capital of New Spain, is finally getting the attention it deserves. To paraphrase what one of the Jesuits might have preached at the Mission de Loreto: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Jon Rizzi is the editor of Colorado AvidGolfer.