(Pictured above from left: Royal Isabela Owner Charles Pasarell and Brother-in-Law George Fareed) Charles Pasarell is Puerto Rico’s best-know male tennis player, winning two NCAA titles at UCLA where he roomed with Arthur Ashe, and later reaching the top ranking among U.S. men. Having sold his stake in the BNP Paribas Open to Larry Ellison, with his brother Stanley, he is now focused on Costa Isabela, a 2,000-acre development on Puerto Rico’s Northwest coast just 20 minutes from Aguadilla Airport. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan spent a Saturday with Pasarell touring the first phase of Royal Isabela and planning out future holes for the complex’s four planned golf courses as they traversed rain forests, abandoned railway tunnels, stood atop cliffs hundreds of feet above the Atlantic Ocean and explored deserted, sandy beaches by golf cart, jeep and foot. Below are excerpts from their conversation:
ET: The Golf Channel has called The Links at Royal Isabela “possibly the most interesting golf course in the World.” How did you find the land?
Charles Pasarell: I saw it from a helicopter in 1989. There were 76 parcels of land from over 42 sellers, and it took about a year to acquire it all. The land didn’t need a lot of work. For a typical golf course it’s not unusual to move two million cubic yards of dirt. We moved less than 200,000.
ET: Development really didn’t start until five or six years ago. Why the wait?
Charles Pasarell: My brother Stanley was running the family business, a distribution business for the Caribbean. We did everything from cheese, paper cups to soap, things you would find in a supermarket. We had the license to manufacture and sell Borden products for the Caribbean we had bought from KKR. When we sold that he had time to focus on Royal Isabela. I then sold the BNB Paribas Open (held each year in Indian Wells, Calif.) to Larry Ellison.
ET: Isn’t BNP Paribas a pretty big event?
Charles Pasarell: After the four majors, the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open and Australian Open it is the largest with over 370,000 attendees. The tennis calendar is very crowded with sometimes two or three events taking place at the same time. Our event was the only one outside the majors to have two weeks exclusivity. Obviously we had people from all over the world coming and offering lots of money (to buy and move it), but I wanted to keep the tournament in Indian Wells. Larry (Ellison) loves tennis so he was the perfect owner. I now am focused on Royal Isabela.
ET: Weren’t you involved with development in Hawaii at one point?
Charles Pasarell: Yes, we started a project at Hulalai where the Four Seasons is, but we were bought out of it in the early stages by our partner.
ET: Can you talk about the design of Royal Isabela?
Charles Pasarell: It is a links course in a tropical location. You have incredible views from cliffs hundreds of feet above the ocean. The greens have the same grass as TPG at Sawgrass. You can see (as we drove the course) that it was relatively easy to figure out the greens and tee-boxes. It was a natural fit with the land. If you know Pete Dye & Associates, David Pfaff was the “and Associates.” He was our designer, and he was the guy on-site for the construction of the famous Teeth of the Dog (at Casa de Campo in Dominican Republic). We have one hole with a shared green as a tribute to the links courses of Scotland. There is a par-3 we called “the world’s shortest par-5.’”There are a number of holes that would be considered signature holes on another golf course, and I would put our back nine against any in the world. If you go to Carmel, they build roads around the trees. That’s the way we built the golf course. It’s about the land, preserving and enhancing it and then the amazing greens.
ET: Were you and your brother involved?
Charles Pasarell: We were extensively involved and part of the great thing about working with David is that he was flexible. I know Jack Nicklaus, and he is a great person and a great golf course designer, but if Mr. Nicklaus said do this, we would have done it. With David we were able to work collaboratively. And as you can see there was a natural layout. The one place Stanley and I disagreed is the Sixth Hole. He wanted a par 5 and I wanted a par 4 and we each saw different green locations, so we split the fairway, named the hole Yogi Berra: On one day you play the par 4 and the next we have the flag on the par 5.
ET: It sounds like this is the type of course where you need a caddy?
Charles Pasarell: Absolutely. We have great caddies, there are a number of blind shots. You can ride or walk, but caddies are required. The course is tough enough.
ET: Can you give us an overview of the resort?
Charles Pasarell: The entire 2,000 acres is Costa Isabela. We have the permissions for up to five hotels and up to 5,000 rooms and we want to have five courses. Of course there is no timetable for that. We will take it as it comes and that will probably encompass additional partners and investors. Royal Isabela is a 426-acre private club within Costa Isabela, including The Golf Links at Royal Isabela with 20 casitas that serve as a hotel, 29 low-density one and two acre estate home sites scattered around the golf course priced between $1.7 and $2.5 million, all with ocean views. We are starting early next year construction on 17 two-bedroom Fairway Villas that will from $1 million with a total of 50 planned.
ET: What are the hotel casitas like?
Charles Pasarell: We’ve built the entire complex so it is in tune with the land. The casitas are 1,500 square feet each, including 600 feet with outdoor space and plunge pools. The have the influences of old Puerto Rico with beautiful wood floors, pieces from local artists dating back to the 1930s and all the comforts of any luxury hotel.
ET: And the dining?
Charles Pasarell: Our restaurant is La Casa and we grow many of the things we serve right here on our own farm. We also partnered with La Terra Prometida, a non-profit organization that assists homeless men with disabilities to work in agriculture. They supply us too so virtually everything you eat comes from where we are. There is indoor and al fresco dining. We have a wood-burning oven if you like great pizza. Our cuisine is what we call Royal Isabela cuisine, so you are going to have some unique and interesting dishes you won’t find anywhere else, again using our local ingredient. In the last couple days we’ve had brown sugar ice cream, tiramisu ice cream and plantain ice cream. Our chef Jose Carles is great and has an interesting story. He came to us as a caddy and would cook hamburgers afterwards, and everyone said these are the best hamburgers they’d ever had. So we put him in the kitchen as a sous chef, and when our former chef was away, people would say the food is even better. When our old chef left, we promoted Jose (Editor’s note: The hamburgers were excellent).
ET: What other amenities are planned?
Charles Pasarell: We already have a tennis court, and we will have a fitness center and spa services. There is amazing hiking, biking and horseback riding. There was a railway line that ran through the property 80 years ago carrying sugar cane, so there are paths and tunnels where the tracks used to be. We are a couple miles from where they held the surfing championships and we have four-and-a-half miles of coastline, including several amazing beaches. If you want to go down to the beach (about five minutes from the clubhouse and casitas) we take you there and set everything up. It is like your own private beach. There is a full time concierge for anything you want. There are no bills and you don’t sign for anything. We want you to feel like you are at home. You can of course look at your bills anytime you want, or you never have to look.
ET: You were at UCLA the same time as John Wooden was reigning as the Wizard of Westwood and your roommate was Arthur Ashe. Any good stories?
Charles Pasarell: You know, to us they were just regular guys. It’s really only later you appreciate what great men they were and the impact they had. After I graduated I was doing my tennis clinic at the same time Coach Wooden would be doing his basketball clinic and in those days the Dallas Cowboys had their training camp in the same place, so at lunch I would find myself sitting at a table with John Wooden and Tom Landry. And then sometimes I would be able to watch their practices, and it was just amazing how they motivated their guys.
ET: What’s your handicap?
Charles Pasarell: Eight.
Photo Credit: Joann Dost