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Grand Cayman's Links at SafeHaven golf course survives, and thrives, after Ivan

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Hurricane Ivan landed a body blow on Grand Cayman's only 18-hole golf course in 2004. But after two years of surgery, the Links at SafeHaven is back open and primed to give you what you want in a round of Caribbean golf.

Links at SafeHaven - Grand Cayman
The Links at SafeHaven is an open golf course, susceptible to the Caribbean winds.
Links at SafeHaven - Grand CaymanLinks at SafeHaven - Grand CaymanLinks at SafeHaven - Grand Cayman

GRAND CAYMAN, Cayman Islands - It's an accomplishment just to squeeze an 18-hole golf course onto Grand Cayman, all 22 miles long and (at most) eight miles wide of it.

It's an even bigger one to bring that course back from the battering Hurricane Ivan dealt this lonesome, three-island Caribbean chain in 2004.

The storm pretty much destroyed the Links at SafeHaven, killing the grass with its saltwater, severely damaging the buildings, wiping out the cart paths and immobilizing the carts.

After two years of serious surgery, Grand Cayman's only full-length track (there are two nine-holers) is back - minus the carts, which course officials hope to get running once insurance problems are worked out. (Not a moment too soon: When the wind wanes and the sun beats down like it's taking aim, you'll want those carts.)

And it's back in great shape. The grass is now the more salt-water-resistant paspalum, wall-to-wall. The greens are large, fast and true, rolling about a 9 on the stimpmeter. Some of the contours have been softened, but there's enough slope and undulation to keep your putter busy.

Opened in 1994 from a Roy Case design, SafeHaven is called a links, but of course it isn't a true links. "It's a traditional links course with a Caribbean flair" - that's how Head Professional Sean Wilson describes it.

There's flair indeed, mostly in the shape of those great Caribbean vistas you expect from golf in the islands. The open layout, sprinkled with exotic trees like mahogany and coconut palm, makes for views that are pretty much never-ending.

So's the wind, your chief obstacle here. The course was designed so that you're almost always hitting into or with the prevailing breezes. The Links runs 6,605 yards from the back tees, but it can play like 7,000 with the wind factored in.

The layout emphasizes risk/reward, with water in play on 15 holes. There's also a series of doglegs, but most are negotiable. This is a place where you can go low if you're smart.

"It's a good test for the members, but it's designed as a resort course," Wilson said. "It can be penalizing, but if you can negotiate the water and trees, you won't lose a lot of golf balls out here.

"If you think your way around, especially on the back nine, you can get some small numbers, but you can also really get some big numbers."

The Links at SafeHaven: The verdict

SafeHaven is a good play that offers much of what you want from a Caribbean course - excellent views and a round that can be as challenging as you want it to be. Choose your tees wisely.

There's a nice clubhouse with an open-air bar, and a cute-as-a-button "aqua driving range" with a full practice area.

Green fees are in the $120 range. That may sound expensive - hell, it is expensive - but, it's pretty much in line with everything else on this expensive island.

The owners, a Jamaican family, have tentative plans to add quite a few features. Right now there are few homes or condos to mar the views, but development plans are in the works, including a hotel, marina and private beach.

SafeHaven used to get quite a bit of play from the many cruise ships that call here, and when the cart situation is resolved, officials said, they expect the cruise business to pick up to pre-Ivan levels.

Stay and play

The Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Beach Suites is located on the famous Seven-Mile Beach, with development on one side and world-class views of the sun setting over the sea on the other.

Suites have a step-out balcony, king bedroom, living room with sofa bed, dining room, refrigerator, microwave, wet bar and other amenities. Some have a second, queen-sized bedroom. One of the two swimming pools has my favorite incredibly indulgent amenity, a swim-up bar.

Two restaurants, Hemingway's and Bamboo, look out over the water under swaying palms (the latter also features live jazz). The Seven-Mile Beach Bar is perfect for drinking a rum and Coke while watching the boats bob on the gentle waves.

Red Sail Sports, located on the ground floor of the hotel and also out at Rum Point, offers catamaran sailing, scuba and snorkeling, sailboats and sunset and dinner outings. A complete fitness room is available for those who prefer conventional exercise, and, of course, there's a spa.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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