Tennis Vacations: The Top 10 U.S. Tennis Resorts
Tennis meets creature comforts at these world-class resorts
By Roger Cox
Because I’ve spent almost three decades writing about tennis travel, the people I meet often ask, “What’s your favorite tennis resort?” or “where do you go for a tennis vacation?”
The unspoken implication is that the favorite of someone who has literally visited hundreds of resorts must also be the best. And yet there are places I love that I would never recommend to friends, knowing that their needs and mine are totally different.
A great resort for a hard-core tennis junkie like me, who relishes five hours a day of demanding group clinics, will seem like torture to a someone who merely wants to play matches, with perhaps a lesson or clinic on the side.
The place I’d choose for a romantic weekend isn’t where I’d go if traveling alone or with kids. Budget influences my choices; so do the needs of those traveling with me.
Still, the question lingers. To answer it, I ask the avid tennis players who visit my website, Tennis Resorts Onlne, to evaluate the tennis resorts they know first-hand based on a score of criteria, from the tennis instruction and programs to the creature comforts, even children’s programs.
Then each year, I convert those evaluations into rankings and publish a list of those they rate the best.
An overview of the Top 10 U.S. Tennis Resorts follows, along with a description of what makes each great and what types of players may be happiest there.
1. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Any resort with not one but two tennis clubs has obviously made a more than typical commitment to tennis, but Kiawah has gone even further by putting both under the attentive direction of former touring pro Roy Barth.Now entering his 33rd year at the resort, Barth has carpentered together a broad-based program that features a lengthy roster of weekly activities, including junior tennis options and tailor-made programs for groups and teams.
Add 10 miles of pristine beach, so pristine turtles nest there and an elegant oceanfront hotel and spa, five designer golf courses, an abundance of other recreation, a dedicated children’s park, rental condos, and numerous shops and restaurants all within an easy drive of historic Charleston, and you can understand how this resort so completely seduces tennis vacationers.
2. Rancho Valencia, an Auberge Resort, Rancho Santa Fe, California. With 17 courts for its 49 suites, this elegant Relais & Chateau retreat in the Rancho Santa Fe, 25 miles north of San Diego, obviously regards tennis as a central amenity.
It backs that up with warm, gregarious staff bent on ensuring that whatever your tennis needs—or those of your kids—they’ll find a way to fulfill them. Personal attention, on court and off, is a hallmark of the resort.
They take such good care that tennis comes to feel like just one more creature comfort, joining a 10,000-square-foot spa and a superb restaurant devoted to California coastal ranch cuisine.
But it’s the amenity-rich suites that draw rave reviews: None is smaller than 850 square feet and all have gas-log fireplaces and sprawling private garden patios, and complete entertainment centers, while the best add steam showers, jetted tubs, and outdoor Jacuzzis. All are so spacious and alluring that you never want to leave, which makes the discreet delivery of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a newspaper all the more welcome.
3. Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Kohala Coast, Big Island, Hawaii. Built in 1965 by the legendary hotelier Laurance S. Rockefeller and completely updated following an earthquake in 2006, this landmark hotel exudes old Hawaiian tradition and hospitality, while affording 21st century comforts. Set amid tropical gardens and museum-quality Pacific Rim art, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel looks down from a black-lava point on a perfect crescent of white-sand beach on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast.
It emerged from the $150-million remake with enlarged and enhanced the rooms, a spa, a new suite of restaurants, and Rees Jones update to its challenging Robert Trent Jones oceanside golf course.
Its active, 11-court tennis complex got a general spiffing up, too, but what makes it exceptional are a spectacular setting so close to the sea that players occasionally call timeouts to watch the whales and bottlenose dolphins passing just offshore and a tennis director, Craig Pautler, who has set up the epitome of a well-run hotel tennis program: excellent game matching, lessons and clinics, social tennis, and programs for racquet-wielding kids.
4. The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa, Carefree, Arizona. A haunting outcrop of 12-million-year-old granite guards this 1,300-acre Arizona resort picturesquely set in the Sonoran Desert in Carefree, north of Phoenix. Winding paths through a botanical garden of desert plants and flowers lead to Southwestern adobe-style casitas decorated with hand-hewn wood beams, Indian jars, and aromatic wood-burning kiva fireplaces.
Balconies look out on this remarkable landscape, accented by the green rivers of golf fairways. The eight-court tennis complex spreads through an oasis of willows, feathery palo verde trees, cactus, and flowering shrubs, making it not only the most beautiful setting for tennis in greater Phoenix but also one of the most active.
His method melds perfectly with rejuvenating classes and treatments at the Golden Door Spa, a serene sanctuary set against those magnificent boulders
5. Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The 25-court Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center has adopted a clever modular approach to group instruction. Director Dale Light takes a holistic approach to his teaching, focusing on the intricacies of tennis biomechanics and well being, on and off the court, and schedules a couple of yearly NIKE tennis camps as well.
Because the clinics and drill sessions are scheduled back to back, you can essentially carpenter together a program to fit your specific needs, whether you want an hour of work or as many as four and a half.
Many of the junior tennis programs (which start in March) take place during the same morning hours, so the whole family can go to the courts together.
If you’d rather play, the staff works conscientiously to put together competitive matches, and custom designs packages for groups and teams. The resort itself begins along three miles of some of the best beach on Hilton Head and extends inland across the island to Shelter Cove on a deep inlet.
Within its 2,000 acres are three designer golf courses, a shopping plaza, several restaurants, two oceanfront hotels, hundreds of rental condominiums, and some 10 miles of lagoons, making it an ideal family getaway.
6. Topnotch Resort and Spa, Stowe, Vermont. Fresh from a renovation that completely refurbished its 76 rooms, moved and enlarged the swimming pool, enhanced an already stellar 40,000-square-foot European spa, and installed a new, more casual restaurant, this winsome New England inn has never looked better.
Tennis, unfortunately, has temporarily lost a few courts in the process—it’s down to 10 hard and clay, four of them indoors—but that hasn’t diminished the quality of its tennis programs.
During the May-to-September outdoor season, its tennis academy affords avid players the option of 3 to 5 hours a day of solid instruction and fast-paced drills, while others elect simply to play (staff arranges opponents) or take group or private lessons.
Simultaneous junior programs divert kids and encourage families (as do 1-to-3-bedroom townhomes). Need more? There’s also an equestrian center, golf nearby, and a bevy of shops, restaurants, and nightlife in Stowe, five miles away to the east.
7. Saddlebrook Resort, Wesley Chapel, Florida. As a gated, resort/residential community in Wesley Chapel, north of Tampa, Saddlebrook seems like an unlikely venue for one of the truly hard-core tennis programs on the planet.
And yet for many of its tennis guests, aspiring juniors, and such touring pros as James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan, and Mardy Fish, the rigorous training—and staff to match—and 45 hard, clay, and grass courts are precisely what draws them here.As an adult, you’ll face a grueling five-hour-a-day regimen of drills designed to improve both technique and conditioning (the junior program is similar). Once the day’s session ends, you’ll be grateful for the hot tubs that ring the lake-sized swimming pool and for the services available in the spa.
And because this is a resort, there are other amenities as well, including restaurants, bars, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. And, not incidentally, the kitchen-equipped condo accommodations have excellent beds.
8. Caneel Bay, A Rosewood Resort, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Caneel Bay on the island of St. John traces its origins to Laurance S. Rockefeller.
He built not a hotel but clusters of one- and two-story shingle-roof structures—a total of only 160 rooms (none with phones or TVs)—strung along seven beaches and the hillsides behind on what had once been a sugar plantation.
Equally important, he donated land for a national park, thus ensuring that the backdrop would forever be a forest of subtropical trees not condominiums. The waters offshore are all part of a protected marine sanctuary, rich in colorful reef life.
That looms as tough competition for its tennis complex, yet the 11-court facility nonetheless stands out as a hotbed of activity, drawing guests and locals alike, thanks to the attention of tennis management company Peter Burwash International and its game-matching services, well-attended clinics (adult and junior), and social round robins.
9. TOPS’L Beach & Racquet Resort, Destin, Florida. Depending on your perspective, TOPS’L is either a tennis resort with a beach or a beach resort with tennis, but either way there is no competition from golf or any other recreational amenity.
That alone underscores the high value this narrow sliver of a Panhandle resort puts on tennis. It specializes in staging lots of on-court activity—clinics, round robins, lessons—on a daily basis and supplements that with selected weekends devoted to team competition.
The enthusiasm of the entire staff, from tennis director Joe D’Aleo on down, makes these dozen courts a haven for vacationers eager to divide their time between tennis and a glorious beach, all soft sugar-white sand and towering dunes lapped by the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Other lures: a vast campus of factory-outlet stores nearby and varied dining options in Destin and beyond.
10. Wild Dunes, Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Reviews of this barrier-island resort variously highlight its 2½ miles of dune-lined beach, its stellar (and free) children’s programs, the diversity of its tennis roster and other recreation (including two Tom Fazio golf courses), and something rare in an island escape: easy access to the historic houses, restaurants, and culture of Charleston, an easy 15-minute drive away.
The 17-court, mostly clay tennis complex snagged a central location just across the road from a 93-room boutique hotel and a new plaza, called The Village, lined with condos, shops, a market and restaurant, a day spa, a fitness center, and even an amphitheater that stages live entertainment.
Local tennis members mingle with guests, ensuring both camaraderie and good turnouts for the various clinics, workouts, and round robins as well as ongoing programs for juniors.
Roger Cox publishes Tennis Resorts online, and lives in New York City.