Westin Innisbrook may be located by Highway 19, but it's a world apart

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

TAMPA, Fla. - The Westin Innisbrook is one of those all-inclusive golf resorts where you'll never have to start your car engine or carry your clubs, unless you want to practice your bad swing in the privacy of your golf villa; they'll whisk you and your clubs to whichever course you happen to be playing that day and all you have to do is show up for your tee time. Take a shuttle if you don't want to drive.

It's a large resort, on more than 900 acres between Highway 19 and the Gulf of Mexico, with the beaches a short, though congested, drive away.

The resort's marketing people say: "You're in your own luxurious world here, and you're unlikely to want to go somewhere else."

That may be true, but only because, in part, you'd have to venture out into the real world of Highway 19, with its strip malls, bad traffic and derelicts walking the median carrying 12-packs of Old Milwaukee.

Monster pools with cascading waterfalls

Why battle that mess when you can stay on the resort grounds, where you can walk, bicycle or drive down its 35 mph roads through cool shade and resort greenery? You check in at the registration building and are taken to one of the 600 guest suites on the grounds and, with the little corner store, there's no good reason to leave unless your kids get bored.

That's doubtful, considering that the Westin Innisbrook has tons to do for the wee ones. There are six swimming pools to start with, including the Loch Ness Monster Pool that has two winding water slides, sandy beaches, pop-jets, a cascading waterfall and a grill.

There is also a children's recreation center, as well as 60 acres of lakes, including Lake Innisbrook where you can rent gear to fish. Plus, there's miniature golf, a playground, bike rentals, a nature boardwalk and basketball as well as golf and tennis clinics.

Golf is the real star

The real star at the resort, though, is geared more for adults - four golf courses, two of which are superb. Stay for a week, and I'll doubt you'll get bored with the golf at the Westin.

Start with Copperhead, one of the top resort courses in the state and the country, for that matter.

"I could play this course for the rest of my life and enjoy it," Curtis Strange said. "It has that much character."

Copperhead is indeed one of the better courses in Florida, which is why the pros visit every fall for the Chrysler Championship. It isn't a typically flat, Florida course even though it's pretty far from the central highlands of the state, which also give you some atypical Florida highs and lows. Copperhead has up to 70 feet of elevation changes and you might think for a fleeting instant you're in the Carolinas.

It's long - more than 7,300 yards from the back tees - with rolling fairways that bend, twist and bank and climb uphill and down. It has a distinctly, old-time Florida backwoods feel, even though the emissions from the gazillions of vehicles careering down Highway 19 are less than a half-mile away.

Island harder?

The Island course, with its glimpses of primordial, southern swamps, is more scenic than Copperhead. And many say it's as difficult, if not more so, than its more-touted sister course.

"The Island is prettier," said Rob Walker, just finishing a four-day stay at the resort with friends. "And, for my money, it's just as hard."

The Island has more distinctive nines, with the front nine trudging around and through black swampland. It features greens framed by moss-draped Cypress trees, looking like an old-time Florida post card.

Then, the course climbs on the back nine, taking advantage of some rare Florida topography - elevation. The course was designed by Larry Packard, who did all the resort's courses. The Island, perhaps even more than Copperhead, rewards the bold and accurate, while penalizing the bold and inaccurate. As for the meek, take your par and be happy.

The other two courses, Highlands North and South, are more typical resort courses, though no slouches either.

Packard's the best for steak

Three of the four courses have clubhouse restaurants, the best of which is Packard's Steakhouse at Copperhead. The restaurant was modeled after south Florida's Shula's Steakhouse, with big meat and martinis to compensate for the problems you had at Copperhead.

The Island clubhouse has the Turnberry Pub, an informal restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. Highlands has Bamboo's Caribbean Café, serving Caribbean food like Dungeness crab cakes and grouper sandwiches, as well as Philly wraps, hamburgers and "South Beach chicken salad." The Loch Ness pool and spa has a grill that has burgers, salads, sandwiches and pizza.

The Westin has had more than its share of recognition. GolfWeek voted it Florida's No. 1 resort, and it's easy to see why with these four courses.

Like most big resorts, the Westin Innisbrook goes after the meetings crowd. The resort has three conference centers with meeting and banquet facilities and has a total of 65,000 square feet of meeting space.

Meetings and Conventions Magazine gives away something called the "gold key award," to the top 75 resorts in the country, and the Westin is one of only seven other resorts or hotels to get the award every year since its inception.

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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