The New Gold Coast

Forget the days of package tours and all-inclusives. With the recent opening of some very sophisticated hotels, the Dominican Republic is trying to compete with the Caribbean’s most luxurious destinations.

From June 2006

By Alexandra Marshall

It’s mid-afternoon in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, an 11-square-block district of peeling, cheerfully painted town houses and whitewashed churches built in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. Five hundred–plus years later, some might say that the Dominican Republic’s UNESCO World Heritage Site could do with a bit of a hose-down. The ornate scrollwork that trims so many of the Zona’s restaurants, bars, and government buildings comes into pretty strong relief with a buildup of soot. But as the blazing sun erases the effects of this morning’s short rainstorm, the birds are chirping, a breeze is rustling the leaves of the shade trees, and it’s hard to find a real complaint about this exuberant, scruffy city-within-a-city. Not so about yours truly: at the doorway to the Fortaleza Ozama, a 16th-century embankment looking out onto the city’s marina, I’m getting a good-natured scolding from a freelance tour guide. The reason for his pique? I’ve just told him that of my 10 days in the country, I’ve allotted only two to Santo Domingo. “This is where Columbus first landed!” he tells me in the consonant-free accent typical of Caribbean Spanish, with a wink and a smile that belie his scorn. “We’re the first city in the New World! Did you see the Museo de las Casas Reales two blocks away? We have the Alcázar de Colón, where Christopher Columbus’s son once lived. Two days! What are you thinking?”

I’m thinking I’ve got a lot of country to cover. After seeing Santo Domingo, an affordable, bohemian paradise for history-lovers, I’ll drive about 150 miles northwest to Puerto Plata, one of the first areas to develop the all-inclusive tourism that has become synonymous with the Dominican Republic. It has just welcomed a five-star boutique hotel that has the country’s burgeoning hotel industry is buzzing. From there, I’ll head southeast to the Caribbean coast’s Punta Cana, now the fifth most popular warm-weather destination in the world, according to a recent study by the American Society of Travel Agents. En route, I’ll make a brief detour about 1 1/2 hours to the west, to Casa de Campo, the mega-resort and estate complex that, in the 1970’s, first attracted the monied leisure class to a little-known Caribbean island sitting prettily between its more famous neighbors, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Those other two Spanish-speaking island nations might have a larger place in our national consciousness, but they’re not interchangeable with this one, and Dominicans are the first to tell you so. “Obviously, I’m extremely biased,” says one of the nation’s famous sons, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. “But we are very different from most of the other islands in the Caribbean. We’re very proud of our history and culture. We know who we are.”

Dominicans seem to be enjoying a special boost of self-esteem lately, and they’re luring fresh admirers. (Not all of these are baseball fans, either, though the contributions of Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colón and All-Star Moisés Alou to the Dominicans’ strong showing in the World Baseball Classic 2006 haven’t hurt.) The combined forces of a currency now stabilized after a 2001 embezzlement scandal; Hurricane Wilma’s crippling blow to competing getaway Cancún; $1.6 billion in government and private investments last year; the construction of badly needed new roads; a truly genial national culture; and a smorgasbord of new resorts and hotels have led tourism to surpass sugarcane as the Dominican Republic’s leading economic sector. In a country the size of New Hampshire, there are eight international airports to fly in the growing crowd of yearly visitors—2005 saw 3.7 million, the largest number yet. Amid a swirl of espresso steam and cigar smoke at the homey Zona Colonial diner Mesón de Luis, local real estate broker Luis Fontánez tells me that property values in the neighborhood have increased 70 percent over the past 10 years thanks to all the Europeans who want to buy town houses. Visitors are so important to the country that President Leonel Fernández regularly travels through its 32 provinces to attend hotel groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, many of which are broadcast (with endearingly low production values) on government-run Channel 4. At one such event, the inauguration of a newly expanded 350-slip marina belonging to Casa de Campo, Fernández confesses to me that he hopes the Dominican Republic will strengthen its push toward upscale tourism. “We should be moving into a higher-quality, more sophisticated niche,” he says. (One needn’t be on assignment for an American magazine to get a word with Fernández, by the way. At the marina, whose posh shops and pristine design make it a sort of Rodeo Drive by the sea, the popular head of state stopped to chat and pose for pictures with dozens of locals and tourists too.)

Fernandez doesn’t need to call a special session of the senate to start raising standards. The Fraser Yacht company has just set up an outpost at the marina and hopes to start chartering seven-day cruises around the island soon. Fans of Club Med–style vacations have taken advantage of the Dominican Republic’s many all-inclusive resorts for years, and more of them are popping up all the time—including a new property in the works at Casa de Campo—but boutique is the country’s new catchword. Playa Grande, a north coast golf course and soon-to-be artist’s retreat partly owned by the American money manager Boykin Curry, Moby, and Charlie Rose will feature a stylish inn by Amanresorts. Jose “Pepe” Fanjul, one of the principal owners of Casa de Campo, tells me he’s this close to clinching a deal to open a sleek new property, complete with a “really top-rate spa.” And his friend George Hamilton, the actor, beau mondiste, and longtime Casa de Campo homeowner, who has been coming to the Dominican Republic “since shortly after Columbus,” has toyed with the idea of launching a Dominican boutique hotel of his own. “You hear ‘new hotel’ and immediately think of some marble monstrosity from the 1970’s, but that era is over with. People want little, and charming, and details, and first-class service,” says Hamilton.

At the new generation of Dominican hotels, service is the word managers repeat most often in their eagerness to distance their properties from the down-market specter of behemoth package vacationing. Anyone who has ever witnessed the push and pull between all-inclusive guests abusing their unlimited bar privileges and surly staffers trying to deny them knows that a higher thread count is not all that separates the five-stars from the all-you-can-eats. In resort enclave Playa Dorada, just outside of Puerto Plata, the 50-suite Casa Colonial has carved out a lushly landscaped green zone between two old-style all-inclusives. Already sanctioned by such an arbiter of high living as Donatella Versace, who visited the hotel with her daughter and entourage shortly after it opened at the end of 2004, Casa Colonial is all Frette linens, 27-inch flat-screen TV’s, an infinity-pool deck with four Jacuzzis, and an enormous full-service spa. Down at the wedge of golden-sand beach, you can just make out the strains of reggae lite entertaining the plastic bracelet–wearing hordes on either side, but not in the placid gardens, splashed with pink-and-white orchids grafted to the trunks of the palms. Book a deluxe suite, and your turndown service includes a drawn bath sprinkled with rose petals. In the presidential suite, that bath is drawn in an antique claw-foot tub on a private balcony overlooking a natural lagoon.

A property with a similar spirit, but slightly more focused on serving the gourmet traveler, is Sivory Punta Cana, the last and most secluded resort on a long stretch of beach about an hour’s drive from the Punta Cana airport. “If guests want to book a horseback ride or water sports, we can accommodate them,” says general manager Anna Lisa Brache, “but we don’t push it. Most just want to be left alone.” From the look of things during my stay, dozing poolside, reading on the beach, and eating are the most intense activities undertaken by the mostly American couples lodged on the grounds, which are dotted with still-young sea grape and oh-so-modern two-story terra-cotta villas. With only 55 suites served by a spa and three well-appointed restaurants—one Asian fusion, one contemporary Mediterranean, and one nouvelle French—a guest really can’t feel crowded. This is especially the case when the guest is lubricated by one of the almost 10,000 bottles from the wine cellar, full-size highlights of which are on offer in a small refrigerator in every spacious room. The dead-serious Dominican sommelier, Juan Pierre, steered me toward a 2003 Carchelo Altico Syrah. With no town in this neck of the woods, and neighboring resorts more buffet than soufflé, the hotel’s emphasis on food is welcome, even if the self-bestowed description art cuisine aims a bit high. Once ensconced here, most guests never leave the grounds until the taxi comes to take them back to the airport, and people have to eat.

Not to be outdone by its new neighbor, the Punta Cana area’s first and best-known destination, Puntacana Resort & Club, has just unveiled its own boutique property, Tortuga Bay Villas. Made up of 50 airy suites in 15 freestanding villas designed by Puntacana Resort partner and sometime resident Oscar de la Renta, Tortuga Bay creates a isolated oasis similar to that of Sivory and Casa Colonial, something that the much bigger adjoining main hotel complex at Puntacana can’t do. At Tortuga Bay, the only contact to the outside world is a golf cart, a satellite TV hookup, and a cell phone connection to a concierge. Should guests want to commune with the larger complex, including Puntacana’s neighboring new golf club, the property’s two golf courses (one designed by Pete Dye and the other by Tom Fazio), eight restaurants, and five bars, they’re as welcome at the larger resort as the denizens of Puntacana’s three residential developments and their visitors. But Tortuga Bay’s pin-drop quiet, powder-white beach, pool area, and on-site restaurant are closed to everyone but its own guests. Perhaps this is why Penelope Cruz and Jake Gyllenhaal have already availed themselves of the place. “I didn’t even know Gyllenhaal was here,” de la Renta says, with a laugh. (The same can’t be said of Uma Thurman, who, he adds, is on her way down with her kids for a photo shoot as we speak.) Luminaries who own houses at Puntacana’s Corales community are similarly happy to be left gloriously alone. “The place is being developed in a very low-key way,” says interior designer Bunny Williams of her estate, situated near Puntacana partner Julio Iglesias’s giant spread and that of press-shy dancer-choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “It hasn’t been overbuilt, so we can get away and be private.”

Though its easy to be unaware of the multitudes inhabiting Puntacana Resort and its neighboring properties, they’re there. The immaculate thatched-roof Puntacana International Airport is the Dominican Republic’s busiest, and the region is responsible for 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange. Thirty-five years ago, the area was all virgin forest and raw coast. Since then, growth has been so rapid that the resort’s parent company, Grupo Puntacana, has had to build infrastructure and provide services for its employees and guests; the government simply hands out tax breaks and hearty thank-yous for the effort. And so, hoping to promote a model of sustainable tourism and hang on to its 2,000 workers in an industry rife with turnover, Grupo Puntacana president and CEO Frank Rainieri and his partner, the New York–based labor lawyer Theodore Kheel, have donned their urban engineers’ caps with gusto. A genial baby boomer with the social consciousness and dressed-down style, Rainieri is more than happy to be considered, with Kheel, the Ben and Jerry of the Caribbean. In addition to building the road connecting Punta Cana to Higuey, where many of the resort’s workers now live, and co-running a school (private, but with tuition on a steeply sliding scale), Grupo Puntacana has erected an independent power grid; started a lovely, flower-strewn outdoor shopping complex with middle-income housing popping up around it; built a waste- and water-treatment plant and a town church; and set up the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, a 1,500-acre forest reserve and research facility in partnership with nine international universities. Produce from its organic garden supplies some of Puntacana Resort’s restaurants and is also sold to area residents. La Cana Golf Course uses a hybrid grass that requires minimal fertilizer and pesticide and can be irrigated with seawater. (Nearby residential resort Cap Cana and Casa de Campo’s Dye Fore golf course have both adopted the material, too.) “Tourism in the Caribbean is based on sun, sand, and sea, and if we don’t protect that here, we’ll destroy our main asset,” Rainieri says, speaking to me in his spacious but not terribly glamorous office. “A friend recently visited and told me, ‘I go to the most luxurious places around the world, and then I come here, where something is being done to try to improve the area too, and my vacation has a better taste.'” Not content with spreading the green gospel to guests, Rainieri and Kheel have published a book, A Natural Way of Business: How Frank Rainieri, Theodore Kheel, Oscar de la Renta, and Julio Iglesias Helped Transform an Island Economy. Bill Clinton, a frequent visitor who, Rainieri tells me, hopes to buy in Punta Cana one day, penned the foreword.

The downside of seclusion can be segregation, and for all the relaxation that comes with hermetically sealed resorts, a traveler would miss something really special by avoiding the towns that aren’t dominated by such gigantic properties. No matter where you’re staying, it’s worth hiring a taxi and doing some exploring. (Do not consider, for one moment, renting a car and driving after dark, unless you have Le Mans–level confidence and skill.) A half-hour from Playa Dorada lies Cabarete, which is rapidly gaining attention from wind- and kite-surfers for its high gusts and dynamic water. By night, its tiny strip of independently run restaurants, with beachside seating under lantern-lit coconut palms, teems with Dominican and foreign visitors. Kicking off my shoes to walk the sandy stretch from one establishment to the next (it’s often difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins), I pick my way through bachata troubadours strumming acoustic guitars; vendors of Mama Juana (a dehydrated mixture of spices and bark meant to be infused in rum and said to be an aphrodisiac); stray dogs; and chatty maître d’s complaining that the travel agents are sending too many tourists down south to Punta Cana.

Between Puerto Plata and Carabete is Sosúa, where soft-sand beaches tickle a calm bay popular with scuba divers. Its hotels are mainly all-inclusives, but the center of town is colorful, with small seafood restaurants set up to serve the population of mostly vacation-home owners. Ten minutes from Playa Dorada is Puerto Plata’s malecón, or boardwalk, a traditional Sunday afternoon hangout for teenagers and families. It’s not uncommon to see four-to-a-moped cruisers pouring Presidente beer into plastic cups (one for the driver, naturally) while whizzing past the indifferent police. Dueling booming sound systems, some as large as pickup-truck beds, blast merengue and reggaeton to the crowds flying kites on the hillside at the Fortaleza San Felipe, at the very end of the beachside strip. Here is where you’ll see the sidewalk vendors with aluminum charcoal barbecues. Some of the best food I’ve eaten in this country came from a portable grill on Puerto Plata’s malecón: a citrus-marinated quarter-chicken and a side of steamed yuca with vinegar-marinated red onions for about $2.50. Right up there with it was a plate of whole fried mero (sea bass) marinated in adobo and garlic, accompanied by fried sweet plantains and crispy salted jack bread, which I procured for about $2 from the row of stands near the shoreline of Boca Chica, a beach suburb a half-hour’s drive from Santo Domingo. Don’t let the lack of refrigeration at the freidurías, as the brightly painted stalls are called, scare you. The ladies who run them are selling today’s catch (parrotfish and mero when I visited). And so what if some of the goings-on in these towns are a little less wholesome than the family-style activities at the larger resorts? Boca Chica’s placid, crystal-clear waters are chockablock with locals on the make, and the enclave’s reputation for prostitution is, pretty clearly, not unfounded—even in the middle of the afternoon. But the only hectoring I experience while bikini-clad and solo on the sand, waiting for a Dominican friend to rejoin me with some half-frozen Bohemia pilsner, comes courtesy of three shoe-shine boys. (Are they looking to polish my flip-flops?) Though they claim to be 15, they are 12 if they’re a day, and hilariously inquisitive. Am I German? Am I married? Is that guy my boyfriend? Would he beat me if he found me talking to them? Answers: No, No, Not really, and Certainly not!

Sleepier towns have a more upright cast—for example Juan Dolio, a beachside bedroom community 45 minutes west of La Romana and about two hours from Santo Domingo. Consisting mostly of condos and freestanding vacation homes (including the official vacation residence of the president), its downtown is just a row of espresso houses, Italian restaurants, and tiny bars lined up along a shady street, plus the roadside bodegas on the thruway one long block away. The tourist trade in Juan Dolio has lost some steam; a few uncelebrated all-inclusives and an upscale Hilton are the only options for those who aren’t fans of a ramshackle pension. But the evening I spend here, a ways down the road from hipster nightclub Aura Beach house, is among the best of my stay. Ensconced in a thatched-roof bar with no name, I get a lesson in dancing bachata from my Dominican friend, while a couple of residents look on and coo. The ice in my herb-laced Mama Juana has almost melted, which means the time to leave is drawing near. The barkeep tosses me a plastic cup—why waste a drop?—wishes us a good evening, and off we walk into the night, the chirping crickets competing only with the sound of the waves, 100 feet away, and soft laughter coming from another small bar down the road.

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