In the Domincan Republic, Great Values and Exceptional Golf
|At 8:30 on a recent sunny morning, the No.1 tee box on Pete Dye’s famous Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo has all the trappings of a top-draw round except one: golfers.
At breakfast and lunch in Lago, the main restaurant at this Dominican Republic resort, a handful of servers man the omelet station, arrange the pastries, blend fresh fruit smoothies, and pour café con leche. But I’m the only guest there.
Sammy Sosa and Herb Kohler own homes here, but don’t bother looking for them now: This is the twice-yearly slump known as the shoulder season in the vacation industry, the slow time between peaks and valleys of business. It occurs for a few weeks between Easter and the start of summer, and again between summer’s peak and the fall holidays. Shoulder season is also the time of year you’ll find unbelievable bargains.
Could there be a more perfect vacation time than shoulder season, when you can have this 7,000-acre resort seemingly to yourself—and get it on the cheap? Want to play only the par-3s? No problem; you can do it. Play only the holes stitched to the ocean? Yours, too.
On the fairways, workers smooth bunkers that have no tracks and rake fallen leaves for seemingly no one, pausing only occasionally for a hint of shade under a tall hibiscus or a plumaria.
Even at Chinois, the excellent Chinese restaurant in the Marina Village, my small group was the only customers all day. A worker hung colorful Chinese paper lanterns from the rafters of the outdoor dining room. They swayed slowly, hypnotically, in the gentle breeze. But who were they meant to soothe? The village was empty. And despite their evocative names, million-dollar yachts like Antoinette, Mi Amore, and Mariana, floated in the glassy waters as if they were in a deep sleep, with no one around to wake them.
“This time of year, business can be up and down,” says our waiter, Elis Blanco, a six-year veteran of these boom-and-bust cycles.
On a nearby beach, where the sand was just begging for first tracks, I kicked off my sandals and walked along the isolated arc of the Caribbean. Thirty minutes, no one but me, the palms, the fish — and plenty of lonely white lounge chairs.
On street after tree-lined street throughout Casa de Campo, you could rent nearly any of the privately owned multimillion-dollar homes, whether a modest two-bedroom or a mansion on the edge of the Caribbean complete with a full-time service staff, chef, and pool boy.
It’s a tough time to work here, but it’s a great time to visit.
Golf course architect Pete Dye or his son, P.B., designed nearly all the courses in the D.R. Naturally, Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog is the area’s top golf attraction, with its fairways that wind along crashing surf and its impossibly cantilevered greens that seem to hang over the surf. But a few miles away from Casa de Campo, P.B. Dye’s 18-hole La Estancia is poised to battle for Best of Show.
La Estancia offers nearly everything you could want in a course: risk/reward, drama, forced carries over deep ravines, unbelievable views of lush countryside, pampering service–and $75 green fees. Over the next several years, the La Estancia development hopes to sell hundreds of home sites and compete with Casa de Campo as a second-home destination. Until then, though, you can take advantage of a $500-a-night package that includes a four-bedroom townhouse and unlimited golf for four players–a deal that’s hard to beat in this hobbled economy.
The thrill of having a top resort nearly to yourself continued a few hours away, at Tortuga Bay in Punta Cana. Punta Cana is an over-the-top, 15,000-acre resort development that absolutely shouldn’t be missed, especially this time of the year, when almost nobody is there to compete for morning tee times or choice restaurant reservations.
At Punta Cana’s big-deal restaurant, La Yola, you could find impeccably fresh local snapper, salads and fresh vegetables grown in a nearby organic farm, and outrageously perfect spaghetti carbonara, but no one was around to order it. The resort’s villas, tricked out with coralis tile flooring, deep soaking tubs, and French doors that open to wide, private balconies overlooking the beach, usually rent for nearly $1000 a night during high season. But during slow times of the year, you can snag the same room for fraction of that. The 186-room Puntacana hotel offers similarly enticing values for even less.
In the morning, I strolled the beach in complete solitude, then played P.B. Dye’s 18-hole, oceanside La Cana golf course, which opened in 2001, and Tom Fazio’s new Corales golf course, which will eventually become closed to nonmembers. A second P.B. Dye layout, the Hacienda golf course, is in the planning stages but is targeted to open next year.
“It may be slow now, but I wouldn’t have given up retirement to come here and run Corales if I didn’t think this was about to become a world-class golf destination,” former PGA Tour and Champions Tour player Jay Overton told me during a recent round on Corales. Overton formerly served as the head pro at Pinehurst resort and once served as the director of golf at Innisbrook Resort.
Overton says Punta Cana’s developer, Frank Rainieri, “is committed to nothing but the best. He’s building a place for his grandchildren and his grandchildren’s grandchildren. I want to be a part of that.”
Rainieri built Punta Cana out of nothing but scrub brush and jungle, laying down the resort’s infrastructure and constructing an airport—the only privately owned international airport in the world—to shuttle in tourists and supplies to support his development.
“In 1998, 6000 Americans flew in to Punta Cana’s airport,” Ranieri begins. “Today, a half-million Americans fly through every year. Twenty minutes after landing, you’re on the beach.”
Despite the sluggish global economy, Ranieri continues to invest in his Punta Cana development. He reportedly poured $35 million into the Corales golf course, and that third 18 is underway. Contrast that with Roco Ki, a competing project an hour up the road that was once heralded with much fanfare. Construction on everything but the golf course at Roko Ki appears to have been halted in midstream. Except for an exceptional, Troon-managed oceanside golf course designed by Nick Faldo, the Westin Roco Ki hotel under construction looks nearly indistinguishable from a war zone. But it’s shoulder season, so I couldn’t really assess how much play the course got during peak season, or how often one of the few completed golf villas was rented.
“Once the economy turns around,” offers one of the golf pros, “this place will be finished in no time.”
Maybe so. But until then, I don’t know of a better value for golf vacation in the Caribbean than to spend a week at either Punta Cana or Casa de Campo during shoulder season.
Casa de Campo • 800-877-3643, www.casadecampo.com.do
La Estancia • 809-689-7027, www.lagr.com
Punta Cana Resort • 888-442-2262, www.puntacana.com
Roco Ki • 888-476-2654, www.rocoki.com