Waiting for Cuba to open up? Go to the Dominican Republic now! The golf, the food and the folks are the best in the Caribbean.
Following the U.S. occupation from 1916-24, and its subsequent support of the dark dictatorship of Gen. Trujillo, Dominicans could justifiably resent anyone from the north. But we never felt that during our visit.
Instead, their genial mind-set seems to promote a different approach to life's vicissitudes. For instance, when an American is late to the airport, he usually thinks, "Damn it, I missed my plane." A Dominican who misses a flight would say, "The plane left without me." That subtle distinction in the realm of time and personal responsibility is, in essence, the Dominican way of life. Haste is not as important here. Everything that needs to be done, gets done. Eventually.
Checking out of one resort, a computer had double-billed me for a round of golf. The manager apologized affably enough, then took an hour to correct the problem.
When the red film dissolved from my eyes, I came to view this sort of casual disregard for Teutonic exactitude as one of the island's great charms. My advice: Breathe deep the ocean winds, relax, and leave your Rolex in the hotel room safe. This is why you came here. So what if you have to wait? Three beers are almost always better than one.
The success of Casa de Campo has, in recent years, spurred the development of two other golf-intensive resort areas on the island. A 200-mile drive north, to the Atlantic shore, would take us to Puerto Plata, home of the new Robert Trent Jones-design Playa Grande course. Though we'd heard great things about it, we'd also been tipped off that Pete Dye's son, P.B., was on the final leg of constructing what promised to be something very special in Punta Cana, 100 miles in the opposite direction, on the easternmost tip of the island. We decided we had to be among the first to play it, finished or not.
We rented a car for a trip to Punta Cana and then on to Santo Domingo. We chose the rural roads of the country's interior rather than the more convenient but congested coastal highways.
As soon as we hit the road, all my sharply observed cultural stereotypes, tiempo dominicano and all that, went right out the window. I came up with a brand new stereotype: All Dominicans drive like freakin' maniacs. The same lackadaisical guy at the front desk who took two days to deliver a phone message will blow by you doing 120 miles an hour, uphill. And I soon found out that there are no driving laws here, except for the one that requires you to pass all trucks and bus caravans on blind curves. As long as an engine's running, the accelerator pedal is nailed to the floorboard.
Our first stop was San Pedro de Macorís, a port on the Caribbean side, built a century ago by Cuban immigrants who cultivated the region's sugar industry. Though much of the handsome, Cuban architecture remains, the city is now the epicenter of baseball in the Dominican Republic, the hometown of Chicago Cubs hero Sammy Sosa (see page 47).
Downtown San Pedro is centered around a heavily shaded square. A stroll around this plaza yielded a survey of the city's life. For 50 cents, a machete-waving vendor sold fresh coconut milk, straight from the nut. All sorts of stuff you wouldn't want to buy-fake Spanish artifacts, gaudy paintings, tarnished flatware-was for sale.
The town's excuse for buses, old minivans with the side doors removed, clogged the streets. Noticing an English sign that said "Fast Pizza," we stopped for lunch in the El Piano Bar & Restaurant. Luckily, there was no pizza on the menu, because their sopa de pescado turned out to be, hands down, the best fish chowder I've had in my life. The sándwich especial, an astonishing, triple-decker delicacy took forever to prepare, and was worth the wait.
The road between el seibo and hato Mayor, two towns in the agricultural plains, led us through some breathtaking scenery. Stretched out for miles against the foothills, waves of shoulder-high sugarcane swayed slowly in the warm breeze. Red dirt roads separated the plantations, and we'd catch a glimpse of some lonesome horseman, riding toward a distant sugar factory.
Then there were the intermittent clusters of pastel shacks, on a riverbank or under a grove of coconut trees, from which children would invariably stop and wave at the cruising Anglos.
Hato Mayor is a rural village built around the intersection of two highways-a commercial district and some residential streets lined with freshly painted, one-room houses. This was a Saturday afternoon, and it seemed as though every other house had people sitting in front-"visiting," as my grandmother used to call it. It was the type of place that, if someone on the block had had a radio, the music would be cranked up loud enough to bring teenagers out in the street to dance.
Ten years ago, Higüey was a similarly humble village surrounded by miles of orange groves and sugarcane plantations. But as developers descended upon the eastern coast to build their grand resorts, some 30,000 workers left the fields and migrated here.
Construction and resort jobs pay well for the Dominican Republic, between $10 and $15 per day, so the inrush of low-income families has turned Higüey into something like Tijuana, a transitory place to which people come on their way to a new life.
Bangkok also came to mind, as there seemed to be 50 motorbikes for every car. And, as in Bangkok, it seems a widely held article of faith that a two-wheeled Honda 90 can seat a family of four. In the center of town is the gigantic Basilica de Señora de la Altagracia, built in honor of the patron saint of the Dominicans, who allegedly performed several miracles here, none of which, I'm guessing, addressed public transportation.
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!