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Part Four: Revolution in the Caribbean

By Judd Klinger

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.

Revolutionary Grass

Much like Casa de Campo, the Punta Cana Resort is a complete vacation village unto itself, one of a dozen new international hotels, totaling more than 17,000 rooms, that have sprung up seemingly overnight along the Coconut Coast. Beyond the fairly standard, four-story building where we stayed, single villas dot the length of the private beachfront property. Two heavy investors in this hotel and real estate complex are de la Renta and Julio Iglesias, both of whom have built fantastic, multi-million-dollar estates here. When de le Renta invited Pete Dye to build a golf course, Dye felt too loyal to his friends at Campo to oblige a rival upstart. Instead, he recommended his son, P.B.

For many years, P.B. Dye and his older brother, Perry, have been extending the Dye design legacy throughout the world. In December, 1998, P.B. and his construction superintendent, Chip Caswell, stood at the edge of an undeveloped section of jungle thicket adjoining the hotel grounds, and began to carve out a golf course. By December of this year, the first 18 holes of White Sands will be completed and playable, with 36 more in the planning.

The biggest headache for a course superintendent in the Caribbean is dealing with the after-effects of the hurricane season. Perry Dye, while constructing a course in Asia, discovered seashore paspalum, a turf grass native to Austalia that is salt-tolerant. P.B. imported it for his layout in Punta Cana, and it's sure to revolutionize golf course design in this part of the world.

"It's pretty neat stuff," Caswell said. "If we wanted to, we could stick a pump in the ocean and irrigate the course with ocean water. Worst case scenario-a hurricane comes through and the fairways are under water for three days-it's gonna be fine. But Bermuda grass would be dead." Teeing it up on White Sands, I had a Columbus-esque moment: I felt like I'd reached a virginal paradise. Beyond its stunningly sublime design, what strikes you about the course is the color and texture of the grass. It's a rich shade of green, and so dense to the touch it almost feels like Astroturf. "The advantage to the density is that it can be cut very, very short," explained Caswell. "Eventually, we'll be able to get the greens down to 9 or 10 on the Stimpmeter."

While P.B.'s overall design philosophy seems to be a bit softer-edged than his father's, the sharp contrast between the turf and the white sand is spectacular. I can't wait to see the finished course.

While in Punta Cana, we dropped in to check out another new course, the Cocotal Golf & Country Club at the nearby Sol Meliá resort, trumpeted to be the island's next big-ticket destination. Its 1,044 rooms are displayed in a spare-no-expense Euro-gauche setting-lots of imported marble and mahogany, much in the way of reflecting pools and fountains and outdoor statuary, and the rarefied scent of well-heeled women on the prowl alongside barons of industry and oil sheiks.

Cocotal was designed by Spanish golf great José Gancedo, and one look at the layout suggests his undying affection for Valderrama. To be kind, let's just say that while someday this may develop into a nice track, it was also under construction. But there was one eccentric design touch that charmed me: On most par 4s and 5s, at around 130-150 yards out, a full-grown palm tree was planted dead-center in the fairway. Go figure.

Like Barcelona

Needing to see some night-on-the-town action, we lit out for the oldest city in the Americas, Santo Domingo. With a population of more than two million, the city combines antiquity and urban sprawl like no other place in the Western Hemisphere. Even to a couple of travelers like us, the Ciudad Colonial (the Colonial Zone) was a thrill-the stuff of which history books are made.

After the loss of the original colony, Columbus's son, Diego, built a fortress and adjoining palace between 1509 and 1511, both of which stand in good form today. Luis Santiago, an official with the Ministry of Tourism who wanted to show us his side of paradise, guided us through the ruins. He took no pleasure in reminding us that, after the assassination of Gen. Trujillo, 40,000 U.S. troops entered Santo Domingo in a "peace-keeping mission," restoring order by shelling parts of the old city. Much of it survived, though, and the palace, museum, the Cathedral of Santa Maria (the first cathedral in the New World) and various military and religious ruins along Calle las Damas make for a full afternoon's walk. In the heart of the Zone, we stumbled upon the charming Hotel Frances, a refurbished, 19-room colonial house, and the perfect romantic antidote to the mondo hotel complexes along Avenida George Washington, which is looking more like Miami Beach every day.

We started at Plaza de Espana, the see-and-be-seen spot directly opposite Columbus's palace. It was like being transported to Barcelona. A block of Moorish stone houses converted into bars and restaurants with patios overlooked the plaza.

A group of Luis's friends met up with us that night. The first generation to grow up on American satellite television, they'd learned to speak English from watching Sesame Street and Miami Vice. The best endorsement of life here came from a transplanted Dutchman named Louis Brocker, who manages Pat'e Palo Brasserie. Brocker spent five years working the cruise lines, and had seen the world 10 times over. Wanting to lay down roots, he settled in Santo Domingo, a city he sees as the next Madrid.

"The people I work with enjoy every day," he said. "They're not business-obsessed. It's not all about the money here."

Gazing around the patio, it was easy to endorse his judgment. The balmy night air was a piquant mix of merengue music, Mediterranean cuisine al fresco, and the free voices of young cosmopolitans.

After more taxis, cigarettes and drinks than we care to remember, we ended up at the Steakhouse Cafe, the city's answer to the Hard Rock Cafe, a large room with a circular bar in the center, and walls plastered with giant murals of classic rock iconography. SportsCenter flashed silently on dozens of TV's, to the beat of an endless pop-rock mix. When the Clash's sing-along anthem, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" roared over the sound system, everyone in the house jumped on the chorus. For us, it was like a reverse-decompression chamber-a less than gentle reminder of the nitrogen-on-the-brain world that awaited us back home.

Where to spend the last sunset? At Punta Cana, a good many guests spend it the proper way-flopped on a beach chair, the sensuous waters of the Caribbean lapping against their feet. We, however, elected to slip back onto P.B.'s course and played a short, seaside par 3 again and again, until our shots disappeared in the gloaming.

When at last the tropical night closed in on us, we packed up our sticks for good and retired to Punta Cana's Marina restaurant, where we dined sumptuously on the fresh grilled swordfish, drank far too many Presidentes, and talked about the certain pars that were apparently foiled at the last second by the ghost of Gen. Trujillo.

Judd Klinger

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