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..
What a crime it would have been. We could have easily come to the Dominican Republic and surrendered to the endless epicurean pleasures of resort living, without ever getting a feel for the country at large. But after a few days of traversing some of the finest golf courses we'd ever set spikes on, we did a revolutionary thing-we left the resort. I, for one, didn't want to come home with nothing but a handful of calluses, bag tags, and cheap cigars.
We hiked to the highway beyond the confines of the Punta Cana Resort, photographer André Baranowski and I, and hopped a local bus down the coast, in search of the fishing village of Playa Juanillo. Riding the guagua, as the buses are called, immediately put us among farm workers and school children. Some glanced at us with bemused curiosity, but most seemed to regard us as they would longtime neighbors. At one stop, a young man climbed aboard with a wiry rooster tucked under his arm. Cockfighting being legal here, this bird was not on its way to anyone's dinner table. The kid was a sportsman.
After a few miles, the asphalt road was down to nothing but a pair of tire tracks in the sand. When the bus failed to clear a small drift, the ride was over. No one seemed to mind. We continued down the beach on foot until we reached the village-a flock of brightly painted, oceanfront cabins with corrugated roofs. We sat down at a patio restaurant and took in the view: old fishing boats resting under palm trees that bowed toward the turquoise waters. In a while we were presented with fresh grilled lobster, some cold Presidente beers and a bill for 175 pesos-little more than $10.
Though the expanse of snow-white sand before us seemed to be infinite, only a few miles up the coastline, Club Meds, marinas, spas and real estate developments grappled with one another over every acre of beachfront. Yet here was this sublime and unspoiled place, overlooked and lost in the past.
This was the kind of trip we'd wanted. We had come to find the two sides of the Dominican Republic-the quiet, remote corners of Eden as well as the sybaritic golf resorts. As recently as 10 years ago, this area known as the Coconut Coast, home to some of the most magnificent beaches in the West Indies, was practically uninhabited.
Columbus landed on these shores during his first voyage, naming the island Hispaniola. He left behind the caravel Santa Maria and 39 men-the first Spanish colony in the New World-and soon blood flowed on the white sand. By the time Columbus returned, all that was left was the Santa Maria's anchor, which stands today in the colonial district of Santo Domingo. Through Spanish colonialism, French occupation, U.S. invasions and a military dictatorship, the island's more sparsely populated regions remained remarkably unchanged.
The last decade, however, has seen an unprecedented invasion of developers who have brought extravagant resorts and preeminent golf to this isle of unbridled beauty. People are far happier about these builders than their predecessors were about Columbus.
People rhapsodize about the possibilities of a post-Castro Cuba, yet a lot of that anticipated glory can be found right now, 180 miles due east, in the Dominican Republic, a nation smaller than West Virginia. The population is a little more than eight million.
There are obvious reasons this nation has never been afforded the romantic cachet of its exotic neighbors in the French West Indies or the Dutch Antilles: It shares a border with the tragic kingdom of Haiti, for one thing, and the 30 years the Dominican Republic spent under the brutish thumb of General Rafael Trujillo were not very appetizing. Mostly, it was known for a wealth of baseball talent, sugar, tobacco and little else. It is, however, a country of immense physical gifts-fertile valleys run up against tropical rain forests, or into foliage-shrouded mountains. And, of course, there is the endless white and blue of its shoreline.
But for us, the foremost draw was visible from the window of American Airlines flight No. 275 from Miami, which arrives daily at the colossal high-luxe resort, Casa de Campo, and its fabled golf course, Teeth of the Dog. You're not merely flown to an airport near the resort; you land literally on the course-the runway divides the inland holes from the ones against the ocean. It is not hard to distinguish the visitors from the natives. Everyone on board is wearing Cross Creek/Ashworth/Nike shirts, ColeHaan loafers, and baseball caps-brims facing forward, of course.
The moment you step off the plane, your senses confirm your arrival in the tropics. Coconut palms fan out under a perfectly blue sky, the salt air sticks to your skin, and a steady breeze fills you with the warm fragrance of mangroves, sea grapes and freshly shorn fairways. Coltish young women saunter around barefoot in bikinis and silk sarongs. Yet all you can think is, "How fast can I get on Teeth of the Dog?"
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!