I WAKE up in my golden-yellow Oscar de la Renta-decorated, $650-a-night villa, throw off the 350-thread-count sheets, and pad over to open the balcony doors. In floods the Caribbean sunlight, nothing but a long-fronded palm and a patch of manicured grass between me and the sugary sand beach, which gives way to water a shade of aquamarine that I thought had existed only in Crayola boxes. It's as if I had woken up in a travel brochure ... or a Corona commercial. But really, it's just morning in Tortuga Bay, the new luxury resort on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic.
My old friend Jon is also up, already fantasizing about his golf game on the P. B. Dye-designed oceanfront course (and, yes, there's the seventh hole, jutting out into the sea just to my left). It's a significant change from his dusty jaunts through the public courses of eastern Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, I am preparing myself for the salt-scrubbing, Oriental-massaging experience of a $247 Energizing Day Package at the Six Senses Spa, the high-end Asian chain previously only available at destinations like Phuket and the Maldives, where it takes a $247 massage just to recover from your 20-plus hour flight. (Tortuga Bay is just a three-and-a-half-hour flight from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York).
But first, breakfast. Sure, just pressing "2" on our direct-to-butler cell phone would summon a feast to the aforementioned balcony, but we're guys who prefer the high-end gluttony of the breakfast buffet combined with made-to-order omelets and pancakes at the poolside Bamboo Restaurant. It's just a two-minute walk away. (Still, we take our golf cart.)
Just another day in paradise.
But great as Tortuga Bay might sound (and some service glitches over the course of our stay made me question just how great it was), this resort, with 50 suites in 15 villas, is just one of a number of high-end getaways that are beginning to call the Dominican Republic home. The Sanctuary Cap Cana, a boutique hotel with eight restaurants within a larger $500 million development, has a low-key opening scheduled for Feb. 1; before then, Jack Nicklaus will be flying in to open one of his Signature golf courses, with nine of the holes on the water. Farther up the east coast, through picturesque hills and small towns, the Sivory resort, with its 55 terra-cotta-colored suites built into jungle-worthy vegetation (lushness reduced near the suites to avoid bugs) - some right on the beach with their own private plunge pools - is gearing up for its first full winter season.
Time was the Dominican Republic was famous for its bargain getaways: $1,000 for a flight-included, all-inclusive resort where the food was passable, the drinks strong and the merengue music festive. (Actually, that time was only a year or two ago, and the bargains are still there.) But the country is increasingly becoming the five-star playground of the Caribbean, pulling in tourists that might otherwise have gone to Jamaica, Puerto Rico or St. Thomas and gearing up to give the glamour spots of Anguilla, St. Bart's and Turks and Caicos a run for their money.
As the winter season approaches, the Dominican Republic has all but been anointed with "it-destination" status by celebrities, travel magazines and tour operators. It's estimated that four million people will visit the country this year. That's more than double the 1.9 million that came in 1996. And though Canadians and Europeans were the traditional visitors, Americans are fast taking over.
With thousands of pricey hotel rooms and luxury second homes planned for the next decade, and paparazzi-drawing celebrities like the Clintons, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Julio Iglesias, Vin Diesel and Brad Pitt popping in for work or play or both, this is only the beginning. The Roco Ki real estate venture will open the Westin Roco Ki Beach and Golf Resort in Punta Cana in winter 2007, and is planning at least seven high-end hotels, in a resort that gives a nod to the Taino Indians who lived on the island before Columbus arrived. (It financed an archaeological dig on its land before beginning construction and is considering opening a museum nearby with the findings.) It is also a residential community: there was $100 million in sales the day those homes went on the market in April 2005, according to Nick Tawil Fernandez, the chief executive officer.
Cap Cana has about 30,000 acres south of Tortuga Bay, and villas are on sale from $750,000; in addition to the Sanctuary Cap Cana, its marina, whose debut is this December, will eventually have 1,000 slips. And it's not just on the east coast that all this action is taking place: in Samana, the paradisiacal peninsula on the north coast visited by humpback whales, the Gran Bahia Principe chain is opening no less than four five-star hotels for the winter season.
And there is much near-virgin beach still being scoured: Fernando Rainieri, a former tourism secretary and the brother of the Punta Cana pioneer Frank Rainieri, is part of a group of Dominican investors that includes the wealthy Najri family, that bought some beachfront land in 1997 in Miches, the largely undeveloped area between the resorts of Samana and Punta Cana. They've recently been negotiating with a group of American and Canadian investors. (Howard Kerzner, whose company owns the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas and many others, recently died in a helicopter crash on his way to scout out land in the north.)
How did a country that three decades ago few people considered a beach destination become such an A-list destination?
BEACHES The hundreds of miles of sandy shore, much of it seemingly typecast for the role of Paradise, beats every other Caribbean nation but Cuba for length; especially on the east end, the fine white sand and turquoise waters match up for quality as well.
GOLF Fazio, Nicklaus, Dye, they've all been there, designed that. (There are more than 20 designer golf courses in use or planned.)
FLIGHTS With five international airports taking in more than a dozen daily nonstop flights from New York City and direct service being offered from an ever-increasing number of other American cities, it's easy to get there. A contributing factor: New York's enormous Dominican immigrant community flies back and forth regularly, creating year-round demand and thus increasing options.
THE COCOON EFFECT Tourism in the Dominican Republic has long been all-inclusive. And although many of the new high-end resorts are not, they do provide the same kind of get-away-from-it-all experience travelers in escape mode are often looking for.
POOR INFRASTRUCTURE The Dominican Republic's notoriously bad (and badly marked) roads, dysfunctional power grid and dubious water system had a hand in driving the all-inclusive culture by making it necessary for resort owners to provide a self-sustaining community and thus a huge disincentive to explore the otherwise culturally rich island, home to everything from merengue to Christopher Columbus's first settlement in the New World.
BASEBALL As Dominican baseball superstars like Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols became household names in the United States over the last decade, their country of origin did too.
CELEBRITIES It's hard to imagine anyone who has brought more boldface names to the Dominican Republic than the designer Oscar de la Renta. To cite one prominent example, he got Hillary Clinton to visit Punta Cana in 1998, and she and Bill have been going back every since. Producing a Miss Universe, Amelia Vega, in 2003, didn't hurt either.
GOVERNMENT EFFORTS The government played a key role in providing tax breaks and other support for the first round of all-inclusive resorts that sprouted in the 1980's. These days, the secretary of tourism, Felix Jimenez, has a $30 million promotional budget, and through the public relations firm BVK has been blitzing New York and other cities with its Republic of Colors campaign.
Dominican Republic TERRORISM AND ANTI-AMERICANISM The Dominican Republic doesn't have them - or tsunamis - making it an attractive substitute for those fearful of seeking luxury in Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and the like. "Dominicans are not anti-anything," said Ellis Perez, a vice president of Cap Cana and a former secretary of tourism. "We are an open, simple people."
According to Mr. Jimenez, tourists spent $14 millon in the country in 1974; in 2005 his government placed the figure at $3.5 billion. In 1986 just over half a million people visited the country. In 1996, it was over 1.5 million. And beyond the four million expected this year, the secretary nonchalantly predicts five million for 2007.
The Dominican Republic already takes in more tourism dollars than any other country in Latin America except Mexico and Brazil, according to World Tourism Organization statistics. In the meantime, the importance of sugar, coffee, cocoa and tobacco to the economy has declined. "Tourism has been the motor of the Dominican economy for the last 20 years," said Fernando Rainieri, the former tourism secretary and current investor in Miches. "In 1980, nobody believed in it and no one wanted to invest in it."
The tourism industry in the Dominican Republic is focused these days on Punta Cana, which many have compared to Cancun. For better or for worse, the comparison makes sense: like Cancun, in the 1960's Punta Cana was not on the map. Then, in 1969, a young Frank Rainieri flew with a group of American investors over the isolated, lightly inhabited east coast of the country; by the early 70's the land was theirs. A 1972 law made investing in tourism a nearly tax-free endeavor, and the government backed the first beach resort, Playa Dorada, which opened on the north coast simultaneously with the Puerto Plata airport in 1980.
The next year Club Med opened in Punta Cana, followed closely by the Spanish hotel company Barcelo. The Punta Cana Airport, privately owned and operated by Mr. Rainieri and the Punta Cana Group, opened in 1985 and in 1988 the Puntacana Resort & Club opened. More followed, and through August of this year, according to official Central Bank statistics, 1.26 million foreigners not of Dominican origin (presumably tourists) entered the country through Punta Cana. That is nearly three times as many as flew into Santo Domingo, the capital and by far the country's biggest city.
The country has also been investing in infrastructure. There is the Tourist Boulevard between Punta Cana and Uvero Alto. Late last month, the Dominican president, Leonel Fernandez, was in Punta Cana to meet with hotel owners, and Frank Rainieri suggested they begin thinking about stretching the highway beyond Uvero Alto to Miches. (Which, coincidentally or not, is where his brother Fernando owns land). A highway from Santo Domingo to the beautiful Samana peninsula is supposed to be completed in 2008, and the airport at Samana, El Catey International Airport, is to open next month. Not coincidentally, the Gran Bahia Principe resort chain will open about a thousand luxury hotel rooms in the next two months, in four different complexes.
With the high-end hordes bearing down upon them, though, hotel operators face a problem: quality of service. Tourism officials and hotel executives all seem to read from the same talking points: the Dominican people are the country's biggest asset, what with their warm hearts, friendly faces and big smiles. But hand-clapping, merengue-dancing Club Med smiles are one thing; boutique hotel "Let me explain our pillow menu to you" smiles quite another.
The flaws during my two days in Tortuga Bay made that all too clear.
Sometimes, they were funny: a welcome letter left for Jon and me in our bedroom (with two separate beds, I hasten to point out), read, "Mr. Kugel, thank you again for choosing us for your honeymoon vacation." But more often they were annoying. Repeated dial-2 calls to our butler to help us reduce the air-conditioning level from Arctic freeze to Caribbean cooldown produced fruitless advice; we would have shivered through two nights if the comforters Oscar de la Renta chose for us weren't so cozy. Jon got charged the outside guest rate for a round of golf ($50 extra) even though our butler had made the tee time and it had been confirmed with a letter from management. (And some things even the best of service couldn't have helped. That pristine view from our balcony covered up a secret: just beyond the shoreline, the precious sand gave way to a bottom so rocky and slippery as to make taking a dip genuinely unpleasant.)
Haydee Palmieri, the vice president of hospitality and human resources at Punta Cana (and Frank Rainieri's wife), acknowledged the flaws in service, though she did point out that Leading Hotels of the World had approved their application in September, making them the second member from the Dominican Republic (along with the Paradisus Palma Real).
Andre Gerondeau, executive vice president for Sol Melia, which owns the Paradisus, acknowledges that raising the level of service will take time. "Anywhere in the world," he said, "especially in Latin America, there is a huge gap between people that have resources and those who don't," which makes high-end service a problem. The Dominican Republic is quickly catching up, he said. But still, "if someone has been to Bali, Seychelles, St. Bart's and then comes to the D.R.," he said, "they will certainly see a difference. You need to connect with your team members. The overall perception of us versus them is a killer."
Will the Dominican Republic dominate the Caribbean for years to come? Puerto Rico is feeling the heat, having fallen behind it in tourism receipts, if not absolute numbers, in 2004, and is fighting back with a new Tourism and Transportation Strategic Plan. And the stress on beaches, golf, beaches and golf - the themes that dominate the Web site, godominicanrepublic.com and its Republic of Colors campaign, may leave the country open to competition with places like Jamaica, whose advertising and Web site (visitjamaica.com) also stresses people, culture, art, music, food and ecotourism.
This much is safe to say: The secretary of tourism's prediction of five million visitors in 2007 will very likely come true. Or there will be a lot of really expensive hotel rooms, villas and bungalows lying empty.