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Apr 25, 2008
Dominican Republic - Forbes

Dominican Republic

Punta Cana: Yes, you can leave New York after the closing bell and still make landfall in time for dinner and a stogie at this beachside jungle getaway. What is even more remarkable is that, despite the sprawl, there are still places in Punta Cana to get away from it all in luxurious privacy.

You can thank Mr. Frank Rainieri for the fact that there is anything here to begin with. There was little on this remote eastern tip of the Dominican Republic when Rainieri arrived in 1969 apart from a few fishing shacks, mangrove swamps and jungle everywhere--the land is so fecund that even the wooden fence posts sprout leaves. The miles of untouched beaches moved the 24-year-old Rainieri to build an airstrip and a small resort, named Puntacana--"the point of palms"--though it should really mean "Build it and they will come."

Fast-forward 40 years, and Punta Cana airport, with its Gilligan's Island--style palm-frond terminal, is still owned by the Rainieri family and is now the busiest runway in the Dominican Republic. This coast has become the Caribbean Waikiki, with mega-resorts and 55,000 hotel rooms catering to all-you-can-eat-type tourists from the U.S. and Europe. But bookending this oceanfront garishness are two smaller hotels well worth the flight: Tortuga Bay on the south and Sivory on the north.

Tortuga Bay Hotel, Punta Cana, San Juan

Tortuga Bay is a manicured seaside garden with 15 yellow Victorian-inspired villas furnished by Oscar de la Renta, whose own mansion is next door. Tortuga Bay is where you go if you want absolute privacy--that is, if you count sharing your on-site butler with the next villa as "privacy."

What's more, the resort offers the three essential "Bs" for perfect family vacations: bikes, babysitters and six pleasant little bars--just enough to make you forget you brought the kids along in the first place.

But most people come here to draw and fade through the legendary oceanfront golf course designed by P.B. Dye. Hole no. 7 is so notorious that Dye is currently building his home right next to it so he can gloat while players agonize about whether to drive the ball over the low palm grove or dogleg left through bunker territory. Ex-President Clinton, a frequent visitor, has been spotted shooting this par-four hole after dark--the man's sense of discretion has obviously improved since leaving office.

My favorite parts of the coast are the 11 freshwater lagoons in the jungle of the 1,500-acre Indigenous Eyes Ecological Reserve just inland. Wander a twisting path through the mangroves, and you come across these gin-clear swimming holes, perfect for expelling the jungle's languor and exploring with mask and snorkel.

For the full Tarzan-in-1,000-thread-count-sheets act, head north to the other end of the beach, where the Sivory Punta Cana blends into the palms and mangroves on an undeveloped stretch of coast. Want an incredible god's-eye view of hammerhead sharks, an enormous tanker sunk on the reef, the mega-resorts you won't be staying in? Take the the helicopter provided by the resort.

Sivory's pink cottages dot the lightly manicured jungle right next to a perpetually rolling surf that seems more Atlantic than Caribbean. All the refined stuff happens indoors amidst the elegant sliding screens, cool black and beige Asian furniture and Buddha statues. Columbus didn't find the Orient when he stumbled onto these shores 500 years ago, but the Orient has since found its way here.

You can even get impeccably fresh sushi and other Asian delicacies made from local sea catches at Tau, one of Sivory's three intimate restaurants. Those seeking more elaborate fare dine in Gourmond, a surprisingly excellent slice of France in the jungle helmed by Chef Denis Jaricot, who was himself imported from Paul Bocuse's kitchen in Lyon by way of assorted Four Seasons Hotels. Even more incongruous is an 8,000-bottle wine "cellar" in a refrigerated glass room one floor above the sand and vines. Come dusk, the plush smoking veranda next to the wine cellar's rum rack has the best chairs in the house. Here's where a well-stocked humidor allows you to legally trade with the enemy while listening to the pounding surf and nocturnal crickets amidst the swaying palms. --Finn-Olaf Jones

The Setup

Tortuga Bay, (809) 959-2262, Golf package for two with suite, $1,100 for two nights. Sivory Punta Cana, (809) 552- 0500, Suites start at $266 a night.

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