With world-class golf, polo, shooting, sailing, design – and of course a nice beach or two – Casa de Campo is a Caribbean hideaway without peer. Brian Noone was seduced by its charms
“How do you like my office?” asks our caddy, Roberto, his hands extended out across the pea green undulations of Dye Fore golf course toward the forested slope which drops 60 metres to the Chavón River below, a setting made almost too picturesque by the ashen blue silhouette of mountains in the distance. But for all its beauty, Roberto’s office is spectacularly difficult in the swirling Caribbean trade winds, and his knowing advice – he is a four handicapper himself – and kind, unjudging eyes steady my nerves, just as his stories about caddying for former US presidents entertain as we make our way around the course.
People are not the focus at Casa de Campo, but somehow, as in high mountains or solitary deserts, it is pleasant faces, like that of Roberto, which get imprinted on the mind’s eye after a week-long stay, like so many jewels in a crown. There is Cali, director of the equestrian centre, a former professional polo player whose great- grandfather was a Cuban independence hero. There is Shaun, director of the shooting centre, who was once one of the only falconers in Britain. There is proud, smiling Nicole, the designer who runs the artisan shop. There is Jonathan, the dancing traffic warden, whose hypnotic signals never fail to provoke a smile.
But if people are not the focus, then what is? Even after a few days, the answer begins to seem permanently elusive: sprawled across an expanse of land nearly as large as Macau, the resort doesn’t sit easily in any familiar category. Initially developed as a private retreat for executives of Gulf + Western, the corporation which owned the nearby sugar mill, it has grown slowly over the past 40 years. It is part hotel, fresh off a US$40m refit of its 185 rooms, part private village, with about 1,700 villas and still that particular Dominican charm which so attracted the executives in the first place, and part full-on municipality, with amenities to rival provincial capitals across the globe, from the two-terminal, on-site international airport to one of the largest kitchens in the region, which can feed 2,500 people for a week, including 15,000 bottles of wine, and is fresh off a US$12m facelift.
It’s only on the 17th green of Teeth of the Dog, the resort’s signature course, when the caddy calls the nearby villa Casa Grande, big house, that it becomes clear just what Casa de Campo really is: an extravagantly large country home which welcomes a select few guests. The name Casa de Campo is Spanish for country house, and the resort belongs to a family, the Fanjuls, who own not only Casa Grande but also much of Gulf + Western’s former sugar holdings across the Caribbean. The resort, then, is but a drop in the veritable bucket – a playground for the family’s friends and friends of friends. This is why there are ten times as many privately owned villas as hotel rooms: there is something a bit unseemly about guests coming and going en masse in a country house.
Unlike most Caribbean spreads, however, the beach is not the focal point. There is a very nice beach, to be sure, with palms and gentle turquoise water and white loungers and laughing children – and there is a private beach a short boat ride away, perhaps the best spot for lunch – but the coast is always a jumping-off point for other activities, whether it’s sea kayaking up the river or taking out one of the yachts from the 400-berth marina for an afternoon of deep sea fishing or a sailing lesson.
The showpiece attraction is the majestic Teeth of the Dog, a golf course designed by legendary architect Pete Dye and named for the locals’ epithet for the coral stones which underlie it. Perennially ranking among the top 50 in the world since it opened in 1971, the seaside holes are so beautiful, Dye insists they “were built by the man upstairs”. In the mid-1970s, Dye designed The Links, which will reopen in February after a major refurb. The member-only La Romana Country Club followed in the next decade, the little brother to the other courses. And Dye Fore, which opened its first 18 in 2000, has just added another tremendous nine holes this September, perhaps in compensation for the unforgivably tinny puns the course’s name brings to mind (it is course number four here for Dye; the layout is to die for; don’t forget to shout Fore!).
Both Cali’s equestrian centre and Shaun’s shooting centre are world-class as well. In high season, there are 150 polo horses in the stables and 80 more for recreational riding, which can take place on-site or on the 8,000ha inland tract a short drive away. Hunts can be organised on that same rolling terrain, though the more than 300 sporting trap stations in the main centre are a challenge for all abilities. When you’re there, don’t miss the purpose-built kennel where Shaun trains not only working dogs but also family pets.
The tennis centre is, unsurprisingly, top-notch, with 13 courts, 10 of them lit at night and a fleet of ball boys to tend them. All local boys, they have learned the game on-site and are also able hitting partners. Indeed, more than able in some cases – one alumnus recently played for the national team in the Davis Cup.
Sport is not everything in this sprawling garden, though a few hours of exertion is a good excuse to try the spa, where many of the products are made on-site and the superb treatments are complemented by a water ritual, a labyrinth and, at around 5pm, by the seductive fragrance of the nearby ylang-ylang trees. Design has been important to the resort since its first incarnation, which was dreamed up by native son Oscar de la Renta. Cutting-edge decor was also integral to the recent refit, done by Dominican Mayra González, but the traditional local aesthetic has also long been a focus. In the late 1970s, Gulf + Western Chairman Charles Bluhdorn created a village dedicated to the Dominican arts, Altos de Chavón. Hand- built from local rock overlooking the river below, it strongly calls to mind an Italian Renaissance hamlet, complete with church, 5,000-seat, Roman-style amphitheatre (opened by Frank Sinatra in 1982) and school – which is focused on design, draws adult students from across the globe and is affiliated with Parsons in New York. Two dozen Dominican artisans are also at work daily in small ateliers, creating a collection imagined by Miami-based Emilio Robba as well as their own pieces and bespoke creations.
Bespoke creations of a completely different variety are available at Tabacalera de Garcia, the largest factory for handmade cigars in the world, located five minutes from Casa de Campo. A factory visit is enough of a reward with its colours and sensations, even for non-smokers, but still more appealing are the personalised labels and the tastings with the master blenders, if not your own private cigar blend, an option for those willing to wait many months.
The Caribbean is not known as a foodie-friendly destination, so dining is a pleasant surprise, in large part because two of the restaurants are operated by famed New York brand Le Cirque. The family responsible, the Maccionis, have been guests here for decades, and they opened Italian-style La Caña and French-inflected Beach Club – the best place to eat in all of Casa de Campo – in the last few years. Another New York-based family which frequently visits is in discussions to open a burger brasserie near the forthcoming nightclub in Altos de Chavón: Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Chinois and La Cantina in the marina are also excellent eateries, but it is the breakfast at Lago Grill, looking out over the 18th hole at Teeth of the Dog, which is perhaps the most memorable meal. Not just for the food or for the view – but for petite, 50-something Digna Alvarez, who has been making fresh juices for 18 years in the open-plan kitchen. I can’t quite recall the taste of the mango-guava-pineapple blend she would make each morning, but I still remember her wizened, smiling face.
Departures, Q4, 2011
Photos by Martin Kreuzer