Sprawled across the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo is a comely, casual hideaway in a class of its own. Brian Noone reports
Decades before the Dominican Republic became synonymous with all-inclusive sun, sand and sea, there was Casa de Campo. At the height of the package tourism boom in the late 1990s, Casa de Campo was gaining potency, as it built its own two-terminal international airport and laid out its fourth golf course. And now, as boutique chic has reached the easternmost tip of Hispaniola, Casa de Campo remains lion-strong, fresh off more than $50m in renovations, a proud hideaway operating at its own speed, almost in its own world.
This is not just a figure of speech: the 28sq km spread – nearly as big as Macau – has had no direct competitor anywhere on the globe almost since its inception, more than four decades ago, as a retreat for the executives of Gulf + Western, the multinational which owned the nearby sugar mill. One executive, Alvaro Carta, spearheaded the project, declaring in 1971 that he could “foresee a very huge hideaway here in 10 years. But we are not going to hurry. Expansion will be gradual and natural. There will be no honky tonky.” Carta’s words were prescient. Construction commenced – and continues – at a ponderous pace: a golf course and resort developed in tandem first, adding an artisan village, polo grounds and in time much, much more.
By the early 1980s the resort was drawing so many of the executives’ friends, and friends of friends, that Casa de Campo became a profitable venture, and Italian Claudio Silvestri was brought in to run it. “There were 160 villas when we came,” says Silvestri’s son, Phillip, who was a young boy at the time. “Now there are more than 1,600.” His father characterises it differently: “We are constantly changing.” This penchant for rejuvenation is on the lips of staff and guests alike: this year it’s the $40m refit of the rooms, the new $12m central kitchen, a just-unveiled nine holes on one golf course and the ongoing makeover of another. According to Danny Avila, a Miami resident who’s been coming here for nearly two decades, there is “always something new, some surprise…and it makes you feel like home.”
Casa de Campo, which means country house in Spanish, is a home like no other. Because it has developed over decades, first as a private retreat, then as a private village, then finally as a small private town with a 185-room hotel at its core, it doesn’t fit any traditional categories. It is not a resort, as there are thousands of privately owned villas; it is also not a town, though geographically it is large enough to be one – because, as Silvestri says, “we control everything, from the airport to the marina”. Neither St Tropez nor Aspen can claim that, and the new super-resorts, like Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, simply can’t rival the astonishing range of offerings at Casa de Campo, more befitting of a city than a resort.
Casa de Campo’s first and signature feature opened 40 years ago: the whimsically named – and wickedly punishing – Teeth of the Dog is the Caribbean’s best golf course, perennially ranked in the world’s top 50. Pete Dye, the legendary coursemaker who designed it, has had a villa here since it opened and has devised each of Casa de Campo’s other 63 holes, including a challenging new nine at Dye Fore, which features jaw-dropping panoramas over the Chavón River, a landscape made famous decades earlier when scences from Apocalypse Now were filmed here.
Golf, however, is just part of the package: the equestrian centre is also the Caribbean’s best, with a 150-horse polo facility and 80-horse recreational riding centre, as well as perhaps the most unpredictable sport on earth, donkey polo. The decade-old marina, designed by Italian Gianfranco Fini, has berths for 350 yachts. The shooting centre is, again, world-class, with more than 300 sporting clay stations, as well as organised shoots on 8,000ha of rolling inland countryside. (If you go, don’t miss the kennel, where shooting director Shaun Snell trains not just working dogs, but many family pets as well). The tennis centre, you’ve surely guessed, is known as the Wimbledon of the Caribbean – one of its ball boys who learned the game on-site recently played for the national team in the Davis Cup.
If sport is not your cup of tea, there are two dozen artisans at work, as well as a design school affiliated with Parsons in New York, in Altos de Chavón, a hand-built village some 90 metres above the eponymous river. Conceived as a repository for the Dominican arts in the 1970s, the seductive hamlet, which might easily be confused with a Renaissance Italian one for all its cobbles and terracotta, took five years to build and involved a cast of characters ranging from Dino de Laurentiis and Federico Fellini to Frank Sinatra, who opened the 5,000-seat amphitheatre with a concert in 1982. There is also, within five minutes of the property, Tabacalera de Garcia, the largest factory of handmade cigars in the world, where you can have their Montecristo or Romeo y Julieta cigars personalised, arrange private tastings with master blenders or, for true aficionados, have your own bespoke blend made.
The cuisine at Casa de Campo has nothing in common with the usual middling Caribbean resort fare. Two of the property’s six restaurants, including the superb Beach Club, are run by New York-based powerhouse Le Cirque, while Chinois and La Casita, in the marina, serve less trendy but equally delectable dishes. Talks are underway with, of all people, American music stars Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who are regular guests, to open a burger brasserie near the forthcoming nightclub in Altos de Chavón.
Also unusual for the Caribbean, Casa de Campo is not a place very many guests go to soak in the sun. The beaches are adequately picturesque – one terrific central stretch of white sand and a rock-dotted Eden of a private beach 15 minutes away – but unless you’re using it as a jumping-off point for cruising out to do some deep-sea fishing, taking a sailing lesson from the on-site school or paddling up the Chavón canyon in a kayak, the beach is almost always the less attractive option.
When it comes to accommodation, however, sea views are exceptionally attractive. Available from a number of private villas, some of which also overlook one of the golf courses, there is nothing quite like walking out of the bedroom into the open-plan sitting room of the traditional Dominican villa La Brisa – think nautical theme, native woods, 9m ceiling – to bask in the sunrise. Dozens of villa styles and sizes are available, from sleek Villa Moderna in the marina, which comes with its own 15m catamaran, to Casa Hacienda, which features six bedrooms and an infinity pool overlooking the sea.
And yet for all the superlatives, there is, as Carta promised, very little honky tonky. After a weeklong stay, it is, oddly enough, the people one is apt to remember rather than the activities – Cali, the director of the equestrian centre; Roberto, the eagle-eyed caddy; the hypnotic dancing traffic warden. Perhaps this is the secret of the resort’s remarkable longevity: it has always itself been a close community and has at the same time been integrally involved with the vibrant surroundings. Casa de Campo, in the end, really is just one extravagantly large country home.
Centurion, Q4, 2011
Photos by Martin Kreuzer