FROM THE SCRUB COMES A BEHEMOTH
January 7, 2001
FROM THE SCRUB COMES A BEHEMOTH
By SCOTT NORVELL
IT'S the next Cancun.The label has stuck on Punta Cana. In the travel trade press. On the tongues ofagents. Even in the popular press, it's all you hear about the formerly barreneastern tip of the Dominican Republic. That, and phrases like ''hot spot of theCaribbean'' and ''top emerging international destination.''
It's too bad, becausePunta Cana and Cancun, in Mexico, couldn't be more different. Except maybe intheir histories and, if a handful of major tour operators have their say, intheir growth patterns.
Thirty years ago Cancunwas a fishing village with about 100 permanent residents. Thirty years agoPunta Cana was a handful of fishing huts fronting a gold sand beach shelteredfrom the treacherous currents of the Mona Passage by a small barrier reef.Cancun now gets upward of 2 million visitors a year. Last year, the Punta Canaairport served 1.3 million passengers.
There end thesimilarities.
Turn-of-the-centuryCancun is high-rises and chain restaurants. Punta Cana circa mid-October 2000is hotel buildings no higher than the palm trees shading them (by law) and ahandful of pleasantly seedy eateries.
Cancun is dozens ofhigh-rise hotels crammed on a narrow sandy strip. Punta Cana is nearly 30resorts spread out over hundreds of square miles of still scrubby former cattlefarms. Cancun is crowds and urban mayhem. In Punta Cana, 15 minutes ofmeandering on the sand will get you to a semideserted beach.
But things are changingquickly in Punta Cana. Signs of an encroaching Tropical Paradise -- golfcourses, time shares, beachfront vendor villages -- are everywhere, and thereremains plenty of room to grow. Julio Iglesias and Oscar de la Renta have puttheir names and money behind a 55-lot shoreside residential development calledCorales de Punta Cana, where construction of high-end houses and a boutiquehotel is already under way.
During a recent longweekend, I discovered what appears to be a tourism juggernaut in the making,but one not quite ready for the North American mass market and one sorelydevoid of the character that makes the rest of the Dominican Republic soenchanting.
Europeans have knownabout Punta Cana for more than a decade, and at the thatched-roof airport therecharter airlines with names like Hapag Lloyd, Britannia and Condor disgorgethousands of pale Europeans each week, scooping them up a week or two later,lobster-colored and sporting braids.
The European-ownedresorts cater mostly to that audience in both large and small ways. In additionto Spanish, the staff is more likely to speak French or Italian than English.Meals tend to be served late, and the dance clubs (still called discos) don'topen until 11:30 or midnight. Washcloths are few and far between. Breakfastbuffets are heavy on cold cuts, hard rolls and soft cheese. Expect to see farmore skin on the beaches and at the pools than one would in, say, FortLauderdale.
Most of Punta Cana'sresorts are all-inclusive. The big ones are remarkably similar, usuallycomprising a collection of two- or three-story lodges buffered by immaculategardens of bougainvillea, hibiscus and yellow allamanda. Huge, meanderingswimming pools and some form of a swim-up bar with an adjacent restaurant arestandard. All meals are included, and rum, beer and wine flow freely at allhours of the day.
The resorts' beaches arealso fairly consistent: about 30 yards of light sand pocked with lounge chairs,open-air masseuse huts and palm trees, bordered by waveless blue-green water.The beaches themselves are not as dazzling as some in the Caribbean but offer amix of shade and sun because of the trees, and are spotlessly clean after theresort workers have scraped up the seaweed that washes ashore each morning.Beach amenities consist of a few sailboats, a dive shack, some wind surfboardsand waverunners. Only nonmotorized activities are included in a resort'spackage price.
A consequence of allthis inclusiveness, intended or not, is that it ends up being all-exclusive,too. Minibuses whisk visitors from the airport past scrawny dogs, livestock andclapboard shacks through the resorts' guarded gates to a soulless Anywhere,Caribbean. If guests are content with poolside aerobics, beach bumming andbuffet dinners, they never have to leave until it's time to go home. They don'teven need to exchange money.
That's a shame, becausethe D.R., as it's affectionately known, warrants more than that. This countrycan be exasperating, infuriating even, but seeing it is worth the effort. Whileit doesn't produce the awe of the Andes or have the color of Guatemala or thecuisine of Oaxaca, the Dominicans make up for all that with an unparalleledsense of fun. No one in Latin America knows how to celebrate like theDominicans.
I attended a universityin the D.R. for several months in the mid-1980's and developed a strong tastefor it, for its aged rums, its rice and beans (which I ate for lunch almostevery day for six months) and the magical merengue of Juan Luis Guerra. Goingback every few years, for work or play, is like visiting an old friend, and anopportunity I never pass up.
The Punta Cana airportis off-putting at first, but turns out to possess an ingenious design in thesehurricane-prone tropics. It has no walls, and reinforced steel beams are toppedoff with the dried cana leaves from which Punta Cana gets its name. In highwinds the thatch blows off, leaving a skeleton that offers no wind resistance.I had plenty of time to admire the design since it took the porters 30 minutesto move the luggage from our flight 100 yards down the runway and into theterminal.
A chipper tour companyescort, Robert Roosevelt, steered me and a dozen or so others to one of severalminibuses waiting outside. Then, as we whizzed through the countryside, Robertwarned against drinking the water lest we wanted to spend our vacation ''in arumble.'' He also let us in on another secret: pina coladas are made withcoconut milk, which is a laxative. Think about it, he said.
The Barcelo Palace,about a 20-minute drive north of the airport and one of five hotels inBarcelo's 1,300-room Punta Cana complex, was my destination. Three of thehotels -- the Palace, the Beach and the Garden -- overlook the beach; theCasino and Golf hotels sit slightly inland. Each has its own pool andrestaurant and shares discos and beach amenities.
In all five hotelsopen-air lobbies and restaurants are clustered around pools, and guest roomsare scattered in several low, U-shaped buildings. All the rooms have privatebalconies or terraces overlooking the gardens or the beach, but theground-floor terraces hardly seem worth the effort.
My room at the Palace,the priciest of the Barcelo bunch, was done up in mass-market tropic, with arattan dresser, pastel-striped bedspreads, and balcony offering a stunning viewof the coastline. The minibar was crammed with free soft drinks, beer and water(which was restocked daily), the air-conditioning did its job swiftly, and toucheslike a gift-wrapped bottle of rum, terrycloth robes and an electronic safe madea pleasant first impression. An intact king-size bed was a surprise; usually Iexpect to get two singles scrunched together when I ask for a double bed inLatin America.
The satellite TV hadalmost as many German, Italian and French stations as it did English andSpanish ones. And there is one channel that by day broadcasts benign fare butin the evening switches automatically to the soft-core Playboy Channel.
But I didn't spend muchtime in the room. Everything at the resort was wide open to the elements, mostof the buildings wall-less and topped with thatch. The bright green lawnsbetween the six buildings felt like wrestling mats underfoot, and wereseparated from the beach by a wide sidewalk equipped with showers. The focalpoint was a pool that meandered over what seemed like acres, incorporating afountain, whirlpool, a couple of islands and a swim-up bar. Dinner alone at aresort is never fun, and attentive service usually makes it worse. Such was thecase at the Palace. From the hostess: ''When will your companion be arriving?''From the waiter: ''And what will the senora be drinking?'' From another waiter:''May I light your candle please, senor? Muy romantico.''
The food wasunremarkable. There was a full grill with chefs cooking unappealing-lookingbeef cuts and a pasta station that seemed a little better, but I stuck with thesteam tables (brochettes, mutton, fish fillets, chewy calamari and only one ortwo vegetables) and a salad bar with pretty slim pickings. At the door, thehostess handed me a Hall's cough drop for an after-dinner mint.
There is an a la carteFrench restaurant on the grounds, but it costs extra (heavy on seafood, withentrees in the $15-to-$25 range and an exclusively French wine list) andreservations are difficult on short notice. (During my stay it was full onSaturday and closed on Sunday.)
The evening show at theCasino resort, called Tropicalissimo (entrance and a rum drink free, ofcourse), was a riot of Carmen Miranda props and bare buttocks. Beautiful womenin feather headdresses and trim men in tights paraded around slowly to oldDominican folk songs or did that merengue thing where they swing their hipsinto a blur while keeping their backs and torsos immobilized. It wasembarrassing to watch the guests try to do the same thing in the disco later.
The breakfast buffet wasan improvement over dinner. While heavy on Euro-fare like cold cuts and cheese,there were also waffles, crepes and pancakes, cereal and fresh fruit galore.The best part was the first real Dominican fare I had seen at the resort, thebatido. It's basically a smoothie made with milk or water, ice, sugar and freshcantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon or papaya.
For resort aficionados,there is no lack of activities at any of Punta Cana's hotels. The offshorereefs are colorful but not breathtaking, although they are treacherous enoughto have brought down a few boats over the decades, making scuba diving arewarding way to while away a morning or two. The afternoon breezes areconsistent enough for windsurfing, but snorkeling off the beach everywhere butin the roped-off swimming areas can be terrifying because of the constantmotorboat traffic.
As one easily bored bysuch fare, I vowed to get off the reservation one day and find the D.R. I knowand love. That's when things get tricky for the noninitiated. Even if you don'tspeak a word of Spanish beyond cerveza, in the resorts you will get by. Butonce you're off the resort, it's a different story.
Punta Cana is not quiteready for nonpackage tourists. There are plenty of canned tours -- ''safaris''to sugar cane plantations; excursions to the capital, Santo Domingo; catamaranrides to offshore islands, and whale-watching trips in Samana Bay during themating season (from January through March) -- but none of them put you more intouch with the Dominican Republic than would a ride at Epcot.
For that, I persuaded arepresentative of the travel company to take me to a whitewashed dive of arestaurant he knew about near what passes for the center of Punta Cana, downthe road from the Plaza Bavaro shopping center. Named for the fisherman whoowns it, Matru, the place was quintessentially Dominican -- down to thestraight-backed chairs, tatty plastic tablecloths and jar of toothpicks on thetable. You had to drive over a horrible, unpaved road to get to it.
We ordered by marchinginto the kitchen in an adjoining building, smelling the shrimp to make surethey were fresh (they were), picking out a snapper longer than my forearm froma pile on ice and snatching a couple of ice-cold Presidente beers from acooler. Retiring to the open-air dining room, we waited. And waited. Andwaited.
Food rarely arrivesquickly in the Dominican Republic, but in this case the wait was worthwhile. Aone-pound pile of huge boiled shrimp came first, then the snapper, splitlengthwise, sprinkled with spices and broiled whole. Outstanding. The onlything missing was the beans and rice, an omission for which the white-hairedcook on duty that day apologized profusely.
At the resorts, I neverfound a meal like this. I scoured the buffets of three Barcelo hotels over thecourse of three days without seeing the fried plantains known as tostones orbeans and rice at any of the steam tables. ''And you won't,'' a travel companyemployee told me.
Luckily, he was wrong.On my last morning at the Palace I asked the waiter at the poolside bar whatthe staff ate for lunch every day. The answer was what I had hoped: arroz and habichuelas(soupy red beans, simmered with garlic, oregano, onions and cilantro, thenladled over white rice), tostones and hard bread.
When I asked for it thewaiter looked at me oddly but seemed genuinely pleased. ''Buen provecho,'' hesaid. Indeed.
Guide to rooms and ratesin a tropical spot
Two wholesalers, AppleVacations and Travel Impressions are the main purveyors of vacation packages inPunta Cana, Dominican Republic. Since both sell only through travel agents,they do not provide phone or fax numbers, but they offer general information onthe Web about visiting Punta Cana and other destinations. Apple Vacations, 7Campus Boulevard, Newtown Square, Pa. 19073; www.applevacations.com. TravelImpressions, 465 Smith Street, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735;www.travelimpressions.com.
Prices below are perperson for all-inclusive vacations (except at the Punta Cana Beach Resort,where meals are not included) through January -- through April in the case ofthe Barcelo Palace -- from Kennedy Airport in New York with Travel Impressionsand from Newark International with Apple. Air fare and tax are included.
The Barcelo Palace,(888) 228-2761, fax (809) 686-5680, is part of the Barcelo Beach Resort, whichhas five separate hotels differing in caliber and price. The Palace has 594rooms, the best overlooking the beach from the east end of each of its sixthree-story buildings. With Apple, rates run from $1,029.99 for a three-nightpackage to $1,559.99 for a seven-night package, including golf.
The landscaping at the522-room Melia Caribe Tropical, (809) 221-1290, fax (809) 686-7699, stands outas the lushest, sprinkled with dozens of small, man-made lagoons, but many ofthe guest rooms seem too far from the beach, and the Greek-Roman decor gives itan out-of-place Las Vegas feeling. Three- to seven-night packages from $629.99to $929.99 are available through Apple. Seven-night suite packages from $1,326are offered by Travel Impressions.
At Melia's more upscaleoption, the 434-room Paradisus, (809) 687-9923, fax (809) 687-0752,all-inclusive extends to drinks in the bars, horseback riding (extra feeseverywhere else) and scuba diving. The spotless lobby bathrooms have freshorchids next to the washbasins. Apple's packages of from three to seven nightscost from $789.99 to $1,299.99. Travel Impressions has a seven-night packagefor $1,490.
Natura Park, (809)221-2626, fax (809) 221-6060, is billed as the area's eco-friendly hotel,apparently because its developers decided not to drain the adjacent mangroveswamp. The grounds are more compact than the others, which means more of its524 rooms are closer to the beach, but the hotel uses European-style 220-voltoutlets while everyone else in the country is on 110. There are threerestaurants, four bars and a swim-up bar. Three- to seven-night packages arefrom $599.99 to $879.99 through Apple. With Travel Impressions, three to sevennights cost from $728 to $1,207.
Punta Cana Beach Resort,(809) 221-2262, fax (809) 687-8745, is a 400-room resort on its own beach, withfive restaurants and several bars. All rooms are scheduled to be renovated byyear's end, and an 18-hole golf course is scheduled to open this month. Apple'sthree- to seven-night packages are $449.99 to $699.99, Travel Impressions' $565to $735. To both must be added tax plus $35 a day for breakfast and dinner.
El Pescador Matru, arestaurant, sits at the base of a dirt road in the El Cortecito neighborhoodnear Playa Bavaro. It is open Thursday to Sunday for lunch and early dinner; atother times at the whim of its owner, a local fisherman. The menu depends onthat morning's catch. Those who don't speak Spanish would be well advised toseek a guide. Lunch for two with an appetizer and several beers is about $35.
Another favorite ofoff-duty hotel managers in the area is the Huracan Cafe, also in El Cortecito,(809) 221-6643. An open-air dining room and bar overlooks the beach. The menuis a curious mix of burgers, Tex-Mex staples and local seafood. Dinner for twowith drinks and dessert will cost about $40. SCOTT NORVELL