After six glorious days and five fun-filled nights in the Dominican Republic, I have but one gripe: The sun rises too damn early.
When you’re just over 1,000 miles from the Equator, the days, like the weather, are pretty much the same year-round, and if you pack as much into your waking hours as I did, sometimes it’s nice not to have the ever-present sun tapping you on the shoulder at 6 a.m. Nevertheless, my time in the country left me with no doubt that “the DR” is now one of the world’s premier golf vacation destinations.
When American travelers think of the Caribbean, sun, sand and surf all come to mind, but golf is sometimes an afterthought for those looking for an exotic getaway without leaving the hemisphere. While most destinations offer little more than your standard resort golf, the Dominican Republic has a wide array of layouts to satisfy every palate, from serene target golf that winds through dense jungles to thrilling clifftop courses that blast you with sea spray if you hit your ball too close to the water’s edge.
Once upon a time, the DR was known as a bargain beach destination, where beachgoers could enjoy all-inclusive luxury for a fraction of the price of nearby hotspots such as Anguilla and Turks and Caicos. Those deals still exist, albeit to a lesser extent, but these days the country is becoming increasingly known as a playground for the rich and famous, with extravagant properties dotting the white sand beaches that rival the Palace at Versailles for opulence.
The best golf can be found at these same luxury resorts, with Teeth of the Dog at the sprawling Casa de Campo complex being the granddaddy of them all. Prior to the resort’s opening, the area was known mostly as a major producer of sugar cane, but that all changed in 1971 when Pete Dye’s stunning seaside layout put Casa de Campo on the world golf map. Consistently rated as the top course in the Caribbean, Teeth of the Dog has nary a weak hole, but its main draw is the seven holes which hug the jagged shoreline, which Dye concedes were designed by the man upstairs himself.
Although Teeth of the Dog receives most of the hype, visitors to the resort would be remiss to skip out on Dye Fore, a beast in its own right which offers golfers two distinct, but equally spectacular, nines. (A third nine was added recently, but the original layout, the Marina and Chavon nines, are where it’s at.) The front nine descends gradually towards the sea before turning abruptly inland and challenging golfers with several holes which play uphill and into the wind. Despite being away from the sea, the back nine is actually the more spectacular of the two, as the yawning chasm of the Chavon River cuts a deep and dramatic path, creating a steep valley which swallows errant shots with ease. The setting is so spectacular it was used as a filming location for “Rambo,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Jurassic Park” and several others.
The Punta Cana region offers the greatest volume of all-inclusive resorts on the island, but discerning golfers will skip the chain resorts found north of the airport in favor of the ultra-luxury on offer at the sprawling Cap Cana and Puntacana communities.
The chief draw at Cap Cana, which encompasses a bevy of outstanding hotels, villas, restaurants and amenities, is the Punta Espada golf course, the country’s second course, along with Teeth of the Dog, featured in the most recent Golf Digest World Top 100 rankings. Like many of the world’s best designs, proximity to the sea plays a large part in the wow factor, and at nearly 7,400 yards from the tips, it’s more than just a pretty face. Golfers come for the course’s numerous coastal holes, but each of the others also offers a memorable view or challenge to appease the senses. The highlight of the round comes at the par-3 13th, an all-or-nothing carry over the sea that measures 250 yards from the back tees, which, in all likelihood, you have no business playing.
Rounding out the country’s best golf is the Corales course at the fabulous Puntacana Resort, adjacent to the Punta Cana airport. Site of the Web.com Tour’s Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, the Tom Fazio design debuted to much fanfare in 2010 as a private course and has since been opened to a select amount of resort guests each day. Each nine closes with several breathtaking oceanside holes, with rocky inlets jutting in at strategic locations to test the nerves of even the world’s best golfers.
The course features a number of different tee boxes that allow each hole to be played by a variety of skill levels and in a variety of different ways. Nowhere is this more evident than over the final two holes. The par-3 17th is challenging enough when played straight towards the sea and into the teeth of the wind, but it can also be rotated 90 degrees and played along the coastline, making the golfer battle a stiff crosswind to a green that is now long and narrow, rather than shallow and wide. The 18th is ostensibly a par four, but standing on the seldom-used back tee at 501 yards, I tried to foresee a circumstance in which I could ever hope to reach the green in a mere two shots.
The property offers a variety of accommodations, from the traditional Westin Puntacana to the lavish Tortuga Bay, a series of exclusive villas designed by the late Oscar de la Renta. For those who desire even more privacy, a number of private homes around the property, whose beauty, attention to detail and extravagance range from the absurd to the truly mind-boggling, are available during the majority of the year when their owners are not staying there.
In addition to the top-notch golf, the Dominican Republic offers a host of gastronomical delights, with the pinnacle for me being the freshly-caught seafood that was highlighted at most of the finer restaurants. All-inclusive resorts tend to offer a bit less for the true foodies, as most dining experiences will have to cater to a broad range of tastes and backgrounds, while the a la carte restaurants at the finer properties will impress even most refined of sensibilities.
Nightlife is also a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure, with laid-back cigar bars and beach bars giving those who want a quiet evening the opportunity for a sundowner and a nightcap, and the action-packed Genesis Nightclub at Casa de Campo and plethora of nightlife in Punta Cana allowing an outlet for those who want to unleash their inner hedonist.
But as I mentioned before, beware of the early sunrise.
Ravi Coutinho is a contributor at Golf News Net and the founder of Worldwide Golf Adventures, a golf travel company based in Austin, TX that offers dream vacations to the world's top golf destinations.