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Dominican Journal, Part III


Photo: Casa de Campo Golf Resort and Villas, La Romana

Shangri-la and the Green Umbrella

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

Well, at long last, my not-so-fabulous-but-then-again-not-so-dreadful journey to the Dominican Republic (DR) has finally come to an end, so this will be the third and final installment of my journal.

My next-to-last day was spent with my daughter at the ultra-luxurious Casa de Campo Golf Resort and Villas in La Romana, along the southeast coast of the Greater Antilles island nation.

It is low season in the DR, so we bagged the room at an extraordinarily affordable price (cheaper than the Sheraton in Santo Domingo, where we were supposed to stay our last two nights), but reduced fares did not in any way compromise the magnificent service and meticulous attention that has earned this hotel countless accolades from travel critics around the globe and a coveted ranking among the Leading Hotels of the World (LHW).

Spread out across 7,000 acres, this 235-room, 35-villa (plus about 1,400 privately-owned mansions) gated paradise is a world unto itself, with uncommonly personalized service, an alabaster-sanded private beach with crystalline turquoise waters as calm as glass, three Pete-Dye-designed golf courses (including the world-renowned and ever-challenging, 7.350-yard Teeth of the Dog, carved out of the jagged coral coastline by Dye himself in 1971), a luxury spa with Asian-trained Ayurvedic therapists, a 370-slip, deep-sea marina with an array of gourmet restaurants and boutiques brandishing the latest in fashion and design from Lalique to Roberto Cavalli (yes, I went shopping), an entire walk-through replica of a 16th century Mediterranean village (with its own open-air mini-colosseum), and an archeological museum recounting the historical origins of La Romana (which started off as an oil town back in 1897 and two decades later evolved into a sugar mill and plantation run by Italian immigrants – hence, the name – before finally morphing into one of the largest luxury resorts in the DR in 1974.

(Whew! I know that was a serious run-on sentence, but the truth of the matter is that it didn’t even cover half of the amenities and attractions that Casa de Campo offers, all lovingly enbraced within a pristine sanctuary of untrammeled greenery and tropical flowers, crisscrossed by perfectly paved golf-cart highways.)

Suffice it to say that even a two-week stay at this seaside wonderland would not be enough time to enjoy all its hidden assets.

As we arrived at the airy hotel lobby, we were met by the concierge with a wheelchair already at the entrance and two trained staff members to help me get into it.

The entire lobby wafted with the perfume of verbena and basil, and we were offered a welcome cocktail of lemon-scented water.

Next, we were loaded into our own personal golf cart (every room gets at least one to jet about the grounds) and escorted to our “standard” room, with a separate living area, a marble bathtub, a stunning view of one of the golf courses, and a seemingly omnipresent maid named Perla with a tiny frame and a delightful raisin-face smile, who was always on hand to help us maneuver getting to and from the room and golf cart.

We had a late lunch at one of the marina restaurants (fried octopus, white-truffled fries, langoustines fettucine and two nonalcoholic piña coladas and the bill with tax and service was about $85), and then explored the grounds before returning to our room to do some work (my daughter on her hospital reporters, me editing some articles for Pulse News Mexico) and crash out watching a bubblegum romance film on Netflix.

The next day, we brunched in the main breakfast restaurant, overlooking the ocean, and again, both the food and the service were flawless.

But what we did notice is that it now being the weekend, the resort was more populated by upper-crust Dominicans (often in large family groups of up to 20 people) than by international tourists, and one of my initial impressions of the DR came rushing back.

The waitstaff and personnel of the hotel bent over backwards to attend to every guest and their every need, but the Dominican guests were rude and offensive toward the employees, demanding instant gratification on every level without bothering with the common (or maybe not-so-common) courtesies of please and thank you.

The waitstaff and personnel of the hotel bent over backwards to attend to every guest and their every need.

Echoing the same type of rude, boisterous behavior that we had witnessed in our first hotel, the VH Gran Ventana Beach Resort in Puerto Plata, it began to sink in that, despite being a booming, pluralistic democracy, the Dominican Republic is still a severely stratified society with heavy residual caudillismo, based on ethnicity and financial standing.

It is hard not to feel a sense of underlying racism by the elite whites against the blacks and mulattoes, who make up almost 90 percent of the population.

Tourism accounts for nearly 12 percent of the Dominican Republic’s GDP, and the dedication and professionalism of most people in the industry deserves recognition, especially from the Dominicans themselves.

Tourism accounts for nearly 12 percent of the Dominican Republic’s GDP, and the dedication and professionalism of most people in the industry deserves recognition.

A little courtesy and human decency from the Dominican tourists we witnessed would go a long way to improve interethnic relations.

The Casa de Campo granted us a late checkout and an extended use of the golf cart, so I managed to even get the chance to sunbathe on the private beach, where there was a special beach wheelchair and people to maneuver me down to the water’s rim.

In all, it was a day in paradise that I shall not soon forget, and what will no doubt be my longest lasting impression of the Dominican Republic, a place I most certainly want to visit again (preferably, not in a wheelchair).

The flight back to Mexico was comfortable, except a rather obnoxious check-in at the Aeroméxico stand, where the girl who attended to us seemed to resent me being in a wheelchair and refused to take our luggage (even though we were in first class and underweight) simply because my daughter had been given an oversized Kelly green umbrella as a courtesy gift at one of the hospitals that did not fit in the suitcase.

We asked her to tape the umbrella to one of the suitcases, but she refused and said that she would keep the umbrella instead.

My daughter suddenly became very defensive about her claim to the emerald parasole, and demanded that it be documented and sent along with our luggage.

The head of the airport check-in department came along and defended my daughter’s claim to her umbrella and eventually it was documented and arrived safe-and-sound in Mexico City five hours later, along with the rest of our baggage.

The head of the airport check-in department came along and defended my daughter’s claim to her umbrella and eventually it was documented.

There was also an incidence with the Dominican equivalent of the TSA inspector, who wanted to remove my cast in Santa Domingo’s Las Américas International Airport and, after being told she could not, decided to pound on it from top to bottom with her metal detector, and the fact that we somehow ended up with some Mexican deportees on our flight home (no doubt, payback for the Dominican deportees that accompanied us on our flight there one week earlier).

But the flight itself was comfortable and the on-board staff was very accommodating.

It would be remiss of me not to make some mention of the current news stories gaining international media traction regarding the mysterious deaths of at least eight foreign tourists at luxury DR resorts this year alone and the bizarre shooting of legendary Red Sox slugger David Ortíz earlier this month.

Ortíz, who thankfully seems to be doing better, seems simply to have been a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, having caught a bullet meant for someone else (there appears to be a bit of disorganization in the Dominican Republic’s organized crime gangs, who sent 10 people to do the job and still got it wrong).

And as for the deaths of the tourists, considering that the DR receives a flood of more than 6 million international travelers a year, mostly from the United States, unexplained deaths are not all that unusual.

Tourists have been known to overdo it in the all-you-can-drink department and use less-than-prudent thinking when dining out.

The CDC and FBI are currently helping the Dominicans to investigate possible links to minibar beverages and unsubstantiated claims of pesticide exposure, and it may turn out that there is some modern-day Typhoid Mary unwittingly infecting guests with some strange influenza virus.

The impression we got was that the DR is taking the situation seriously, even though most people in the country are quick to claim that the deaths were the results of “natural causes.”

Hopefully, the worst has passed and the DR resort deaths will be soon forgotten by all but their families.

Only time will tell.

Would I return to the DR?

Yes, definitely, even now, even with the bad PR the country is getting (although, as I have said before, preferably without the wheelchair).

It is hard to form an impression of a country and its people in just one week (especially if half that week was spent in a hospital), but I did come away with a warm and deepening affinity for the island nation.

It is hard to form an impression of a country and its people in just one week (especially if half that week was spent in a hospital), but I did come away with a warm and deepening affinity for the island nation.

The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s largest economy, with a diverse portfolio of goods and products, from mining and agriculture to trade and services, but it still has a long way to go in elevating the 40 percent of its population that lives in abject poverty, with the wealthiest 10 percent of its people accounting for more than 40 percent of the country’s income.

Abiding by the law seems to be optional, particularly when it comes to the highways, where hundreds of motorbikes dart in and out of traffic, the riders rarely wearing a helmet or other protective gear, and where we even saw a woman casually walking a stroller in the middle of a freeway in downtown Santo Domingo at midday.

Abiding by the law seems to be optional, particularly when it comes to the highways.

But while the DR may boast the largest gold mine in all of Latin America, its real treasure is, without question, its people: a cacophonous, hospitable, hodgepodge of vibrant, diverse ethnicities and cultures that uniformly welcome guests and visitors with open arms and a unique sense of pride in their singular history that will transform you over and over again throughout your stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Caribbean, Culture, History, Latin America, Mexico, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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