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Oscar de la Renta's Dominican Republic

Don't tell the gossip columnists, but Oscar de la Renta doesn't get out much. "I like staying home," he is saying on the veranda of his house in the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti. And who wouldn't, when the house in question is sugar-baron opulent and has a large full-time staff?

"What would you like to do?" the designer inquires, his Latin accent almost a burr. It's a hot Caribbean noontime. A houseman has just served us plantain chips and iced Presidente beer. De la Renta is wearing gardening shorts, Top-Siders, and a Lacoste polo shirt and has evidently been laboring along with the workmen visible at every corner of his property. "I don't understand people who say they have nothing to do," says the designer, who already today has whacked down sea grapes, directed construction of his stepdaughter's guesthouse, and rearranged the lath panels on his orchid greenhouse. "I always have another project."

His most recent one is a gated residential enclave called Corales, part of the Punta Cana Beach Resort on the Dominican Republic's eastern coast. It was here that, several years ago, de la Renta envisioned a colonnaded private house sheathed in coral rock, inspired by Sir Ronald Tree's plantation manor on Barbados. After hiring Cuban-born architect Ernesto Buch to design it, de la Renta decreed that the house would be completed in an unprecedented 10 months. "I'm a very impatient person," he says flatly. "I told Ernesto I wanted to be in the house by December twenty-second. He said it was impossible. I told him I couldn't care less."

Three days before Christmas 1998, Oscar and Annette de la Renta arrived at Corales to find a house both finished and appointed: dendrobium orchids massed in a blue-and-white bowl on a mahogany table in the hall, Pratesi linens on the beds, the complete Oxford English Dictionary regimentally shelved on pedimented bookcases, broad rattan chairs on a veranda overlooking the gin-clear Caribbean, and a laundry room furnished with a pressing table roughly the size of a helipad. "How did we do it?" asks de la Renta. "Well, I like instant results in everything I do. I told Ernesto that if it is not finished by December twenty-second, I am going to get a gun and kill him." It worked.

Now de la Renta has a further challenge, one that may require more sophisticated weaponry. Having effectively put the Dominican Republic's tony Casa de Campo hotel and residential complex on the map of high-end tourism in the 1980's by attracting both reams of publicity and a welter of his bold-faced friends, he decamped after his wife complained that their living room had become "the VIP lounge of the international airport." De la Renta enlisted friend and neighbor Julio Iglesias for an aerial shopping excursion, and fixed his sights on some real estate along the island's scrubby and largely featureless eastern coast, an impoverished region of sugarcane plantations, no major towns, and an array of "all-inclusive" hotels catering mainly to downmarket jumbo-jet-from-Düsseldorf crowds. Within six months, the men had become partners in the 400-room Punta Cana Beach Resort, a destination whose chief attraction is its pristine, 15,000-acre setting.

Begun in 1969 by an American seeking to build a merchant marine school, the Punta Cana resort was, improbably, funded by a group of investors that included some of the biggest names in American labor. Its overall design is credited to Dominican architect Oscar Imbert, scion of a revered island family (his father participated in the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo), who came up with a plan that, by its new owners' optimistic description, is "the perfect union between a privileged natural environment and comfort."

In truth, the resort remains a trifle generic, with pastel colored villas, thatched-roof beach huts, a sunken pool bar, and the usual rampant tropicalia (on Tuesdays you can have your photograph taken with neighborhood parrots José and Ramonita). Recent efforts to rejigger its image as the sort of place where you can imagine de la Renta's high-flying socialite pals repairing for a winter weekend aren't necessarily abetted by the hotel's brochure, whose tagline--"Your escape to a destination that is an ecology defensor!"--renders it about as alluring as a Bulgarian tractor factory.

Still, location, location, location. The beach is sugar white. The ambient sense of remove is absolute. The sea seems to stretch limitlessly to the east.

Punta Cana Beach Resort opened in 1971; in 1984 the parent corporation erected a private airport nearby. Hurricane George blasted the place to smithereens in 1998. Palms were replanted, structures reroofed, order restored. And that was about the gist of local history until last year, when Oscar de la Renta's helicopter set down.

"A man of his taste, he thinks of things that we never would have imagined," a hotel manager is explaining. For example?"He likes to have two nightstands, one on either side of the bed. He tells us this is the only civilized way to do things. And who knows better than he?"

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