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The Dominican Republic, the New Gold Coast

Trujillo/Paumier A seaside villa steps from the Caribbean.

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

Fernandez doesn't need to call a special session of the senate to start raising standards. The Fraser Yacht company has just set up an outpost at the marina and hopes to start chartering seven-day cruises around the island soon. Fans of Club Med–style vacations have taken advantage of the Dominican Republic's many all-inclusive resorts for years, and more of them are popping up all the time—including a new property in the works at Casa de Campo—but boutique is the country's new catchword. Playa Grande, a north coast golf course and soon-to-be artist's retreat partly owned by the American money manager Boykin Curry, Moby, and Charlie Rose will feature a stylish inn by Amanresorts. Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, one of the principal owners of Casa de Campo, tells me he's this close to clinching a deal to open a sleek new property, complete with a "really top-rate spa." And his friend George Hamilton, the actor, beau mondiste, and longtime Casa de Campo homeowner, who has been coming to the Dominican Republic "since shortly after Columbus," has toyed with the idea of launching a Dominican boutique hotel of his own. "You hear 'new hotel' and immediately think of some marble monstrosity from the 1970's, but that era is over with. People want little, and charming, and details, and first-class service," says Hamilton.

At the new generation of Dominican hotels, service is the word managers repeat most often in their eagerness to distance their properties from the down-market specter of behemoth package vacationing. Anyone who has ever witnessed the push and pull between all-inclusive guests abusing their unlimited bar privileges and surly staffers trying to deny them knows that a higher thread count is not all that separates the five-stars from the all-you-can-eats. In resort enclave Playa Dorada, just outside of Puerto Plata, the 50-suite Casa Colonial has carved out a lushly landscaped green zone between two old-style all-inclusives. Already sanctioned by such an arbiter of high living as Donatella Versace, who visited the hotel with her daughter and entourage shortly after it opened at the end of 2004, Casa Colonial is all Frette linens, 27-inch flat-screen TV's, an infinity-pool deck with four Jacuzzis, and an enormous full-service spa. Down at the wedge of golden-sand beach, you can just make out the strains of reggae lite entertaining the plastic bracelet–wearing hordes on either side, but not in the placid gardens, splashed with pink-and-white orchids grafted to the trunks of the palms. Book a deluxe suite, and your turndown service includes a drawn bath sprinkled with rose petals. In the presidential suite, that bath is drawn in an antique claw-foot tub on a private balcony overlooking a natural lagoon.

A property with a similar spirit, but slightly more focused on serving the gourmet traveler, is Sivory Punta Cana, the last and most secluded resort on a long stretch of beach about an hour's drive from the Punta Cana airport. "If guests want to book a horseback ride or water sports, we can accommodate them," says general manager Anna Lisa Brache, "but we don't push it. Most just want to be left alone." From the look of things during my stay, dozing poolside, reading on the beach, and eating are the most intense activities undertaken by the mostly American couples lodged on the grounds, which are dotted with still-young sea grape and oh-so-modern two-story terra-cotta villas. With only 55 suites served by a spa and three well-appointed restaurants—one Asian fusion, one contemporary Mediterranean, and one nouvelle French—a guest really can't feel crowded. This is especially the case when the guest is lubricated by one of the almost 10,000 bottles from the wine cellar, full-size highlights of which are on offer in a small refrigerator in every spacious room. The dead-serious Dominican sommelier, Juan Pierre, steered me toward a 2003 Carchelo Altico Syrah. With no town in this neck of the woods, and neighboring resorts more buffet than soufflé, the hotel's emphasis on food is welcome, even if the self-bestowed description art cuisine aims a bit high. Once ensconced here, most guests never leave the grounds until the taxi comes to take them back to the airport, and people have to eat.

Not to be outdone by its new neighbor, the Punta Cana area's first and best-known destination, Puntacana Resort & Club, has just unveiled its own boutique property, Tortuga Bay Villas. Made up of 50 airy suites in 15 freestanding villas designed by Puntacana Resort partner and sometime resident Oscar de la Renta, Tortuga Bay creates a isolated oasis similar to that of Sivory and Casa Colonial, something that the much bigger adjoining main hotel complex at Puntacana can't do. At Tortuga Bay, the only contact to the outside world is a golf cart, a satellite TV hookup, and a cell phone connection to a concierge. Should guests want to commune with the larger complex, including Puntacana's neighboring new golf club, the property's two golf courses (one designed by Pete Dye and the other by Tom Fazio), eight restaurants, and five bars, they're as welcome at the larger resort as the denizens of Puntacana's three residential developments and their visitors. But Tortuga Bay's pin-drop quiet, powder-white beach, pool area, and on-site restaurant are closed to everyone but its own guests. Perhaps this is why Penelope Cruz and Jake Gyllenhaal have already availed themselves of the place. "I didn't even know Gyllenhaal was here," de la Renta says, with a laugh. (The same can't be said of Uma Thurman, who, he adds, is on her way down with her kids for a photo shoot as we speak.) Luminaries who own houses at Puntacana's Corales community are similarly happy to be left gloriously alone. "The place is being developed in a very low-key way," says interior designer Bunny Williams of her estate, situated near Puntacana partner Julio Iglesias's giant spread and that of press-shy dancer-choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov. "It hasn't been overbuilt, so we can get away and be private."

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