Though its easy to be unaware of the multitudes inhabiting Puntacana Resort and its neighboring properties, they're there. The immaculate thatched-roof Puntacana International Airport is the Dominican Republic's busiest, and the region is responsible for 25 percent of the country's foreign exchange. Thirty-five years ago, the area was all virgin forest and raw coast. Since then, growth has been so rapid that the resort's parent company, Grupo Puntacana, has had to build infrastructure and provide services for its employees and guests; the government simply hands out tax breaks and hearty thank-yous for the effort. And so, hoping to promote a model of sustainable tourism and hang on to its 2,000 workers in an industry rife with turnover, Grupo Puntacana president and CEO Frank Rainieri and his partner, the New Yorkbased labor lawyer Theodore Kheel, have donned their urban engineers' caps with gusto. A genial baby boomer with the social consciousness and dressed-down style, Rainieri is more than happy to be considered, with Kheel, the Ben and Jerry of the Caribbean. In addition to building the road connecting Punta Cana to Higuey, where many of the resort's workers now live, and co-running a school (private, but with tuition on a steeply sliding scale), Grupo Puntacana has erected an independent power grid; started a lovely, flower-strewn outdoor shopping complex with middle-income housing popping up around it; built a waste- and water-treatment plant and a town church; and set up the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, a 1,500-acre forest reserve and research facility in partnership with nine international universities. Produce from its organic garden supplies some of Puntacana Resort's restaurants and is also sold to area residents. La Cana Golf Course uses a hybrid grass that requires minimal fertilizer and pesticide and can be irrigated with seawater. (Nearby residential resort Cap Cana and Casa de Campo's Dye Fore golf course have both adopted the material, too.) "Tourism in the Caribbean is based on sun, sand, and sea, and if we don't protect that here, we'll destroy our main asset," Rainieri says, speaking to me in his spacious but not terribly glamorous office. "A friend recently visited and told me, 'I go to the most luxurious places around the world, and then I come here, where something is being done to try to improve the area too, and my vacation has a better taste.'" Not content with spreading the green gospel to guests, Rainieri and Kheel have published a book, A Natural Way of Business: How Frank Rainieri, Theodore Kheel, Oscar de la Renta, and Julio Iglesias Helped Transform an Island Economy. Bill Clinton, a frequent visitor who, Rainieri tells me, hopes to buy in Punta Cana one day, penned the foreword.
The downside of seclusion can be segregation, and for all the relaxation that comes with hermetically sealed resorts, a traveler would miss something really special by avoiding the towns that aren't dominated by such gigantic properties. No matter where you're staying, it's worth hiring a taxi and doing some exploring. (Do not consider, for one moment, renting a car and driving after dark, unless you have Le Manslevel confidence and skill.) A half-hour from Playa Dorada lies Cabarete, which is rapidly gaining attention from wind- and kite-surfers for its high gusts and dynamic water. By night, its tiny strip of independently run restaurants, with beachside seating under lantern-lit coconut palms, teems with Dominican and foreign visitors. Kicking off my shoes to walk the sandy stretch from one establishment to the next (it's often difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins), I pick my way through bachata troubadours strumming acoustic guitars; vendors of Mama Juana (a dehydrated mixture of spices and bark meant to be infused in rum and said to be an aphrodisiac); stray dogs; and chatty maître d's complaining that the travel agents are sending too many tourists down south to Punta Cana.
Between Puerto Plata and Carabete is Sosúa, where soft-sand beaches tickle a calm bay popular with scuba divers. Its hotels are mainly all-inclusives, but the center of town is colorful, with small seafood restaurants set up to serve the population of mostly vacation-home owners. Ten minutes from Playa Dorada is Puerto Plata's malecón, or boardwalk, a traditional Sunday afternoon hangout for teenagers and families. It's not uncommon to see four-to-a-moped cruisers pouring Presidente beer into plastic cups (one for the driver, naturally) while whizzing past the indifferent police. Dueling booming sound systems, some as large as pickup-truck beds, blast merengue and reggaeton to the crowds flying kites on the hillside at the Fortaleza San Felipe, at the very end of the beachside strip. Here is where you'll see the sidewalk vendors with aluminum charcoal barbecues. Some of the best food I've eaten in this country came from a portable grill on Puerto Plata's malecón: a citrus-marinated quarter-chicken and a side of steamed yuca with vinegar-marinated red onions for about $2.50. Right up there with it was a plate of whole fried mero (sea bass) marinated in adobo and garlic, accompanied by fried sweet plantains and crispy salted jack bread, which I procured for about $2 from the row of stands near the shoreline of Boca Chica, a beach suburb a half-hour's drive from Santo Domingo. Don't let the lack of refrigeration at the freidurías, as the brightly painted stalls are called, scare you. The ladies who run them are selling today's catch (parrotfish and mero when I visited). And so what if some of the goings-on in these towns are a little less wholesome than the family-style activities at the larger resorts?Boca Chica's placid, crystal-clear waters are chockablock with locals on the make, and the enclave's reputation for prostitution is, pretty clearly, not unfounded—even in the middle of the afternoon. But the only hectoring I experience while bikini-clad and solo on the sand, waiting for a Dominican friend to rejoin me with some half-frozen Bohemia pilsner, comes courtesy of three shoe-shine boys. (Are they looking to polish my flip-flops?) Though they claim to be 15, they are 12 if they're a day, and hilariously inquisitive. Am I German?Am I married?Is that guy my boyfriend?Would he beat me if he found me talking to them?Answers: No, No, Not really, and Certainly not!
Sleepier towns have a more upright cast—for example Juan Dolio, a beachside bedroom community 45 minutes west of La Romana and about two hours from Santo Domingo. Consisting mostly of condos and freestanding vacation homes (including the official vacation residence of the president), its downtown is just a row of espresso houses, Italian restaurants, and tiny bars lined up along a shady street, plus the roadside bodegas on the thruway one long block away. The tourist trade in Juan Dolio has lost some steam; a few uncelebrated all-inclusives and an upscale Hilton are the only options for those who aren't fans of a ramshackle pension. But the evening I spend here, a ways down the road from hipster nightclub Aura Beach house, is among the best of my stay. Ensconced in a thatched-roof bar with no name, I get a lesson in dancing bachata from my Dominican friend, while a couple of residents look on and coo. The ice in my herb-laced Mama Juana has almost melted, which means the time to leave is drawing near. The barkeep tosses me a plastic cup—why waste a drop?—wishes us a good evening, and off we walk into the night, the chirping crickets competing only with the sound of the waves, 100 feet away, and soft laughter coming from another small bar down the road.
Alexandra Marshall is a T+L contributor. She also writes for the New York Times Magazine.