In his house and resort at Punta Cana, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta brings his legendary style home to his birthplace, the Dominican Republic

Ben Watts

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?"

Who, indeed?No one can quarrel with the results of de la Renta's avid lifelong affinity for the beau monde. He is, after all, the person who once remarked, "What I expect from an interior and from dressing a woman is . . . luxe, calme et volupté." It's what de la Renta expects, and seems to obtain, from most of his undertakings. But the means of attaining Baudelaire's luxuriant dreamland are rarely, in any sense, serene. Oscar de la Renta is often called charming, which is true but perhaps as meaningless as calling the weather charming. Inevitable, as his architect suggests, may be a better word. "Mr. de la Renta knows what he wants," Buch says tactfully.

"Dominicans sing all the time," says de la Renta one evening over dinner at Punta Cana's restaurant La Cana, as waiters hustle about carrying plates of giant prawns, and musicians Eladio Almonte and Rafael Vargas sidle up to the tables, tuning their guitars. Then de la Renta launches into a heartfelt rendition of Juan Luis Guerra's "Bachata Rosa," and soon has a tableful of guests singing along. The designer breaks into song often and with brio. He knows all the words to the national anthem of Cuba, to the Gardel tangos that were his mother's favorites (she called the young Oscar "Gardelito"), to the woozy ballads of Julio Iglesias, and, of course, to many Dominican merengues.

De la Renta left the island as a teen, one member of that enterprising wave that until recently kept Dominicans at the top of New York's immigration list. He returned in middle age, a rich and famous man, literally to establish a beachhead. "It grounds me," he says of his home country. At 66, de la Renta still relishes plain Dominican comida criolla (he breakfasts daily on the fried-plantain dish mangú) and the island's neon flora ("I'm a tropical person"), and is intricately enmeshed in the Dominican semifeudal society.

Even so, he leaves corales only rarely, and then mainly for the 25-minute drive to El Cortecito, a little village by the sea, where he eats at a restaurant called Capitán Cook, "very simple, but one of the best seafood restaurants anywhere." When he occasionally takes guests to the capital, on jaunts by private aircraft, they dine at El Vesuvio or at La Briciola, two anomalous Italian restaurants that serve "wonderful" food. He sends his friends to hole-in-the-wall jewelers in the Zona Colo- nial to survey the offerings of Dominican red, blue, and even black amber, universally regarded as the world's finest and just as universally faked. And he points them toward the Swiss Mine, alongside Parque Colón, where the amber prices are good and the authenticity is guaranteed. "There is also a blue stone, larimar," adds de la Renta, "that looks like turquoise and is very expensive, but beautiful. Everyone loves to buy that."

But mostly he doesn't leave home.

When he does it's for a special trip with friends like Brooke Astor to Jarabacoa in the Dominican cordillera, where there is "one hotel that I don't know the condition of anymore, and beautiful mountain walks and a superb waterfall close to the national park." In a mountain town near here, de la Renta has long maintained a "very pretty house'' set on four riverside miles, with incredible orchids. In the late afternoons, he "could sit in the river and it was like a Jacuzzi." The Dominican mountains, he says, offer something that's rare in the Caribbean: a sense of the seasons. A glass of water left out at night can be frosted with ice crystals by morning. "The mountains are fantastic," he says, "but my wife, unfortunately, hates it there. So we really haven't slept in that house for two and a half years."

"I never have a master plan of what I'm going to do," de la Renta is saying. Coming from the man who oversees the Balmain haute couture, whose own name is an international label, who was the first American designer ever invited to show his collection in the Carrousel du Louvre, and whose perfume, Oscar, remains among the top 10 revenue-producing scents worldwide, this assertion invites skepticism.

Even without an explicit agenda, de la Renta is bound to leave his imprint on Punta Cana--or, at the very least, apply his canny skill for transforming the atmospherics of a place. If an example of this gift is required, you need look no further than the building lot adjoining de la Renta's property at Corales. Designated as the site of a future house for Henry Kissinger and his wife, the parcel is currently a desolate patch of sea grapes and scrub. Yet, pass through an arched coral-rock gate and you enter lotus land: lush lawns, allées of clipped oleander, a private chapel, and seaside Balinese-style pavilions for the siestas he apparently never takes. "I like the idea of doing things. I need projects," says Oscar de la Renta, of Corales and the Punta Cana Beach Resort. "I never liked the idea of lying in the sun. I hate to slow down."

Oscar's address book

Punta Cana Beach Resort Punta Cana; 809/221-2262, fax 809/687-8745; doubles from $180, including tax, breakfast, and dinner.
Capitán Cook Playa del Cortecito, El Cortecito; 809/552-0645; dinner for two $50.
El Vesuvio 521 Avda. George Washington, Santo Domingo; 809/221-3333; dinner for two $65.
La Briciola 152A Calle Arzobispo MériÒo, Santo Domingo; 809/688-5055; dinner for two $80.
The Swiss Mine 101 Calle El Conde, Santo Domingo; 809/221-1897.