The Dominican Republic's Most Luxurious Resort
The laid-back glamour of Puntacana, the Dominican Republic’s poshest spot.
One doesn’t need to be a golfer to appreciate the views on the 18th hole at Puntacana’s new Tom Fazio–designed course. Dotted with fuchsia-colored bougainvillea, the 500-yard dogleg-to-the-right is perched dramatically atop ocean cliffs. Standing at the tee, high above the seaspray, takes your breath away. For those lucky enough to play here, the panorama makes for an unforgettable final hole.
The only imperfection in this spectacularly manicured vista is a crumbling ruin of a stone wall I notice in the distance. Frank Elias Rainieri, the 33-year-old son of the resort’s founder, explains that when his father opened Puntacana with just four rooms in the early 1970s, “there was no airport, no infrastructure, nothing. So he tried to make money any way he could, and the ruin is all that is left of one of his schemes—a salt factory for evaporating seawater.”
Frank Rainieri Sr. failed at making salt but succeeded in transforming this strip of coast into one of the Dominican Republic’s most stylish destinations. There was a time when if you told those in the know you were headed to the DR, they would say, “Have fun at Casa de Campo.” But thanks to six miles of sugar-fine beaches and a nearby airport that allows New Yorkers to be tanning by lunchtime, Puntacana has become a hot spot among the BYOV (Bring Your Own Vilebrequin) crowd. Not as glitzy as St. Barth’s, not as Brit-sy as Mustique, Puntacana appeals to laid-back jet-setters as well as to celebrities, from Charlize Theron and Gabriel Byrne to the Clintons, looking to keep a low profile. In Corales, an enclave of private mansions that is Puntacana’s answer to Palm Beach’s South Ocean Drive or Southampton’s estate section, Oscar de la Renta, Julio Iglesias and Mikhail Baryshnikov have all built seaside villas. And yet, as interior designer Bunny Williams, who with her husband, antiques dealer John Rosselli, owns a Palladian-style plantation house in Corales, notes, “If you want to see movers and shakers, this is probably not the place for you.”
Their home and many others in Corales can be rented—the most exclusive (and expensive) accommodations at Puntacana. There’s also Tortuga Bay, the resort’s high-end boutique hotel with 15 lemon-colored villas offering an intimate setting and customized service, and the 186-room Puntacana Hotel, which is a great family-friendly option. In addition, the 15,000-acre grounds are home to a nature preserve and two more golf courses, both by P. B. Dye, the second of which opens this summer, bolstering Puntacana’s status as one of the Caribbean’s top golfing destinations. It’s hard to believe that little more than a generation ago, all this was jungle.
Behind every great resort there is a visionary. At Puntacana, that was Frank Rainieri. The resort got its start in 1969, when Rainieri, now 65, was a 24-year-old Dominican entrepreneur with a crop-dusting business. Those were boom years on Wall Street, and Ted Kheel, the high-powered labor lawyer who died last fall, had no trouble raising $25,000 a head from 20 friends to buy the tract of coast that became Puntacana. How hard could it be to make something of this place? The DR was primed to be the next big thing: At the same Manhattan dinner parties that Kheel’s investors frequented, Gulf + Western’s crazy-like-a-fox owner, Charlie Bluhdorn, was talking up Casa de Campo, a resort he was building a few hours east of Santo Domingo.
But Kheel and his fellow investors hadn’t really thought about infrastructure, and after a few false starts, Kheel asked Rainieri, an adviser on the project, to fly to New York and explain the challenges. “Here I was, this Dominican kid, walking into a Park Avenue skyscraper to meet with a group of prominent New Yorkers, and it had been months without any progress,” recalls Rainieri. “So I talked to them with the kind of nerve that only a twenty-four-year-old has.”
After laying out a smart, simple plan, Rainieri left with a deal for $1,000 a month in cash and part-ownership. Sanguine about the future, he proposed to his girlfriend. “She boarded a plane to go to New York to buy her wedding dress, and that was the last time I saw her,” he says. Her plane crashed. The despondent Rainieri went into isolation, living in a hut. But he continued working, and by 1971 he’d built a road and enough cottages to open a small hotel, the Punta Cana Club. Soon afterward Rainieri married Haydee Kuret, a Dominican beauty queen turned physics professor, and three children, Paola, Francesca and Frank Elias, followed.