Shaun Snell, director of the Shooting Club at Casa de Campo, spent ten years as head gamekeeper for the Earl of Pembroke’s Wilton House in England. The driven-duck shoot he designed for the Dominican resort follows the English model, which works like this: A flock of ducks (bred by Snell) are fed every morning on one side of a low hill. They’re fed again each evening, this time on a pond that sits over the hilltop. When the birds are flushed from their morning feeding ground, they fly over the hill, making for their second home on the water. Between the hill and the pond are five stations where guests wait with shotguns for the ducks to pass overhead.
There are three of us at the stations this afternoon, watching for the birds in the wet air and half-light left by a passing storm. Snell radios to the “beaters”—a team of men who flush the birds with sticks. As my loader puts a gun into my hands, I’m aware of a global mash-up that’s happening here: an English-style driven shoot, Italian shotguns and American mallards, all on 10,000 acres in the Dominican Republic. You see this cultural convergence a lot at Casa de Campo; two of the restaurants are operated by the Maccioni Group, the New York–based restaurateurs behind Le Cirque. Those restaurants serve duck, but not the ducks that are coming toward us in a loose formation after being flushed from the other side of the hill.
Duck flight looks unhurried from the ground, but these ducks are flying scared, at or near their top speed of 60 miles per hour. I mount my gun and pick a bird out of the flock. My first shot is short, and my second is the victim of a bad recovery. My 12-gauge is empty, but then there’s another report from over my left shoulder, where Calixto García-Vélez, Casa de Campo’s polo and equestrian director, is batting cleanup. García-Vélez—in tweeds, a hunting cap and riding boots—looks like he just walked out of a Hemingway novel. Earlier, Snell described him as an expert shot, which, from what I can tell, means that he doesn’t miss. His shot is a clean kill; the bird crashes to the ground like something filled with sand. The air smells like wet earth and gunpowder now. A few clumps of iridescent plumage float down out of the sky.
After the shoot, a pair of supercharged adolescent black Labs scour the pond for ducks, which will be donated to the hospital and the orphanage built by Casa de Campo’s owners. Our group gathers under a giant tree, around tables covered with white tablecloths, sandwiches, fresh fruit, cheese and a full coffee service. There are a dozen men on horseback, although what they’re doing here is not immediately clear to me; the cigar roller who was supposed to be on hand had to cancel because of the rain. I sit down with García-Vélez, who came onboard three years ago to revamp the polo program, which was started by his father in 1972. García-Vélez has been coming here since 1968. I ask him what finally brought him down for good after two decades as a professional polo player and horse trainer. “Everything I love as a sportsman—polo, shooting, fishing, golfing, tennis—is right here,” he said.
It’s a fair point. I’m here for four days of sporting, and my schedule is packed. The men on horseback are apparently trainers from the Equestrian Center, which offers trail rides (English or Western) and jumping, in addition to polo. So add those to the list.
Casa de Campo means “a house in the country.” These days it’s more like 1,800 private villas in the country, and 185 hotel rooms and suites. The resort occupies 7,000 acres on the island’s south-facing coast, plus the 10,000 acres of backcountry filled with driven shoots for partridge, grouse and pheasant, in addition to the ducks. You get a vague sense of scale as you drive endlessly in the golf carts it provides, frequently lost, rarely hitting any kind of barrier. You get a better sense of the enormity from the air, where Casa de Campo looks like what it is: a very large and self-contained metropolis, reined in by a major highway, the winding Chavón river and the Caribbean Sea.
On my third day, three of us board a 45-foot fishing boat tied up at the resort’s sprawling 370-slip marina. An hour out to sea, we stop and drop our lines. The first half hour passes quietly, and then it starts: a bite, the wild, high-frequency buzz of line flying off a reel, the fish appearing as a splash behind the boat, a silver streak in turquoise water and finally as a four-plus-foot, tiger-striped wahoo, flopping wildly on the deck. We’re pulling up a fish every 15 minutes, looking at one another in disbelief, especially the photographer, who complained to me over breakfast that he usually spends fishing expeditions sitting around or asking people to pretend there’s something on their line. It’s the kind of thing you might accuse a large resort of staging as a PR stunt, but even if that kind of thing were possible, it would still be the best 90 minutes of fishing you could ask for.
My forearms are still burning when we drop anchor on a long sandbar known as Palmilla Beach. It’s covered in six feet of clear water at high tide, the white-sand bottom dotted with giant starfish. On long weekends and holidays, Palmilla Beach looks like something off the coast of St.-Tropez—dozens of yachts linked together to form a long, Champagne-soaked boat hop, but today there’s just one party boat between us and the palm-lined coast of nearby Saona Island. We dive off the bow, dry off in the sun and head back to the resort in time for lunch. The vivid stripes on a wahoo fade rapidly after they die, and by the time we tie up at the marina, they’ve completely disappeared.
Most people know Casa de Campo for its golf—three championship courses by Pete Dye. The Teeth of the Dog, considered his masterpiece, has seven holes along the water that legendary editor Gary Fisketjon, writing in this magazine, described as “gasp-inducing,” “terrifying” and “inhumane.” I don’t golf, so I decide to walk the course at the only time that makes sense for a non-golfer: late at night.
After dinner at the Beach Club by Le Cirque, I drive my golf cart past the polo fields, surrounded by homes that are often rented by polo team owners. The resort has the largest string of polo ponies in the world and hosts world-class matches from November through April; there’s donkey polo for rookies and kids year-round. I drive past the 110-foot, red-and-white steel tower, which looks like it’s providing WiFi to the entire island but is actually the heart of the Shooting Center, which offers 200 distinct sporting clay stations, designed to mimic every imaginable type of small game.
The Teeth of the Dog, when I find it, is damp from some combination of dew and sprinklers, and the wet grass looks silver in the moonlight. Even in the darkness, the course has a dynamism that I’ve never seen before, its jagged edge defined by ocean spray. The grassy crater Dye carved into the eighth hole makes the green feel like the surface of the moon. And there’s a soundtrack, as waves crash against the chunks of sharp coral that gave the course its name. It’s enough to make me reconsider golf.
Massive villas line the holes along the water, and there’s a party somewhere nearby—a cover band, the whine of golf carts, the pop of Champagne corks. The villas at Casa de Campo come in every imaginable architectural style—California modern, classic colonial, Balinese beach retreat. In high season, the resort has a social scene that rivals summer in the Hamptons, its cocktail parties and charity luncheons chronicled in CasaLife, an in-house magazine that would seem like an indulgence anywhere but Casa de Campo. There’s enough going on here to justify a TV news station.
On my last day at Casa de Campo, I borrow a stand-up paddleboard from the beach club and paddle out through a channel in the reef that encloses the shallow swimming area. I make open water and paddle until I can see the Teeth of the Dog, brilliant in daylight, where a group of golfers are gathered on the 15th green. Back at the beach club, a wedding party is drinking off their collective hangover, draped like wet towels on the lounge chairs, while these golfers sweat over their putts. Standing on the board with a view of the course and the beach, I understand how perfectly suited this place is to the modern leisure temperament; it has excellent facilities for doing absolutely nothing, and excellent facilities for every active pursuit you can imagine. You can be bone-deep lazy or constantly occupied, or some combination of the two. You choose your own adventure here.
Back in New York, I meet Pepe Fanjul, the sugar baron who, along with his brother Alfy, owns Casa de Campo, at his townhouse on the Upper East Side. A housekeeper shows me to a well-stuffed antique couch and offers me some very cold water. Three stately black Labs are roaming the ground floor; there is somehow not a single black dog hair in sight. Fanjul appears in a blue Italian-looking suit and tie, his shoes beautifully polished, the remainder of his silver hair swept back on his head. We talk about the golf, the fishing, the polo and especially the shooting, which is his passion—the Shooting Center record boards are covered with his name. Before I leave, he pauses to reflect on everything we’ve just discussed and gives me a piece of understatement for the road.
“It’s an exciting place,” he says.
Rooms at Casa de Campo start at $295; La Romana; 855-877-3643; casadecampo.com.do.
Private Villas from Casa de Campo
Three great villas from the resort’s collection.
The towering columns and archways adorning the ten-bedroom Villa Las Ondinas ($48,000 a week) add to the Romanesque property’s palatial feel (the private tennis court and separate guesthouse do, too). Villa la Laguna del Mar ($36,000 a week), which has six bedrooms, offers water two ways: A stunning lagoon-like pool sits in the center of the Bali-inspired indoor-outdoor retreat, while a boardwalk with private access to an inlet is steps away. With natural elements of rock and wood incorporated in its design, the four-bedroom Villa La Brisa ($28,800 a week) provides an authentic Caribbean retreat with views of the sea from its expansive backyard veranda.