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Casa de Campo

Shifting Sands

Renowned for its cheap and cheerful all inclusive deals, James Henderson finds the Caribbean's Dominican Republic is quietly moving upmarket

Tucked away on a peninsula on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, a subtle symphony of tropical modernism awaits: bamboo beams, carved teak, polished limestone and parallel symmetry everywhere you look. All blending in perfectly amid the palms and bougainvillea.

This is ANI Dominican Republic, a villa sleeping up to 28 people (which you have to book exclusively), and it is luxury on a new, ever-so-discreet level.

The exclusive ANI resort

This means chilled towels, premier champagne, meals on the beach, spa treatments, laundry service, rum tasting (the local distillers and their wares are brought to you), cigar-rolling demos and local dance troupes performing on your terrace. All included, naturally.

Yes, it's scarily expensive but illustrative of what's going on in the new-look Dominican Republic.

Not so long ago the country was the default destination for cheap Caribbean sun, full of factory-style hotels with 24-hour buffet meals (on plates ready heated by the dishwasher), unlimited booze at swim-up bars and drunken games of pool volleyball.

All of that's still there, but the script needed rewriting. And the architecturally striking ANI Dominican Republic is perhaps an extreme example of the way things are moving on this large island lodged between Jamaica and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea.

Amanera overlooking the Playa Grande

The Dom Rep now enjoys a small fleet of top-flight hotels and plenty of comfortable villas. Close to ANI on the north coast is a case in point: Amanera, part of the chi-chi Aman hotel group, strikes another modernist note of flat roofs, coloured concrete and glass looking over Playa Grande, one of the Caribbean's best beaches.

At the opposite end of this mile of cream-coloured sand is the Playa Grande Beach Club. It is diametrically opposed in design, with its unexpected British-Caribbean theme of white and pastel-coloured wooden cottages, patterned aguayo tiles and verandas trimmed with filigree fretwork.

The Dominican Republic is so big you should choose your airport carefully (ANI is most easily reached via Puerto Plata on the north coast).

Eden Roc in Punta Cana

Meanwhile, over in the southeast resort area of Punta Cana, to which BA flies direct, is Eden Roc, a five-star hotel that burst onto the scene a decade ago in a flourish of faux baroque. Expect silver dining tables and overly ornate gilt mirrors.

This is in contrast to Bahia Principe Grand Bavaro, which offers rooms from £69 per night all-inclusive.

Elsewhere, you have Tortuga Bay, also close to Punta Cana, a series of lovely one and two-bedroom suites in seafront villas standing among slender palms.

White walls and louvered windows and doors are offset by dark hardwood fourposters and armoires, and the walls are decorated with old botanical prints.

Then there's the lavish resort of Casa de Campo on the south coast, where Boris Johnson, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Bieber have all stayed.
More than a thousand villas, some extremely stylish, are spread across 7,000 acres, with restaurants, spas, golf courses and riding stables.

There is even an amphitheatre at Altos de Chavon that momentarily feels ancient, but was inaugurated in 1982 by Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana.

Any trip to the Dominican Republic should include a visit to the colonial capital Santo Domingo, the oldest city in the New World. Parts of the old town have been restored, with traditional lanterns and a comforting absence of aerial spaghetti - the utility cables that blight the rest of the country.
In the oldest streets, where agonised gargoyles peer down on you and cannon defend street corners, it is just possible to imagine a conquistador and his retinue appearing around the corner.

The delightful Casas del XVI

Santo Domingo also has the most surprising places to stay: old palacios and houses now turned into small, chic hotels, where you leave the madness of the traffic and concrete jungle and pass into a verdant courtyard, an oasis of cool and calm. There are few hotels like these elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The Casas del XVI options are among the most atmospheric and delightful places to stay. The six houses have been restored, offering individual rooms or the whole site. Awnings providing shelter from rain and sun lead to shaded dining corners with exposed beams and flagstones. Then you have Billini, a more formal hotel decorated in scarlet, black and gold with sections of exposed 16th-century walls from its time as an armoury and convent. Billini stands at the heart of a community - bar, cafe, restaurant and church - and overlooks a huge saman tree on a square.

Or you could stay at Fixie Lofts, with its eight stylish rooms, or the Mosquito Hotel, which is youthful and fun and has a wonderful cocktail bar. The choice is yours - but make no mistake, the Dominican Republic is moving onwards - and upwards.

First published in the Daily Mail -  November 2023

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