These two teenagers fighting were so amazingly close you could hear their tusks clanking

Quechua ladies of Peru

View from our Dorado Beach Hotel terrace.

I ticked off another destination on my bucket list and, in retrospect, am finding it hard to determine which vacation I loved more: the South African Safari http://singita.com/ or a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Weekend getaway, close by, Miami Beach. Just pack a bathing suit and go.

Rafting in the Rio Paquare, Costa Rica was an exhilirating, heart thumping experience

Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic

By: Esilda Buxbaum

For years, thinking this resort had no beach, I had passed it over, recommending to clients destinations with beaches galore: Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, or St Barths, for example. But, searching recently for a quick family getaway for myself, my daughter, her husband, and my grandchild, I decided to take another look. I am glad I did.

Casa de Campo sports 7,000 acres of land on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic on the Caribbean Sea. The property is reached by flying to Santo Domingo and then driving for approximately an hour and a half. (Or connecting in Miami or San Juan and flying to La Romana Airport, which is only 15 minutes away from the resort. Incidentally, there is also a private heliport on the property.) You can either rent a private villa or one of the rooms at the hotel. There are activities galore, including 3 golf courses, 13 tennis courts, horseback riding, fitness and spa treatment centers...or you can just relax at one of the many pools or the beautiful beach.

Having arrived in Santo Domingo three hours late due to a big snowstorm in New York, we were worried that our pre–arranged minivan transfer might have given up on us. It had been hard enough to wrangle seats on a different flight after ours was cancelled; now we'd have to figure out yet another plan B, this time not in the comforts of home with DSL but at the airport with dinnertime already past us and a three–year–old in tow. We had thought of renting a car to have on hand in case we wanted to do some sightseeing outside the resort compound. I was starting to think that would have been a good idea... We were so glad to see our name on a placard after retrieving our baggage and passing through customs, I almost kissed the driver. And after five minutes on an unlit highway with very few road directions and lots of small motorcycles (most without headlights, let alone rear lights; all being piloted by drivers without helmets, needless to say), we counted our blessings that we had not decided to rent a car. Suffice it to say I recommend the minivan transfer unequivocally.

Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic

We rented a three–bedroom "golf" villa with what is called a whirlpool, but that my grandson called a humongous pool, in the shape of a boomerang. Near the pool was an outdoor charcoal grill and a table for four, protected from the sun by an umbrella. The interior of the villa was comfortable with air–conditioning in the bedrooms and a beach–elegant decor, with shades of white predominating. A half wraparound screened porch with ample seating areas was cool enough to enjoy even at midday and the perfect spot to take in some of the lush vegetation surrounding the villa. There were gardeners all over the place trimming bushes, cutting grass, cleaning the palm trees so the coconuts wouldn't fall on the guests. Adelfa, our housekeeper, came in the mornings to take care of the interior of the villa, changing towels, making beds, and tidying up.

We had two golf carts at our disposal, which we drove all around the property, much to my grandson's enjoyment. In fact, the only way we could get him to leave the beach was to tell him he could "drive," while sitting on his father's lap. His job was to call out "bump" when he saw an upcoming speed bump so whoever was sitting backwards in the backseat could brace herself.

And about that beach... It is beautiful, with white and light yellow sand, that is raked every morning. There is a large reef surrounding the beach, protecting swimmers from the waves and stronger current, making it perfect for small children as it is calm. Additionally, the water remains shallow for some distance. It is a snorkler's paradise, with lots of different colorful tropical fish near the reef. There are lots of palm trees (devoid of coconuts) for shade and, of course, chaise lounge positioned near umbrellas. Even though we were there out of season, there were a lot of other three–generation families so my grandson always found someone his age to play with on the sand.

Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic

The Marina, just five minutes away by golf cart, has several restaurants and a reasonably stocked grocery store. Though expensive for the Dominican Republic, the prices were quite reasonable compared to what we are used to in New York. We found everything we needed to cook on the grill (chicken, sausages, onions, tomatoes, plantains, oranges, etc.). Of more interest to my grandson were the huge boats of all types and the two ice cream spots.

Altos de Chavon is a replica of a 16th century Mediterranean village. Cobbled stone streets, art galleries, boutiques and a small stone church complete the scene. Why this is needed here escapes me but there are several restaurants, including Sendei, which actually serves Dominican food. (In fact, our one complaint with the vacation was that it was hard to find real, local food at the resort.) Our dinner at Sendei was quite delicious and the restaurant's outdoor seating quaint. The sancocho, a stew made with beef, pork, chicken, plantains, and yams was superb and full of flavor. Several of the fish dishes were prepared with a choice of sauces such as garlic or coconut (an island specialty). The squid in garlic sauce was tender and well seasoned and came with standard accompaniments: fried plantains (tostones, also known as fritos verdes) or rice and beans.

The real star of our dinners out was, surprisingly, El Pescador, one of the resort's restaurants, located right off of the beach.


Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic

El Pescador

We have always managed to eat well in the Caribbean by adhering to one simple rule: Never eat in the hotel restaurant(s). Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic has a host of restaurants (a sports bar, a Mexican joint, a place purportedly serving Chinese food, a requisite pizzaria, etc.), none of which appealed to us—except one, El Pescador. We had been passing by the restaurant every day since it is located at the entrance to the resort's beach. And we had to admit that it looked appealing—open on all sides, with white furniture and walls; exposed wood beams; bamboo fans; and a thachted roof. We finally decided one day to look at the menu and, despite the New York prices, made a reservation for later that evening.

At night, the path to the restaurant is lit with votive candles tucked into paper bags. The white decor is luminous without being glaring. And, needless to say, the views of the ocean are spectacular.

But how was the food? We hoped for something decent but weren't expecting much. We were very pleasantly surprised, right from the start. Summer rolls of spider lobster and cucumber with a honey–mustard vinagrette dip stood out for the freshness and sweetness of the lobster and the elegance of the presentation. Our other favorite was a "napoleon" of shrimp, hearts of palm, and avocado. While there was supposedly a citrus vinaigrette somewhere in there, it failed to register and the dish—if we were being picky—could have used more acidity. But the shrimp, which were halved lenghtwise and sitting on top of the circle of other ingredients, were perfectly cooked and incredibly flavorful. My grandson also enjoyed his simple salad of greens topped with grilled octopus, tomatoes, and a few boiled potatoes. The salad could have used a bit more dressing and seasoning, but the octopus was tender and tasty.

Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic

The standout main course was a mix of fresh, local, head–on river shrimp, squid, and scallops "a la provenzale." The ingredients—supremely fresh and flavorful—made the dish. The "provenzale" part of the dish was sauteed sliced green and red bell peppers and tomatoes, which pulled everything together. The other fish dishes we tried on the two nights we dined there were fine but not as special. (Needless to say, we stayed clear of the requisite beef filet and chicken breast offerings.)

A perfectly cooked and caramelized crème brûlée made for a nice finish to dinner.

 

The only drawback to the restaurant is the location of the bathrooms. When my son–in–law left to take my grandson to the bathroom, we didn't see them for at least twenty minutes. Little did we know that the restaurant bathrooms are the beach bathrooms and are located a good distance from the dining room, across the sand.

We were so pleased with our meals at Le Pescador that, when we returned home, I had to ask my sales representative about the chef. I received an e–mail with the bio of Pierre Schaedelin, most recently of Le Cirque 2000 in New York. The respect for pure flavors and superior technique we were fortunate enough to experience could certainly have come from the Alsatian chef whose past professional experience also includes stints at three star restaurants including L'Auberge de L'Ill in Alsace and Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo.