Wild appeal of the Caribbean

By Paul Sullivan

Golf courses regularly reduce otherwise sensible people to cursing, screaming, even throwing clubs. But those who tee up at Punta Espada, the Jack Nicklaus Signature course at Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, might want to mind their manners: it has been blessed by Gregorio Nicanor Pena, bishop of Santo Domingo. “This project is going to give glory to God,” he said last month before leading the grand opening crowd in the Lord’s Prayer.

Given the sheer size of Cap Cana – a 37,000 acre development with about 3,500 homes in the first phase – a blessing was probably in order. The Abrisa Group, which has carved the site out of the jungle, has placed a huge bet ($500m on the masterplan) that they will be able to change the very nature of vacationing in Punta Cana.

The area, on the eastern tip of the island is best known as a destination for tourists on all-inclusive package trips, seemingly determined to gorge themselves at the buffet, drink pina coladas by the gallon and sit by the pool until they are lobster red. Cap Cana’s developers hope that it can instead become an enclave for millionaires and even billionaires from around the world.

To this end, the development will have three Nicklaus courses, luxury shops, fine restaurants and bars – including an outpost of the euro chic Buddha Bar – a casino, a polo field, a shooting range, a beach club with five miles of sand and clear, blue water, and a marina that is deep enough to accommodate 90 per cent of the world’s private yachts – but no cruise ships.

What makes this more ambitious is the history of Punta Cana, which only got into the tourism business in the 1970s. Back then, Ted Kheel and Frank Rainieri started with a road, an airstrip and a small hotel and built what is now the Punta Cana Resort and Golf Club. From that, 1,000 discount resorts bloomed.

Cap Cana hopes to set itself apart by creating a low-density, residential community, not a resort. Prices for homes range from $400,000 for a two-bedroom condominium in the marina area to $5.8m for an 11,000 sq ft house on the beach. Houses on Star Island, in the centre of the marina, will run about $1.1m and will come with private moorings. Detached villas around the golf course will start around $550,000. Access to everything but the retail area will be restricted to residents.

“Cap Cana has its own council so everything has to match – down to the color of the lining on your curtains,” says Mark Lynn, who is in charge of sales in the UK and Ireland. For investors, Cap Cana is guaranteeing a 15 per cent annual return on properties placed in the rental pool.

The two most distinguishing features of Cap Cana will be the manmade marina, billed as the best within 250 miles, and the three Nicklaus Signature courses, the first ones the design company has in the Caribbean. Signature means that Nicklaus himself has had a hand in planning them, as opposed to his sons or other architects at Nicklaus Design; and, according to a 2003 study by the Golf Research Group, the designation is number one for creating real estate value, far ahead of second place Tom Fazio.

The 30 founders’ plots on the course – 1.5 acres with a boat slip and a marina condo – sold for $800,000 a piece three years ago and are now fetching $2.4m, says Rea Harkins, director of sales at Cap Cana. The course will also have the first Golden Bear Lodge, a hotel resort for members and guests named after the moniker sportscasters gave Nicklaus.

The Punta Espada course, which opens in November with an initiation fee of $50,000 and a membership of 580, will have 12 holes along the water. Several of these will demand steely resolve. The par 3 13th hole requires players to hit a 249 yard shot over water, while the short par 4 17th appears easy on the card, except that the tee shot is over the ocean to a landing area guarded by palm trees.

“Dad’s philosophy is, ‘Look, you’re trying to have a large impact with your amenities; if you take up all your beachfront with development you might as well be playing in Montana,'” says Jack Nicklaus II, Nicklaus’ oldest son. “It’s a resort course. There are a lot of hero shots, but it’s still playable for the average golfer.”

For that golfer, Nicklaus II has two warnings. Do not hook your tee shot on the first hole, since a 6ft iguana lives in the cave along the left side. And beware of the roosters in the fairway; they are fearless – as demonstrated by their slowness in moving out of the way of Nicklaus’ cart.

The plans for Las Iguanas, the second course, are being finalized now, and it is likely to feature several holes that play through a nature preserve. Nicklaus II says there is room for five or six courses on the site, including one along a bluff that overlooks the ocean. If that were to happen, the development would rival Desert Mountain in Arizona, which has six Nicklaus Signature courses.

Despite the Dominican Republic’s package-tour reputation, top golf courses are not unprecedented on the island. Adjacent to Cap Cana, the Punta Cana Resort and Golf Club has the 7,150 yard La Cana course designed by PB Dye. With a USGA slope rating of 133 and two finishing holes along the Caribbean Sea, it is a challenging tract. However, when I played it on an overcast but otherwise fine afternoon I saw only one threesome on the course

On the south side of the peninsula is the most famous course in the Caribbean, Teeth of the Dog, designed by Pete Dye, PB’s father. One of three Dye courses at Casa de Campo, the complex is an established stop on any golfer’s travel list. Still, the island as a whole lags behind other golf destinations.

Nicklaus II argues this is about to change. On neighboring islands, the company is working on nine courses. “Mexico and the Caribbean have really ignited for us,” he says. There are courses in the works for the Bahamas, Anguila, Antigua, St. Lucia, St. Croix and Trinidad and Tobago, he adds. “Within the last two years all of these jobs have come across our desk.”

Much of this growth is driven by people seeking out the relative safe haven of the Caribbean over Europe and the US for both vacations and investments. Another, more scientific reason has been seashore paspalum: once dismissed as a weed, paspalum is now used from tee to green because it can be irrigated with salt water.

And that, as Cap Cana’s developers no doubt hope, could make the grass look a little greener here.

Punta Espada Golf Club

Of the golf courses to be developed at Cap Cana, three are exclusive Jack Nicklaus Signature Designs. Punta Espada is the very first golf course and it is already listed…

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