Beautiful golf courses, luxury resorts: Playa Grande is a Dominican paradise
Searching for luxury that lives on the wild side, Ben Winstanley heads to the Dominican Republic
Playa Grande has always been special. A mile-long finger of beach bending outwardly into the Atlantic – a come hither to the waves that crash against its palm-lined shores – it is located near the town of Cabrera in Dominican Republic’s northern María Trinidad Sánchez province. For the locals, it’s where they surfed as children, watched the sunrise, stole kisses from love conquests, and the adventurous dove in search of treasure among the shipwrecks lost to the reefs centuries ago. Until recently, it was an unknown to tourists, far from the primitive five-star resorts scattered across the arid, commercial south, and the affluent Punta Cana in the east. Much has changed since then. The beach may be just as quiet, the embodiment of paradise, but it was never this luxurious.
Standing guard atop the 60ft tall western cliffs of Playa Grande is Amanera, the latest hotel from Aman Resorts. Set among 373 acres of lush terrain, the five-star destination opened in November 2015 to widespread acclaim, and has already established itself as one of the finest resorts in the Caribbean.
If there’s one thing you can be certain of across the 7,000-plus islands and 28 nations that populate the azure-blue waters of the Caribbean sea it’s that luxury accommodation is never going to be far away. So what rises Amanera above its exclusive neighbours? The answer begins in the journey to its front door.
Snaking north from Santo Domingo, the two-hour SUV ride from airport to the resort is an experience in itself. Slicing through marsh and palm-tree plantations, dodging the jagged rocks and mangroves of the Los Haitises National Park, eventually you pick up the coastal road that leads you further off the beaten track to a rainforested section of the island’s northern coastline and your final destination.
Out here in blissful isolation you are free to hike or mountain bike through the rainforest, snorkel among the reefs and wrecks, wind- and kite-surf, fish, or bathe in the sunlight on a beach that is almost entirely deserted – save for the waiter refilling your caipirinha. Amanera’s is a wild and rugged Dominican Republic, silver-spoon fed to you by one of the most sophisticated resorts in the world; millionaire escapism in situ.
Mi Casa es tu casa
The resort’s trump card may be its staggering location, but the seamless integration of nature and design serves to amplify Amanera’s awe-inspiring surroundings. English architect John Heah created 25 detached casitas (cottages), with flat biodiverse roofs that morph with the lush greenery abounding throughout the property. The effect is best scene from the beach where royal palms, bay grape trees and indigenous flora all but camouflage the small villas into the natural landscape. Up close, however, Heah’s design is bold and contemporary – beautifully employing materials like Indonesian teak, Greek Volakas marble, and striped Dominican aguayo tiles – but never to the point of excess.
Bathed in natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, the living areas are built for comfort as well as Instagrammable aesthetics. Case (or is that casa?) in point is the ingenious bathroom design, that creates an inside- outside illusion through the use of glass and a small garden. The outdoor areas of each casita are equally well-equipped with comfortable seating aplenty and cooling plunge pools in the premium rooms.
Such is the calibre of accommodation, renowned hedge fund manager and frequent Amanera visitor Bill Ackman bought the property’s marquee two-bedroom villa. When its billionaire owner isn’t in residence, the 2,626 sq ft space is a must for those with big budgets. Its expansive terrace and pool occupy the finest position in the resort, with panoramic views of Playa Grande at every turn. Previous occupants have ranged from families to wealthy bachelors hiring a DJ and a private chef to make the most of their moment in the sun. (Our invite must have been lost in the post.)
Once more Unto the beach
While the promise of unspoilt shores and quiet luxury will please the beach bums among us, those whose posteriors are reserved for good food, drink, and the occasional game of golf should be equally well accommodated.
With ten oceanfront holes along the 60ft cliff tops – the most of any track in the Western Hemisphere – Playa Grande golf course is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the world, and the first offered by an Aman resort. Built in 1997, as one of the last courses designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones Snr before his death in 2000, it recently reopened after a large-scale remodel by the revered architect’s son Rees Jones. Equally respected for his gift for design, his 7,250-yard par-72 layout draws on the original’s strength, with visually thrilling holes that offer a tough challenge.
In one of the finest finishing straights in world golf, the closing five holes run along the edge of the cliffs as the ocean roars below. While it’s difficult to choose, our pick is the 470-yard dog-leg right 16th. It asks players to find a narrow fairway before executing a highly demanding uphill hybrid shot from one cliff to another, where the green is located: take a par-four score and run on this exceptional test.
Frequently compared to California’s Pebble Beach, and easily rivalling its beauty, Playa Grande’s golf course is bucket-list territory – among the greatest in the game. With PGA professional Julio Santos, the first Dominican to play on the PGA tour, on hand for any players looking for tuition, and the option of a post-round golfer’s massage at Amanera’s spa, this is one of the best overall experiences you can enjoy on a golf course.
Having built up an appetite, head to the focal point of the resort, Casa Grande. Heah’s staggering design has all the hallmarks of John Lautner’s architectural marvel, Arango-Marbrisa House in Acapulco: water is the preferred design tool, with the second-storey bar framed entirely by an infinity pool that reaches out into the ocean in the distance. Left open to the elements as part of Heah’s Balinese-inspired design it offers the best views in the whole property, along with an excellent cocktail list. On a balmy spring evening there are few sights in luxury travel as compelling as the sun setting at Playa Grande, soundtracked by lapping waves and rustling palms.
For its part, the ground-floor restaurant is a spacious, breezy affair that flits from Italian, Mediterranean and Caribbean cuisine effortlessly. Locally sourced ingredients, including a daily supply of the freshest fish from a nearby fishing fleet, are used throughout dishes, including a superb fresh scialatelli pasta with rock lobster plucked from Playa Grande’s reefs that morning.
For a more informal dining option, walk down to the Club de Playa: set on the beach, its open kitchen is loosely inspired by Chelsea’s River Café, next door to architect Heah’s London office. Fare here ranges from pizzas to ceviches, with a number of exceptional fish dishes offered on the grill, too. Seclusion can be a beautiful thing, but without the presence of good food it could quickly turn into torture. Thankfully such a fate will not befall you here.
Amanera’s moniker, deriving from the Sanskrit word for peace (aman) and the Taino word for water (neara), perfectly encapsulates your experience at this, Dominican Republic’s best destination. Rarely has design fused so perfectly with its surroundings: Playa Grande has always been special but, now, paradise is yours.
Rates for Amanera’s Ocean View Hill Casita start at £875. For more information, see aman.com