By Martin Kaufmann (Golfweek course-rater)
A bargain airline can be a crapshoot, particularly if you’ve never heard of said airline. So it was with some trepidation last month that I boarded a flight on GOL, a Brazilian carrier offering a cheap, direct 2½-hour trip from Orlando, Florida, to Punta Cana International Airport. It is the largest airport in the country, the second-busiest in the Caribbean, and the largest privately owned airport in the world, with direct flights from 96 cities. More than 5.9 million passengers passed through Punta Cana International Airport last year from more than 40 countries
What followed, though, was the best flying experience I’ve had in years. The flight arrived 20 minutes early, and I was greeted on the jetway by an impossibly efficient young woman who whisked me through immigration (she even filled out my forms!) and baggage claim, then on through customs and out to the taxi stand. Twenty minutes after touching down, I was sitting at a restaurant with friends, enjoying a lovely chardonnay, while my bags continued on to The Westin Puntacana Resort & Club. Now that’s how a weekend golf getaway is supposed to start.
Technically, this was a business trip. I was visiting Puntacana Resort with two colleagues and 16 members of the Golfweek courseraters panel. But let’s be honest here. I was going to spend three days at a new, beachside hotel, and I was joining the group to play two coast-hugging courses that inarguably are among the best in the Caribbean.
Puntacana Resort & Club is a 15,000-acre resort set along three miles of the Dominican Republic’s eastern coastline. The resort dates to 1971, but most of what visitors see these days was built in the past decade. That includes Tortuga Bay (2006), the AAA Five Diamond boutique resort designed by Oscar de la Renta, a part owner of Puntacana; the Westin Puntacana Resort & Club (2013); and Corales Golf Club (2010), a design that is extravagant even by the standards of its architect, Tom Fazio.
Corales Golf Course has 230 acres of paspalum turf under maintenance, about three times more turf than a typical course. The last three holes of each nine play out to and along the coast, with a particularly stirring finish played along and around the Bay of Corales. Corales is a members course, though open to resort guests.
What struck me during my stay is that the Dominican Republic has come a long way just in the past two years since I first visited. On that 2013 trip, I committed a rookie mistake by flying into Santo Domingo, then driving to Puntacana on a winding, four-hour route through small towns such as San Pedro de Macoris – ideal if you’re scouting for shortstops, but not if you’re hoping for a stress-free golf trip. In those towns, the rules of the road are more like suggestions, enforced loosely, if at all. Now, with the completion last year of the Coral Highway, the drive from Santo Domingo to Puntacana is less than two hours of uninterrupted freeway.
In theory, that should make the Dominican Republic a bucket-list destination. “Once you get someone here, they’re coming back,” Overton said. “It has all the good stuff without the hassle. Just not enough people know about it yet.”
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