Posted: Mar 12, 2010 3:20pm ETWhat do you get when you carve out 7,000 acres of Caribbean coastline, build a hotel with 265 rooms and 100 private villa rental homes, construct four golf courses, a new marina, private beach and a residential community the size of a small city? Paradise? Pretty darn close.
Casa de Campo started out life as a retreat for the Gulf & Western Corp. executives around 1970. Since then, it has become one of the most sought-after destinations in the Caribbean, especially for the golf, first at Teeth of the Dog and more recently, Dye Fore, two of the best golf courses you can find anywhere. The hotel recently underwent an extensive $20 million renovation, completely redoing the main lobby building, the pool area, the main hotel restaurant and the award-winning Cygalle Healing Spa. After nearly 40 years, the updates were welcome and have added a pleasant new sheen to an old dame.
Given the size of the property, and the fact that many of the amenities are spread out, it may not be the perfect destination for you. The marina, where there are many restaurants and shops is, for instance, at the opposite end of the property, a good 15 minute ride in the little red golf carts that come as part of your room. The beach is a 10 minute cart ride from the main hotel building too. That may not be what you want.
But if what you’re looking for is more of a resort community feel, with all the amenities there, then this may be the perfect experience for you. I’ve stayed there now nearly half a dozen times, a couple of times in the hotel rooms, and at least four times in villas, as they are called. You can rent a two-bedroom house or, also up to a six-bedroom house that’s big enough for your entire family and then some. I prefer the villa experience, partly because it’s more private, partly because when you want to have a cigar and a glass of rum, you just light up in your living room, or you step out onto the patio, under the palm trees and flowering bougainvillea bushes and enjoy your smoke without interference from anything or anyone. I also recommend renting a car; it adds to the expense but if you want just that little added bit of freedom, getting around the property more quickly and dash up to Altos de Chavón for dinner without waiting for a shuttle bus, or head off to the grocery store in the nearby town of La Romana, it’s a godsend.
Posted: Mar 10, 2010 9:17am ETThe rating of golf courses is subjective. Some players like old-style parkland courses, some like the links format, others only get excited over target golf. The debate over modern versus traditional designs can go on forever. There are very few perfect golf courses, although we all know the ones that get touted as such by name: Pine Valley, Augusta, Shinnecock, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Seminole and places like Pinehurst No. 2 are just a few of the great ones.
I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of great courses in the United States. My playing partners in Casa de Campo last week have been even luckier, playing not only great courses in America but around the world. About the only major resort they haven’t played is Bandon Dunes. And, in their mind the combination of Dye Fore and Teeth of the Dog (rated the 34th best course in the world by Golf Magazine) represents two of the best adjacent courses that they have played.
Dye Fore was completed in 2003, and the setting alone is spectacular, flowing down and then back to the Tuscan style hilltop village called Altos de Chavón; The front nine has numerous vistas of the Caribbean Sea to the south of Casa de Campo, and on the back nine, you can peer down 300 feet into the gorge where the Rio Chavón runs.
The front nine begins with a magnificent par 5 slight dogleg left that ends in a sharply elevated green, one of the common defenses of the greens on this Pete Dye design. The next stunning hole is number 4, a long downhill, dogleg left par 4 (495 yards from the gold tees) with a sharp drop into a gully on the left, that reminded one of my partners of the 18th at Kapalua. The second par 5 on the front nine feels like you play up a small gulley with mounds and houses on both sides, and the green is tucked away behind a hill. The back nine presents an entirely different character, an almost pure links feel across a windswept series of bluffs that overlook the river below. Both par 5s, 10 and 18 are challenging with the latter playing downhill for the latter 200 yards, with the green sitting 50 feet above the low point of the fairway at 100 yards. But the truly spectacular holes here are the two par 3s, one 220 from the blue tees, and 235 from the tips, and the other at 190 and 210. By the way, if you’re a masochist or simply a scratch golfer, the black tees run out to 7700 yards and bring the rating up to 77/134 slope.
Posted: Mar 8, 2010 9:50am ETYou could almost hear the collective sigh of relief around the stone coffee table on the outdoor patio, the palm fronds brushing against each other in the light breeze and the stars—especially the Orion constellation—shining in the clear, nighttime sky. We were sitting there in shirt sleeves, a glass of Brugal rum on the rocks with a slice of lime, and the magazine’s Cigar of the Year, a Padrón Family Reserve No. 45 Maduro in our hands. It was our second night at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, but the first night, after a three a.m. wake-up call for a six a.m. flight, the cigar and glass of rum hadn’t been quite as relaxed, more a defiant declaration that we were on vacation than a laid back moment before collapsing into bed—and the golf hadn’t even started yet.
We were at the Caribbean golf resort for a three-day binge of golf—36 holes a day which, trust me, is more golf than four guys in their late 50s should even dream about playing. Golf trips can be a bit problematic, the search for the right mix of personalities and desires potentially subject to miscalculations of intentions and incompatibilities. But the four guys—Chuck, Mory, Matt and yours truly—around the patio epitomized the synergy of the perfect combination. Three of us went to the same college, so even though we weren’t close friends 35 years ago, the shared history has smoothed the way to an adult friendship that can be rare to find as you get older. The fourth had known one of the college group for 25 years through a business association and the other two for more than 10 years through the same country club. We represented the medical, publishing, and business sectors, often with intertwined connections between each of those worlds.
We played straight up without handicaps for three days, the same pairs each day, and at the end of the six rounds, we had split 3-3 and there wasn’t much more than a two-hole difference between total holes won and lost. Each of us had at least one good round—not bad after a multi-month winter layoff—although we all had nine-hole stretches with excellent scores. Trash-talking? You bet. Laughter? More than you can imagine, including on the last hole of the weekend, when one of us (he shall mercifully remain anonymous) chili-dipped his drive off the tee, and we nearly all fell down laughing—no mercy in this group either.
Posted: Feb 22, 2010 11:04am ETI sometimes forget about the origin of cigars. I know that might sound odd. But I’m not saying that I don’t know where a cigar is made—that has become second nature. What I’m talking about is sometimes taking for granted the long arc of history and the incredible nuances of culture linked to premium hand-rolled cigars.
Maybe my awareness is dulled by living in a time where tobacco is demonized, and by appreciating it, being branded as a SMOKER, the modern day equivalent of a scarlet letter. That harsh environment forces me the build up defenses, those rationalizations and justifications that I use for both personal and public consumption. But in the end, one of the things that happens to us all is that when we seek acceptable explanations—personal freedoms, pleasure, camaraderie—it is easy to overlook some of the other reasons, maybe truly primal reasons, that tobacco has been a part of history in Americas for several millennium. We skip over the fact that in the original colonial culture, one of the first things passed along from the indigenous tribes to the first Europeans who landed on the shores of the New World was tobacco.
There’s no mystery why I’m feeling this way. Spending four days in the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola, the history is simply inescapable. Santiago, the heart of the today’s cigar industry, is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Western Hemisphere. The names of streets and the monuments remind locals and visitors of the ancient explorers and Spanish conquistadors. Despite standing in the city in the 21st century, with honking horns, unmuffled trucks and a general cacophony on the street for 20 hours a day, you can still sense the history, the reality of what has come before.
Posted: Feb 19, 2010 4:21pm ETThey stood at the back of the makeshift room set up inside the cigar factory with a podium at the front and rows of tables arranged for a cigar seminar conducted by the owner of Matasa, and the creator of the Casa Magna, Fonseca and the new Quesada brands. Dressed in white t-shirts that commemorated today’s launch of the Quesada Tributo cigar, which will hit retail stores by May, the employees of the Matasa factory in Santiago, Dominican Republic, listened attentively to the presentation in English by their employer, their patriarch, Manuel Quesada. Certainly, only a few understood the words. When Manuel’s daughter Raquel introduced them as part of the Matasa family, the “artists who create our ideas,” the entire room of about 50 ProCigar festival attendees stood and applauded them. The workers’ smiles expressed their understanding, and in essence, told the whole story—this day was about more than just a new cigar, or another tobacco blend or some perfunctory promotional event. It was about family, too.
We had all been invited to share in a moment of family history, a sad, but ultimately uplifting moment about friends and family who couldn’t be there today. Patricia Quesada, one of the six family members who make up the 5th generation of Quesadas to work in the tobacco industry, asked for understanding because today was going to be an emotion-filled remembrance for the entire clan.
Posted: Feb 18, 2010 2:54pm ETI won’t give you the details about last night’s ProCigar Festival dinner. Suffice it to say I did not escape the merengue dance contest, which was officiated by José Blanco of La Aurora. He called on me to come up to the stage and show the world how little I knew about the local dance step; all I can say is, “Wait 'til next year’s Big Smoke, José.” I don’t think anyone from Dancing With The Stars will be calling me. But it was a lot of fun, even if you are like me and your idea of fun is not exactly the same thing as dancing an unfamiliar Caribbean dance style in front of 200 people. At least my Dominican partner was forgiving.
My day began over breakfast with Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana. Just like Henke Kelner of Davidoff, Gomez thinks he has one of the best crops that’s he ever produced at his farm La Canela (see Dave Savona’s blog). He said a long, dry, hot spell had made the tobacco work a little harder to grow, and by controlling the irrigation water, he was able to keep everything on track. He said this crop’s leaves were oily and thick with a lot of flavor. And, he’s still some wrapper leaf to harvest. It also rained here last night, but Gomez said the timing of that rain was “perfect…it came just at the right time.” So even though Santiago is going through a cloudy, slightly damp period this week, no one is overly concerned about it adversely affecting the crop.
Posted: Feb 17, 2010 4:32pm ET
I’m back in the Dominican Republic, land of cigars. I’m always amazed when I realize how much time has passed since my last visit here because it always feel like I should come here all the time. At the same time, I always remember my first visit here back in 1992. You’ll find a story in the Premier Issue of Cigar Aficionado. The title? CigarLand.
Within minutes of walking into the hub of the ProCigar Festival, which is taking place here this week, I started seeing old friends, people I met on that first trip 18 years ago. Henke Kelner, the mastermind behind Davidoff and Avo cigars, was in the hotel lobby; there are very few people on the planet who understand tobacco better than he does. We chatted about old times, and he introduced me to one of his sons.
The next person I ran into was Manuel Quesada, of Casa Magna and Fonseca cigars, as well as a new brand being developed by his daughters called Quesada. Manuel is one of my favorite people in the cigar business and, in recent years, has been pushing the envelope of his cigars, especially with the Casa Magna brand. He’s one of the main spokespeople for ProCigar and one of the biggest believers in cigars from the Dominican Republic. And, he’s launched a new size of Quesada this week at the festival.
Posted: Feb 10, 2010 11:36am ETSnow is coming down hard, and has been since about 7 o’clock when I decided it was wise to not rely on my commuter train system to get me home this afternoon. So, I stayed home, and have been in the process of knocking off those list items that have been there a long time, in between communicating with the Cigar Aficionado team—Dave, Jack, Greg, Andrew, John and Leah—as we wrap up production on our March/April issue. It’s a good one, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
One of the first things I did was take a look inside my humidor, which I’m keeping just a tad below 70/70 after yet another beetle outbreak this past fall. Yeah, I lost a few more good ones, including some rare Padróns; I shed a few tears over those. But I thought it was time also to examine my inventory, because I know it’s time to restock some of the forbidden fruits that I’ve always kept there. Sure enough, you can see from the bin that I’m getting low in that category.
It was fun to peruse the old Don Carlos cigars, my nice stash of Coronado by La Flors, and there are still a few Padróns and Aurora 100 Años left in there too. I definitely have some favorites in there and most of them are getting into what I consider prime smoking time: more than five years of age. Should be a really good summer this year as I see just how they’ve changed with a few more years of aging in the humidor.
Now, let’s just set this straight. Wintertime in the Northeast isn’t prime smoking time outdoors…the way it’s snowing out there right now, I think the cigar would be extinguished by the wind and the wall of snow. And by the end of the day, I’ll be wondering whether or not we’re ever going to get dug out. But it will happen. In truth, we haven’t had that much snow this winter in the New York area (thank you very much, Washington, for taking it all), and despite a long stretch of cold weather, it hasn’t been bitter cold, i.e., in the single digits very much. So, we’re just hunkering down and dreaming of green grass and sunny days.
Posted: Feb 4, 2010 2:55pm ET
Hope you all have checked out my new video with Charlie Palmer at Aureole restaurant. Tough duty that, let me tell you. Being down there in the kitchen with the stoves blazing was enough to remind me just how hard kitchen work can be. On the other hand, I kept getting bowled over by the great aromas and the fantastic views as the cooks spent the afternoon hours prepping for the evening, pre-theater rush. We had a pretty narrow window to finish up the shoot, and by the end, Charlie was gently but firmly urging everyone to get a move on. I just wanted to soak it at all up.
I hope you’ve checked out the recipe. I’ve cooked it twice at home now, to rave reviews each time. I did the full menu once, preparing the endives, and then once with a spinach side dish that I like. Both times I’ve experimented with the amount of spice I’ve put on the duck. Now, I’m a fan of duck breast anyway, so for me, this is a dish sent from heaven. But this recipe with its strong Middle Eastern spice flavors really brings out a different aspect of the duck meat, and makes it truly a savory treat.
Of course, following up the duck with a cigar is still the main challenge. I like the Coronado recommendation that I made in the video, and I think Charlie’s favorites, Padróns, would also go well with the meaty quality of the duck. This is not a dish that would go well with a mild cigar. The spice and the duck fat calls out for something really robust, and that’s why I recommended the Coronado by La Flor Dominicana.
And, by the way, we glossed over the wine selection for the dish, although if you check out the Wine Spectator site, there will be a longer discussion about the wine choice—a Chateauneuf du Pape. In fact, it’s a perfect combo, the layered complexity of that wine meshing wonderfully with the spicy crust on the duck.
Posted: Jan 4, 2010 10:19am ETThe night was balmy. There was a moon high in the sky, and a light breeze off the nearby ocean, where you could hear the unusually high surf crashing into the beach. I wanted to end 2009 on a high note, a celebration of a year survived and a silent nod to how many great, and some not so great, cigars that I smoked during the year.
I was in Puerto Rico at a new development called Bahia Beach, which about a year from now will have a new St. Regis hotel to go along with a challenging Robert Trent Jones II golf course, and that long stretch of sandy beach. Today, there are condos, a few houses and a golf clubhouse, and not much else in an area surrounded by nature preserves, lakes and a lot of tropical vegetation. In the distance, you can see the mountains of El Yunque rain forest.
Sitting on the patio of the condo I was staying with my family, I lit up a cigar given to me that day by the club’s assistant pro, Jorge. We had chatted in the late afternoon as I practiced on the putting green, and after exchanging answers to questions about what each of us did for a living, he returned in a few minutes with a cigar that he said had been given to him by a cigar retailer in San Juan. No name. No band. Just a well-made lonsdale; even he didn’t know what it was, but he said that he’d been given it by this man and he been keeping it now for eight months. I told him I would smoke it that night, because I wanted to give it a try in a completely relaxed setting, somewhere other than my office where I smoke nearly all the cigars that I taste every year.
From the first puff, I was struck by one of those realities that everyone knows, but often forgets. The cigar tasted different in the tropics. Better? That’s open to debate, but it just seemed like the setting was making this cigar something that it couldn’t be inside an air-conditioned office in a cold and snowy December. Maybe it’s the natural humidity in the air; it wasn’t uncomfortably steamy but I didn’t really need to keep the cigar in a humidor either. Maybe it’s the earthy aromas coming off the lush tropical vegetation that enhances the already earthy quality of great, aged tobacco. And, you can’t discount the feeling of not having a care in the world, taking as much time to enjoy every puff, and every sip of the red wine in my glass. Whatever the reason, the cigar was fabulous, a smooth, richly textured smoke with a earthy finish, and a light touch of leather. Was it Cuban? I doubt it, although it had a triple seam cap, and some of those dark earth tones on the palate. Whatever its origins, the cigar just seemed to be in perfect harmony with the surroundings, and thus, made better than it might have been in another setting.