At Sanctuary Cap Cana, attention from lobby to links

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Room Key: Sanctuary at Cap Cana

Address: Juanillo, La Altagracia Province, Dominican Republic
Phone: (888) 999-6461
Reservations: (800) 785-2198
Web: www.sanctuarycapcana.com  
Email: [email protected]  
Rates: Nightly rates from $203 a junior suite ranging up to $1,056 in an island suite, valid through Dec. 23.
Rooms: 176 suites and villas in 12 room categories; many accommodate larger groups. Two 5,500-square-foot suites situated on a private island.
Facilities: Spa, four a la carte restaurants, four bars, shops, beach club, more than 2,000 feet of private beaches and access, tee times at Punta Espada Golf Course, nearby marina.
Review: A super, easy-access retreat for those who want pampering, service, beautiful surroundings and high-quality golf. Servers and desk staff jump hurdles to make guests comfortable, although a few service kinks still need to be worked out at the spa.

At breakfast, I grumpily munched Cheerios with lukewarm milk on a packed Continental flight, crammed in cheek-by-jowl with my fellow Americans.

By lunchtime, I was sipping an icy Presidente beer while watching a smiling little boy lug a huge fish out of a tiny wooden fishing boat that bobbed off shore. I could feel my blood pressure drop.

My visit to Sanctuary Cap Cana was off to a refreshing start. This resort is perched on the cusp of an as-yet incomplete Cap Cana resort development on the east coast of the Dominican Republic, just 10 minutes by car from Punta Cana Airport. The property is less than 2 years old, and it still has that new-resort smell and feel. Staffers' uniforms are crispy-fresh, and the finish hasn't worn off their ultrabright, friendly attitude, either.

Rising up from the surrounding undeveloped land, the facade of Sanctuary Cap Cana is itself somewhat imposing, in an MGM movie-set way, as it stands high on a bluff overlooking the sea. Architecturally, it's over the top, with a Spanish/modern/Caribbean look, officially a "Spanish colonial village" theme. It hangs together surprisingly well due to the ample use of local stone, which looks just right set against the Dominican seaside backdrop.

On arrival, we were ushered from the cobblestone porte cochere by a gentleman whose attire seemed most appropriate for a Moroccan souk. I was made to feel so welcome at the front desk that I began to wonder if they had me confused with some other, more fabulous guest.

"We have a special treat for you, Mrs. Hillmann," one of the front-desk attendants happily announced as he handed me an envelope. Inside was an invitation for a couples' massage at the spa.

Ocean view from Sanctuary Cap CanaWithin 10 minutes, the same attendant walked my husband, Chris, and I through the echoing stone lobby and outside to a sweeping patio overlooking the resort pool, restaurants and, of course, the sea.

He pointed out our next destination, which was a waterfront table at the Blue Marlin restaurant. We were immediately seated and fed a glorious lunch of gazpacho, shrimp salad and Presidente.

When we were finished, another attendant drove us in a golf cart to our private villa and showed us around its tony interior. "Do you like it?" he asked, looking genuinely curious. "Es muy bueno," was all we had to say. He wished us an enjoyable stay and disappeared as we checked out our new, grass-roofed pad: vaulted ceilings; spacious living and sleeping areas; generously proportioned modern furniture upholstered in white and cream; and sliding-glass doors that opened onto a green lawn.

Beyond the bedroom was an enormous, open-air bathroom and a full complement of Elemis toiletries. Cushy as our new home was, we were just a few feet from the palm-tree-lined beach, so we changed into swimsuits to check it out.

Everyone seemed to be taking midday siestas on chaise lounges scattered under the palm trees, or swimming in the large, circular pool that commands the foreground of the property's plaza area. A few small, wooden fishing boats were anchored just off shore. We learned that this small, unofficial fleet keeps the resort's restaurants supplied with fresh fish, an unexpected pleasure that we would sample that evening at dinner.

Beyond the resort proper lay another, larger white-sand beach.

My husband and I walked the smaller, cove-like beach that fronts the hotel and took a quick dip in the calm sea, then pulled up a seat at the poolside bar, where we chatted with a group of sunburned, ebullient Texans on a corporate retreat. They had just returned from the nearby Punta Espada Golf Course, which they raved about for its superfast greens and beautiful waterside holes.

"Are you gonna play it while you're here?" one of our new friends asked. Of course we were, but first, it was spa time. We headed back to the front desk for a map, strolled past the collection of tony shops that line the front drive and promptly got lost.

Getting from point A to point B was a hassle even with a map and the directions of two staffers, as there was a dearth of signage. Eventually, at the far end of a long, narrow hall we spotted a small brass stand. On it, the word "spa" was printed on standard, letter-size paper. We were later told that the official signage would arrive shortly.

Through a completely uninspiring set of doors, we walked into a soaring, light-dappled room fronted by a placid rectangular pool. There was no one around, so we sat down to wait. Eventually, we were greeted by an employee and escorted by two masseuses up a flight of white stone stairs to our treatment room. The 30-minute massages were relaxing, but afterward, we simply put our clothes back on over our oiled-up bodies and left, having been offered no robes or a shower. Buzz kill.

Sanctuary Cap CanaOur buzz returned at dinner. We returned to the Blue Marlin to sample the fresh-caught grouper, which was outstanding, as were two entertainers who roamed among the tables, serenading diners to thunderous applause. Our meal became a relaxing, hours-long event topped off by locally made ice cream, cappuccino and songs on request. We were teed up for a good sleep, a high-speed tour of the Cap Cana resort and a round of golf at Punta Espada the following morning.

A 10-minute drive from Sanctuary, this Jack Nicklaus-designed course is a stunner, well deserving of the accolades it's been accorded by Golf Digest, Golf Week and Robb Report since it opened in April 2007.

The wide-open fairways are spectacular, with white sand set against green paspalum grass. The blue sea settles into coves that curve into the landscape, and waves crash into the coral banks flanking the sea.

With challenging drives and over-water carries, the course boasts eight holes on the Caribbean. The par 72, Troon-operated links, clubhouse and pro shop are ultramodern, well-stocked and beautiful, with ample use of local coquina stone throughout.

Francisco, our caddy, did a great job guiding Chris' shots and estimating distances, which saved him five or six strokes, thanks to Francisco's reading of the weather conditions and the course. The second hole was especially fun, with tees set at the top of a cliff and the faraway green framed by a cove on one side and the ocean on the other.

The 13th hole was a heroically long par-three over water with a bailout on the right, but for me, it was not a hero-maker. It was a guaranteed way to lose my ball to the sea.

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