Amenities, activities are what set Casa del Mar apart

Associate editor Laura Dennis visited Casa del Mar, part of the Amhsa chain. Her report follows:

BAYAHIBE, Dominican Republic -- Casa del Mar had quite a year in 1998. The resort opened in February of that year as the largest Amhsa property on the island. Amhsa, a Dominican Republic-based chain, was hoping its newest property would appeal to the U.S. market. Efforts were under way to attract Americans when Hurricane Georges hit the resort in September. Although it sustained only minimal damage, Casa del Mar closed for repairs.

In December, the resort reopened and turned its attention back to the U.S. First and foremost, Amhsa wanted travelers to know operations were back to normal at the property and on the island following GeorgesÆ visit. The chain then set out to tap the lucrative U.S. market by touting free-night deals and the amenities covered in its inclusive rate.

From La Romana Airport, the resort is about a half-hourÆs drive. Arriving guests get ôtaggedö with a bracelet (similar to ones given out in nightclubs) during the check-in process that they wear during their stay. This identifies guests to staff members. Travelers also receive a packet with their room key, a remote control and a ticket. The ticket enables guests to check out a towel for use at the beach or pool. It works like this: Guests head to the towel stand near the beach, hand in their ticket and get a towel. When they are done, they turn in the towel and get their ticket back. The American market may initially be put off by the towel ticket and security bracelet but could be won over by the resortÆs amenities -- and by a good deal.

Nightly rates at Casa del Mar start at $130 per person, double, and cover meals, drinks, transfers, taxes, gratuities and water sports such as scuba lessons at the pool, windsurfing and sailing. Guest rooms have wicker furnishings, televisions and either two double beds or a king-size bed. Each of the units has a balcony, and the suites offer ocean views. The rooms are equipped with minirefrigerators stocked with local spirits, soft drinks and a gallon of water. Brands such as Absolut vodka and Beefeater gin are available in the suites.

Casa del MarÆs lineup of daily activities is its strongest selling point and sets this resort apart from other inclusive properties. The lineup can range from scuba lessons in the morning to horseback riding in the afternoon or a daylong ôveg-outö on the beach or by the pool. Kayaking, canoeing, banana boat rides,paddle boats, windsurfing, sailing, snorkeling, archery lessons, tennis and biking are offered on a daily basis. Volleyball, aerobics and dance lessons are held on the beach. Casa del Mar offers roundtrip transportation to La Romana and Altos de Chavon. A recent addition to the roster is a twice-daily departure to Saona Island for snorkeling and shopping. All activities are included in the rates, and some require advance reservations. Golf at nearby courses and an all-terrain-vehicle excursion can be arranged for a fee.

However, many guests are content to bask in the sun on the beach or at Casa del MarÆs mammoth pool. There is a childrenÆs pool as well as a Jacuzzi. Other facilities include a childrenÆs playground; a fitness center, where massages can be arranged; a gift shop; a beauty salon; a tour desk, and an exchange bank.

At night, the open-air Saona Terrace or the beach is the center of entertainment action, offering live shows or a barbecue. The bars and the Saona are lively at night. The Jacuzzi also draws a late-night crowd. The resortÆs four restaurants are prime gathering spots, as well. Bayahibe is a buffet-style eatery; Michelangelo and Asia offer a la carte meals, and Saona Terrace specializes in steaks. Three of the restaurants serve dinner. Saona and Bayahibe are open daily for breakfast and lunch. Reservations are required at Asia or Michelangelo. Room service is available in the suites, and private dinners also can be arranged.

According to general manager Ignacio Perez, Americans make up from 10% to 15% of Casa del MarÆs business. He said the hotel would like that segment to increase to 30%. Perez has worked in the hotel business for 15 years, having spent five at the islandÆs Casa de Campo. Working in tandem with Perez is Stephanie Pertin-Roch, guest services manager, who arranges weddings, oversees group events and makes sure that everyone enjoys themselves. According to Perez, the average stay for Americans is four days, compared with 10 days for Europeans. To entice U.S. visitors to stay longer, the property is offering free nights through Dec. 20. All guests who book a six- or seven-night stay by June 30 will only pay for five apart

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