See You on Saona

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The Dominican Republic offers the best ROI for large US-based corporate incentives in an offshore destination. It’s not just the outstanding EP and all-inclusive pricing, the beaches are a Mastercard “Priceless” ad.

For example, the sun is low around 9am when our group climbs aboard a typical 20-ft fishing scow on the beach at Bayahibe, a little village in the protected El Parque Nacional del Este in the southeast. There are another 50 or so full boats with us heading out to sea en masse like some paradisiacal D-Day in reverse. During the 45-minute ride, everyone’s mostly silent while appreciating the uncommon perfection of the weather and water until Saona Island pops up on the horizon.

Imagine the ideal beach with blistering white sand, tangled palm trees listing over Tiffany blue water. That’s Saona, a stunning atoll with enough space for 500 pax to snorkel in the surf without feeling cramped. There’s even a little community with happy pink and yellow wooden homes and storefronts lining the beach displaying vibrant Haitian art for sale.

Your people will never forget their time on Saona. Ever. It’s that perfect. And the hotels are only happy to oblige packing a few additional boats with fresh seafood to barbecue and all the Presidente beer, Haitian rum and pineapple margarita mix you want. But it’s the ride back that closes the deal. In the late afternoon, the water is like a glass tabletop. We stop for a swim in the clear shallow water, and all you can see are a few hundred bobbing heads with blissful smiles stamped on their faces.

That singular experience hasn’t changed in over two decades since the first US groups started visiting the DR regularly. But after visiting again this spring for the Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE) in Punta Cana on the east coast, and 20+ times previous, you get the sense that 2011 will be the year when the resort product fully matures for groups. The DR’s edge has always been price point, the people and perfect beaches. Now it has the quality of facilities to target higher-tier group markets.

DESIGNER DOMINICAN The first Six Senses spa in the Western Hemisphere is located at PUNTACANA Resort, housed inside what we’re going to say is the most elegant new colonial building in the Caribbean. A long verandah poking over the beach pool skirts the white 2-story structure designed by Oscar de la Renta, with jalousie windows and towering beam ceilings. Dine either outside by the pool for 100 or book private space off the verandah for 40. For larger groups, the new Playa Blanca seafood restaurant is parked right on the white sand in a rustic yet refined bamboo/thatch structure opening out to the sea. Pure Hollywood.

We pulled up a week after the resort unveiled the $35 million oceanfront Corales Golf Course, one of the largest in the world, with surf crashing against the coral walls buttressing the supremely lush fairways and six oceanfront greens.

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