E.P. or not E.P.?

In the Dominican Republic, Sivory poses a new question

By: David Swanson

This is the first Image
Although clients won’t find a
swim-up bar, the infinity pool
offers additional retreat.
Booking clients for a vacation in the Dominican Republic used to be a simple question of brand: Iberostar, Club Med, Paradisus? Famed for its long beaches dominated by sprawling all-inclusive resorts, the country hasn’t invested much effort courting the upscale E.P. (European Plan) market, focusing instead on increasing its room count with resorts that number their beds in the hundreds or even thousands.

But some observers noticed that a segment of vacationers was not being served by the destination.

“I believe that the true hotel is an E.P. hotel,” explained Spanish hotelier Manel Vallet. “And I felt there was an opportunity here for luxury boutique hotels.” Vallet knows one side of the equation well: His family owns the Catalonia brand a Spanish chain of traditional all-inclusives. For his E.P. venture, Vallet set his sights on the Coconut Coast, the Dominican Republic’s beach-blessed eastern tip which encompasses Punta Cana and neighboring (and more extensively developed) Bavaro to the north.

The area already has 24,000 hotel rooms, with many more on the way. To fulfill the concept Vallet had to select a location carefully.

“We looked at a lot of land, but most of it was too close to all-inclusives,” he said. “We saw [parcels] that were very deep but had just 160 feet of beachfront.”

But by venturing far north of the other developments, Vallet found a piece of land with 1,000 feet of beachfront. The neighboring parcels aren’t deep enough for a large-scale resort, providing a natural barrier for Sivory, as he named the property, against future all-inclusive developments.

The resort that sprouted worked out to just 55 rooms, spread in two-story, four-unit villas lining the strawberry-blonde beach. The rooms are actually swank suites, and each boasts sleek modern decor with hand-crafted dark mahogany and Indonesian furnishings, soaking tubs and double-headed showers most have a sea view through a tangle of sea grape trees.

For a resort of this size the beach frontage is generous, while a large infinity-lipped pool offers additional retreat. The landscaping is native and thus more ecologically sensitive, minimizing the need for harmful chemical fertilizers typical of large resorts while the country’s trademark coconut palms sway throughout.

Sivory is also notable for what it doesn’t have: No swim-up pool bar, no casino, no disco typical attributes of Punta Cana’s often charm-challenged large resorts. The location is quiet and isolated, one hour north of the Punta Cana airport.

Although Sivory’s boutique status is an attraction, it creates its own hurdles.

“A concern with a small boutique hotel is that people can get bored,” explained Vallet. “There’s only one restaurant, and they don’t want to eat at the same place four nights in a row.”

The answer: Not one or two, but three restaurants on property, plus a pool bar with a lunch menu and an 8,000-bottle wine cellar overseen by cheerful sommelier Juan Pierre.

In February, Denis Jaricot was brought in as executive chef. A native of Lyon, France, Jaricot is fresh from stints at the high-end resorts Cuisinart in Anguilla and Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda.

Sivory’s venues include the Asian-fusion venture Tau; Lavadera, overlooking the beach and serving three meals daily; and Gourmond, a fine-dining room for refined French cuisine against a backdrop of the wine library.

The meals are ambitious and rewarding. Jaricot hosts complimentary cooking demonstrations on Monday afternoons, and a Chef’s Table on Fridays at noon, with guests invited to assist in preparation.

But these aspects present their own challenges. The pool of highly trained resort workers in the Dominican Republic is in high demand, and luring them to the remote property has been difficult; service snafus cropped up during Sivory’s first year of operation. A new general manager, Franz Acevedo, started in April and his initial focus has been retraining.

The full-service Aquarea Spa & Wellness Center completes the Sivory picture, with a vaguely South Pacific design percolating through the intimate and relaxed facility. The menu of services includes massage, hydrotherapy, Vichy shower regimens and beauty treatments.

These improvements by Sivory have recently been recognized by the AAA with the awarding of the Four-Diamond award in 2007. Things are starting to look up for Sivory and future developments are anticipated.

Vallet wasn’t alone in observing the Dominican Republic’s shortage of E.P. hotels, and other small boutique properties have debuted around the country recently. Next year will see the opening of Westin’s Roco Ki Resort in Bavaro, with a Nick Faldo golf course. The mammoth Cap Cana development, located just south of the Punta Cana airport, includes five E.P. hotels opening over the next several years, and Trump-branded estates. Luxury is promised at all, though not necessarily the type Vallett has strived for.

“Luxury is not so much a matter of marble and gold as it is about space and atmosphere,” Vallett said. “We want people to be comfortable here, without noticing why.”

Who needs another swim-up pool bar after all?


Sivory Punta Cana

*A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Sivory Punta Cana rates start at $290, double.

Other alternatives to the all-inclusive vacation have sprung up in the Dominican Republic in the last few years.

The 50-room Casa Colonial Beach & Spa is a beautifully designed property in Playa Dorado, the tourist complex located just outside Puerto Plata (the country’s main north-coast gateway). Oversized rooms are equipped with Frette linens and en suite bathtubs, while a superb spa is the property’s best asset. On the downside, the locationcheek-by-jowl with clamorous all-inclusive resortsmakes the beach crowded and unappealing. Doubles from $260.

Villa Serena , located in Las Galeras at the end of the Samaná Peninsula, sits in a broad bay blessed with gorgeous beaches. The 21-room inn, opened in 1993 by an ex-pat, is pure romantic idyllno swim-up bar, no conga line, no motorized watersports, but plenty of rest and relaxation. There’s not much of a beach, but water taxis whisk guests away to their choice of coves. Doubles from $130.

Located next to the famed La Cana golf coursea favorite with golf buddies Bill Clinton and Mikhail Barishnikov Tortuga Bay Hotel , is a collection of high-end villas containing 30 one- and two-bedroom units facing a silky beach. Jacuzzi tubs on balconies, butler service, and a full-service Six Senses Spa are among the amenities; the subtle interior design was handled by co-owner (with Julio Iglesias) Oscar de la Renta. Doubles from $500.

Located next door to Sivory is the brand new Agua a 53-unit resort which opened in May 2007. The rooms are found in two-story, thatch-roof bungalows leading back from the beach, linked by a series of wooden bridges. There is a full-service spa, a restaurant with 24-hour room service, while a dramatic and unusually long pool snakes through the property. Doubles from $350.