On the easternmost tip of the island, 211km (131 miles) east of Santo Domingo, is Punta Cana, the site of major vacation developments, including the Barceló and Meliá properties, with more scheduled to arrive in the future. Known for its 30km (20 miles) of white-sand beaches and clear waters, Punta Cana and Bávaro are an escapist's retreat. Set against a backdrop of swaying palm trees, these beaches are unrivaled in the Caribbean. Within some of the most arid landscapes in the Caribbean -- it rarely rains during daylight hours -- Punta Cana and Bávaro have been recognized throughout Europe (especially Spain) and the Americas for their climate.

Both Punta Cana and Bávaro, two resort areas at either end of a long curve of beach lined with coconut palms, are virtually towns within themselves. The beach is so mammoth there is rarely overcrowding, even with masses of visitors every month of the year. Bávaro and Punta Cana combine to form what is nicknamed La Costa del Coco, or the Coconut Coast, land of the all-inclusive resorts. Don't expect a town or city. From Punta Cana in the south all the way to Playa del Macao in the north, there's only one small community, El Cortecito. Everything else is all-inclusives and beaches.

Capitalizing on cheap land and the virtually insatiable desire of Americans, Canadians, and continentals for sunny holidays during the depths of winter, European hotel chains participated in something akin to a land rush, acquiring large tracts of sugar-cane plantations and pastureland. Today their mega-hotels attract a clientele that's about 70% European or Latin American. Most of the other clients are Canadians and Americans. The hotel designs here range from the not particularly inspired to low-rise mega-complexes designed by the most prominent Spanish architects.

Some of them, particularly the Barceló Bávaro complex , boast some of the most lavish beach and pool facilities in the Caribbean, spectacular gardens, and avant-garde concepts in architecture (focusing on postmodern interplays between indoor and outdoor spaces).

The mailing addresses for most hotels is defined as the dusty and distinctly unmemorable town of Higüey.

If you choose to vacation in Punta Cana, you won't be alone, as increasing numbers of Latino celebrities are already making inroads there, usually renting private villas within private compounds. Julio Iglesias has been a fixture here for a while. And one of the most widely publicized feuds in the Dominican Republic swirled a few years ago around the owners of Casa de Campo and celebrity designer Oscar de la Renta, who abandoned his familiar haunts there for palm-studded new digs at Punta Cana.

Previews of Coming Attractions

The largest development in the Caribbean is being carried out at Punta Cana on the East Coast, with more than $6.5 billion being invested in mega-resorts, covering a combined 13,355 hectares (33,000 acres). The coast is also becoming the Caribbean's quintessential golf destination, with new championship golf courses being developed, along with marinas and luxury condos. The developments of Roco Ki and Cap Cana will be among the first properties to open, with more upscale hotels and marinas on the drawing boards over the next decade. The chains of Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, and Westin are just some of the new developers who have signed on. Stay tuned.

Above all, don't expect a particularly North American vacation. The Europeans were here first, and many of them still have a sense of possessiveness about their secret hideaway. For the most part, the ambience is Europe in the Tropics, as seen through a Dominican filter. You'll find, for example, more formal dress codes, greater interest in soccer matches than in the big football game, and red wine rather than scotch and soda at dinner. Hotels are aware of the cultural differences between their North American and European guests, and sometimes strain to soften the differences that arise between them.