Pheasant shooting in the Caribbean
Take note, remarks Will Pocklington, the age-old sporting holiday sticking point has been resolved. Grab your trunks and book your flights to the Caribbean.
By and large, overseas holidays can be split into two categories: those which involve activity and exploration, and those which don’t.
The gist of a trip is governed by who’s going and how they prefer to spend their time away from the daily grind.
On one hand we have the adventurer, the go-getter, the type who rises early and judges the success of a sojourn by how much can be crammed into each precious day. Conversely exist the more sedentary – those who care little for the clock, disapprove of the slightest whiff of exertion, and are quite happy to use depth of tan and the temperature of the sauvignon blanc as their yardstick.
It’s for this very reason that it’s so damned hard for many of us to go on a sporting holiday with other halves or family. The age-old conflict: Pina Coladas and sun loungers vs shotguns and fly rods. They yearn for the white sands, turquoise surf, a good book and 30-degree heat. We crave some form of action, new experiences. Sport.
Consequently, many of us have all but given up hope, resigned to the fact that a (lone) trip away chasing bird and beast must be pre-empted and followed by weeks of guilt and dinners at fine restaurants. A shooting foray with the other half? Pah! Forget it. Until now...
One luxury resort in the Caribbean is breaking all the rules.
Sitting on the south-eastern coast of the Dominican Republic (DR), Casa de Campo distinguishes itself in the sporting sphere by the sheer variety of activities it has on offer. And that’s if you want to do anything at all. The sporting type can enjoy a morning of practice on the high tower or drill some doves over the sorghum fields, while the not-so-sporting can recline by the pool, relax in the spa, or go horse riding. The 7,000-acre playground is quite something, as my own partner Lucy and I discovered as guests of Jose ‘Pepe’ Fanjul, and his welcoming wife Emilia.
Brothers Pepe and Alfonso ‘Alfy’ Fanjul, purchased Casa de Campo alongside two other high-end hotels in the DR back in 1985, simultaneously acquiring a quarter of a million acres of land they still own today. The whole lot sits under the Fanjul Corp umbrella, an empire which encompasses a huge real estate business and the largest sugar production operation in the world. Home is Palm Beach, Florida.
The Fanjul brothers work hard, but I’d bet they play harder. Luckily for guests, each of their passions are enshrined at Casa, and it’s the perfect split – Alfy being a passionate golfer (there are four courses designed by golf guru Pete Dye, including the renowned Teeth of the Dog), and Pepe a very keen Shot. (I say keen; I mean you’d be quite likely to bump into him on any of the UK’s signature shoots during the season. And that’s when he’s not entertaining guests at his own ranch back in the States, now run by former Buccleuch sporting manager Roy Green.) Throw a polo club, tennis centre, water sports academy, marina, private beach, world-class blue marlin fishing, endless restaurants and bars into the mix – alongside everything else – and you have an alluring destination for the sportsman or woman and their other half.
Fieldsports editor-at-large Mike Barnes made the same journey as Lucy and I 29 years ago, to see what all the fuss was about. With the help of West London Shooting School stalwart Michael Rose, Pepe had created a shooting ground in the tropics. Word travelled fast. “I decided to install a layout as soon as I had bought the place,” Pepe told Mike, fully expecting it to be a big hit. “And obviously Michael was the man to go to.” A plan of the ground was sketched from a helicopter, and Michael’s expertise combined with Pepe’s drive and not-by-halves attitude proved to be a successful cocktail. And one that has matured well.
Almost three decades later and the man at the helm is now director of shooting Gary Salmon, the affable Englishman formerly of the Ashby St. Ledgers shoot in Northamptonshire, who, supported by wife Judith, shoot manager Jake Pike, clay ground manager Hermo Guerrero and a host of helpers, oversees the running of over 200 sporting stands, skeet and trap layouts, and a 110ft-high tower set in 245 acres of tropical woodland – complete with instructors, a luxurious safari club bar and all the necessary equipment. An experienced clay Shot in his own right, Gary is well-placed to further polish the layout for the avid game Shot – it’s less of a clay-buster’s course, more a simulation of the real thing; grouse, high pheasant, rabbit, you name it.
But they do have the real thing, too...
It’s a bizarre thing watching Guns slap on sun lotion and insect repellant before strolling to pegs in shirts, deck shoes, even shorts and skeet-vests. Stranger still is knowing that the other half is reclined on a beach just a short drive away, yards from the Caribbean Sea, sipping daiquiris with the best of them.
A 35-minute drive from Casa, or eight minutes by chopper, Rancho Peligro covers 10,000 acres of sculpted countryside in the foothills of the Cordillera Central. The journey there on terra firma passes the corrugated-iron and wooden-hut homes of the locals, vast expanses of sugar cane and, turning onto the dirt tracks which burrow their way into the ranch’s heart, gauchos and their horses and dogs.
Pheasants, partridges, ducks and quail are released, and driven shooting can be taken at any time throughout the year. Three drives comprise a typical pheasant and partridge day, with stops between each for light refreshments and respite from the sun under the palapa-roofed, butler-served casita. Double guns and loaders are commonplace but not mandatory, and the final whistle sounds around noon, before it gets too hot, so afternoons needn’t be trespassed upon – more brownie points!
The shooting is diverse and well split between the team. Indeed, the partridges – a chukka/redleg hybrid – deal with the climate better than the pheasants and fly particularly well. Sporting but not silly. Several of the team I joined compared the shooting itself to that in Spain. The experience as a whole, however, is quite unique. Not least for Gary. “After almost 40 years as a keeper in the UK, it does feel a little like being a trainee again out here,” he explained. “Learning the language (Creole is spoken widely) and how to manage the people and educate them about the rearing and husbandry of the birds is the greatest challenge.” It’s a fruitful one for all those involved, though.
With the exception of Pepe, who it is rare to see without at least one dog at heel, Judith’s three labradors are the only gundogs on the shoot – used to great effect further back behind the line. The bulk of the picking-up team is made up of Haitian and Dominican helpers, who are dogless, on foot and on horseback, and work their way methodically across the ground at the end of each drive, collecting the bag as they go. This is made all the easier by the thoughtful management of vegetation where birds are likely to fall, and a very strong incentive to find every last bird.
Granted, an open mind is as important as sunglasses and a hat, but before scepticism overtakes intrigue, remember we’re talking about a very foreign country. Look beyond the different methods of game management and accept that it’s not Britain, and there’s a slick operation laden with benefits for the local area. When considered holistically, the shooting on offer is a catalyst for employment, habitat management – similar to the UK, you might ponder – but more crucially, and unlike the UK, much-needed protein.
A staple diet of black beans and rice renders meat a precious commodity. So, whether it is the thousands of eggs taken from the in-house game farm to the local orphanage, or the hundreds (and hundreds) of gamebirds distributed to helpers after each shoot – together with the annual healthcare checks, medical advice and surgery all funded by Pepe himself – the advantages of Rancho Peligro’s operation for the people who live in the local area are as clear as they are rudimental.
As for guests, well, I can testify to the benefits on that front. Just imagine returning to your villa after a morning of breaking clays or downing partridges with not an ounce of guilt, looking forward to an afternoon with a very contented partner. “Shooting holidays aren’t so bad after all,” she sings.
The mixed scent of gunpowder and sun lotion is a sweet one.
The Sugar Tournament
Our visit to Casa de Campo was sweetened somewhat by the annual, week-long Sugar Tournament – an invitation-only event for which a number of Pepe and Emilia’s close friends and family assemble to shoot game, clays and doves. The vast majority of the guests were American, and the standard of shooting was extremely high. Indeed, Pepe’s prowess with a 28 bore has to be seen to be believed; a talent which has clearly been passed on to the younger generation of Fanjul’s – Pepe’s grandson Peps is a sterling example.
A number of evening functions are held throughout the week, including the welcome cocktail party and dinner which mark the official start of the tournament, and the awards ceremony at the week’s end. Both events are well attended by distinguished guests, which this year included representatives from James Purdey & Son, Kemen Gunmakers and La Cuesta, among others.