Bill Clinton was pummeling Jacques Chirac, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

I knew there'd be trouble when these two met. Charlie had told me so, and as far as I could tell, Charlie wasn't one to lie. I stood under the jungle canopy wondering how long this unpleasantness would last, swatting flies and trying to ignore the swirling stench of rotting fruit. About two minutes into the skirmish, Charlie nodded, and a young man jumped into the rickety wire enclosure to separate the combatants.

The cockfight was over.

Actually, it was more of a mock cockfight, staged for the benefit of me and my compatriots on a daylong jeep tour of northeastern Dominican Republic. Charlie, our Bavaro Runners guide, explained that the "death talons" of the trained roosters--assigned names by two Frenchmen on our tour--were encased in gauze; otherwise, he noted somberly, we "would have seen a very bloody and unforgettable fight." Sorry, Charlie. Even a short-lived, fake cockfight is disturbing.

Still, I was happy to have caught another glimpse of Dominican life, for minutes later I was back in the jeep for my eventual return to the Bavaro Beach Hotel (see story, Page E12), one of the luxurious, cockfight-free, all-inclusive resorts of Punta Cana.

Yes, that Punta Cana.

If you read the Travel section regularly you've heard of it: It's been an inexplicable obsession of ours since Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Caribbean resort area last November, followed by its surprising coronation as 1999's "top emerging international destination" by the American Society of Travel Agents. After promotional materials started piling up describing it as "the next Cancun"--a slogan so resonant with conflicting messages we could hardly contain our glee--we made a few phone calls and printed some basic information about it. Then several readers put in their two pesos, extolling the virtues of a beautiful, aggressively inexpensive, largely American-less Shangri-La on the D.R.'s east coast. And so, yes: Our very own Travel section had become a font of information and reasoned discussion about a place nobody we knew had ever visited.

That only prompted more questions: Could such an idyllic tourist wonderland exist? If so, why didn't we know anyone who's been there? How could it have slipped under the powerful Washington Post Travel section radar for so long?

And why on Earth would anyone want another Cancun?

A scant 30 years ago, if wanderlust had guided you to this Third World nation's anonymous eastern tip (then accessible only by air, sea or mule), you would have been greeted by miles of sparsely populated palm jungle and empty, pristine beaches. It was Paradise in the cross hairs, taunting developers to start measuring for septic tanks and dance floors.

In 1969, the newly formed Punta Cana Group did just that, sensing wisely, if a bit prematurely, that this region could indeed support tourism. The modest Punta Cana Club opened two years later and comprised 20 rooms, a clubhouse, a restaurant and a weathered runway to greet guests. But lacking both name recognition and the luxuries that the well-heeled crave, the hotel faded away. Salvation arrived in the guise of Club Med, which rented the land and unveiled the area's first mega-resort in 1981, attracting mostly Europeans and South Americans.

Punta Cana had survived its traumatic birth.

The first planes touched down at Punta Cana International three years later; it has since been enlarged four times and rebuilt once (following last year's Hurricane Georges). You can skim through the rest of the history--airport begat more hotels, which begat more roads, which begat more tourists, which begat more hotels, and so on. The Punta Cana Group has been particularly busy: Besides constructing the airport, the 400-room Punta Cana Beach Resort and a marina, work continues on Corales de Punta Cana, a hoity-toity residential area being developed with designer Oscar de la Renta and entertainer Julio Iglesias.

Today, Punta Cana's 27 miles of uninterrupted beaches are edged with nearly 15,000 rooms, mostly in sprawling all-inclusive resorts sporting the names of European hotel companies lured by the success of Club Med: Sol Melia, Iberostar, Riu, Barcelo. Marketed for years to the chains' European clientele, Punta Cana remained secreted from most Americans.

That, however, is changing. Largely through the efforts of U.S. tour operators, the number of Americans visiting the region has increased dramatically. From January to June 1998, 23,479 U.S. passengers arrived through the gates of Punta Cana International; in the same six months of this year, the number doubled.

Ray Daley, executive vice president of Apple Vacations, compares the boom to--you guessed it--the explosive growth of that Mexican playground.

"Back in '78, we made the decision to start sending Americans to Cancun. Now we run dozens of planes a week there," Daley said. "When I first saw Punta Cana two years ago, I thought, 'This is deja vu, we've been here before.' "

Apple started selling Punta Cana almost immediately, offering a single weekly charter out of Philadelphia. Before the end of this year, 20 Apple charters--including two from Baltimore/Washington International--will be whisking sun-lovers to the D.R.; by December 2000, Daley predicts, 35 to 45 percent of Punta Cana vacationers will be from the States. Americans are now outnumbered more than 4 to 1 by Europeans.

"We've warned the hotels, 'The Americans are coming, be ready,' " Daley said.

They're listening: The 350-room Allegro Bavaro Grand, a Caribbean-owned property opening Nov. 5, will be the first Punta Cana resort geared strictly toward Americans. It'll feature such Yank-friendly accouterments as an English-speaking staff, large rooms, a sports bar, less rowdy pools and five restaurants--all air-conditioned and offering table service. Topless sunbathing, a standard practice on many beaches here, will be relegated to an adults-only pool at the Grand.

Surprisingly, Daley said price isn't what's luring Americans south.

"It's the beaches and the resorts and the food. At the beginning, price was very significant--we had to attract people somehow--but now Punta Cana has taken on a life of its own," he said, adding that when it comes to cost, the D.R. now has only a slight edge over Cancun.

Perhaps, but you don't have to be a bargain hunter to appreciate the value of Punta Cana. I spent $1,167, including air fare on American, for a Friday-to-Tuesday Apple package at the Bavaro Beach Hotel. That's not cheap for four nights. But if I'd gone for a week via an Apple charter out of BWI, I would have paid less than a thousand bucks--a serious bargain for a week of Caribbean vacation.

Roberto Reyes, my Apple rep at the Bavaro Beach, sat me down in the open-air lobby of the hotel and began his welcome spiel.

"You're about to start a vacation that's unique. You won't find many Americans around here," Reyes warned. "This is a new spot for Americans, and while few people speak fluent English, they're trying, so you may have trouble communicating."

Pathetically monolingual, I now became apprehensive as well. I had just arrived from the airport, a grand affair with expansive palm-leaf roofs, sparkling tile floors and distressingly rare signage. The last became a particular problem when I tried to get through customs without buying the requisite D.R. tourist card, available for $10 U.S. from an unmarked kiosk. I was soon on the receiving end of a mostly incomprehensible--albeit perhaps entirely justified--verbal barrage, which ended only when a salesman from the States interjected. Reyes' words did little to assuage my fears that the Airport Incident would be anything but an isolated event.

As it turned out, despite the language barriers--the air was thick with Spanish, German, Italian and French, but little English--I had little difficulty ordering food or drinks in the resort ("Uno pina colada, por favor") or carrying on simple conversations with folks seated nearby.

More problematic was coming to terms with the Punta Cana conundrum: What do you do in the middle of nowhere?

For all the bluster about their rising prominence in the travel world, the resorts of Punta Cana, though lovely, remain very much islands unto themselves. It's three hours to Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, and that's via pockmarked roads winding through a landscape of dire poverty, usually evident from the moment you stray outside the resorts' front gates.

You can visit the other hotels, but you'll end up with either blistered feet from long walks on the sand or a lighter wallet from cab and water taxi fees. Once there, you'll find basically what you left behind--low-flung buildings (by law, they can't be taller than the highest palm trees); meticulously landscaped gardens and lawns; monstrous pools reverberating with American and Latin tunes and, in some cases, overflowing with kids; and bushels of baked-potato-brown (and often topless) Europeans sunning themselves at Caribbean's edge. Along the beaches, marketplaces have sprung up where pushy locals peddle cigars, rum and souvenirs.

I'm an odd hybrid of Type A explorer and world-class napper, so after a glorious day of lounging about, eating too much and drinking Presidente beers, it was time to do something, anything. Fortunately--or not, depending on your preferred level of adventure--off-campus activities are quickly becoming another facet of vacations here, with golf and boating burgeoning in particular.

I, of course, headed straight for the tourist trap.

It's called Manati Park, and though a cartoon of a smiling manatee is featured prominently throughout what can charitably be described as a zoo (n.b.: The manatee with the hat does not signify the men's room), you won't find the warmblooded sea cow anywhere on the property. Dolphins, parrots, snakes and flamingos, yes. Manatees, no.

Built two years ago for $14 million and heavily promoted through billboards and in-room pamphlets, Manati offers the resort-weary free transportation in brightly painted, open-sided buses, then hits you up for a $21 admission fee. Ostensibly, the park's goal is to educate through interaction with animals, but that seems a dubious objective. Most of the interaction I observed cost participants about $7, the price to have a picture taken with various creatures either draped around their necks or perched on their shoulders.

I arrived at 10 on a superheated Sunday morning to find the place crammed with vacationers (shamelessly displaying all-inclusive wristbands) and locals. The next four hours were spent staring at birds in cages and iguanas in pits and trudging down dusty trails from one show to another, none of them particularly good but all brimming with energy.

A Taino Indian presentation featured dancing, singing and creative snake-handling, but I was more interested in watching two young vendors wandering among the crowd shilling bottled water, Pepsi . . . and canisters of Pringles potato chips. That was followed by a dolphin show in which the accompanying music, and the frighteningly raucous reaction from the overflowing crowd to various merengue and salsa tunes (it nearly raised the tin roof), overshadowed the hard-working sea life. And the performing parrots? Because it was the sole park program offering little English translation, the jokes flew over my head. Rest of the crowd seemed to enjoy it, though.

Then, shortly before catching the bus for the rattling 20-minute ride back to the hotel, I caught the dancing horses, a half-dozen beautiful beasts that strutted before yet another high-strung audience. They shimmied. They shook. They saved the day.

Manati Park aside, numerous excursions (most costing $50 and up) are available from the resorts, including bus rides into Santo Domingo, snorkeling expeditions and rum-soaked catamaran rides. But Bavaro Runners' so-called Mountain Safari held the greatest appeal to me, particularly because it promised the "real Dominican Republic," and up until this point--my final day in the D.R.--I had experienced anything but.

If you've ever taken an all-day tourism excursion, you know the scenario: Tour guide promises you the best time of your life, tour guide professes love for you, tour guide drags you to questionable places where you can buy things. Yet there's no denying that my 9 1/2 hours spent with Charlie ("Today, you are all my Angels") and his other charges was a Punta Cana high point.

Charlie and Co. picked me up at 8 a.m., followed by a gas station rendezvous with two other canvas-topped jeeps. There, we were sorted according to language and redistributed back into the vehicles, which could accommodate about 12 people each. Of the 30 or so along for the ride, seven were Americans, including a Chicago eye doctor and his mom and a family of four from Connecticut.

Perched on a metal ledge and continuously jostled as we advanced over mottled roads, Charlie gave us a quick history of the island of Hispaniola, shared uneasily by the 15 million residents of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Then, to prove his point, we thundered into a sugar cane field manned by destitute Haitians who had sneaked across the border to escape their turmoil-wracked country.

Everywhere, children poured out of brightly painted shacks to wave to the strangers rumbling past. The cane field was followed by stops at a Taino Indian museum (and the inevitable gift shop next door); the fruit plantation where we learned how chocolate is made and how roosters are taught to kill; and a ranch where we ate lunch and could go horseback riding.

"Look, Angels," our guide told us. "Charlie is only happy when his Angels are happy, and everyone will be happy on a horse." The equines, Charlie promised, would be going "zero kilometers per hour." I'd never been on a horse before, but if it would make Charlie happy . . .

The half-hour ride was unexceptional, if you don't count the squealing pig that materialized out of a shrub, which my mount shrugged off as I hyperventilated. When Charlie threw a couple of baby boa constrictors onto the table after lunch a short while later, it was almost anticlimactic. Almost.

After a 45-minute jeepathon down the bumpiest dirt roads of the day, our Mountain Safari came to a close with a swim at Macao Beach, on the Atlantic, less than four miles from the nearest resort. Its impossibly blue water broken by gentle waves, Macao may be the Ghost of Punta Cana Past, an unblemished panorama of white sand and palm trees.

It isn't developed. It isn't crowded.

And, for the time being, it isn't the least bit like Cancun.