Every now and then a new “it” destination comes around. For the past 10 years, I have been keeping my mouth shut, making several purely selfish trips before the word got out. Selfish? You bet. Worth it? Every last penny! So, what’s the secret? The Dominican Republic.
What you notice first about the Dominican Republic is its size. This is not another tiny Caribbean island with a beach and a straw market. Instead, it’s a big country with incredibly varied scenery that includes the tallest mountains in the region, stretches of white sand that run unbroken for miles, and one of the Caribbean’s most cosmopolitan cities: Santo Domingo.
There are six main areas of the Dominican Republic, and each offers some wonderful hotels and resorts to explore.
If there is a South Beach of the Caribbean, this is it. Boca Chica is beautiful, with a shallow lagoon surrounded by reefs and ringed by gleaming white sand. When the tide is low, you can walk out to a small, uninhabited island called La Matica. Boca Chica is hugely popular. The beach is usually packed with swimmers and vendors hawking their wares. (Be warned: Prostitutes also frequent the beach.) Those who don’t mind the crowds will find plenty of water sports going on in the shallow waters. Sailboats, paddleboats and Jet Skis are available for rent, and water-skiing, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing excursions can be arranged. The town is filled with bars and shops — and blaring merengue music. The tunes add a lot of energy to the environment. Most of the shops sell the requisite T-shirts and souvenirs.
La Romana owes its tourist boom to Casa de Campo, an internationally known resort considered by many to be without equal in the Caribbean (and that’s saying something). Casa de Campo and its 7,000-acre grounds were designed by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, a Dominican native. There is very little you can’t do at Casa de Campo. You can play at water sports, including swimming, snorkeling, Jet Skiing and windsurfing; you can play golf on three courses, including the incomparable Pete Dye-designed “Teeth of the Dog”; you can try tennis, riding, polo (the resort maintains a stable of nearly 100 horses), trap shooting and more — the list goes on and on. Casa de Campo has a variety of accommodations, including hotel rooms and villas; off-season rates can be a real bargain. The town also has scheduled air service — a welcome change from the long transfer that travelers must often endure on Caribbean vacations.
Mount Isabel de Torres is the dramatic backdrop for Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the island. A large statue of Jesus, very reminiscent of the one in Rio de Janeiro, stands on the mountain with arms stretched upwards into the clouds. The vacation experience in Puerto Plata has changed a bit recently. In the past, many travelers opted to stay at their all-inclusive resort because side excursions tended to be expensive. Now, the resorts are working with local businesses to provide affordable options for shopping, sightseeing and dining.
Punta Cana is home to several large all-inclusive resorts. The beaches here are unrivaled in the Caribbean. They extend for nearly 20 miles and have the benefit of a good wind and some wonderful, statuesque palm trees for shade. The largest resort has more than 1,500 rooms, a casino, two discos and an 18-hole golf course. Two drawbacks: the area is fairly isolated and the landscape outside of the resorts holds little interest to vacationers, who usually choose to stay on site. Though development is raging in this area, the resorts of Punta Cana have managed to maintain the relaxed atmosphere most visitors to the island expect.
Santiago is not a typical tourist area, but it is the heart and soul of the Dominican Republic. It is the center of the cigar-producing Cibao Valley, whose cigars are rumored to rival those pesky illegal Cuban ones. While there is not much to the town itself, it is a great place to see the real Dominican Republic. One word of advice: Try to learn a little Spanish for your visit; otherwise the language barrier can be an impediment. But if you have even a marginal vocabulary, you will find that the locals will welcome you with open arms.
Santo Domingo is the capital city, the oldest city on the island — and the oldest city in the Americas, having served as Spain’s first colonial headquarters in the New World. Santo Domingo is rumored to have the remains of Christopher Columbus as well. The city is the country’s economic hub, as well as one of the Caribbean’s top business hubs. For nightlife outside your resort, Santo Domingo offers some world-class discos, nightclubs and restaurants. It also attracts residents from other areas of the island, so you will likely be partying with the locals as well.
To round out your vacation, you need to go off your resort property and explore the island. It’s best to rent a car, since cabs are expensive and the country is big, but be careful, because the roads can be rough. Catch a ballgame, if you can. The Dominican Republic is a factory for professional baseball players in the United States; their season runs from late October through February, and there is some terrific talent to be seen. Dancing is huge in the Dominican, too, and the locals will be more than happy to show you, or teach you if you ask nicely. Again, a little Spanish will go a long way and it’s easy to learn enough to get by.
Kick back, smoke a cigar and, as with most Caribbean places, don’t ever be in a hurry — tomorrow will come soon enough!