Having traveled to 60 countries, but never the Dominican Republic, I knew that I would need to get there sooner or later to see what it was all about. Yes, the destination is widely known for mass-market holidays, affordable flights, and all-inclusive resorts that all seem to come from the same recipe.
My mission on this trip was to discover two sides of the Dominican Republic that I hoped existed – the authentic Dominican experience and properties that will appeal to the sophisticated traveler. Well, I am glad to say, that I found both! My voyage started with a visit to the La Samana Peninsula, a gorgeous two hour Northeast drive from Santo Domingo Airport.
The Samana Peninsula is renowned for its majestic waterfalls, secluded beaches, tropical forests, untouched mangroves found in Los Haities National Park, and the Republic’s Whale Sanctuary, where thousands of whales are in plain view during winter months.
The wonderful thing about La Samana and specifically Las Terrenas is the fact that you one escapes to a very relaxed, charming town with a lively Latino-Caribbean vibe.
This part of the country does not have uber luxurious properties but does have very nicely appointed residential style villas that are perfect for families of groups of friends.
What I loved about the Dominican Republic is that is still feels authentic vs. some other tourist destinations and English is NOT always widely spoken. Front line employees speak English but often at restaurants and in taxis, etc. they don’t so smile, use sign language and a dictionary. The feel is a mix or Latino and Caribbean with extremely friendly and engaging people.
Additionally the roads are great and so while you may need to cover long distances, drives that were 8 hours just a couple of years ago, are now just 2!
Balcones del Atlántico : 1, 2 and 3 bedroom villas and town homes, most with Jacuzzis.
The best option is the Penthouse villas since they have a roof top lounge and Jacuzzi, which gets the most air. Balcones does not have ocean views since it actually sits across the street from the beach. The nicest accommodation is the Townhome, which has 3 bedrooms – King, queen/queen, and 4 bunk beds in the children’s room. Great for families and closest to the beach but furthest from the pool.
The Bohemian town of Las Terrenas, which is famous for its Haitian art galleries, and French Cafes, has wonderful seafood restaurants, pizzerias and its 3 level disco, called Gaia. The town of Las Terrenas will grow on your very quickly – it is the most charming place to have lunch, cocktails at sunset or dinner and drinks in the evening. Of course, Balcones del Atlantico also has a nice restaurant on the ocean called Porto. The Chef, is Peruvian and is very good. Ask him what he has fresh and he will whip it up. Ceviches, lobster, shrimp, fried plantains and yucca are all fantastic as are all of the very fresh and sweet fruits!
This is the main reason for coming up to Samana – getting out and seeing the place. In addition to frolicking in Las Terrenas, I highly recommend the following activities! They will take your experience and understanding of the beauty of the area to a whole different level. The people are so hospitable and the area truly beautiful, and by being an active adventurer you gain so much and also leave a positive footprint behind.
Salto de Limon –
This ranch is owned by a hard working family – mother and son team. Sandy picked me up and took me over to the ranch where I put on boots and a helmet (all provided but wear socks for comfort).
The horse or mule with a guide take you up some steep and beautiful hills and ravines on the plantation where you will see pineapple, avocados, grapefruit, cacao, sugar cane, papayas, mangos and so much more. You eventually end up at the base of an absolutely water fall and swimming area – there is some steps down and back up – it’s good for you! Bring a suit as you will want to take a swim! Locals carry there jewelry and handicrafts and coconut water and rum all the way to this gorgeous spot so bring some cash and plan to buy something if you would like. They certainly will appreciate it.
The guides who accompany each visitor with their horse work for tips. They are not allowed to ask for this, and wont, but an appropriate amount to leave them is $5-$8. On a good day, they only make the trek twice and it is hard work. Finally you end your trek with a fabulous local lunch prepared by the mother, Antonia, and her staff. There is also a nice thatched roof bar. I suggest you go at 8am or 3pm so you have the waterfall to your self! It is a great half-day adventure!
The “Beaches Tour” by quad- Lemon Beach – Barbacoa Beach – Moron Beach – Cana Beach
The excursion includes 1 quad for 2 people, a guide and snack, approximately 4 hours. You can also rent quads and tour on your own right in town. Finally, the zip line adventure is such a great day and if you have not done this before, I recommend it!
So the experiential holiday may be in the North but if you are seeking a premium luxury experience there are some fantastic options in Punta Cana.
Eden Roc is part of one of the newest luxury developments in Dominican Republic and is the first Relais & Chateau property in the country. This is the place for exceptionally high service levels, a gorgeous and uber luxurious room product, and gourmet food and beverage offerings.
With just 13 stand-alone villas with large pools and 90 well-trained staff members, you can rest assured of the service standards. Each villa comes with its own brand new and very quiet golf cart, which will be needed for trips down to the beach club and to the golf club. The Marina and cliff top restaurant may require a car transfer, as within Cap Cana (and all of these massive resort complexes) the distances can feel daunting. At Scape, guests can take advantage of zip lining, dune buggie tours, and other active pursuits.
For those that prefer a more colonial style luxury experience directly on the beach, then Tortuga Bay may be a better fit.
The 30 keys are all in stand alone buildings which house a Jr. Suite on the top level and a 2-bedroom suite on the bottom. All are oceanview and or oceanfront and come with an assigned butler to assist you thoughout your stay. The beach here is expansive and lovely and while the resort is located in a massive complex of Punta Cana, guests can enjoy two golf courses and a spa located at the main clubhouse. These amenities are available to all guests of the Punta Can Resort, which also houses the new Westin opening in December 2013. The facilities and pool at Tortuga Bay however are exclusive to resident guests. (The Westin has a lovely location and will be a beautiful property for those seeking a more moderate price point, but families need to keep in mind that there are only 8 interconnecting rooms and the resort will not guarantee them!).
There is a nature reserve and blue lagoon fresh water swimming holes at Punta Cana and additional activities can be arrange for off-premise but be prepared for long transfers if you leave property.
Some guests want to go the all-inclusive route and for young honeymooners or those that want to relax in a quiet, albeit enclosed resort, Zoetry, may be an excellent solution. The Deluxe Ocean Front Room product with pool is beautiful and the beach is just steps away.
There is a small spa here and three restaurants. There is not much else to do, and again, you would not likely leave property once making your way down to this end of Punta Cana, actually called Uvero. As far as the all inclusives in the Dominican Republic, I think this is the best quality with many inclusions and very good food and drinks included in your pricing.
My travels took me to the very well-know Casa de Campo located in La Romana and who’s tag line is “the Sporting Life”. This property is certainly appropriate for golfers as the resort boasts three golf courses including the infamous, Teeth of the Dog. Activities abound with polo fields, shooting, horseback riding, and a large luxury Marina for boat charters. There are wonderful boutiques thoughout the property but be warned that they all close at 5pm! The beach is not a focal point at Casa De Campo, as it is small, but does have a beach club, beach bar and Le Cirque restaurant. The resort is enormous and while every guest room is assigned a golf cart – the golf carts are noisy and distances can be very long – for example the trip from the reception to the Marina is easily 25 minutes. There is a peculiar town created to look like a Mediterranean village, called Altos de Chavon, which everyone one at the resort is very proud of. It has a roman amphitheater for concerts, art galleries, restaurants, and a golf club house. The best way to get up here is by car or shuttle. It is indeed beautiful, but I found it a strange addition to a resort in the Dominican Republic.
Like Cap Cana and Punta Cana, Casa de Campo is a massive resort and guests really have no reason to leave. The room product is fairly standard and would be a great fit for a group of golfers. There is a vast array of staffed villa options but the range in quality can be dramatic. The larger more exclusive villas would be great for a multi-generational trip or to share among a couple of families who are active and want to take advantage of the myriad of activities and also visit the beach. Those that want a gorgeous beach holiday, ought to head to Punta Cana area for luxury accommodations and beautiful beaches but not as much to do and those seeking lots to do with a bit of beach time, might prefer Casa de Campo. Activities include excellent golf options including the famed “Tooth of the Dog” course, shooting, polo, boating, cycling, and tennis.
In all cases food and beverage pricing is high and guests really wont have reason or options out side the resorts so the properties are meant for those who are ready to hunker down and not venture far. All inclusive meals plans are available but should be evaluated since guests of Resort to Laura Madrid already do receive complimentary breakfast.
Out of all the resorts we saw, Casa de Campo did seem much more lively in terms of occupancy and ambiance, including has some late night bars for dancing.
Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR and the islands largest city is definitely worth a half-day visit or even better an overnight with a flight home the next day from the Santo Domingo Airport.
(There are several international airports in the DR including Santo Domino, Punta Cana, Samana, and Santiago so good to look at all options. Santo Domingo tends to come in slightly cheaper than Punta Cana. Las Terrenas only currently services Jet Blue from NY twice a week)
Santo Domingo Is a UNESCO world-heritage site and the first city in the New World founded by Columbus. Some of the original palaces and government buildings and Cathedrals built in the late 1400s are preserved in excellent condition. There is also a nice hotel for an overnight before flying home.
The charming Hostal de Nicolas Ovando is well located and has lovely rooms and a pool over looking the cruise port – which is a fun respite for kids after seeing the sites.
Summary: So what I learned, yes there are a whole lot of all inclusive resorts, most of which my clients will not be interested in there are also some great other products that will appeal to a family seeking adventure or a couple or family demanding a very high quality service and accommodation. The DR has non-stop flights from many locations so this could be a great fit when flights are too complex to other destinations. The people are absolutely fantastic. There is a great Latino-Caribbean vibe that everyone will find appealing and some gorgeous eco-adventures. Service can be excellent at the better properties and a visit to the Dominican Republic is just good fun!
TIPS FOR THOSE TRAVELING TO LAS TERRENAS –
Some great spots in Las Terrenas –
El Mojito – fantastic for lunch or sunset happy hour. The manager is Carlos and he will insure you are well cared for.
Pueblo de Los Pescadores is a great area for nightlife
Super Market – Super Mercado Lindo. You can get all supplies here. There is also a liquor store right in Las Terrenas on the main drag.
Pizza Coco and Pizza Playa are good spots for pizza. El Chef Sandro is a lovely place to go for dinner. Gaia, is the three level disco with different music on each floor but most people end up on one floor – it is a small town, but good fun!
Tipping and Money
Restaurants, usually 10% is already added and you can just leave a bit more if you like. Always carry smaller bills to tip bellmen, taxis, service people who do a great job. They are more than happy to take US Dollars. I always carry tons of $1, $5, and $10s with me to make this easy.You do not need to change your money into local currency, but if you do want Dominican Pesos, I would suggest just get them out from an ATM machine. The conversion rate is currently $1 USD to $40 Dominican Pesos. Hotels and nicer restaurants will take credit cards but you may have a foreign transaction fee charged by your bank.