Santo Domingo is the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the ‘New World.’ It is a vibrant, exciting, and always interesting Caribbean city. Santo Domingo boasts more colonial sites than you will ever be able to see in just one visit. Do check out the Zona Colonial, ground zero of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the point of disembarkation for settlers, businesspeople and conquistedores, and an administrative center helmed by Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego. The city also boasts the oldest existing cathedral in the Americas, Catedral Primada de América. The nearby Parque Colón not only features a statue of the eponymous admiral, but is also the meeting place for area residents and always buzzes with activity.
Several museums exhibit everything from indigenous and colonial history to amber, one of the country’s most important products. Gardens, zoos and parks keep the city green. Once you have experienced the cultural side of the city, there are plenty of discos and nightclubs that are sure to keep you up all night. Add to this a fairly good restaurant scene, and you have a recipe for a fantastic visit.
The northern coast of the Dominican Republic gets its name from the world’s richest deposits of amber which are found in the hills nearby. Its reputation is squarely based on the 120km (75mi) string of beautiful beaches stretching east of Puerto Plata. The Amber Coast is the most developed stretch of the island. There are several small towns where the laid-back atmosphere of palm-thatched restaurants and local guesthouses still prevail. For those vacationers wishing an all-inclusive resort, there are many to choose from.
Puerto Plata, the main hub of the coast, has its share of local street life, gingerbread architecture, and tree-lined plazas. Away from it’s beaches, you will have fun promenading the Malecón or taking the funicular to the 780m (2600ft) peak of Mt. Isabel de Torres, which towers over the town.
This is the serious vacationer’s destination. Cabarete has an enormous, beautiful bay, considered one of the best in the world for windsurfing. The lovely, white-sand beaches are postcard perfect. If you need a suite with a hot tub where room service will deliver a lobster dinner and bottle of champagne, stat, Cabarete is your town. Do not miss the bars and discos where live music is served fresh nightly to hundreds of well-dressed party people.
PLAYA ENCUENTRO BEACH, SOSUA
The windsurfing attracts people from all over the world. You can rent all the equipment you will need and sign-up for a few lessons from any of several operators located on the beach. If surfing is more your speed, visit Playa Encuentro where some of the DR’s best waves for surfing break. Playa Encuentro is located to the west of Cabarete, where the surf breaks over coral reefs worth exploring in their own right. You can rent surfboards and boogie boards in Cabarete.
In many ways, Samaná is just another tranquil, tropical town with jellybean-coloured houses clinging to the verdant hillsides and swaying coconut trees. There are a couple of places to have a drink and admire the bay, once considered so strategically important that the USA occupied it for eight years. There are a few tourist compounds to the north, but that’s not the reason to come (you’d do better in Cabarete with that sort of thing, anyhow). No, Mother Nature has blessed this area with special care, making Samaná the perfect base for exploring the Dominican Republic’s finest treasures.
To the south, idyllic Cayo Levantado has dense forests and three spectacular beaches that are usually deserted, until the busloads of tourists fill them up around midday. Hiking trails and lovely views are among the island’s other charms. To the west, Parque Nacional Los Haïtises offers scores of jungle-covered islands and thick mangrove forests, perfect for exploring by boat. The greatest show of all, however, takes place right in the bay, during January and February. Perhaps 80% of the world’s humpback whales mate and bear young in the waters off the Dominican Republic, and you can see them at their lovesick best. To show off for the ladies, male humpbacks hurl their 40-ton bodies into the air, breaching with a big splash. (The gals do this, too, but refrain from flying quite as high, so as to protect the males’ fragile egos.) Area captains will take you out into the bay for a fee.
The Dominican Republic’s second city officially goes by the grandiose name of Santiago de los Caballeros (Santiago of the Gentlemen). And, Santiago is indeed an aristocratic, if somewhat provincial, city. It is the commercial hub of the Valle del Cibao, the nation’s breadbasket, and factories here process raw sugar and tobacco into fine rum and cigars. Santiago boasts a thriving industrial sector and one of the finest universities in the country.
Santiago’s leisurely, refined tempo is a pleasant surprise to the few travelers who make their way here. It doesn’t offer much in the way of impressive monuments or an exciting nightlife, but there are some nice restaurants and museums to while away a relaxing day. Possibly the most popular activity in town is taking a stroll on Calle del Sol, Santiago’s main street and a pleasant shopping district. The residents of the city have a rather regal air, and many spend their Sundays surveying the central park from horse-drawn carriages. It’s a nice tribute to tradition in a rapidly changing city.
Sosua Beach, Dominican Republic Sosúa is more than just another perfect beach town, still in the early stages of development yet impossibly rich in wide sandy shores and coconut trees. Sure, there are scores of sunbathers there, taking advantage of the pleasant restaurant scene and lively nightlife, but many of them don’t know this community’s interesting history.
The entire area was owned by United Fruit until the late 1920s, when dictator Rafael Trujillo bought the land up cheaply and sold it at a profit to Jewish organizations in the USA. These groups were trying to secure land for Jews fleeing an increasingly anti-Semitic central Europe. In 1940, some 350 Jewish families moved onto the land, and tried for several years to develop an agricultural product that could thrive in the tropical climate and survive long overland treks to Santo Domingo. They raised livestock for milk, cheese, sausages and other products, then used the profit to build a successful distribution system. Everything ran smoothly until the 1960s, when peasants began squatting on the farmland, rendering it useless for grazing. The police refused to help the Jewish community, and most eventually emigrated to the USA or Israel. Though only a few Jewish families remain today, the Jewish Community Museum offers a peek at their fascinating history. Why not drop by, before or after sunning your hangover away next to the clear, sparkling waters (where there are some fantastic diving opportunities, by the way).