Dominican Republic See And Do
Tel: 809 523 8011
This re-created 16th-century Italian village set on the cliffs outside La Romana is home to an extraordinary artistic and cultural center. Cobblestone streets wind among artists' ateliers, where visitors can stop in and watch silk-screeners, ceramicists, and weavers practicing their trades, and buy their wares at galleries and shops. There are also art classrooms where workshops are frequently held (the community is affiliated with the Parsons School of Design in New York) and a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater where headliners like Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana have performed. There's a small entry fee to get into the village (about $5), and two entrances. One is near the Casa de Campo resort; the other is along the highway between La Romana and La Higuey.
Tiradentes & San Cristobal
Tel: 809 540 5772
If Americans know one thing about Dominicans, it's that they love baseball—so much, in fact, that the New York Mets recently unveiled a multimillion-dollar training academy near Boca Chica with the exact dimensions of New York's Citi Field. It's odd more travelers don't think of attending a Dominican League game, especially given the fact that the season runs concurrently with tourist high season (October to February). The experience of going to a game in Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo—home of the league's two oldest teams, Licey and Escogido—is worth the trouble. Cheerleaders dance atop the dugouts. The crowd often forms its own rhythm section with instruments used in merengue bands, and like baseball fans in any country, spectators aren't afraid to express their opinion of the umpire's calls. The best part: It's a bargain, with the best seats going for under $20. The only problem is getting them. Because tickets aren't available online or by phone, visitors must wait until they arrive to purchase them, either at the stadium itself or at stores within the Nacional supermarket chain. That may mean missing games between the Águilas of the Cibao and the Tigres of Licey—the Red Sox and Yankees of the Dominican Republic. However, your hotel concierge may be able to score you seats with some advance planning.
There are literally hundreds of beaches to choose from in the Dominican Republic, but each area has its own character. Beaches on the south-central coast, like Boca Chica, have relatively calm water, so they're good for families and snorkelers. Boca's proximity to Santo Domingo makes it convenient for those visiting the capital, but the beach is crowded with city dwellers, vendors, and plastic chairs during the weekends. On weekdays, you have the best chance to enjoy the powdery sand and the reef-protected lagoon (the Caribbean's largest) in peace.
Northern beaches are the windiest, and are best for kiteboarding and windsurfing—though the islets around the Samaná Peninsula, such as Cayo Levantado, are a tranquil exception. Levantado has fluffy sand and translucent, placid waters, and between January and March, there's whale watching. Colonial Tour & Travel runs day trips that include transport to and from Samaná hotels, visits to two different beaches, and lunch (809-688-5285; www.colonialtours.com.do). Punta Cana, where 50 percent of travelers to the DR end up, is, thankfully, large enough to absorb the masses with a near endless stretch of white sand on the far east coast.
On the northwest part of the island, Playa Cofresi attracts serious tanners with its perfect sun exposure, and bodysurfers and boogie-boarders with its excellent waves. Cayo Arena (also known as Cayo Paraiso) is a small island off the northern coastal fishing village of Punta Rucia, and makes a good day trip from Puerto Plata. The islet has a long spit of white sand, surrounded by shallow water and 250 coral reefs—fabulous for snorkeling. Cayo Arena Tours, based in Punta Rucia, offers daily trips (809-224-4793).
The Cordillera Septentrional mountain range in northern DR is a mecca for the adventurous (um, crazy?) folks who dig the sport of canyoning—which involves hiking up, then rappelling down steep cliffs and through rushing waterfalls up to 100 feet high. Iguana Mama runs half-day and full-day canyoning trips from Cabarete of varying degrees of difficulty (if you're a scaredy-cat, avoid the excursion known as "Big Bastard"). The outfit also takes groups cascading—a slightly less arduous pastime, where participants swim in rivers and through a series of small waterfalls, and jump into freshwater pools (809-571-0908; www.iguanamama.com).
If you're in the Dominican Republic during Carnival (every weekend in February and on the 27th, a national holiday, whenever that may fall) the only way to avoid it is to stay cloistered in an all-inclusive resort. Just about every decent-sized city on the island has some sort of celebration, though schedules may vary. The most famous by far is in La Vega, near Santiago and within day-trip distance of the north coast and the capital. Weekend nights are spent partying in the streets, at both official Carnival events with over-the-top sound systems and big time Dominican artists, and unofficial parties at rough-around-the-edges spots like outdoor bars or—believe it or not—gas stations. Teams spend months preparing elaborate costumes called “diablos cojuelos,” devils with artfully grotesque masks. But the real danger is in the famous “vejigas”—dried cow bladders or their synthetic likenesses—that the devils carry as whips as they roam the streets every Sunday. Anyone can be a victim, so follow the key rule, implemented only in saner, more recent years: no whipping anyone who's on the sidewalk. (Corollary: no mercy for anyone who's in the street.) “Vejigazos,” as the blows are known in Spanish, are generally applied to the buttocks and sting badly, but rarely cause anything but bruises; a few days later, all that's really left is a great story.
The DR is the largest producer of cigars in the world, and Dominicans are the real deal, with the same celebrity following as Havanas (plus, they're legal back in the States). Jack Nicholson, Rosie Perez, and Pierce Brosnan are among the fans of brands such as Arturo Fuente, Cojimar, and Romeo y Julieta.
Most Dominican cigars are produced in the central Santiago and Cibao valleys—where there are more than 600,000 acres of tobacco plants as well as the factories that turn them into stogies. If you're a real cigar fan, visit Grupo León Jimenes, just outside Santiago, which runs weekday tours of its facilities. You can learn about the history of cigar-making, watch cigars being hand-rolled, and, naturally, buy samples (2 Calle Eduardo León Jimenes, Urbanizacion Villa Progreso; 809-755-2514).
If you're more interested in consumption than production, head straight for Calle el Conde, a pedestrian street in Santo Domingo with several fine cigar shops—most notably the Boutique del Fumador, where cigar makers roll fresh Cohibas (109 Calle El Conde; 809-685-6425).
Diving in the DR is spectacular: As well as great visibility and reefs filled with marine life, the waters here shelter some very cool shipwrecks. Up north, the water at crescent-shaped Sosua Bay is visited by whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins, and countless tropical fish species. There are shallow reefs that are perfect for learners and beginners, but more advanced sites like the Airport Wall—an underwater cliff with tunnels between 40 and 100 feet long—are just offshore. Northern Coast Diving Aquasports is a PADI-certified diving outfitter that arranges tours to these areas (809-571-1028; http://northerncoastdiving.com).
In the south, the island of Isla Saona, about 30 minutes off the coast of La Romana, is part of the Parque Nacional del Este, an almost 200,000-acre nature preserve. The island draws lots of day-tripping scuba divers, who come for the masses of tropical fish, corals, and sponges, and an underwater shipwreck, the Saint George (which, at about 100 feet deep, is best for more advanced divers). The island also has wide, pretty beaches with calm water that's perfect for snorkeling. Ventadiving offers dive trips to Isla Saona several times a week; they leave from the Hotel Grandominicus in the southern coastal town of Bayahibe (809-565-6591; www.omnitours.com.do).
Just east of Santo Domingo in Boca Chica, the small but fabulous underwater preserve of La Caleta Underwater National Park (about three square miles) is considered by many scuba-heads to be one of the Caribbean's top dive sites. The big draws are the shipwrecks of the Hickory and Limón, both of which sit at a depth of about 60 feet. Nearby, there's cave diving at Cueva Taina, a winding 300-foot-long system of underwater caves. Night dives and freshwater dives are also offered. PADI-certified dive operator Treasure Divers makes regular trips to La Caleta and the caves (Don Juan Beach Resort; 809-523-5320).
Billfish are big business in the DR. The waters here, especially off Punta Cana, teem with blue and white marlin—and anglers trying to hook them. There are more fishing charters here than you can shake a reel at—but among the best is Gone Fishing, which runs two trips daily from Playa Dorada in Puerto Plata (809-586-1239). Pelicano Watersports also runs two daily trips from Oceano Bavaro Resort in Punta Cana (809-221-0714). Prices start at about $100 per person, gear included.
Thanks to dramatic coastal terrain and an agreeable year-round climate, golf in the Dominican Republic is fast becoming a draw in its own right. Casa de Campo got the trend started with Teeth of the Dog, a championship-caliber course designed by Pete Dye that's ranked among the best in the Caribbean. Since then, a slew of links dreamed up by A-list designers have followed: Playa Grande on the north coast, from Robert Trent Jones, Sr.; Dye's La Cana in Punta Cana; and Jack Nicklaus's Punta Espada, where 15 holes overlook the ocean. Despite the marquee names, greens fees are often half of what you'd pay for similar courses in the States, and can even include a caddy thrown in for good measure.
Tel: 809 538 2494
In the early 19th century, hundreds of freed slaves from the United States came to settle in the Samaná peninsula of the Dominican Republic, where their descendents still live today. Until the last two generations, English was the predominant language in parts of the peninsula. Twice monthly, the same woman that runs the best whaling trips, Kim Beddall offers tours to visit Leticia Willmore, a wonderfully sweet 79-year-old woman who lives in a modest house up a small hill in the Willmore neighborhood of Santa Barbará de Samaná. Willmore is a consummate storyteller, sharing anecdotes about her English-speaking community's unusual history. Tours stop at neighborhood landmarks, such as the original 1823 First African Wesleyan Methodist Church, a focal point for the community. And refreshments are served: the community's traditional ginger beer, homemade by Ms. Willmore herself.
Thrill-seeking types tend to gravitate toward the DR's longest river, Río del Norte, in the Cordillera Central region. The Class II to Class IV rapids include a precipitous drop called the "Mike Tyson" (which definitely packs a punch). Rancho Baiguate offers one-day tours from Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, and Cabarete. No prior rafting experience is necessary, but you must be a good swimmer and over 12 years old. Tour prices are around $90 per person, and all gear is included. You'll just need to bring your own cojones (809-574-4940; www.ranchobaiguate.com).
Some of the oldest and most beautiful historic sites in the DR—and in the Americas—are packed into 11 square blocks of the capital city. Here, cobblestone streets wind between buildings that date back to the days when Nicolás de Ovando first explored and settled Hispaniola. Among them are the Catedral Primada de América, built between 1514 and 1546; the ruins of the Monastery of San Francisco, built during the same period; the Alcázar de Colón, a 22-room palace built by Diego Columbus (Christopher's son) in 1510; and the 1503 Ozama Fortress, said to be the oldest military outpost still standing in the Americas. The Zona Colonial is also a great place to museum-hop: There's the DR's Museum of Modern Art, the Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Museum of Dominican Man—full of pre-Columbian artifacts and history), and the Museo de las Casas Reales (The Museum of the Royal Houses—an impressive collection of colonial-era furnishings and weapons).
Between January and March, up to 5,000 humpback whales make their way to Samaná Bay to mate. During this time, you can see male humpbacks standing on their tails, breaching, and generally acting like giant teenagers as they try to get female humpbacks to notice them. Taking a whale-watching tour from Samaná Bay during the season means you'll be just about guaranteed a sighting. There are many operators in the area, but our pick is Victoria Marine (809-538-2494; www.whalesamana.com), run by Kim Beddall, a Canadian who has spent more than two decades in the Dominican Republic running whale-watching excursions, educating tourists, and making sure other companies follow environmental regulations.
Cabarete's morning breezes and stiff afternoon winds have made it the world capital of windsurfing and kiteboarding. March and April are the blowiest months, but wind enthusiasts fill the wide bays here almost year-round. Summertime is the competition season: The Kiteboarding World Cup has been held here for the past four years in June—the same month as the World Cup Windsurfing Competition. And the annual Cabarete Race Week, held in June or July, brings the best amateur competitors. Kiteboarding rentals and lessons are available up and down Kite Beach in Cabarete, but the main outfit for windsurfing is the Carib Bic Center, which has been providing lessons and equipment for some 20 years (809-571-0640; www.caribwind.com).
Much less crowded than Cabarete, Las Calderas Bay and Las Salinas Bay are also great windsurfing launching points—and preferred by locals. Since there are no rental facilities, though, it's a strictly BYOB (Bring Your Own Board) affair.