Dominican Republic: an island on the up

by Nicki.Grihault

Forget the all-inclusive reputation - the Dominican Republic now has some pretty hip hotels just waiting to be discovered

When Christopher Columbus first spotted the coral-rimmed Hispaniola Island in the Caribbean Sea, he proclaimed it to be the ‘fairest land under heaven’. But then came cheap and cheerful all-inclusive package holidays. Now, people forget that the Dominican Republic, the eastern half of the island it shares with Haiti, has the oldest capital in the Americas, is the world’s third most biodiverse island, has the highest mountains in the Caribbean and is the birthplace of the hip-swaying merengue.

Savvy travellers can take advantage of cheap charters, opting to stay in lesser-known boutique hotels in the best spots on the island. Think candlelit beach restaurants and kite-surfing at Cabarete, whale-watching and laidback local life on the stunning Samana Peninsula, mountains and waterfalls, and a music-fuelled capital, made for romance.

Santo Domingo’s old quarter is small but perfectly formed: the oldest Spanish colonial buildings in the Caribbean line its cobblestone streets. Paces from the Plaza Espana and Christopher Columbus’s house, where the red-tableclothed Pat’e Palo is the place to sip an ice-cold El Presidente beer as the sun goes down, lies the 16th-century Sofitel Nicolas de Ovando Hotel. The former home of the first governor of the Americas, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has exposed brickwork and quirky-shaped rooms, some with four-posters, and you breakfast to the sound of the fountain in its lush inner courtyard.

Old Santo Domingo is the place to wander winding streets past picture-perfect pastel houses, as Angelina and Brad did when filming The Good Shepherd, with Robert de Niro, in 2006. The old town is alive with kids playing baseball around the monuments and is the place to shop for amber, considered the finest in the world. In the evening, taste Mamujuana, the local aphrodisiac rum drink, at the trendy Liquid bar before climbing the stairs to the elegant open-air dance floor to merengue and bachata with the lively locals.

The north coast’s ecosystem ranges from cacti to rainforest, with plenty of orchids and butterflies in between. Christopher Columbus called Puerto Plata ‘the bride of the Atlantic’. Although Playa Dorada beach is jam-packed with all-inclusives, the town of pretty wooden pastel houses remains amazingly unspoiled. Afro-Caribbean women walk around with fruit on their heads, it has the best merengue festival in July, and there are no tour groups to crowd a romantic dinner at the fresh lobster restaurant, Polanco.

But the main reason for romantics to come here is the island’s all-suite hotel, the Casa Colonial Beach & Spa Resort. Colonial by name and by nature, its white marble pillars, muslin curtains and cathedral ceilings give the feel of an Italian palazzo. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it was listed as one of Condé Nast Traveler’s best new hotels of the world in 2005. It has a wonderful infinity rooftop pool bordered with Jacuzzis, and outdoor spa treatments in an oceanfront gazebo. That’s not to mention the roll top bath on the balcony of its gorgeous white and cream honeymoon suite and Frette linen on a four-poster bed made in heaven.

In contrast, Cabarete, a laidback beach resort known as the best place for wind and kite-surfing in the Caribbean, offers a chilled out bohemian vibe at its candlelit restaurants and bars spilling out onto the sand. Stay nearby at the elegant, yellow-walled Victorian House, perched on the cliff overlooking Sosua Beach, with a lovely two-level swimming pool and restaurant with a stunning view as well as a junior suite with a Jacuzzi on its balcony. Sosua’s PADI dive centre offers at least 20 sites, including cave diving, and there are VIP excursions from the hotel to the best places on the island. One fun trip is by yacht to the partying ‘Paradise Island’, a sandbar with a thatched bar surrounded by azure waters perfect for swimming and snorkelling.

Other island excursions are to coconut-fringed Saona Island, where you can browse arts and crafts from the local craftspeople before sipping your Coco-Loco – a rum and coconut cocktail. Nearby is La Romana, where Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley got married in 1994. The rather touristy Altos de Chavon artists’ village, the Dominican Republic’s answer to Portmeirion, is worth going to for a concert (its open air amphitheatre having seen the likes of Shakira and The Pet Shop Boys) or the view over the Chavon River, and allegedly appeared in Apocalypse Now, Crocodile Dundee and King Kong. Among the bats in the Cave of Wonders, near Casa de Campo, are remarkably well-preserved petroglyphs left by the indigenous Taino Indians.

If, like Julio Iglesias and Vin Diesel, you like your hotels huge, American-style, you’ll love Tortuga Bay Villas, an exclusive boutique villa hotel designed by Dominican-born Oscar De La Renta, within Punta Cana Resort, on its own glorious stretch of coast, with a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and its own airport.

If you prefer a more intimate style, without a hefty price tag and with a taste of local life thrown in, head for the Samana Peninsula and the new Villa Serena, a peaceful colonial-style hotel set in lush tropical gardens swaying with coconut palms. Each of the 21 rooms is individually decorated with a bamboo bed. You can kayak from the jetty in front of the hotel, visit pretty secluded coves and see whales leaping out of the water from January to March. Samana is the most beautiful part of the island, and you can fly directly there, making the lesser-known Dominican Republic more easily accessible for those in search of romance in paradise.

Nicki.Grihault

After an African childhood and living and working in America, Australia, India and Italy, I became a travel writer and photographer in 1993. Staff jobs on magazines from Wanderlust to Trip Magazine followed and I have now written five guidebooks. I held my first photographic exhibition 'Edge of the Map' in 2008, and specialise in off the beaten track destinations, adventure travel, holistic travel and set-jetting. Favourite places Usually where I've just been! Irian Jaya, Indonesia; East Greenland; Dominica; Rodrigues; Ecuador.