By Judith Baker – January 2020 – 7 minute read
Forming half of the Caribbean’s second-largest island, Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic has the region’s highest mountain, biggest lake, oldest city and much more besides.
Digital nomads or tech addicts need not apply here. “There is no wifi and your mobile phone may not work too well,” I am told as I arrive at a tiny eco-lodge on the coast in Bahía de las Aguilas, Bay of the Eagles, right down on The Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti.
So, armed with just my camera, I head for a secluded beach in the bay, only accessible by boat. Here I find white sand and crystal clear waters, but not another soul in sight. The Dominican Republic may be one of the most visited countries in the Caribbean, but here on this beach there are no cocktail bars, no thumping music, no pedalos and no sign of tourists.
With just a couple of seabirds for company I have this little piece of paradise all to myself. In the far distance I can just make out a small fishing boat which I learn is bringing in fresh fish to the lodge. Later I eat the simply-cooked dinner over an open fire beneath the stars with my bare toes in the sand.
The Bahia de las Aguilas may not be the easiest place to get to – I found it after a long and bumpy drive through dry, desert-like landscape – but once here the visitor is rewarded with one of this region’s most spectacular beauty spots. It is home to coral reefs and diverse marine wildlife and UNESCO added it to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2002.
Eco-tourism is the fastest-growing tourism sector in the Dominican Republic, the most visited island in the Caribbean, which welcomed 6.6 million visitors in 2018. Nature holidays are up 20%, with visitors enjoying activities such as kayaking, exploring caves, trekking and bird watching.
Director of National Tourism at the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, Milka Hernandez, says that more authentic experiences, away from the main beach resorts, are being promoted. These include interaction with local people and food tours taking visitors into the interior of the country.
The Dominican Republic is also emerging as a multi-centre destination, and there are moves afoot to promote the less developed south coast. This, says Javier Ortiz of tourism digital agency Sextaplanta, is being branded as the Costa del Sur, with the aim to increase awareness of the area, which includes the Enriquillo Region and Jaragua National Park.
Accessible tourism was a key theme at a recent Destino Capital tourism conference, in the capital Santo Domingo, where the country’s Vice Minister for Tourism, Magaly Toribio, revealed that there are plans underway to make the colonial centre of Santo Domingo more accessible to visitors with disabilities.
The newly-opened Homewood Suites by Hilton in Santo Domingo has 10 completely accessible rooms and all of its common areas, from the reception to the swimming pool, are also accessible to guests with disabilities.
Safety is naturally a concern for tourists given the publicity surrounding the unexplained sudden deaths of several American tourists in hotels in the Dominican Republic last year. Security has been increased at airports and the country’s 60 tourism marinas and there are now help centres in all areas, says General Juan Carlos Torres Robiou of CESTUR (the Specialised Body for Tourism Security).
Speaking at the Discover Puerto Plata Marketplace fair late last year, Senior Vice President of Senator Beach Hotels, Daniel L. Rossell Massachs, said: “The Dominican Republic is a safe destination which has a unique climate, a privileged location and excellent tourism professionals. Puerto Plata has undoubtedly great challenges to face, but I am convinced that with the joint efforts of institutions and businessmen we will be able to overcome them.”
Wine O’Clock: Ocoa Bay, the Caribbean’s only working vineyard, is in Azua, about 90 minutes from Santo Domingo, where the dry climate between the Central Mountains and the sea is perfect for growing grapes. Husband and wife team Maria Claudia and Guillermo Mallarino run wine-tasting experiences and tours and have plans to open a boutique vineyard hotel.
Old town charm: Santo Domingo is one of the Caribbean’s most interesting cities. Its colonial old town, with its limestone 16th century buildings, boasts the first cathedral, the first monastery and the first hospital built in the Americas. Santo Domingo also has the first metro system in the Caribbean but its best to explore the cobbled streets on foot, stopping to take in the Columbus Palace, the Ozama Fortress and its pretty squares. The city has been awarded the title Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean and has over 400 restaurants.
Whale of a time: The Sanctuary of the Humpback Whales in Samaná is one of the most renowned whale-watching experiences in the world. Each winter about 2,000 humpback whales make the journey from the North Atlantic to Samana Bay to give birth to their calves. From mid-December to March you’ll see newborn calves swimming under the watchful eyes of their mothers and male humpbacks battling for the attention of prospective mates.
Time for tee: There are some 86 sea-facing holes and 39 ocean-side holes, offering great golf with fantastic views. Casa de Campo and Punta Cana boast the most outstanding architect-designed courses, including Pete Dye’s famous ‘Teeth of the Dog’ course.
Surf’s up: The north coast of The Dominican Republic, near Puerto Plata, has been given the nickname The Amber Coast because of frequent finds of amber. The temperature of the sea and the winds here make perfect conditions for watersports and surfing. Nature and sports enthusiasts will love the trekking, snorkelling, diving and surfing.
A new port is under construction at Puerto Plata, which should draw a significant number of extra cruise passengers to the town in addition to those already arriving at Amber Cove. Puntarena is one of number of new projects in the area west of Santo Domingo. It’s the brainchild of Frank Ranieri, a Punta Cana hotel tycoon, and will comprise four hotels, beachfront condos, a golf course and nature trails. A beach clubhouse and restaurant are already open.
Local hotel company Amhsa Marina Hotel and Resorts has made a $4 million-dollar investment to open an exclusive ‘Select’ section in the Casa Marina Beach and Reef in Sosúa, Puerto Plata. It opened in November and comprises 84 rooms, with junior suite and premium categories that have capacity for four people, while junior rooms for two will have exclusive access to a private pool from a private terrace.
Perla Del Sur is a new luxury project in the undeveloped area of Barahona, which will comprise a boutique hotel (due to open this year), villas and apartments. Financed by local families, the development is a sustainable project aimed at re-energising the area and benefitting the community.
Twin properties Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana (adults-only) and Hyatt Ziva Cap Cana (for families) opened late last year. Set on 40 acres of Juanillo Beach looking over the Caribbean Sea, its U-shaped design means 90% of the rooms have an ocean view. The 750-room resort complex features a beachfront infinity pool, a lazy river, separate water slides for adults and kids, multiple dining options and a 40,000-square foot fitness centre.
The new Club Med Michès Playa Esmeralda is the all-inclusive group’s first premium resort in the Americas and its largest investment in the Caribbean in decades. Set amongst 93 acres near the town of Michès, it has four boutique ‘villages’ themed around romance, relaxation, nature, and adventure. The resort offers excursions to the Laguna Limon nature reserve, the Samana Bay whale-watching hot spot and Montana Redonda, a mountaintop destination known for its unobstructed views.
Located in Bayahibe, in the island’s southeast, La Romana Hilton opened its doors to an adults-only section in August 2019 and added a family-friendly section in December. The resort features five restaurants, five bars and lounges, a 24-hour coffee house, a fitness centre, four swimming pools, a casino and a 21,000-square-foot spa.
Where to book it
Carrier offers seven nights’ B&B accommodation at Eden Roc Cap Cana is £3,085pp, including flights and private transfers. The Relais & Châteaux property sits in an exclusive gated community with extensive amenities that include a marina, an equestrian centre, restaurants, the new Solaya Spa and Wellness Centre and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.