April 24, 2014

6 Hot Spots in the Dominican Republic

Inviting resorts lure visitors to this Caribbean locale influenced by Haitian, African and European cultures

By Katie Solan

More than 500 years ago, one of the world's most famous explorers fell in love with a little isle in the Caribbean, describing it as "a beautiful island paradise with high forested mountains and large river valleys."

That island is present-day Hispaniola, shared by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And the adventurer, Christopher Columbus, was no doubt on to something when he described the Dominican Republic as paradise. Today, it is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Caribbean, and travelers flock here to lounge on the 800-plus miles of coastline, scale the Caribbean's tallest mountain, hit the links on championship golf courses, or simply enjoy the good life at one of its many world-class resorts.

Besides the scenery, which includes white-sand beaches, rushing rivers, waterfalls, tropical jungles and mountainous terrain (including 10,164-foot Pico Duarte), the Dominican Republic has a distinctive culture comprised of Spanish, French, Haitian and African influences.

In 1492, Columbus landed here and named the island Hispaniola, or "little Spain." At that time around 600,000 indigenous Tainos lived here, but as the Spaniards found gold and settlements grew, the Tainos were enslaved by the Europeans and slowly wiped out. Settlers began bringing African slaves to the island to work the plantations, a practice that continued for more than 200 years.

Hispaniola remained under Spanish rule until 1697, when its western third, present-day Haiti, became a French possession. French control eventually spread to the rest of the island during the late 18th century, but the Dominican Republic would later be acquired again by Spain and also by Haiti before declaring its independence in 1844.

Today, Spanish influence remains strong. The national language is Spanish, and 95 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. However, the spirit and charm of the Dominican Republic is uniquely multicultural, embodied in its food, music and national pastimes.

Dominican cuisine is fresh and colorful yet simple in taste, often with light spices or notes of coconut in the background. Local food is a blend of native Antillean and Creole flavors, with preparations similar to those found in Latin American countries. Mangu is a breakfast staple made with plantains, cheese and bacon, and it is served at many hotels and resorts. At lunchtime, most Dominicans reach for la bandera Dominicana, or the Dominican flag, a hearty dish of rice, beans, meat, vegetables and fried plantains. Other favorites include sancocho, a Spanish-style stew, and locrio, a variation of paella.

In a land abundant with sugarcane, Dominicans are not without their sweets. Favorites include mango cake, flan and dulce de coco, a sweet coconut paste. Locally made rum is a point of Dominican pride, and domestic strong-bodied coffee is ubiquitous, served espresso-style with a large dose of sugar.

For Dominicans, music is a way of life and dancing is an art. At any time of day, the sound of merengue or bachata music can be heard in the streets, blaring from shops, restaurants and homes. Merengue, the country's national dance, moves to an aggressive beat as dancers swing their hips rapidly with their feet following suit.

Merengue music traditionally is played by a three-piece band, which includes an accordionlike melodeon, a guiro (a perforated metal cylinder scraped with a stiff brush), and a double-sided tambora drum. Its true origins are disputed, but the dance is widely believed to be a combination of African and European elements. Two annual festivals held in Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata celebrate merengue dance and music.

Perhaps more than music, baseball is a national obsession. It all began in 19th-century Cuba, when American sailors stationed there taught the locals the rules of the game. When Cuba's Ten Years' War ended in 1878, many Cubans fled for the neighboring Dominican Republic, bringing the sport of baseball with them. The six-team Dominican Baseball League has thrived since the 1920s, and the major leagues have taken notice of the big talent that resides in this small country. Today, the major leagues have 101 Dominican players, including such standouts as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

Sam Thompson of Houston made his first visit to the Dominican Republic last fall, staying in the five-star Paradisus Palma Real in Punta Cana. A regular vacationer in Mexico, he was impressed by the unique Dominican scene.

"They had thick forests and jungles as opposed to just palm trees and sand. And when we left the resort for excursions, we would drive past coffee and banana plantations. We also spent more time on the beach there, as the sand is fine and light and the beaches are very clean," he says.

Thompson says he left the Dominican Republic with an authentic sense of the people and their traditions. You can experience the culture -- and slice of paradise -- firsthand with a resort stay. We've profiled six all-inclusive resorts below, which are among the most popular Dominican Republic resorts sold by Vacations To Go, a Houston-based travel agency. All-inclusive resorts offer the most bang for your buck, bundling meals, accommodations, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, entertainment, nonmotorized water sports and gratuities in one price that's paid up front.

For more information on Dominican Republic resorts, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925.

Breezes Puerto Plata Resort and Spa

Puerto Plata

Surrounded by a 62-acre tropical garden, four-star, 466-room Breezes Puerto Plata Resort and Spa occupies a private stretch of sandy beach in Puerto Plata on the country's north coast. Amenities include a landscaped area with a large main pool and a winding "river." For sports buffs, there are three clay tennis courts, a fitness center with weights and aerobics classes, a basketball court, beach soccer and volleyball areas, and organized pool volleyball and water polo games. A nine-hole pitch-and-putt course will put your short game to the test.

The Miniclub, open daily, has fun and games for kids ages 4 to 12. It also hosts a no-adults-allowed nightly dinner with pizza and pasta. For all, there are five dining venues -- one 24-hour beach grill and four specialty restaurants serving international fare.

And, for those who want to get out and explore, there's daily shuttle service to the towns of Cabarete and Sosua.

Barcelo Punta Cana

Punta Cana

The 792-room Barcelo Punta Cana resort on Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana has a dual personality: its whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs exude Spanish charm, while the surrounding blue-green ocean scenery and tropical gardens are all Caribbean.

Guests can enjoy four-star amenities such as a lagoon-style pool with swim-up bar and seven restaurants that run the gamut from barbecue to Japanese cuisine.

A host of kid-friendly amenities include a children's club for ages 4 to 12, a playground, kiddie pool and a "mini disco" just for youngsters.

There are plenty of activity options during the day, such as a climbing wall for would-be mountaineers, kayaking, sailing, banana boat rides, pool basketball games, a trapeze for circus stunts and even ice-skating.

For adults, the on-site nightclub provides entertainment into the wee morning hours, in addition to five bars including the Take Five sports bar.

Club Med Punta Cana

Punta Cana

For beach bums, Club Med Punta Cana could indeed be heaven -- its coconut tree-lined stretch of sand is the largest in the country, fronting an immense turquoise lagoon. The 519-room, three-star resort in Punta Cana also boasts a whopping 14 tennis courts, making it a great getaway for tennis aficionados. Other resort activities include windsurfing, catamaran sailing and flying trapeze lessons.

Get your heart rate up with a merengue lesson at the resort's beachside nightclub, or participate in its signature Club Med fitness program. Club Med Passworld offers a beachfront getaway exclusively for teens, with an oversized hammock for group lounging and a giant chessboard for active minds.

The resort has two gourmet restaurants, The Samana serving all meals and the ocean-view Hispaniola offering lunch and dinner. The poolside bar, The Isabel, and the beachside Tiburon Bar serve premium beverages and snacks throughout the day.

Melia Caribe Tropical

Punta Cana

Those with a restless palate can find solace at this 1,144-suite mega-resort on Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana -- Melia Caribe Tropical has a dozen restaurants for guests to sample, from Italian and French to Japanese and Asian fusion. A par-36, world-championship golf course is just across the road (golf cart rental is mandatory and at an additional cost) and an on-site casino invites you to try your luck.

Melia Caribe has a Flintstones-themed program for the kids: a Baby Rock Club for babies and toddlers up to age 4, the Bamm-Bamm Club for children ages 5 to 8, and the Cool Club for tweens and teens ages 9 to 13.

For swimmers and sunbathers, the five-star resort owns a 500-yard stretch of private beach, and seven free-form and lagoon-style swimming pools wind through the property. The resort produces two live shows each night, and there are weekly resort-wide theme parties.

Paradisus Palma Real

Punta Cana

One of the premier luxury properties in the Dominican Republic, five-star Paradisus Palma Real has 554 suites spread across several three-story villas. This is the spot for those who wish to learn something new while on vacation, as guests can participate in classes that cover topics from cooking and wine tasting to painting and tango dancing. Excursions such as bicycle tours and horseback rides are part of the all-inclusive package, as are unlimited greens fees at the nearby golf course (mandatory golf cart fees apply).

Guests can swim in the resort's 37,600-square-foot free-form pool or take a dip in the waters lapping Paradisus' private white-sand beach. A two-story spa and health club includes an exercise room, fitness classes, a wide range of spa treatments (available at an extra fee) and a "water ritual" center with sauna, steam room and a variety of therapeutic showers.

More than 100 Royal Service suites feature the assistance of a butler and access to an exclusive restaurant, lounge, and pool and beach area. Family concierge suites are available; a staff member is on hand to coordinate family activities, and rooms are appointed with kid-favorite extras such as Sony PlayStations and children's bathrobes and slippers.

Casa de Campo

La Romana

Often called the "Wimbledon of the Caribbean," the sprawling Casa de Campo resort in La Romana on the island's southeast coast boasts a five-acre, 13-court tennis facility, with 32 ball boys on hand to optimize daily play. Guests can choose to stay in one of 300 guest rooms and suites or in posh two- to four-bedroom villas complete with maid and butler service, breakfast prepared daily in your kitchen, and private gardens with a pool or whirlpool.

Dining options at the five-star retreat include the open-air El Pescador, featuring food inspired by New York City's famed Le Cirque. The restaurant overlooks Casa de Campo's private Minitas Beach, recently refurbished with crisp white umbrellas and chaise lounges.

A sport-shooting center lets guests practice their marksmanship, while other included activities range from horseback riding to fishing. For a trip back in time, venture to Altos de Chavon, a replica of a 16th-century Spanish village located atop the cliffs of Casa de Campo.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2007. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.


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