Russian novelist and poet Boris Pasternak once said, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”
That’s exactly what I found on a trip to the Dominican Republic in late 2019. It was full of surprises and unexpected delights, and that’s what made it so special.
Occupying half of the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is only a two-hour flight from Miami. The island is known for its idyllic beaches, fascinating colonial history, outdoor adventure, golf, and ecotourism. But it’s also renowned for its beloved and rhythmic Merengue dance and talented baseball players. The cuisine is tantalizing, and its people are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. So, just what is it that makes this surprising destination stand out from other Caribbean isles?
Discovering Historic Santo Domingo
Without a doubt, the heartbeat of the Dominican Republic is its vibrant capital city, Santo Domingo. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Santo Domingo was the first European settlement of the Americas. History oozes from its pores.
Ancient walls and ruins surround narrow, well-preserved and easily walkable cobblestone streets in the Colonial Zone where Spain firmly established its Caribbean foothold in the New World. Here resides Parque Colon—the town’s pedestrian-only central square where friends and families gather. As the sun sets, magic descends over the city as the square becomes even more festive with street performers. Dancers and bands, many with handmade instruments, entertain onlookers who can’t help but be transported into the music and the Caribbean vibe.
Exploring Ancient Underwater Caverns
Just five miles from the city center lies one of the most visited tourist attractions on the island, Parque Nacional Los Tres Ojos (3 Eyes National Park). The ancient geologically formed caverns once used for refuge or rituals include four subterranean lakes, including one discovered after the name came about.
These magnificent lakes fed by an underground river are surrounded by majestic stalactites and stalagmites. The cold and crystal-clear tourmaline waters of the lagoons are reached by a series of 692 steps. The farthest cave can only be accessed by a small hand-pulled ferry. It’s a must-do, and yes, it’s worth it to see this magical work of Mother Nature.
Creating Bean to Bar Chocolate
There’s nothing more exciting than exploring the culture of a region in a hands-on experience. Choco Museo in the heart of Santo Domingo offers bean to bar chocolate-making workshops. Following the step-by-step guidance from an expert chocolatier, My friends and I not only learned the fascinating history of chocolate, we were able to participate in the process from start to finish. At the end of the workshop, we each left with our own unique chocolate bar containing our favorite ingredients. It was totally fascinating!
Cooking with the Locals
Discovering Dominican cuisine is the most fun when it’s a cooking class surrounded by history and culture, using island-grown produce and meat products.
Hodelpa Nicolas de Ovando is a porticoed tropical boutique property in Santo Domingo dating back to 1502. Here, chefs prepare traditional cuisine in an awe-inspiring outdoor setting where guests are invited to participate. As a would-be chef who loves being in the kitchen, I enjoyed the wonderful opportunity to learn about the history of local foods and assist in the food preparation.
Afterward, cooking class participants sat on a picturesque patio and dined on our magnificent creations. These included Chicharrones de Pollo, a chicken dish made with rum and a host of seasonings, and other Dominican delights. But my hands-down favorite was the mouthwatering Plátanos al Caldero, caramelized ripe plantains, one of the best plantain dishes I’ve ever had.
Visiting a Colonial Mediterranean Village
The stunning resort and residential community of La Romana is a picturesque two-hour drive from Santo Domingo, and this tropical playground has it all—7,000 acres of magnificent white sand beaches, an expansive marina, and the best golf in the Caribbean.
But La Romano has another jewel—the awe-inspiring Altos de Chavón. This re-creation of a 16th-century Mediterranean village is nestled above the picturesque Chavón River in the heart of the Dominican countryside. With its cobbled streets and buildings constructed of coral and terracotta stone, this “City of Artists,” with its charming boutiques and galleries, is not only amazing, but it’s also the renowned cultural center of the region. It even sports a spectacular 4,000-seat Roman-style amphitheater that attracts a myriad of top world entertainers.
Discovering Captivating Cap Cana
Punta Cana, on the eastern side of the island, is known as a popular Dominican Republic tourist destination. But there’s a quieter, more laid-back part of this area that’s both charming and mesmerizing. I fell in love with Cap Cana at first sight.
The Sanctuary at Cap Cana is an adults-only, all-inclusive resort hideaway tucked within a gated community in Punta Cana, providing the ultimate in luxury and relaxation.
Resembling a colonial Spanish town clinging to an oceanside cliff, the resort even boasts a castle surrounded by a moat. Suites and villas all include balconies or terraces. Guests have access to an expansive private sugar white-sand beach, six alluring tropical pools, a myriad of dining options and one of my favorite features, the privacy of an off-the-beaten-path island paradise.
For those seeking more adventure, Scape Park at Cap Cana is a spectacular adrenaline-packed eco-park that offers snorkeling, ziplining, ancient caverns and underwater caves with free transportation from most area hotels.
La vida es buena. Life is good in the Dominican Republic, and I for one can’t wait to return to this surprising and amazing Caribbean island paradise.
Of note: Common to the travel industry, some of this writer’s activities were hosted by the destination. However, this does not influence my review.