RinconDominican Republic Tourist BoardBy Melanie Reffes

In the heart of an archipelago surrounded by Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic is the second largest country in the Caribbean sharing the island of Hispaniola, or Little Spain, with Haiti. Washed by the rugged Atlantic Ocean to the north and the calm Caribbean Sea to the south and with a coastline that stretches for 1,633 kilometres, the D.R. boasts a diverse topography of offshore islands, spectacular beaches and Pico Duarte, the highest mountain peak in the West Indies.

The island’s first tourist was Christopher Columbus, who spotted the coral-fringed coastline in 1492 during his first voyage to the New World, describing it in his journal as “a beautiful island paradise with high forested mountains and large river valleys”. Today’s travellers think so, too. The D.R. attracts tourists with its cultural attractions, luxurious accommodations, unrivalled natural beauty and fabulous beaches – or playas – including the Caribbean's longest stretch along the shores of Punta Cana and Bávaro.

From the Playa Dorada on the north coast to the beaches of Bayahibe and La Romana in the southeast and the tropical paradise of Punta Cana on the easternmost tip, the D.R. is the preferred vacation retreat for singles, couples, families and ‘ordinary Joes’ seeking a respite from the cold Canadian winter.

A multicultural tapestry of Spanish, French, Haitian, and African influences is evident in the many heart-pumping dance traditions, gourmet restaurants and funky night clubs, while potent rum, premium cigars and professional baseball have earned the Dominican Republic a reputation as one of the most unique destinations in the region. The climate is about as good as it gets in the tropics, with predictable differences near the highest point, which is over 3,000 metres above sea level, to the lowest at 40 metres below sea level. On average, temperatures hover in the high 20s throughout the year with the rainy season from May to November. The upside is showers are brief and followed by bright sunshine.

The Regions
The East Coast is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. With two international airports, one in Punta Cana and the other in La Romana, it’s easily accessible to Canadian travellers. Known as the Coconut Coast for its towering palm trees, Punta Cana is renowned for picturesque beaches, azure waters, mega casinos, pristine golf courses and the largest concentration of all-inclusive resorts.
A stone’s throw from the fishing village of Bayahibe, Isla Catalina has the best coral reef in the area along with giant sand dunes that attract photographers and sports enthusiasts. Also near Bayahibe, Playa Dominicus was the first beach in the Caribbean to earn Blue Flag status for its commitment to sustainable development and is popular with scuba divers and snorkellers due to the presence of a large unspoiled reef.

For those who aim to get off the beach chair, other attractions include La Romana’s Altos de Chavon, a quaint replica of a sleepy 16th-century Tuscan hillside village and San Pedro de Macoris, the baseball-influenced town that Sammy Sosa calls home.

With mountains and sugar cane fields, a coastline dotted with palms and almond trees and the cities of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete, the North Coast tempts visitors with a variety of activities. Dominican culture abounds in Puerto Plata, while Sosua is known for its crescent-shaped beach, a favourite launch pad for divers. Cabarete, 30 minutes east of Puerto Plata, is a casual town that fronts endless beaches and attracts kite-boarding enthusiasts from around the world, who wile away the evening hours in the many bars and inexpensive eateries. The steady winds and waves on the offshore reef attract sporting enthusiasts to the World Cup Windsurfing Competition held every June.
The undiscovered area in the Northeast known as the Samana Peninsula is poised to become the next tourism hot spot. Three hours by car from Puerto Plata or a short flight from Punta Cana and Santo Domingo, its untouched beauty distinguishes it from the other more developed regions. Isolated beaches, rolling mountains, roadside stalls dishing up fresh off-the-boat fish and local tales of pirate lore set the northeast apart. Conde Nast Traveler named Playa Rincon one of the world’s 10 best beaches and although the best way to get to this tiny sliver of sand is by boat, the ride is definitely worth the splurge.

saltos de limonDominican Republic Tourist BoardOn the west side, Playa El Cosón is ideal for whale watching from January to April. On the north coast, Las Terrenas is a laid-back beach with plenty of casual restaurants owned by ex-pats from France and North America. Waterfalls, or saltos, are scattered throughout one of the largest coconut palm forests in the world with horseback riding to Salto de Limon a popular day trip. The palm-dotted island of Cayo Levantado that was featured in Bacardi Rum ads of the 1970s is a popular spot for lunch and a game of volleyball. Four centuries of history await in Santo Domingo, the oldest and largest city with its cobble-stone streets and Colonial Zone with a slew of gourmet restaurants, designer boutiques and world-class museums.

The Great Outdoors
From nature excursions and water sports to kayaking and rock climbing, the Dominican Republic is the ideal destination for a family getaway. More than 300 species of brightly coloured birds call the D.R. home including 27 found only on the island of Hispaniola like the bay-breasted cuckoo and the Hispaniolan crossbill. Hiking trails are abundant with many leading to the peak of Pico Duarte, 3,125 metres above the sea. Many of the trails are within national parks and require government permits to walk. Guides can be hired near the entrances of the parks, which include Jarabacoa, Constanza, Parque Nacional Monte Cristi, Pico Isabel del Torres, Punta Bonita, Parque Nacional del Este, San Rafael and Parque Nacional Bahoruco.

For the rock climbers in the crowd, the D.R. is a big draw with its four mountain ranges. Climbing aficionados prefer the Parque Mirador del Este near Santo Domingo and Barahona in the southwest region. Those who prefer to surf flock to the waves at Playa Encuentro, a five-minute car ride from Cabarete. Tour companies offer lessons and rentals as well as transportation from the town. More challenging surfing can be had at Playas Grande and Preciosa beach, east of Rio San Juan and Playa Boba north of Nagua. Worth noting: these beaches do not have lifeguards on duty.

Head to the central mountain area and the Yaque del Norte with exhilarating rapids and a daring drop known as the “Mike Tyson" for a rafting experience the family will never forget. Tour operators like Rancho Baiguate offer one-day excursions that include instruction and equipment. Like whitewater rafting, kayaking is most popular in the central region along the Yaque del Norte and Jimenoa rivers with both offering a mix of rolling water with sharp turns and deep drops.

In Santa Domingo, the Acuario Nacional, or National Aquarium offers a chance to get up close and personal with an array of underwater life. The unique tunnel allows spectators to view sharks, rays and conger eels while a variety of fish swim through the tunnel. In Puerto Plata, Ocean World is a marine theme park with interactive activities like swimming with bottlenose dolphins in the world's largest dolphin lagoon and viewing sharks in the world's first shark interactive pool. A rainforest with waterfalls, beaches and lagoons captivates visitors while the birds, iguanas, lizards, frogs, snakes and tigers provide an educational experience for children.

A Slice Of Dominican Life
Sampling the local cuisine is a must on any holiday agenda. Dishes are prepared similarly to the specialties of Central and South America with rice, seafood, meat and vegetables blended with spices and coconut. Breakfast begins with ‘mangu’ – a mix of plantains, cheese and bacon that tourists often say reminds them of mashed potatoes.

The most important meal of the day is served midday and called La Bandera or the Dominican Flag meal. Consisting of a hearty plate of rice, beans, meat, vegetables and fried plantains, it is not for the faint of appetite. Other dishes on restaurant menus or at roadside stands include chicharrones de pollo or diced chunks of deep fried chicken; yucca cassava which is a type of bread, Sancocho, a stew is made of rice, green plantains, avocado and a combination of seven meats and a plantain-based dish called mofongo.

The D.R. is a large producer of cigars with the majority coming from the central regions of Santiago and the Cibao Valley. Factory tours include the Grupo León Jimenes Tobacco Company in Santiago and Fabrica Anilo de Oro in Tamboril where a gift of a freshly rolled cigar is given to all participants. In Santiago, el Museo del Tabaco, housed in an old Victorian warehouse, has an impressive collection of tobacco memorabilia.

More Dominican Republic
For more information on the D.R., contact the Dominican Republic Tourist Board at www.godominicanrepublic.com. The Montreal office can be reached at 1-800-563-1611 or (514) 499-1918; the Toronto office can be reached at 1-888-494-5050 or (416) 361-2126/27.