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Santo Domingo

Originally called Nueva Isabela and at one time, Ciudad Trujillo (named after the despised dictator), the capital of the Dominican Republic was founded in 1496 by Bartolomé, the brother of Columbus. Today, Santo Domingo is a thriving and sprawling metropolis of some 2.5 million people.

One of the fastest-growing cities in the Caribbean, it still retains much of its Spanish flavor in its Colonial Zone. Other than San Juan, Puerto Rico, it also offers the largest concentration of museums in the Caribbean. What it doesn't have is a beach. So, come here for sightseeing and shopping, but for the sands head to Boca Chica and Juan Dolio . These, however, are not the best resorts in the D.R. For those you'll have to go elsewhere. Our suggestion is to spend 2 days in the D.R. capital and then the rest of your vacation time at a resort of your choice. A preview of the major possibilities will follow.

Boca Chica & Juan Dolio

To the immediate east of Santo Domingo, these twin beach resorts open onto one of the most beautiful stretches of beaches on the east coast, known for their powdery white sands and shallow waters, safe for swimming. Fun in the sun begins approximately 31km (19 miles) east of Santo Domingo, but only a 5-minute drive from Las Américas International Airport, serving Santo Domingo. Many Europeans call the area "Playa St. Tropez," as it evokes the fun-loving port on the French Riviera. But even with its hordes of visitors, St. Tropez is still chic. Juan Dolio and Boca Chica are most definitely not chic. Lying immediately east of Boca Chica, the fast-rising Juan Dolio boasts even more hotels than Boca Chica, most of them all-inclusive.

Boca Chica had its golden age during the heyday of dictator Trujillo. Wealthy residents built vacation homes here and used it as a weekend escape. This allure lasted until the 1970s when rising resorts, especially Playa Dorada in the north, threatened the popularity of Boca Chica.

Today Boca Chica has lost much of its allure, even though the great beachfront is still here. It's filled with rather lackluster hotels offering some of the cheapest package deals in the Caribbean in winter.

Playa Boca Chica, as lovely as it is, is one of the most overrun in the D.R. Instead of tranquility, you will often hear the blasting sounds of merengue and mariachi bands. Restaurants and bars have become very touristy, and on weekends the scene takes on a bit of madness, as thousands of residents of Santo Domingo descend on the beach, placing a heavy burden on the limited facilities. Prostitution, both male and female, is clearly evident.

As for Juan Dolio, you could skip it completely and not suffer great deprivation. It is more a tourist development by the sea instead of a real town. The beach here stretches for 5km (3 miles) and the many hotels and resorts are among the worst in the D.R.

Many of these date from the 1980s when a building boom occurred here. However, after September 11, 2001 there was a great falloff in business. Because it doesn't have the allure of other emerging resorts in the D.R., many of these hotels have closed or else look as if they haven't made any improvements since Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. Our advice: Skip it and head for golden sands elsewhere. However, if, because of time restrictions, you are based in Santo Domingo and want to slip in some beach time, head to Boca Chica over Juan Dolio.

La Romana/Bayahibe

These twin resorts, so different in character, lie east of Santo Domingo along the southeastern coast, a 2-hour drive from Santo Domingo, although you can fly to the area's small airport as well. Compared to the overbuilt Punta Cana, a virtual Miami Beach strip of hotels, La Romana and Bayahibe are very different.

La Romana is dominated by one resort, Casa de Campo, one of the grandest in the Caribbean. With its deluxe hotel rooms and private villas, plus two Pete Dye-designed golf courses, the 2,800-hectare (7,000-acre) Casa de Campo is reason enough for many visitors to fly to the D.R. in the first place. It is a destination unto itself.

Casa de Campo remains the dowager of D.R. resorts, although it has been supplanted by newer, more cutting-edge resorts such as those at Punta Cana. Casa de Campo still retains a loyal clientele and wins new converts every year.

Casa de Campo also lies next to the single greatest tourist attraction of the D.R., Altos de Chavón, the re-creation of a 16th-century Spanish village that is amazingly realistic. It's part museum, part artisans' colony. It's also a great place to go on a shopping expedition, where you can purchase many of the paintings and crafts produced on the spot, including jewelry and macramé.

The actual town of La Romana remains the sleepy backwater it always was. It is almost devoid of tourist attractions and serves mainly as a refueling stop for visitors to the area.

Bayahibe, lying 30km (19 miles) east of La Romana, didn't exist until the late '90s. That's when hotel developers were drawn to its pristine beachfront. The area is just now being developed with some all-inclusive resorts, attracting those who want to explore this part of the D.R. but can't afford the high tariffs of Casa de Campo.

If you select one of the few hotels at Bayahibe, you'd better like it, because you'll be spending a great deal of your time on the grounds or on the beach in front of your hotel.

Go to La Romana or Bayahibe if you want to avoid the crowds flocking to Puerto Plata and Punta Cana. From both La Romana and Bayahibe, you can explore two intriguing offshore islands (Saona and Catalina), both with pristine white sandy beaches and also a national park, Parque Nacional del Este. Some of the beaches in the area, unlike those at Boca Chica, you'll have virtually to yourself.

Punta Cana & Bávaro

This is the Cancun of the D.R. Nowhere in the Caribbean is there such a concentration of resorts, most of them all-inclusive. These resort developments dominate what has come to be known as Costa del Coco or "The Coconut Coast." There are more than 30km (20 miles) of powder-white sandy beaches, among the longest stretches of such beachfront in the world. The beaches edge up to crystal-clear waters, and this coastal land is an upmarket resort, filled with government-rated four- or five-star hotels.

Comparisons with other resorts, particularly Puerto Plata/Playa Dorada in the north, are inevitable. The big difference is that Punta Cana exists just for tourists, whereas the resorts in the north involve you more in Dominican life. Except for hotel staff, chances are you won't be exposed to anybody but other tourists in Punta Cana.

After arriving, you're taken to your hotel in a shuttle bus where you will swim, eat, breathe, and hang out with other tourists, mainly American, Canadian, French, English, Spanish, and Italian, but also from some countries in South America. At the end of your stay, you board a shuttle bus to take you back to the airport.

Bávaro, the name of one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, has come to designate the district north of Punta Cana, site of some of the best all-inclusive resorts in the D.R.

There is far less rain in Punta Cana than at Puerto Plata. Punta Cana's "dry" beaches are wider than those in the north. Staff at hotels in Punta Cana have been moved here -- often away from their families -- from other parts of the country. They are placed into company housing and are eager to escape back to their towns or villages whenever possible. Staff at Puerto Plata have been born in the region and tend to be friendlier and more welcoming than those in the more isolated Punta Cana, many of whom express resentment at being uprooted from home and hearth and sent to an isolated part of the D.R. to serve at the pleasure of the endless stream of visitors.

The infrastructure of Punta Cana is newer and fresher, but local life doesn't exist. Punta Cana is strictly a hedonist's retreat, attracting those who want sun and often sex and don't particularly want to see the natural attractions that exist elsewhere on the island.

But, oh, those beaches and those endless buffets. Don't expect to lose any weight. The food and drink flow.

Puerto Plata & the Amber Coast

The northern shoreline of the Dominican Republic launched massive tourism to the D.R. back when Punta Cana was a lonely beach strip. Its center is Puerto Plata, named "port of silver" by Columbus. The Amber Coast nickname comes from the rich deposits of amber ore discovered along this coast. The waters of the Atlantic wash up on its beaches of golden sand. The tourist development here since the 1980s has been remarkable, and overbuilding is rampant. To the immediate east of Puerto Plata is Playa Dorada, lying about halfway between the Haitian border and Samaná Peninsula. To the immediate east, in Sosúa, is the fast-rising resort of Cabarete, the windsurfing capital of the Caribbean. "It's our Malibu," is what one local told us.

Puerto Plata lies on the more verdant -- and rainier -- north shore of the island. When the rain comes, it arrives suddenly and doesn't last long. Puerto Plata's beaches aren't as wide as those in Punta Cana, but recent improvements have made them better. In 2006, the government dumped tons of sand onto the beaches to replace what was lost to hurricanes.

Unlike Punta Cana, Puerto Plata has an urbanized feel, with an economy based not just on tourism.

Immediately to the east of Puerto Plata is Playa Dorada, the name of one of the best beaches in the D.R. and also a gated compound of resorts, most of them all-inclusive. Here you get all the elements that appeal to visitors -- dance clubs, casinos, golf, a shopping center, restaurants, and bars.

More and more visitors are abandoning the more manicured grounds of Playa Dorada and continuing east to Sosúa, a former Jewish settlement. It had a flourishing sex industry in the 1980s before the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. The prostitutes are still there, although the sex industry has slowed down considerably.

Visitors who head for Sosúa are attracted to the raffish aura of the town, a lively, vibrant spot, but not the most tranquil retreat in the D.R. Its beach is spectacular, however, over a mile of golden sand set against a backdrop of coconut trees. Sosúa is patronized by an older crowd, mostly North Americans and Europeans.

A much younger and athletic group of visitors heads for Cabarete, even farther to the east of Sosúa. Far less developed than either Sosúa or Puerto Plata, it too opens onto a beautiful beach of white sand fronting a lovely, wide bay. Its windsurfing is not only the best in the Caribbean, but maybe the world.

In the 1990s it was transformed from a fishing village into a tourist town of hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and cafes. At night the bars resound with the music of merengue and salsa, even reggae and reggaeton. It's still a "one-road town" and has none of the elements or the refinements of Playa Dorada or Punta Cana.

Samaná

Of all the resorts recommended in this guide, the towns of the Samaná peninsula in the northeast of the D.R. contain the wildest and most savage landscape of all, with a focus on scuba diving, underwater life, and whale-watching. Its beaches are also the least crowded of all the major D.R. resorts. It is also the remotest destination and the hardest to reach. This peninsula once provided a haven in the 1820s for escaped American slaves. In its national park, Los Haïtises, inscriptions from the early settlers, the Taíno Indians, have been discovered. From January to March (more or less), the humpback whales of the Atlantic Ocean come here to breed and rear their newborn calves. The peninsula stretches for about 50km (30 miles), lying about 120km (75 miles) northeast of Santo Domingo. The terrain consists of lush, forested hills along with banana and coconut plantations. Since the '90s, tourism has begun to take root, centering about Las Terrenas, the town of Samaná, and Las Galeras.

The resorts of Punta Cana will give you a sanitized view of Dominican life. Samaná is the real deal. Except for a few scattered inns and small hotels, major hotel development did not begin here until the post-millennium.

If you go to Samaná within the next few years or so, you'll get a taste of the Caribbean as it used to be.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.