The Dominican Republic is the most popular travel destination in the Caribbean – closely followed by Cuba – but there are still plenty of hidden beauty spots to be discovered, you just have to know where to look. Travel writer Judith Baker goes exploring…
Lead image: Bahia de las Aguilas
The Dominican Republic is the most visited Caribbean holiday destination, with millions of tourists heading there each year.
Most head mostly for the country’s big resorts in the likes of Punta Cana with their tropical cocktail of sun, sand, rum and relaxation. But the country has a quieter side where natural wonders abound, the beaches are deserted and boutique hotels are found tucked inside the lush rainforest.
I started my magical tour in The Dominican Republic’s capital Santo Domingo, where the first foreign visitors, led by Christopher Columbus, arrived in 1492.
Columbus called the island Hispaniola because it resembled Spain in shape. Fast forward to today and it is the only island in the world that is occupied by two countries – Haiti in the west and The Dominican Republic in the east.
‘Santo Domingo has been awarded the title Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean’
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 many pretty squares perfect for a coffee or tapas stop.
Where to Eat in Santo Domingo
The city has been awarded the title Gastronomic Capital of the Caribbean and has more than 400 restaurants, many of them run by award-winning chefs. But for a taste of city life head to the Food Truck Town just outside the colonial city, where you can dine alfresco sampling a range of different cuisines.
Cuisine in the Dominican Republic is hearty with specialities including ‘sancocho’, or stew, but my favourite meal is the traditional breakfast of eggs, salami, onions, fried cheese and mangu (boiled or mashed plantain), washed down with the country’s excellent coffee grown in the mountains.
Where to Stay in Santo Domingo
To stay at the fabulous Casas Del XVI hotel is to take a step back in time. This unusual property is housed in a group of 16th century buildings, each with their own theme and design.
The houses have their own courtyards, dining areas and one has a swimming pool. This is really like having your own historic home in the heart of the Zona Colonial. You even get your own personal butler for the duration of your stay.
‘Ocoa Bay is the Caribbean’s only vineyard – country’s best kept secrets’
From the capital I travelled into the south west of the country, stopping en route at one of the country’s best kept secrets – and the Caribbean’s only vineyard – Ocoa Bay.
Ocoa Bay is in Azua, about one and a half hours from Santo Domingo, where its position between the Central Mountains and the sea results in a dry climate perfect for cultivating grapes.
You can tour the vineyard and enjoy wine tastings here in idyllic surroundings. I am told that shortly a boutique hotel and villas will open there. But for now, lunch overlooking the vines prepared by resident Michelin-starred chef and paired with one of their fine wines is a unique Caribbean experience.
‘Barahona Province has some of the most dramatic scenery and incredible biodiversity’
Barahona, another couple of hour’s drive west from Ocoa Bay, is the country’s forgotten province, even though it has some of the most dramatic scenery and incredible biodiversity. Here we find the Oviedo Lagoon with its mangroves and cays, home to iguanas, pelicans, parrots and flamingos.
Barahona, also known as Santa Cruz de Barahona, is the main city of the Barahona Province, in the south of the Dominican Republic. It is one of the most important cities on the island, with an active port and many ecotourism attractions.
Where to Stay in Barahona
Barahona’s hidden jewel is the luxurious Casa Bonita tropical lodge, which combines adventure, activity and indulgence. It is set on a hilltop with fabulous views out to the coast, a zip line for adrenaline junkies and a relaxing spa for the sybarite.
The lodge is the former Schiffino family summer home, architect-designed using coconut, palm and mahogany. Today, the third generation of the family encourage visitors to discover gastronomy based on local organic resources. The restaurant looks out over an inviting infinity pool and rooms have views over the forest and out to the Caribbean sea.
When not exploring the hiking trails on horseback or by bike, visitors can relax at different nearby beaches: San Rafael, Los Patos, Paraíso and or take advantage of the Lodge’s Quemaito Beach Experience – a trip to one of the most exotic but peaceful parts of the Caribbean totally undisturbed by crowds.
Bahía de las Aguilas
‘Bahía de las Aguilas is considered by many Dominicans to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world’
Found right down on the country’s border with Haiti and worth visiting for its dramatic scenery and away-from-it-all vibe, Bahía de las Aguilas is a protected beach with white sand, crystal waters, and a stunning coastline.
Translating literally as ‘Eagles Bay’, Bahía de las Aguilas is part of the Jaragua National Park and is home to coral reefs and diverse marine wildlife.
Not only is the 8km long beach is considered by many Dominicans to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, UNESCO added the area to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2002.
Where to Stay in Bahía de las Aguilas
Eco Del Mar is a pretty eco-lodge that offers relaxed accommodation including tents on the beach and comfortable cabanas. Kick off your shoes for grilled fish and cocktails under the stars and fall asleep to the sound of the waves.
- Iberia flies to Santo Domingo from London Heathrow via Madrid from about £600 return
- Tours from Santo Domingo to the South can be arranged by Turmaya
- Casa Bonita and Casas Del XVI are members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Rates at Casa Bonita start from £191 per night. Rates at Casas Del XVI start from £259 per night.
- Eco Del Mar tents start from £126
- For further information on the Dominican Republic, see godominicanrepublic.com