WHY WE LOVE IT
- Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the second-largest Caribbean country (after Cuba) is about much more than low-cost all-inclusives (though, yes, there are lots).
- About 1,000 miles of white-sand beaches, primo surfing and diving, mountains, rain forest, fast-flowing rivers.
- The large expat element helps keep the nightlife varied; restaurants are well above the Caribbean average.
- The capital, Santo Domingo, is truly historic, with many 16th-century buildings in the Zona Colonial.
- Good buys: Brugal, Barceló and Bermudez rum, merengue and bachata CDs, hand-rolled cigars, Cibao Altura coffee, jewelry with local larimar or amber, bottles of mamajuana elixir.
WHEN TO GO
There's not much of an off-season, even though the June through November rainy season really does get wet. Look for bargains in April and May, just before that starts.
__Padre Billini 53, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo
If you've only just got over laughing at the concept of British food (news flash: It’s among the best in the world!), you'll no doubt find a British restaurant in the Dominican Republic hilarious. But quell that mirth. For about a decade, Coco's has served some of the best food in the city, and the Colonial house filled with wooden furniture and antiques is sweetly romantic.
Manuel de Jesus Troncoso 13, Piantini, Santo Domingo
Complete with a pool on the terrace, the setting is as contemporary-cool as any South Beach hot spot—and the food is just as nouvelle. As its name suggests, it's mainly Italian, but not strictly so—there are some Asian influences.
MUSEO DEL JAMON
Alcazar de Colon, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo
Yes, it's the ham museum—and surely no further recommendation is required. This cozy publike bar-resto near Columbus' house has prosciutto-style hams hanging from the beams, and this, plus other snacks, is what you eat, along with your locally brewed, ice-cold Presidente.
EL MESÓN DE LA CAVA
Ave Mirador del Sur 1, Bella Vista, Santo Domingo
It's kind of gimmicky, but this Spanish-Dominican restaurant is located in a real cave, a former pirate hideout complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Low light heightens the romance, as does the merengue/salsa soundtrack. The food isn't the point, but the sopa de pescado, grilled rock lobster and brûlée-like crema Catalana get few complaints.
__ACUARELA GARDEN CAFÉ
__Profesor Certad No 3, Puerto Plata
Rafael Vásquez converted his family's Colonial home into this adorable restaurant specializing in seafood and gallery featuring watercolor paintings by his father, acclaimed artist Rafi Vásquez. Later on, he added Aguacate, a Tex-Mex café within the café, housed on a thatched veranda.
Sosua Highway, Plaza Isabela, Puerto Plata
If you're staying on the north coast and tire of your resort, here's a fun jazz café with a cute courtyard and rooftop bar owned by a Canadian expat. The home-style American-über-diner food—from burgers and filet mignon to shish kebab and moussaka to salads and barbecue wings—is ace. There's even a try-before-you-buy hand-rolled cigar bar.
__CASA DE CAMPO
__Box 140, La Romana
The longtime stylish resort is full of golfers hurling themselves at the Teeth of the Dog, often the top-rated course on earth. But there's tons more: shooting, cycling, a spa, a theater, eight restaurants, nine bars, 13 tennis courts and 16 pools—you can even play polo. Rooms are big and plush; luxury suites have canopy beds and whirlpool tubs; even better are the villas in varying degrees of marvelousness. You can also order in-room goodies (flowers, cake, champagne) online.
__CASA COLONIAL BEACH RESORT & SPA
__Playa Dorada, Puerto Plata
The new swish resort looks Colonial indeed, but only from the outside. Inside, the 50 rooms are contemporary cream and ivory with polished white marble floors, flat-screen cable TVs and Roman tubs in big bathrooms. There's a beautiful spa, beachside yoga and Pilates, and an infinity-edged rooftop pool. Though the resort is on the lush, relatively peaceful north coast, it's right by the all-inclusives, casinos, restaurants, shopping and 13-mile beach of Playa Dorada.
SIVORY PUNTA CANA
Sivory Beach, Punta Cana
A private beach, a spa, three restaurants (serving pretentious-sounding Art Cuisine), a wine cellar and 55 suites distinguish this new boutique from the Punta Cana pack. The smallest of those suites is 650 square feet, and all have king beds, ocean views with balconies and bathrooms with tubs for two and Etro toiletries. For not much extra, upgrade to a luxury, honeymoon or Isla Bonita suite and add a Jacuzzi or plunge pool.
__Playa Perla Marina, Cabarete
Just 11 rustic stone-walled, thatched-roof bungalows sit between jungle and beach among almond and royal palm trees—with hammocks and mini-fridges the extent of their luxuries. You'll find a rustically charming spa, an open-air restaurant, yoga classes and easily arranged jeep drives, horseback riding and kite-surfing. Ten minutes away is the almost equally new age surfer town of Cabarete.
SOFITEL NICOLAS DE OVANDO
Calle las Damas, Ciudad Colonial, Santo Domingo
You'll never sleep in an older building in the New World: This incredible structure was built in 1502 for the first governor of the Americas. Now, 104 rooms augment the stone walls with contemporary iron canopy beds, wicker armchairs and slatted blinds. Sit among the centuries-old pillars in the restaurant and frolic in the completely anachronistic pool and nightclub.
These dozen blocks are the heart and soul not just of Hispaniola but of the entire Spanish Caribbean. Many an island claims to have a fascinating, historic town, but this time believe it, and make time to see the 16th-century stone houses on the narrow cobblestone streets that housed Columbus, Cortés and Ponce de León. Disney must surely have modeled Pirates of the Caribbean on this.
ALCAZAR DE COLÓN
Plaza de España, Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo
Enhance your experience of the Zona Colonial by touring this early-16th-century Renaissance, Moorish and Gothic castle of coral and limestone. Its interiors have been re-created in impressive detail so they are just as Columbus’ son Don Diego Colón had them—it’s wildly atmospheric.
ALTOS DE CHAVÓN
3 miles east of Casa de Campo, East Coast
Tel: 809-523-2424 (amphitheater)
This Spanish Colonial cultural center is so much more than a village with crafts or some tourist souvenir joint. There’s an arts school attracting up-and-coming painters, ceramicists, textile artists, dancers and musicians from all over who sell their work here, a 5,000-seat amphitheater with a Cirque de Soleil-meets-Carmen Miranda spectacular called Kandela, a museum and several restaurants.
LIGA DE BÉISBOL STADIUM
You can catch the next Sammy Sosa on his rise to fame at a pro Winter League game (October through January) in the capital's Liga de Béisbol Stadium, featuring not only Dominican and Puerto Rican Triple-A hopefuls but also Norte Americanos major leaguers.
CASA DE CAMPO
Everyone does a sunset canter down the beach—you can do something quite different. The 250-acre Equestrian Center at the island's premier resort hosts international polo matches during the October to June season, but it also gives private polo lessons for a remarkably reasonable rate. If your horsemanship isn't up to it, you can take a carriage ride for two—or enjoy a sunset trail ride on the beach.