In terms of best-in-class island destinations, the Dominican Republic has two things going for it. First, its central Caribbean location. Second, and because of the first, its rich colonial history. It’s impossible to walk the streets of its capital city without being reminded around every fabled corner that Santo Domingo was founded in the late 15th century. But the island welcoming travelers today is far from the island Christopher Columbus claimed as the New World more than five centuries ago. Since there’s so much to see, do and let’s be real, eat and drink, these days, here are eight musts to include on your itinerary. They center around two home bases: Santo Domingo for a colorful trip back into the country’s storied past and Las Terrenas for the Caribbean flair and white sand beaches you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
1. Find the casa for you at Casas del XVI
Very few hotels could close their doors to travelers and re-open the next day, offering sold-out tours of their Architectural Digest-worthy properties to the public. Casas del XVI is one of them. Technically, it’s a five-star collection of five lovingly restored 16th century casas. Each casa boasts its own courtyard space, and private butler—available at the push of a button on the cell phone you’re given at check-in. Although they all share the same colonial-meets-contemporary design aesthetic, each casa is distinct. Casa del Árbol, for example, is named for its courtyard’s mango tree—the source of the jelly served at breakfast. Inside, original marble flooring and local artwork make you feel like you’re staying in a museum-meets-gallery. Cartographers, or anyone with an affinity for vintage maps, will appreciate the theme and décor of Casa de los Mapas. If your idea of Eden includes a plunge pool surrounded by tropical plants, request a room in Casa Macorís, Casa del Diseñador or Casa Antillana. Traveling with a group or simply wanting ultimate privacy? Ask about Casas del Diseno—Casas del XVI’s latest addition to its portfolio and available only in its entirety.
2. Discover the Zona Colonial district
Located where the Caribbean meets the mouth of the Rio Ozama, Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial district was the first to be settled in the 15th On the banks of this river stands the oldest surviving European fortress. Today, UNESCO recognizes Zona Colonial as a neighborhood of New World firsts. On any of Santo Domingo’s many “city of firsts” walking tours, you’ll learn about the New World’s first hospital—St. Nicolas of Bari (est. 1503)—and its first university—Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino (est. 1538). Stroll down Calle Las Damas—the first paved road in the Americas—and you’re just a two-minute walk from the sacred limestone walls of the BasilicaCathedral of Santa María la Menor. The New World’s first cathedral, it once held the tomb of Christopher Colombus. The liveliest scene in Zona Colona is found at the vibrant Parque Colon. After exchanging your pesos for fresh coconut slices from a street vendor, relax onto a park bench in the shade and people watch. This is where the locals spend their leisure time: playing dominoes or chess, feeding the friendly resident birds or taking a break from working in the nearby shops.
3. Embrace, and taste, the tangible culture
Parque Colon is surrounded by the city’s best souvenir shops. Look for Larimor stones—ice blue gems found only in the Dominican Republic—bottles of Mamajuana—the Dominican Republic’s herbal answer to port—and of course, hand-rolled premium cigars. The only thing more fun than shopping in Zona Colonial is gallery hopping. One of the most notable galleries is Quinta Dominica—a cultural center where collections of 16th century paintings surround a courtyard. Visiting its botanical garden without nibbling on fruit from the mango and tamarind trees is considered sacrilegious so go ahead: sticky fingers are fine. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth at Kah Kow—Santo Domingo’s premier chocolatier. The family-owned farm has been producing cacao for more than 100 years. Although in a city founded in 1496, that’s to be expected.
4. Indulge in drinks, tapas and the ambiance at Lulú Tasting Bar
Pat’e Palo may be considered Santo Domingo’s MVP of fine dining, and Jalao is hands down the authority in Dominican fare. But it’s their little sister restaurant, Lulú Tasting Bar, dominating the city’s lounge space. Since it’s located in a courtyard surrounded by colonial architecture and just a stone’s throw from the oldest standing European fort in the New World, Lulú surprises unsuspecting diners with its globally-inspired contemporary menu. After scoring a seat in courtyard (or inside if you prefer AC to al fresco) start with tapas like roasted coffee ribs and pork rinds, injected tomato with cauliflower oil or quinoa fattoush topped with a balsamic reduction. As you listen to the live band or DJ mixing tunes (there’s always music in the house) sip on tropical drinks just as flavor forward and refined. Signature cocktails include the Frisky Guava—Bombay Gin, guava paste and lemon juice—and the Pineapple Posh—eight-year-old rum, white lillet, pineapple juice, lemon juice and basil syrup.
5. Check-in at Sublime Samana
From the air, Sublime Samana looks like your typical sprawling, five-star beachfront resort. Feet on the ground, it feels like you’re being enveloped by a welcoming paradise where the only stress that exists is the good kind. For example, you’ll have to make decisions. Choose between a one or two-bedroom suite or opt for more privacy and space in a two or three-bedroom casita. Deciding between the two on-site restaurants, Bistro and Beachside Grill Palapa, is also a win-win situation. (If you want romance, it’s a no-brainer on nights when Beachside hosts special events on the beach and you can eat under the lights with your toes in the sand.) If you don’t want to bother with looking at menus offering so many tempting dishes, just ask for the catch of the day or the ceviche.
6. Play in the water and unwind at the spa
There is no shortage of ways to experience Sublime Samana’s beach. The resort’s fleet of water toys—much of which is included in your nightly rate—includes paddleboards, windsurfing boards, snorkel equipment and kayaks. Should you get tired of the sun or waves, simply relax in a poolside cabana. For the resort’s ultimate in relaxation, however, sign up for a hatha yoga class or book a treatment at its Coconut Whispers Spa. Opt for an open-air massage by the beach or consider the more mysterious “Hide and Seek Ritual.” This steam bath designed to cleanse your lymphatic system is inspired by the indigenous temazcal sweat lodge experience. Of course, you can’t go wrong with the signature Coconut Whispers treatment—an invigorating 80-minute head-to-toe “sacred ritual” incorporating a Vichy shower and all-natural, locally-sourced ingredients.
7. Embark on an excursion to Limon Falls
As hard as leaving the white-sand sanctuary of Sublime Samana sounds, it’s in your Instagram’s best interest to let the resort book you on an excursion to Limon Falls. This towering cascade—more than 170-feet tall—is only accessible by horseback or on foot. And you’ll need a local guide to help navigate the rocky terrain. But the view of the top, and the dip in the refreshing swimming hole at the bottom, makes the day trip worth it. Don’t be surprised if your guide can tell you all about the colorful flora and fauna you hike or ride through. You may even get to taste it in the case of the mangoes growing above. If you’re lucky, your trip to Limon Falls will include an encounter with a local visiting this lush spot with their pet macaw.
8. Check out the scene in Las Terrenas
No trip to the Samana Peninsula is complete without getting a drink in the bustling beachfront city of Las Terrenas. Sublime Samana can book your transportation into this former fishing village. But it’s up to you to find a seat at the city’s hottest bar. Don’t be fooled by its name. Mosquito Bar is the ideal al fresco place to be, enjoying the company around you. Whether you spend your time chatting with the expats over a round of frozen strawberry margaritas or top shelf rum, dancing with the locals who come to watch to their favorite DJs spin long after sunset or simply admiring the local art adorning the walls, you won’t be disappointed in the good vibes department.