Tropical vacations are beyond ideal… There's the lush landscape, brilliant blue waters, glimmering sunshine, vibrant local culture, delicious food, and relaxed island pace. Today we're highlighting a Caribbean destination that packs offers all that and then some: the Dominican Republic. As one of the most geographically robust islands in the region, there's never a dull moment here, so it's no wonder that it's the most popular destination in the Carribean.
To learn about the best things to do in the Dominican Republic from someone who knows it well, we tapped Alicia Johnson, Lonely Planet's Central America and Caribbean destination editor. Whether you're craving an urban experience, a mountainside adventure, or a coastal retreat, her insider tips will give you the Caribbean vacation you've been dreaming of.
An Exciting City Excursion in Santo Domingo
What to Do: In the country's capital city, you'll find everything from historic colonial architecture and charming cobblestone streets to a bustling design and culinary scene. Make sure you visit the Catedral Primada de América and explore Zona Colonial. And don't miss out on the nightlife while you're there.
"Whether it's an impromptu neighborhood block party or a swanky hotel nightclub, Dominicans know how to have a good time," Johnson informs us. "Wherever you are on the island, the central square is a likely nighttime gathering place. However, the best partying is arguably to be found in Santo Domingo—capitaleños know how to let loose," she says.
Where to Stay: For 16th-century–meets-contemporary design, book a stay at Casas del XVI. Located in the center of town, this hotel is inside two houses that have been restored to their original beauty. Though you'll want to head out and explore the city, don't forget to unwind in the relaxing palm-draped courtyard. For a more modern feel that's also in a great central location, stay at Billini Hotel.
Where to Dine: "Make sure to try the Spanish-Creole fusion at Pat'e Palo as well, which never fails to impress due to the creativity of its menu: foie gras with dark beer jam, risotto in squid ink, shrimp brunoise with roasted arugula, and more," Johnson tells us.
A Blissful Beach Escape
What to Do and Where to Stay on the Southwest Coast: "The country's coastline is full of breathtaking beaches," Johnson says. Punta Cana, one of the country's buzziest resort towns, is where you should go if you're staying in the southeast region. If you're looking for a quiet spot, you can't go wrong with Bahía de Las Águilas, Johnson says.
"It's what fantasies are made out of," she adds. "Located in the remote southwestern corner of the island, it rewards those who make it there with more than six miles of nearly deserted shore and plunging cliffs. Look out for the impressive swathes of cacti and sea-diving pelican, and don't forget to bring a boatload of sunscreen." Head slightly further east to stay at the destination resort Casa Bonita.
What to Do and Where to Stay on the North Coast: For a blissful beach hideaway, head outside of Santo Domingo to Playa Grande and stay at the Amanera. The sleek architecture is even more gorgeous set against the backdrop of the cascading ocean and the pristine jungle. It has a world-class golf course, wellness treatments, and dining experiences, too.
"High season runs from December to February, so watch out for swelling crowds and hotel prices," Johnson tells us. "Weather-wise, the best time of the year to visit the Dominican Republic is in April, when you can expect sunshine but also comfortable breezes. Seafood is fresh and plentiful on the island."
What to Do and Where to Stay on the East Coast: If you want to head a couple hours north up the east coast to get off the beaten path, Johnson suggests staying at Casa El Paraíso in La Galeras. "It's an extraordinary six-room bed-and-breakfast located in La Guázuma where the Peninsula de Samaná tumbles out of the jungle into the sea below (from which, if you're lucky, you can spot whales). Room 5, nicknamed 'Africa,' is completely open on two sides, framing the jungle, the mountains, and the sea as you've never seen before. Expect to find rustic touches such as solar-heated showers and headboards made from ship rubble." A similar, larger luxury hotel we love in the area is Sublime Samana.
An Adventure in the Mountains
What to Do: Though we tend to associate it with beaches, the DR is also home to lush mountain ranges. "Every year, thousands of people travel away from the coast and to the center of the island to ascend the 10,000-foot-tall Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean," Johnson says. "You'll need a bit of luck to catch the view at the top, which is often shrouded in mist. It's strongly recommended to do the route in three days: one long slog of a day to arrive at the La Compartición campground (8000 feet), one easy day to hike up and enjoy the views (and if you're an early riser, the sunrise), and one long day to get back down. Consider adding a fourth day to do a side trip to the Valle del Tétero, a beautiful valley at the base of the mountain."
Where to Stay: "Alto Cerro is a family-owned hotel lining a hillside, perched halfway up a high bluff in the town of Constanza in the Central Highlands," Johnson says. "The balconies offer terrific views out on the valley. The villas also have kitchens for those eager to buy from a store on the premises and create their own Creole cuisine. Behind the main building is a campground for guests hoping to bring a little more adventure to their vacation."