Winter Vacations in the Dominican Republic

Version: Version 1.0

Date issued: 27 Apr 08 

Author: Thomas


1           The Caribbean


In the long, dark and cold days of a Canadian winter, there is little more appealing than winging down south to a sunny clime where the ocean is warm and clothes are for protection against the sun and not the cold.  For we in Ottawa, that destination is invariably a country in the Caribbean Sea do to price and travel time constraints.


Figure 1. Destinations in the Caribbean sun (Ref B)

Of the destinations in the Caribbean sun (Figure 1) readily available from the Ottawa area, the most affordable ones are Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.   I’ve not yet visited Mexico mainly due to the desire to visit areas that are not cheek to jowl with tourists like Cancun.


2           Dominican Republic

2.1     Introduction

The Dominican Republic (Spanish: República Dominicana) is located on the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, bordering Haiti.  Hispaniola is the second-largest of the Greater Antilles islands, and lies west of Puerto Rico and east of Cuba and Jamaica.  The island was explored and claimed by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492 and on his second voyage the next year Columbus founded the first European settlement in America at La Isabela, near Puerto Plata.


Like the rest of Latin America, music and dance are important in the Dominican Republic which is home to a form of music called Merengue.


Figure 2. Dominican Republic with * resort areas visited (Ref A)

2.2     Puerto Plata (March 2005)

We flew from Ottawa to Puerto Plata is served by Gregorio Luperón International Airport, which lies about 15 km east of the city near the town La Unión.  The flights were fine but on our return I could locate the return ticket and we were going to be charged $50 each to have them reprinted.  Fortunately another luggage search turned up the missing tickets.


Puerto Plata is the capital of the Dominican province Puerto Plata.  It has a population of 130,000 people.  La Isabela, a settlement built by Christopher Columbus, is located near Puerto Plata.  East of the city are the well known resorts of Playa Dorada and Costa Dorada.  These resorts have a total of 100,000 hotel beds.

2.2.1     Puerto Plata Village Resort

We stayed at Puerto Plata Village Resort which is about a half mile inland from Playa Dorada.  It is located beside a golf course amongst an area containing tens of resorts.  There were well off Dominican nationals also stayed at this resort when we were there.  So perhaps this is an endorsement.


Playa Dorada is a nice and long golden sand beach (Figure 3) which both tourists and locals frequent.  As Puerto Plata Village is not on the beach, there is a short 5 minute trip to the beach via a small shuttle bus or a 15 minute walk. However once at the beach, there is a good beach bar and grill run by the resort.


Figure 3. Pico Isabel de Torres from Playa Dorada (left), wedding photos on Playa Dorada (right)

The beach has vendors walking back and forth trying to sell jewellery, beach wear and CDs.  They were not annoying and a simple “No gracias” was all that was needed to turn them away if one was not interested.


Figure 4. Tourist market on Playa Dorada (left), soldiers enforcing Holy Week Watersports Ban (right)


Our week in Puerto Plata coincided with Easter.  It turns out that the Dominican Republic has a Holy Week Watersports Ban during the 7 days leading up to and including the Monday after Easter Sunday.  People can swim, beaches are open, but NO watersports be it motorized or otherwise (not even snorkelling).  These rules are designed for the safety of everyone, as beaches get extremely busy during this period.  To enforce this law, the armed forces were deployed on the Playa Dorada (Figure 4). 


Of all the resorts that we stayed at, Puerto Plata Village rates amongst the best.  The staff was very good at their jobs and very friendly. The food was fine whether taken at the buffet or in one of the three ŕ la carte restaurants - La Pinata (Mexican), La Cupey (International) and La Regola (Italian).  These ŕ la carte restaurants were free (one visit per stay) but required reservation so booking early in the stay was important.  I especially enjoyed the fact that the restaurants served liquors including Amoretto.


Figure 5. An ŕ la carte restaurant (left), on the beach (right)

After the nightly entertainment, there is an on-site disco and a casino at the Jack Tar Village just across the road.  A 15 minute walk will take you to the shopping plaza in the heart of the resort area.


Figure 6. Our room in second floor of sixplex (left), resort’s musical director (right)

The two basic types of rooms are apartment-like (6 to a block) and bungalow-like ones (Figure 6).  While the bungalow-like ones are bigger and nicer, the other type is fine.  One noticeable and perhaps annoying item is the musty smell of the bed clothing probably caused by the humidity and dampness.


Apart from the beach, there was always something to do. The nightly entertainment was generally good with the animation staff putting on shows such as Cats and a tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.  We met the resort’s musical director when he was playing the piano near the reception area.  He was a Cuban exile who was an accomplished musician and performer.  His playing was interrupted when a group of older women arrived and brought along their own pianist.  One of the women excitedly explained to us in her minimal English that the pianist was a “grand master”.  Indeed he was as his mastery of the piano far exceeded that of the resort’s musical director.  The difference can be described as the difference between the experience of driving a Toyota Corolla and a Rolls Royce – both will get you to your destination but the ride is so much more luxurious in the latter.

2.2.2     Visit to Puerto Plata

We rented a cab on the main road outside of the resort area to take us on a tour of Puerto Plata.  Our first stop was at the aerial tramway, the only one in the Caribbean.  We rode it up to Pico Isabel de Torres, a 793 meter high mountain at the southern end of the city.  The top of the mountain features a botanical garden and a replica of Christ the Redeemer, the famous statue in Rio de Janeiro.


Figure 7. Tramway up Pico Isabel de Torres (left), Christ the Redeemer (right)

Figure 8. Fortaleza San Felipe (left), typical street scene (right)

After descending the tramway, we stopped briefly at the fortification Fortaleza San Felipe, which was built in the 16th century and served as a prison under Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship, lies close to the port of Puerta Plata. 


In Puerto Plata is the Museo del Ambar Dominicano with its collection of Dominican amber, fossilized resin.  Pieces of Dominican amber frequently contain insects that were trapped when the resin was still liquid (Figure 9).  In fact Dominican amber played a major part in the movie Jurassic Park, where dinosaur DNA is taken from mosquitoes embedded in Dominican amber and cloned.  Apparently the problem is that the mosquitoes in Dominican amber are approximately 30 million years old, from the Oligocene to Miocene period. The last dinosaur died out approximately 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period.


Figure 9. Insect trapped in amber

2.3     Bavaro Beach (1991 and 1993)

I traveled twice to Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana at the extreme eastern tip of the Dominican Republic.  These were my first trips to the Caribbean and I enjoyed them immensely.  The cost was about $1300 per person which is more than I’m currently paying for trips to the Caribbean.


The resorts at Punta Cana were built by Europeans for Europeans and they attract a clientele that's about 70% European or Latin American.  Many Europeans (especially Spaniards) rushed to take advantage of Punta Cana's desirable climate - within one of the most arid landscapes in the Caribbean - it rarely rains during daylight hours. Capitalizing on cheap land and the virtually insatiable desire of Europeans for sunny holidays during the depths of winter, a half-dozen European hotel chains participated in something akin to a land rush, acquiring large tracts of sugar-cane plantations and pastureland.


Figure 10. Punta Cana Airport

I flew from Ottawa to the airport serving Punta Cana which is 34km east of Higuey and 30km from Bavaro Beach.  As this was my first trip to the tropics, I found the airport buildings to be right out of a Hollywood movie (Figure 10).  The arrival/departure hall was a wooden structure with walls made of jagged ocean rocks and an impressively high thatched roof that just screamed out to tourists that they have arrived in the tropics.  This airport best captures the spirit of place of any airport I’ve been to.


It was an eye-opening 30 minutes bus ride to the Barcelo Bávaro Beach, Golf & Casino Resort as I’d never seen such as poor countryside before.  Many of the farmhouses were rundown with scrawny cattle in the fields.


Barcelo Bávaro Beach, Golf & Casino Resort was a large complex of low-rise hotels situation on one of the most desirable of the many white-sand beaches along the 32km (20-mile) coast known as Bávaro Beach.  This palm-studded beach is one of most archetypical topical beaches in the world.  The beaches are lined with thousands of African palm trees said to be grown from the coconuts that were used as ballast on Columbus' ships when he brought his family and African slaves to settle here. The coconuts were thrown from the ship when it approached the bay and have populated the entire shoreline.


This first trip south was a learning experience for me in many ways.  For example, I’d always assumed that tropical beaches au naturel were pristine with their sand glistening in the sun; however the reality was that unless the beach was raked daily, it rapidly became covered with dead sea plants washed ashore (Figure 11).  


Figure 11. Bavaro Beach au naturel (left), raked beach (right)

Bavaro Beach is protected by a long reef lying off shore.  The reef is the resting spot of a rusting shipwreck which lends it a certain air of danger.  The shipwreck is that of the freighter Astron that went down around 1980/1981.  The ship was 120 meters long.


Figure 12. The freighter Astron wreck on the reef off of Bavaro Beach

This resort is Spanish owned and caters to a large European clientele.  I had to change money as throughout the resort only Dominican Republic Pesos and not dollars were accepted.


It was also interesting to see that the daily weather pattern was so predictable.  Each day at about 1600 hours there would be a short 15 minute heavy rainfall, after which the sun would reappear.


During the first visit to the resort in 1991, I stayed in the older Garden section of the resort.  This was a four storey building.  The second stay there in 1993 was in the Golf section which had nicer rooms but a bit of a cockroach problem at night.


Figure 13. Casino at Bavaro Beach Resort (left), resort aerial view (top right), beach palms (bottom right)

Although it was an all-inclusive, there were only two meals available, the first was a breakfast that ended at 1130 hours and the second being a supper.  To bridge the gap, pastries and cookies had to be squirreled away from the breakfast sitting.  Whether it was the food or drinks, on my first visit I had a vicious case of diarrhea.  After a day of this, I was referred to the resort variety store which sold medicines including an anti-diarrhea one.  Whatever this medicine was, it was very effective and immediately shutdown the diarrhea.  Since that time, I've always included an anti-diarrhea medicine in my toiletries.


Apart from the nightly entertainment show, there was the onsite casino to visit and watch the Europeans playing at roulette and cards.


Figure 14. Local village south of the Bavaro Beach Resort

Although these trips were enjoyable, I don’t think that I’ll return since there has been an exceptional amount of resort development along Bavaro Beach which has changed the isolated nature of the resort.  And paradoxically, the isolated nature of the area does not have the interest of destinations such as Cuba and Venezuela.


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