Las Américas Highway runs east along the coast from Santo Domingo to La Romana. Midway are well-established beach resorts such as Juan Dolio, and inland, Sammy Sosa’s hometown, San Pedro de Macorís. Much farther east are Punta Cana and Bávaro, glorious beaches on the sunrise side of the island. At the end of the highway lies the luxurious Casa de Campo resort (along with its marina and shopping village, Altos de Chavón) and its airport, both in La Romana. There are some gems among the small number of resorts in Bayahibe and Dominicus Americus. But Bayahibe Bay, all juxtaposed with fishing villages, is idyllic and truly memorable.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Columbus dropped anchor here in 1494, and Puerto Rican fishermen founded the town in the middle of the 19th century. Now many of the local fishermen either moonlight or have totally given up their poles and nets to skipper the speedboats that bring tourists back from Isla Saona. The small fishing village has flourished in modern times by embracing tourism, and in town Italian immigrants have opened gelato stands and seafood restaurants. Some vestiges remain from earlier times, including the green wooden church on the waterfront, constructed in 1925. It is from this church that a picture of the Virgin Divine Shepherdess, patron saint of Bayahibe, is carried at the front of the annual marine procession. Between the church and the nearby school, an archaeological dig is ongoing, uncovering artifacts from pre-Taíno dwellers, who were potters, as well as an old circular house.
The Boca Chica resort area is immediately east of Las Américas International Airport. A seasoned destination, Boca Chica is popular mainly with Dominicans and Europeans. Since it’s the best beach area near Santo Domingo, it had long been popular with capitaleños (residents of Santo Domingo) who considered this a chic place to sun and frolic on the light sand beach, their children splashing safely in the calmest of water. In the 1960s, when all beaches were declared public domain, the tide changed, and the scene went quickly downhill. The crowded, dusty town had become too boisterous and raunchy, the nighttime scene dodgy and dangerous, sex tourism being the primary reason. The good news is that now after 7 pm the city shuts down the main drag, Avenida Duarte, to vehicular traffic. So while there is still some daylight, it can be fun to have a cold beer at one of the makeshift bars, and rows of food stands sell cheap Dominican dishes, the best of which are fried fish (usually bones in), served Boca Chica–style with a criolla onion sauce, and tostones (fried green plantains). Just be aware that hygiene is always a question mark at these stands.
Like Boca Chica, Juan Dolio is a story of boom and bust. The resort area began life as a pristine beach and developed into the place for capitaleños to go on the Southeast Coast for sun and sea. When the Europeans discovered it, the all-inclusive resorts started springing up. In the early 1990s it was a pioneer in the all-inclusive concept, which caught on immediately, and no sooner was the blaze ignited than North Americans started to jump on it as well. But as soon as Punta Cana became the newer hot spot, the turistas started to abandon Juan Dolio for its newer, more luxurious AIs and long expanses of palm-studded beach—with white sand, at that.
Neither pretty nor quaint, La Romana has a central park, an interesting market, a couple of good restaurants, banks and small businesses, a public beach, and Jumbo, a major supermarket. If you are staying for a week or more you may want to buy a Dominican cell phone at Jumbo. It’s a mere $20 for a basic one, plus minutes. It can save you untold money if you’ll be making local calls from your hotel/resort. It is, at least, a real slice of Dominican life. Casa de Campo is just outside La Romana, and other resorts are found in the vicinity of nearby Bayahibe. Although there are now more resorts in the area, this 7,000-acre luxury enclave put the town on the map. Casa de Campo Marina, with its Mediterranean design and impressive yacht club and villa complex, is as fine a marina facility as can be found anywhere; the shops and restaurants at the marina are a big draw for all tourists to the area.
SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS
The national sport and the national drink are both well represented in this city, an hour or so east of Santo Domingo. Some of the country’s best baseball games are played in Tetelo Vargas Stadium. Many Dominican baseball stars have their roots here, including George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Jose Río, and Sammy Sosa. The Macorís Rum distillery is on the eastern edge of the city. From 1913 through the 1920s this was a very important town—a cultural center—and mansions from that era are being restored by the Office of Cultural Patrimony, as are some remaining vestiges of 16th-century architecture and the town’s cathedral, which has a pretense to Gothic architecture, even gargoyles. There is a nice promenade (the Malecón) along the port, and by night the beer and rum kiosks come alive. The Dominicans, Europeans, and now North Americans, who take self-catering apartments or condos in Juan Dolio, frequent San Pedro since it has the closest supermercados (Jumbo, Iberia—which also has a big pharmacy) and other small businesses.
ALTOS DE CHAVÓN
Altos de Chavón is a re-creation of a 16th-century Mediterranean village on the grounds of the Casa de Campo resort, where you can find a church, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, nightspots, and souvenir shops, and a 5,000-seat amphitheater for concerts grouped around a cobbled square. At the Altos de Chavón Art Studios you can find ceramics, weaving, and screen prints made by local and resident artists. Extra special is the Jenny Polanco Project. A top Dominican fashion designer, she has made an outlet for Dominican, Haitian, and Caribbean craftsmen to sell their wares, from Carnival masks to baskets and carved plates. Tienda Batey sells fine linens handcrafted by women from the sugar plantation bateys (poor villages).
CASA DE CAMPO MARINA
Casa de Campo’s top-ranked marina is home to shops and international boutiques, galleries, and jewelers scattered amid restaurants, banks, and other services. The chic shopping scene includes Luxury Shops Carmen Sol and Kiwi St. Tropez for French bathing suits. Polanco-Leon with Dominican designer Jenny Polanco’s has resort wear, purses, and jewelry as well as Bibi Leon’s tropical-themed home accessories. There’s also a marvelous Italian antiques shop, Nuovo Rinascimento, and Club Del Cigarro (Fumo). The supermercado Nacional has not only groceries but sundries, postcards, and snacks.