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THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Dominicans will extend a gracious welcome, saying, “This is your home!” and indeed are happy to share their beautiful island bathed by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south. Among its most precious assets are 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of gorgeous beaches studded with coconut palms and sands ranging from pearl-white to golden brown to volcanic black. The Caribbean sun kisses this exotic land, which averages 82°F year-round. In recent years, the D.R. has grown up, as the all-inclusive resorts have become more upscale, and small, stellar boutique properties have opened in all of the most popular tourist areas. The level of service staff and middle management has also improved.

A land of contrasts, the Dominican Republic has mountain landscapes, brown rivers with white-water rapids, rain forests full of wild orchids, and fences of multicolor bougainvillea. Indigenous species from crocodiles to the green cockatoo, symbol of the island, live in these habitats. Bird-watchers, take note: there are 29 endemic species flying around here.

The contrasts don’t stop with nature. You can see signs of wealth, for the upper strata of society lives well indeed. In the capital, the movers and shakers ride in chauffeur-driven silver Mercedes. On the country roads you’ll be amazed that four people with sacks of groceries and a stalk of bananas can fit on a smoky old motoconcho (motorbike–taxi). This is a land of mestizos who are a centuries-old mix of native Indians, Spanish colonists, and African slaves, plus every other nationality that has settled here, from Italian to Arabic.

Accommodations offer a remarkable range—including surfers’ camps, exclusive boutique hotels, and amazing megaresorts that have brought the all-inclusive hotel to the next level of luxury. Trendy restaurants, art galleries, boutique hotels, and late-night clubs help make Santo Domingo a superb urban vacation destination. Regrettably, most Dominican towns and cities are neither quaint nor pretty, and poverty still prevails. However, the standard of living has come up along with the growth of North American tourism. Prices at all-inclusive resorts have been slowly increasing since the early aughts; however, a vacation in the D.R. can still be a relative bargain. Even the new boutique hotels are still well priced for the Caribbean. Nevertheless, government taxes on hotels and restaurants are 18%, and most non-AI hotels charge an additional 10% service charge This 28% is obviously a major budget item. Also, when making a reservation, inquire if the rates quoted include this 28%; sometimes they do, especially with the smaller properties.

The vibrant lifestyle of this sun-drenched Latin-Caribbean country, where Spanish is the national language and where people are hospitable, makes the Dominican Republic a different cultural experience. If you pick up the rhythm of life here, as freewheeling as the trademark merengue, this can be a beguiling destination.


EXPLORE THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

TRAVEL TIPS

AIR TRAVEL

You can fly nonstop to the Dominican Republic from Atlanta (Delta, Southwest), Baltimore (Southwest), Boston (JetBlue ), Charlotte (American), Chicago–Midway (Southwest), Chicago–O’Hare (American, United), Dallas–Ft. Worth (American), Detroit (Delta), Fort Lauderdale (Spirit), Miami (American), Minneapolis (Delta), New York–JFK (Delta, JetBlue), New York–Newark (United), Orlando (JetBlue), Philadelphia (American), and Washington Dulles (United). However, not all airlines fly to all the destinations in the D.R., and some flights connect in San Juan or airports throughout the United States. Many visitors fly nonstop on charter flights direct from the U.S. East Coast and Midwest, particularly into Punta Cana; these charters are part of a package and can be booked only through a travel agent.

LIAT also flies between Antigua and Santo Domingo, and Air Antilles Express flies to Santo Domingo and Punta Cana from several Caribbean destinations. Air Caraïbes flies to Santo Domingo from the French Antilles. Alas, there are no regularly scheduled domestic flights, just charters.

Airport Transfers: If you book a package through a travel agent or vacation provider, your airport transfer will almost certainly be included. If you book independently, you will have to take a taxi, rent a car, or hire a private driver-guide. DominicanShuttles.com offers drivers and private transfers in addition to scheduling domestic airline flights and excursions.

BUS TRAVEL

Privately owned buses are the cheapest way to get around the country. For example, one-way bus fare from Santo Domingo to Puerto Plata, a trip that takes 3½ hours on Caribe Tours, less on Metro Buses, a more deluxe operation, costs a fraction of what you’d pay for a taxi or rental car. Both bus lines go to Sosua, too, which takes another 15–20 minutes. There is no service to Cabarete, but taxis meet the bus and drivers are eager to take you. These bus companies make regular runs to Santiago, Puerto Plata, and other destinations from Santo Domingo. Be forewarned that air-conditioning can be frigid, and there might be a movie, possibly an American one—or not, as the equipment often is inoperable. There will be a restroom, but definitely B.Y.O. toilet paper. Be at the terminal 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure if you have a ticket. (Metro Bus now suggests an hour without a ticket.) Motoconcho-men will try to lure you for significantly less, but don’t do it, especially if you have any kind of luggage and it’s past sunset.

Frequent service from Santo Domingo to the town of La Romana is provided by Express Bus, leaving every hour on the hour from 5 am to 9 pm; however, there’s no office and no phone. Buses depart from Parque Enriquillo in the Zona Colonial. A ticket taker will take your money (in pesos) just before departure, charging double if you have large luggage. Travel time is about 1¾ hours, and as these are usually small, second-class buses, without air-conditioning, that make many stops, it is a rough ride—let it be your last choice. Once in La Romana, you can take a taxi to your resort. Espreso Baváro buses depart from Plaza Los Girasoles at Avenida Máximo Gómez at Juan Sánchez Ruiz; the buses are said to be first-class but are not. What they are is cheap. They do make a stop in La Romana. If you’re going to one of the Punta Cana resorts, you get off at the stop before the last and take a cab waiting at the taxi stand. Depending on which resort you are going to, that charge could be ten times as much as your bus ticket.

CAR TRAVEL

Driving in the D.R. can be a harrowing and expensive experience; we don’t recommend that the typical vacationer rent a car. It’s best if you don’t drive outside the major cities at night. If you must, use extreme caution, especially on narrow, unlighted mountain roads.

Driving to the Samaná Peninsula from Las Americas Airport or Santo Domingo has been made significantly easier with the new toll road, which has the time down to about two hours. Once in the city of Samaná or particularly Las Galeras, driving is not too arduous and especially if you don’t book into an all-inclusive, you might want a car for sightseeing and to drive to Las Terrenas. There the traffic and one-way streets make it more stressful, but if you’re staying on Playa Coson, you may want a car to go into town for some meals. Taxis are expensive for that—as much as US$60 round-trip. Once anywhere on the Samaná Peninsula, it is most difficult to rent a car; if an agency has to bring one from Santo Domingo, they will insist on a two-week rental in season, not to mention the delivery cost.

The new Coral Highway (Autopista del Coral), which begins between Las Americas Airport and the city, has shortened the drive time to La Romana to less than an hour. On the other end, it begins at Punta Cana’s airport and takes just 45 minutes to La Romana, less to Bayahibe. From there, three tolls are involved, only totaling 250 pesos (two are 100 pesos, the third 50), but you must have pesos.

Local agencies exist, but it is highly advisable to rent only from internationally known companies. U.S. citizens should really consider only U.S.–based chains so that if you have a problem you have easier recourse. Major agencies are in most of the island’s airports. At Las Americas International Airport, most agencies are open 7 am–11 pm.

CRUISE SHIP TRAVEL

Cruise Travel to La Romana

Ships enter the Casa de Campo International Tourist Port (Muelle Turïstico Internacional Casa de Campo). A group of folkloric dancers and local musicians, playing merengue, greets passengers as they come down the gangway. An information booth with English-speaking staffers is there to assist cruise-ship passengers; the desk is open the entire time the ship is in port.

It is a 15-minute walk into the town of La Romana, or you can jump into a waiting taxi. It’s safe to stroll around town, but it’s not particularly beautiful, quaint, or even historic; however, it is a real slice of Dominican life. Most people just board the complimentary shuttle and head for the Casa de Campo Marina and/or Altos de Chavón, both of which are within the Casa de Campo resort. Shuttles run all day long.

Taxis line up at the port’s docks, and some, but not all, drivers speak English. Staff members from the information kiosk will help to make taxi arrangements. Most rates are fixed and spelled out on a board: $15 to Casa de Campo Marina, $20 to Altos de Chavón. You may be able to negotiate a somewhat lower rate if a group books a taxi for a tour. You can also rent a car at Casa de Campo from National Car Rental; rates are expensive, usually more than $70 a day. Driving into Santo Domingo can be a hair-raising experience, and isn’t for the faint of heart, so we don’t recommend it.

Cruise Travel to Samaná

Cruise ships dock at Embarcadero in Santa Bárbara de Samaná. Tenders will take you to one of three docks, on the Malecón, referred to as the Samaná Bay Piers. The farthest is a five-minute walk from the town center.

Renting a car, although possible, isn’t a good option. Driving in the Dominican Republic can be a hectic and even harrowing experience; if you are in port for only one day, don’t risk it. You’ll do better if you combine your resources with friends from the ship and share a taxi to do some independent exploring. Negotiate prices, and settle before getting in the taxi. To give you an idea of what to expect, a minivan that can take eight people will normally charge $90 for the round-trip to Las Terrenas, including a two-hour wait while you explore or enjoy the beach. Similarly, you’ll pay $80 to travel to Las Galeras round trip. Many of the drivers speak some English. Within Samaná, rickshaws are far less costly and are also fun. Called motoconchos de carretas, they are not unlike larger versions of the Thai tuk-tuk, but can hold up to six people. The least you will pay is RD$10. They’re fine for getting around town, but don’t even think about going the distance with them.

Cruise Travel to Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo has two stellar cruise-ship terminals and has become a growing port for cruise passengers, despite the sluggish economy.

The Don Diego Terminal is on the Ozuma River, facing the Avenida del Puerto, and across the street are steps that lead up to the main pedestrian shopping street of the Zona Colonial, Calle El Conde. A lovely yellow-and-white building, with stained-glass windows and faux gaslights, it has a small cafeteria, and potted palms soften the cordoned-off lines where passengers wait to have their tickets checked and go through immigration. The reception area has telephones, Internet access, and a currency exchange. Just down the dock is an ATM; in front of that is a counter where you can get cold drinks and snacks.

The Sans Souci Terminal complex, diagonally across the Ozama River from Don Diego Terminal, on Avenida España, has been operational since 2010, but this long-term redevelopment project is still a work in progress. Its mezzanine level accommodates immigration and customs, duty-free shops, and both Internet and information centers. Like the Port of Don Diego, it has stunning lighting systems that cover the exterior and perimeter areas for greater security and visibility for visitors. When completed, the complex will have finished its marina, and have a full complement of stores, a 122-acre real-estate development, a new sports arena, and more. This major project is aimed at integrating the port area and the Zona Colonial to create an appealing destination for cruisers, yachtsmen, and high-end tourists.

Airport Transfers for Cruise Passengers:

If you are embarking in Santo Domingo, you should fly into Las Américas International Airport (SDQ), about 15 miles (24 km) east of downtown. On arrival, you will have to pay US$10 in cash for a tourist tax. Transportation into the city is usually by taxi; figure on $40 to or from hotels on the Malecón or in the Zona Colonial. You’ll be greeted by a melee of hawking taxi drivers and sometimes their English-speaking solicitors (who expect to be tipped, as do the freelance porters who will undoubtedly scoop up your luggage). If you’re spending a night or two in Santo Domingo before a cruise, you can arrange a driver through www.dominicanshuttles.com or possibly through your hotel, so that you’ll be met with someone holding a sign with your name. (It’s worth the extra $10 or so to avoid the hassle.) If you’re going straight to your cruise ship, do consider taking the cruise line’s prearranged transfer. When you disembark from your ship, expect long lines at check-in, and be sure to give yourself a full two hours for check-in and security. The government departure tax should be included in your airline ticket.

MOTOCONCHO TRAVEL

Motoconchos are a popular and inexpensive mode of transportation in such areas as Puerto Plata, Sosúa, and Cabarete. You can flag down one of these motorcycle taxis along rural roads and in town; rates vary from RD$50 per person for a short run to more than RD$200 between Cabarete and Sosúa (double after 6 pm). However, particularly at night, the safety factor escalates considerably.

TAXI TRAVEL

Wherever you are, hotel taxis are generally the best and safest option, although they can be expensive. Carry small bills; drivers rarely have change; some destinations have rather high minimum fares. Always let your hotel or restaurant call a taxi for you. Don’t use “street” or gypsy taxis, which are often in poor repair and can be a security risk. Recommendable radio-taxi companies in Santo Domingo are Tecni-Taxi (which also operates in Puerto Plata) and Apolo. Most taxis will also carry you out of town and will have rate charts for major destinations; just be aware that these private taxi transfers can be expensive (well over US$100) for a destination that’s less than hour away and more for destinations further afield.

DominicanShuttles provides safe and reliable long-distance private taxi service, but trips must be arranged in advance online (as little as 24 hours or as much as weeks in advance in the case of a long-distance airport transfer).

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Never drink tap water in the D.R. (look for a hotel or restaurant that has earned an H for food-service hygiene or that has a Crystal America certification). Don’t buy food or even juice from the street vendors.

Dengue, chikungunya, and zika have all been reported in Martinique. We recommend that you protect yourself from these mosquito-borne illnesses by keeping your skin covered and/or wearing mosquito repellant. The mosquitoes that transmit these viruses are as active by day as they are at night.

Although crime rates in the D.R. can be high, violent crime is rare against tourists. Nevertheless, poverty is everywhere in the D.R., and petty theft, pickpocketing, and purse snatching are an increasing concern, particularly in Santo Domingo. Pay attention, especially when leaving a bank or casino. Take hotel-recommended taxis at night.

HOTELS AND RESORTS

All-inclusives: All-inclusive resorts predominate in Punta Cana and some other areas, and some of them are quite luxurious.

Condos: In places like Playa Dorada, apart-hotels and classy condos are now popular.

Small Hotels: Sosúa and Cabarete still have a few charming independent inns and small resorts

TRIP INSURANCE

Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.

Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.