Sep 11 2008

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Dominican Republic: a big, beautiful Caribbean jewel

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By Ted Alan Stedman

Ahh, the swaying palms, the tourmaline colored water, gentle tropical breezes and misty mountains piercing the clouds. Could be Hawaii, but I’m talking about Dominican Republic. As I plot my second dive/raft/party sortie to the DR, I’m reminded why I love this friendly Caribbean country brimming with exotic flair.

It’s not like I’m alone in my enthusiasm. Europeans and Canadians have been hitting the DR for years, although U.S. travelers not until more recently. The new El Cately International Airport, a major high-speed arterial road, plush resorts, awesome diving, fantastic golf and an envious menu of eco-sports -– what’s not to like? Here’s another reason: it’s just a two-hour ten-minute flight from Miami to the DR’s capital, Santo Domingo.

Diving paradise

Many visitors come for great diving. Clear tropical waters, abundant marine life and an intricate 800-mile coastline encircled by a protective reef guarantee it. There’s a staggering 437 cataloged shipwrecks of historical significance lying offshore as well, including 138 treasure ships, along with underground freshwater caves and caverns serviced by dive operators.

Divers could spend years exploring the DR’s waters. On the south central Caribbean coast, the family- and couple-friendly Juan Dolio is a stronghold of tourism and a popular dive area that has 25 named recreational dive sites within 15 minutes. Just east of Santo Domingo near the reef-protected lagoon off Boca Chica, divers can visit the well-known wrecks of Hickory and Limon at La Caleta Underwater Park.

Off the southeast shore from La Romana lies Isla Catalina, an island outpost in the Parque Nacional Este marine park where endangered West Indian manatees and bottlenose dolphins cavort. East and also accessible from La Romana sits the impressive Saona Island, similarly protected in the marine park. Go overboard here and chances are good for spotting turtles, nurse sharks, occasional whales, along with some of the DR’s most magnificent coral formations.

Head to the north Atlantic coast and divers will have a wildly different experience. Near Puerto Plata, Sosua offers some of the north coast’s best bubble-blowing in the form of underwater safaris that include whale sharks, manta rays, dolphins and humpback whales. Another untamed area is the Samana Peninsula. Plan a visit from January through March and you’ll see why the World Wildlife Fund considers the peninsula to be one of the world’s prime humpback breeding grounds -– 5,000 were recorded in one season.

You’ll see tourism’s growing prominence in the profusion of specialized resorts, hotels and other facilities coming on-line in the past decade. The new Xtreme Hotel in the kiteboarding capital of Cabarete caters to the sport’s followers. Families with teenagers are heading to the Club Med for an attraction called "The Ramp," designed for skateboarding teens and obliging parents.

Golf and gambling

And of course there’s golf. Plan ahead and book tee times on any of the 21 golf courses designed by legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer that are sprinkled throughout the DR. A couple notables are the new Tom Fazio-designed Corales and Jack Nicklaus-designed Punta Espada golf courses, each flanked by ritzy resorts and country clubs. Gambling casinos are in no shortage either, having sprouted along the north, east and south central coastlines. The DR is also doubling the number of full-service marinas –- including the new Cap Cana Harbor and Marina that will be the largest mega-yacht marina in the Caribbean, able to host over 500 yachts up to 150-foot.

If you want room to explore intriguing historical sights and happening city districts full of spicy Latin-flavored flair, you’ve come to the right place. In Santo Domingo, the first city established in the New World by Europeans, stroll the vibrant Colonial Zone that was originally built by Christopher Columbus’ brother. Don’t miss the Ozama fortress and palace of the Spanish court, then visit the Columbus Lighthouse, where the explorer’s remains are entombed. The National Aquarium is another city favorite, where you walk through the underwater Plexiglas tunnel traversing the huge fish tank.

Coffee connoisseurs can drive a couple hours west to Bani and the Museo del Café Dominican to learn about and sample rich Dominican coffee. While there, give sandboarding a try on the nearby Bani Dunes, 10 square miles of yellow sand –- the largest in the Caribbean. Nature lovers can take in sights of Parque Nacional Jaragua, sanctuary for the largest year-round flamingo population in the DR. In the same region and north of San Cristobal, the Cuevas de Borbon is a definite must-see. The series of 40 interconnecting caves includes Cuevas de El Pomier, a section containing more than 5,000 petroglyphs and several thousand Amerindian wall paintings.

In the island’s interior lies Parque Jose del Carmen Ramirez, where organized three-day climbs in the "Dominican Alps" up Pico Duarte put you on this highest point in the Caribbean. Or give whitewater rafting a go on the Yaque del Norte River with tours from the charming, woodsy Rancho Baiguate in Jarabocoa. If you want to swim with dolphins, visit the well-done Ocean World Adventure Park in Puerto Plata.

No visit to the DR would be complete without a nod to the country’s signature libation, so take a tour of the Brugal Rum Factory from Puerto Plata on the north coast and see why DR rum gets rave reviews. Head east along the north coast and you’ll see the colorful kites off Cabarete, known as the kiteboarding capital of the world. Lessons are for the asking, but even if zooming across the water tethered to a humongous kite isn’t your thing, you’ll enjoy the colorful beach houses, whimsical bars and decidedly Jimmy Buffett vibe that permeates this colorful town.

Here are some of my photos from the Dominican Republic:

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Related Orbitz resources:

By ski, bike, kayak, safari vehicle and on foot, Ted
Alan Stedman has journeyed in six continents and hopes to soon close in on
number seven: Antarctica. The Dever-based writer is a formerski journalist for the Rocky Mountain News, and these days
is a regular contributor to Sport
Diver
, Islands,
Sunset, Outside and Outdoor Photographer
magazines.

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