In what feels like another lifetime, I first visited the Dominican Republic now over a decade ago. It was all about unwinding and hitting the country’s northern most beaches in Puerto Plata. There, I rented a small bungalow and didn’t migrate very far from the nearby beaches where I ate fish and pineapple, brought to me by locals who came to my door with their freshest catch of the day at around 3. I lounged in hammocks, rented a bike to explore the coastline, read novels and swam in the sea for about four hours day. Rest assured, Puerto Plata is one spot in the Dominican Republic where you can get a whole lotta rest and relaxation however it is much more built up today than it was when I was there.
On my most recent trip, I headed in the opposite direction, to a region called PUNTA CANA, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. While it is all about large resorts and all-inclusive hotels in this area, which makes for a great family escape, you can find some smaller luxury properties in the area or rent your own private villa if you want to escape the crowds. Be sure to read my hotel and resort write-up on the area for some recommendations based on your needs and interests. Dream weddings are also often held here, largely because of Punta Cana’s renowned silky-fine white sand and beaches with coconut palms.
Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) is the best-connected airport in the Caribbean and Central America, with flights from 26 countries. It also has a new highway which makes it easy to get out to the cultural attractions in La Romana, one of which is included in this guide. Punta Cana is also only two and a half hours from Santo Domingo, which makes it an easy day trip (also noted at the end of this guide, with some recommendations for what to see and do there). Golf lovers will appreciate its abundant golf courses and even though I didn’t hit one ball on this particular trip, I visited two courses. Cultural and music fans will want to mark March on their calendar, which is some of the best carnival in the Dominican Republic at Punta Cana Village. In addition to festivals and annual cultural festivities and events, there are some fun things to do in the sun and sand in the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana. Below, check out my top ten picks based on my most recent adventure to this Caribbean hot spot.
With these choices, how can you go wrong? I cover eco-tourism with Laguna de Bavaro and beautiful nature reserves, a day on a Private Yacht, Spa Time at Land & at Sea, a visit to Saona Island, Eating & Drinking your way along the coast, where to get Pool Time, Ballooning over sugar plantations near Verona, Getting a culture fix at Altos de Chavron, a replica of a 16th century village in nearby La Romana, Pristine Beaches and Sunset Walks, and lastly, exploring sites, museums, churches and architecture on a day trip to historical Santo Domingo. Below, is the Punta Cana Resort & Club taken from above.
Photo credit: PuntaCana.com.
Laguna de Bavaro, Nature Reserves & Adventure Parks
If you have kids in tow, there are adventure parks, zip lining, and several companies offer off-road adventures inland and to off-the-beaten-track beaches on monster trucks, jeeps, 4-wheel motorbikes or buggies. Nature seekers will love the fact that they support eco-tourism. Starting with a nature reserve located inside the Puntacana Resort & Club, you’ll be able to explore trails that meander through tropical forests around 12 lagoons, most of which are swimmable. There is even one with a diving platform. The Segway tour to this attraction includes a visit to the Puntacana Ecological Foundation with their beekeeping and worm composting projects.
In the ever so lush Laguna de Bavaro, you can go kayaking, take small boat rides, take a hike or go bird watching through mangroves and wetlands in an protected area. The lagoon alone covers 1.15 square miles in size and is incredibly beautiful and pristine.
Photo credit: Panoramio
Below, Laguna Bavaro from above.
Photo credit: Turismo Azul
Bavaro Adventure Park is the area’s newest entertainment park with skywalker, skydiver, zorbing, CrazyBall, Segway tours, pirate ship, climbing garden, bungee trampoline jumping, paintball, and an animatronic dinosaur park, all great options if you’re traveling with kids.
Rent a Private Yacht
There’s no better sense of independence and owning your own schedule than to rent your own boat with a captain and crew. Punta Cana Yacht Charters offer the largest selection of private yacht charters, boat rentals, catamaran rentals, and fishing charters in Punta Cana. Some of these boats and catamarans go out on daily excursions and some are only available for private charters but they have options for dinner and lunch on the beach, at private beach clubs and/or waterfront restaurants, extra hours, snorkeling and swimming off the boat. They also offer a variety of national alcoholic drinks and top shelf drinks, along with snacks, hors d’oeuvres and cakes for special occasions. It was a fabulous way to spend the afternoon, from relaxing on the front deck and meditating with the breeze blowing in our faces to sipping champagne and swimming off the boat in shallow waters. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story….
Our captain also knew how to walk with a bottle of champagne on his head — opened!
Inna, Jenn and I take time for a l’il breathing and meditation on the front of the boat.
Get Your Spa on at Sea & On Land
In Punta Cana, they offer a unique 3 hour excursion on a double deck boat designed to be a SAILING SPA. From bio-pilates exercises while you cruise the calm and crystal clear waters to doing a low key yoga class on the deck, it’s a relaxing excursion. The Bio-Pilate Class focuses on several stretching and breathing exercises while you take in the view of the Bavaro-Punta Cana coast. Afterwards, you are given an individualized massage on the lower deck in private cubicles, all of which have ocean views. It includes a head massage, and full back massage, including foot massage and some stretching. Then, you can hang out on their floating mattresses in a natural pool where you can also opt to swim if you’d like (I did)!
Below, our yoga instructor leads a class.
They have a Buddha in the middle of the boat, just to set the right mood of course.
In the offices of Ocean Spa before we set out to sea.
Outside the spa boat, our group relaxes on blow up rafts in pristine crystal clear waters.
They are known here for Dr. Fish, which kicks off the experience before you hit the boat. If you’ve never had it done before, it’s essentially a Feet Exfoliation treatment. The tiny fish called Garra Rufa will gently exfoliate your feet while you watch in amazement the whole process. The Dr Fish gently exfoliate your feet by removing the dead skin creating the feeling of a gentle massage and leaving your feet rejuvenated and soft to the touch. Dr Fish secrete enzymes called Dithranol which improves skin regeneration. Note that Dithranol is found in creams or products used to help obtain smooth soft skin.
They also do a detox foot treatment on the boat, which is essentially a therapy aimed to improve among other things, liver and kidney function through an electromagnetic detoxification process carried out on the feet. The treatment is activated with an array placed in the water, which causes ionization of the water and allows detoxification through the feet, which are a natural detox output because they have over 200 large pores. During the excursion, natural juices and fresh fruits will be served, as well as natural herbs infusions. Toward the end of the excursion, they offered us sandwiches and salad along with a glass of white wine.
The below shot was taken inside the spa at Punta Cana CHIC Hotel. Their on-site ROYAL SPA is a full-service health facility which features a hydrotherapy circuit and a full-range of massage, body and facial treatments. The spa facility is massive and boasts dipping pools inside darkly lit quarters with candles and relaxing lounge chairs.
Head to Saona Island for the Day
Beautiful Saona Island is a tropical island located a short distance from the mainland on the south-east tip of the Dominican Republic. It is also government protected nature reserve and is part of East National Park. You can do a more traditional tour or you can opt to rent a private yacht or sailboat like we did (see above). The Island is famous for the natural beauty of its beaches, and has been used on many occasions by film-makers and advertisers looking for a stereotypical ‘desert island’ setting for their film or product. Another fun tidbit worth noting is that it is apparently the setting they used for the famous Bounty chocolate bar adverts.
The water around the Island are rich in wildlife, with many species of birds and tropical marine fish, and there are large areas where natural sandbars offshore bring the depth to just a few feet. It’s a great place to find massive starfish on the bottom of the ocean, easy to spot if you bring a snorkeling mask with you.
Apparently the island was baptized “Saona” by Christopher Columbus, who discovered it in may 1494 on his way to the Americas. The name was meant to honor the commune of Savona, where Columbus lived at the time. Columbus named Michele da Cuneo, his friend and a savonese himself, first governor of the island. Saona Island and the modern city Savona, in Italy, still have twinning relationships; the small power plant in Saona Island is a gift of Savona. We had time for a lobster luncheon with salads and pasta. Of course, there were cocktails on offer as well, from Pina Caladas and Margaritas to beer and wine. I loved the enormous and abundant palm trees on the island, a feature I can never get enough of…..
There are also lounge chairs, hammocks and beds facing the ocean you could use to relax and take it all in…
Above two shots of me, courtesy of Nick Argires for the Ministry of Dominican Republic Tourism
Private yachts, chartered boats and catamarans anchor just off shore while people go in for the day to sunbathe, swim and walk along the coast. The beaches are ever so lush and the palm trees overarching in that paradise kinda way….
As for those starfish I mentioned earlier? You will find them but be careful to protect them — we tossed this one back after only a few seconds out of the water to make sure it lived.
Eat & Drink Along the Coast
The Caribbean is known for its fresh fish and holiday cocktails and the Dominican Republic doesn’t disappoint. Below, the Corazon Espinado is made with Tequila, Don Julio, OJ, Cointreau and smoked sea salt, and then garnished with saffron and dehydrated orange peels — it was enjoyed at EPIK Restaurant inside the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana. Be sure to read my foodie journey through Punta Cana.
Then There’s Pool Time
Below, taken at the Punta Cana CHIC Hotel, an all inclusive that caters to adults. Be sure to read my hotel and resort write-up, which includes more details on Punta Cana CHIC, Hard Rock Hotel and Casa de Campo as well as other luxe properties in the region.
While the below pool isn’t to swim in, it is too beautiful not to post — Hard Rock Hotel Punta Cana does have 13 swimming pools to choose from including a couple of adult-only pools.
Below, hammocks around one of the adult only pools…
Below is the pool at the ever so luxe Caso de Campo…
Balloon Over Sugar Plantations
We had a blast with Luis Leonardo who is not only the most experienced balloon pilot in the country but the owner and operator of Dominican Balloons, which is apparently the only balloon rides company in the Caribbean. They’re proud to boast no accident in their 14 year history and this could be because Luis follows the wind patterns, which means that you don’t always take off and land at the same time or in the same spot. He informs us that balloons need stable winds to operate effectively and the hours just following sunrise are the best for finding these winds so dusk is when they take off. Since balloons move with the air, the weather is very important in deciding to whether or not to fly and Luis will change launch sites depending on the wind for that morning and then fly us towards a safe and suitable landing site.
When we arrived, the sun was just on the horizon and dampness was in the air. We watched the guys prepare the balloon. The burners are attached to the uprights, and the basket is attached to the cables on the bottom of the envelope and then an engine driven fan is used to inflate the envelope with cold air. When partially inflated, the air is heated by a burner and the envelope rises above the basket. With further heating, there is sufficient ‘lift’ for the balloon to fly.
A couple of locals we ran into on a nearby dirt path near the sugar plantations.
View from above…..
While we were in the air — taken on the 360 Nano gadget that I attached to my iPhone to get a full 360 degree view.
Below, more views from the air.
On the dirt road where we landed.
The sugar plantations off in the distance after we landed. You typically travel around 15 miles, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the wind. The balloon also flies at different altitudes and although the balloon is at the mercy of the wind when it comes to direction, the vertical control of a balloon can be very precise. It is not unusual to brush the bottom of the basket across the tops of brush, or inches from the ground, which we did on many occasions during our morning balloon ride. We were in a rural area just outside the town of Veron, which is a major town in the area, and what they refer to as a spontaneous – and poor – urban development running along the original road from the west. Verón, last name of the French proprietor of a timberline business in the early 1930s, is now the base-city for hotel and resort workers in the area. Veron has, besides Bávaro, one of the only four gas stations in Punta Cana.
Altos de Chavon & Outdoor Amphitheater
Altos de Chavón is a re-creation of a 16th century mediterranean style European village located atop the Chavón River in La Romana — you can stay at the hotel which is part of the property as well and I included it (with photos) in my hotel & resort guide of the area. It was apparently designed by a Hollywood set designer to look like a medieval village from halfway across the world using the stones of a blasted mountain. His idea was to use the leftover stones from the demolition of the mountain to recreate an entire village that would celebrate the artisans of the Dominican Republic. It took six years to be completed but thanks to the efforts of a small army of regional artisans, the village was handcrafted using era-appropriate techniques including woodworking and stone-cutting, to make it as authentic as possible.
There is also an art school located in the hilltop village devoted to young artists and artisans and we had an opportunity to have a private tour of the school (and library) during our stay. Even though Altos de Chavron is a fabricated village, it’s incredibly charming and makes it feel as if you’re stepping back into medieval times. I loved the on-site historical church as well, where they also hold weddings from time-to-time.
Altos de Chavón also hosts a cultural center, an archeological museum, and a wide stone outdoor amphitheater, which can seat around 5,000 people. Needless to say, it’s an impressive site and I only wished we had an opportunity to see a performance here. This architectural wonder has been the setting for countless concerts, events, and performances since its opening in 1982, including Frank Sanatra, Sting, Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Gloria Estefan, Alejandro Fernández, Marc Anthony, Spyro Gyra, Michel Camilo, Juan Luis Guerra, Air Supply, Julio Iglesias, and Placido Domingo to name a handful.
We were able to watch some of the guys weave mats using traditional machinery below.
It’s worth bringing up LARIMAR, largely because it’s a rare blue variety of the silicate mineral pectolite and is only found in the Dominican Republic. Also referred to as “Stefilia’s Stone”, its color is mesmerizing and given that I collect stones and gems from around the world, I couldn’t help but pick up some jewelry and loose stones. They sold it at one of the shops in the village, but you can also pick them up from one of the guys who sell them from a stand on the beach — we also saw them running around the beaches on Saona Island as well and you could get a stone on a necklace for around $15 (with steel fixtures) however they well exceeded $100 if you wanted sterling silver.
Pristine Beaches & Romantic Sunsets
The province of Punta Cana has a 100 kilometer coastline, which was pretty windy when we were there in December. That said, the temperatures were mild so still warm enough to swim. The ocean waters are pretty shallow, with several natural marine pools. From north to south, the main beaches are Uvero Alto, Macao, Arena Gorda, Bávaro, El Cortecito, Las Corales and Cabeza de Toro, all north of the cape; and Cabo Engaño, Punta Cana and Juanillo south of the cape. Below, on the beach in front of Hard Rock Hotel, the largest all inclusive hotel along the coast with nearly 2,000 rooms.
The beach in front of Punta Cana CHIC
Below, the sunset on the beach in front of Punta Cana CHIC.
On the beach in the VIP section at Hard Rock Hotel
Outside a private dinner just outside Punta Cana
At Altos de Chavon, the 16th century village replica at sunset which is in nearby La Romana.
At dusk, setting up the balloon to soar above Dominican Republic sugar plantations…
In the rural countryside at sunset….
Take a Day Trip to Santo Domingo
If you’re a history buff, then you’ll want to head to Santo Domingo, which is not only the capital of the Dominican Republic but it is also oldest European city in the Americas and has made the UNESCO World Heritage List. You’ll want to get an early start since it’s about a 2.5 hour drive each way and I’d recommend taking a small van with plenty of windows so you can get out for photos along the way.
Founded by Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartolome Colombus in 1496, it was the first seat of the Spanish colonial empire in the New World. The city is divided into two parts by the Ozama River; the western side is very developed economically, whereas the eastern part, known as “Santo Domingo Este,” has historically lagged behind. The most important tourist destination of the city is the Zona Colonial or Colonial Zone, on the western bank of the river and facing the Caribbean Sea. To the west of the Zona Colonial lies Gazcue, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, filled with old Victorian houses and tree-lined streets and the city’s waterfront George Washington Avenue, knows as “El Malecon,” borders the Caribbean Sea and houses the majority of the hotels, casinos, and monuments. Surrounding this Gazcue area, you can explore the Palacio Nacional (seat of the Dominican government), the National Theater, the Museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, churches and the Palace of Fine Arts.
Photo credit: Wikitravel.org.
In the less developed Oriental Santo Domingo you will find other major monuments and tourist spots, such as Columbus’s Lighthouse, where the explorer’s remains are buried, the open caves of the Parque Nacional Los Tres Ojos, and the National Aquarium. The city is highly cosmopolitan with a ton of culture, a deep history, great restaurants, nightlife and sweeping urban views.
Photo credit: Instagram: Dronestagram
One fun area to walk through is Calle del Conde, a very old pedestrian shop-lined street which leads to the Puerta de la Independencia, where the Dominican Republic proclaimed its independence from Haiti, and the Parque Independencia, where the country’s founding fathers’ remains are kept. Every Sunday, they apparently have live bands playing Merengue, Bachata, Salsa and Son at the Ruinas de San Francisco and then later, you can stroll along La Atarazana where there are many romantic outdoor cafes, including a brasserie called Pat E Palo,which has been around since 1505.
The Malecon (George Washington Avenue) runs along the waterfront and is a great place to people watch. If you’re a festival lover, be sure to check out some of the events they have throughout the year so you can plan your trip accordingly. Plaza de la Cultura, as noted above, is home to the National Theater and five museums, and home to exhibits by artists from Jamaica, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and of course, the Dominican Republic.
Then there’s Parque Mirador Sur, which is a lovely park where you can take kids or rent bikes. Nature lovers will also love the Jardin Botanico, another lush park in the city, that boasts different ecosystems from rainforests to a Japanese garden. If you want upscale, go to the Piantini and Naco neighborhoods where you can get some high end boutiques, shopping plazas, chic cafes and restaurants with international culinary experiences. From decadent fashion and cigar shops to Ferrari and Bentley, they’ve got you covered. The nearby Blue Mall, is a large shopping mall with a Hard Rock Cafe, Louis Vuiton, Cartier, Tous and L’Occitane. Sweet lovers shouldn’t miss La Cuchara de Madera for dulce de leche “Piramides”.
A useful link for all things culture, history, nature, beaches, shopping, nightlife, food, accommodation and more can be found at http://www.godominicanrepublic.com. Watch my video on Punta Cana compilation below for a whole lotta fun in the sun:
Note: I was a guest of the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
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