I am a travel snob. I admit this without denial or reservation. When it comes to where I travel I am somewhat of a pain in the ass. I don’t do Cancun. I don’t do Nassau Paradise Island. Basically, I don’t do anything that with other, large groups of Americans that isn’t actually in America. I’d say I don’t judge those who do, but I do. Like I said, I’m somewhat of a snob.
However, like any other prejudice, it always leads to misconceptions and misunderstandings. And recently my judgments have been rolled up nicely into a tight little ball, put into a pipe, and handed to me to smoke my own arrogance. This was my first foray into the Dominican Republic, where I have learned to eat my words, happily, with a side of rice, fried plantains and a cold Presidente.
Before I actually set foot on the island of Dominican Republic, here’s what I knew of it: Punta Cana. Yep, that’s about it. Oh, and the country shares a border with Haiti. But as far as I knew the reasons people went to the Dominican Republic could be found on the sugary shores of Punta Cana’s all-inclusive resorts. All-you-can-eat, umbrella’d bevvies, with a side of casinos and cheesy nightlife. So I wrote it off as another sandbar destination with American hotel chains and lobster-backed tourists who didn’t really care about visiting the destination beyond the borders of the pool deck.
How the mighty have fallen. Because my first introduction to the Dominican Republic was along its rugged southwest coast, where not only did I learn to not hate on the DR...I actually became borderline obsessed with it. And here’s why you need to go right now.
Beautiful Boutique Hotels
You aren’t going to find the 4,000-room all-inclusive mega resorts along this coast (um, thank god). Instead what you’ll discover are small, locally-owned, often family-run hotels that are far more intimate and exotic.
Casa Bonita Tropical Lodge in Barahona province, for example, is almost unbelievable. The property was once the family summer home of the now-owner who transformed it into this verdant retreat. It appears as if from nowhere, perched atop a dusty road that curves away from the coastal highway. Backed by jungle, with an infinity pool in front that offers a seamless view to the sea, it’s basically an orgy of visuals. Especially if you like sunrises (and you’re probably not a monster so I assume you do), in which case it’s worth the early wake up call to catch the sky explode in a blaze of purples and oranges as the sun rises up over the sea and pool creating the illusion that the sky is literally everywhere. Top that.
Oh, and if that was not enough, the jungle backwoods has an impressive river hiking trail, which is not for the faint of heart, as it criss-crosses in and out of the river, up and around boulders, finally emerging to a secret swimming hole surrounded by rock caves that are open to the sky.
Then there’s Rancho Platon, a sprawling colony of lodges tucked high up in the mountainous jungle, also in Barahona. A death-defying 4x4 ride up a rocky mountain path is totally worth the massive anxiety for the arrival. What’s great about Rancho Platon is that it seems like it hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be, but in a way that is incredibly charming. Luxe log cabins and treehouses pop out of the jungle, with winding pathways peppered with waterfalls. A mini “aqua park” sits out front the main lodge restaurant, with a rope swing. A waterslide is also allegedly somewhere on the property, as are opportunities for horseback riding and tubing. It’s basically like summer camp but minus all the trauma.
You Can Glamp
Glamping is a silly word. But for those of you who like the idea of nature but not exactly smelling...natural...it could be a really good option. And once you feast your eyes on Eco del Mar in Pedernales province, even the camping purists can part with their GSI set for a night or two.
Almost at the edge of the world (and truly on the edge of the DR, as my cell phone carrier switched over to Haiti) Eco del Mar is basically what Robinson Crusoe wished had happened. You know, instead of all the cannibals. Pull up to a vast stretch of remote, sugary beach with candy-colored water, and an outdoor barefoot bar scene that is literally cut from an influencer’s wet dream. Note: twinkle lights, driftwood, and a hammock. The campsite borders Jaragua National Park, as well as the famous Bahia de las Aguilas, which is one of the most beautiful beaches in all of the DR and has mind-blowing sunsets, if you’re into that sort of thing. The tents are just tents. BUT, inside these tents are actual beds so leave your REI gear at home. There are also showers and flush toilets.
Speaking of Bahia de las Aguilas (and really, we should speak of it), the DR’s southwest coast is dotted with local beaches that are very much off the tourist trail. Proceed only if you enjoy sun-drenched vistas of jungly mountains and white sand. Highlights are Playa San Rafael, which truly is the epitome of #beachporn, with its crescent stretch of beach backed by a jungle-carpeted peak.
Another one to note is Playa Paraiso, a local favorite, with simple beach restaurants, a pebbly shore, and a network of rivers behind it that drop into cascading waterfalls, which make great alternatives for ocean swimming. It’s all about options, people.
You Can Drink Wine
The Caribbean is known for many indigenous beverages: rum, beer, dark rum...But its award shelf for wine has always been unimpressive. That’s probably because there is only one winery in the entire Caribbean, and it happens to be on the DR’s southwest coast. In Azua province, near Santo Domingo, is Ocoa Bay. This near 100% sustainable, agro-tourism project is the brainchild of two very, very wealthy doctors who thought it would be cool to grow wine. I get it. Saving lives is stressful and sometimes it’s hard to stop by the wine store after work, so just make your home the wine store. Life goals.
Ocoa Bay vineyard and the surrounding property has not only vineyards, but a boutique hotel, clubhouse with infinity pool overlooking the sea, and a restaurant. Before making your way back to the frenetic scene of Santo Domingo, it’s worth a stop here to decompress.
The Bottom Line
I was an asshole about the DR. An entire country cannot be defined by its one tourist hotspot - something they kick you out of the travel writing club for forgetting. But travel writers are often guilty of high hubris about our travel ‘principles’ so it’s never a bad thing to give us a kick in the ass now and again to remind us that we don’t know everything. In fact, the more we learn the more we realize we know nothing, and that’s exactly what travel is about.