By Norrie Hunter
Numerous Caribbean islands proudly boast of having been the first place that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus stepped ashore on his New World voyages of discovery in the 15th century… however, as its name suggests, Hispaniola lays the most credible claim. The Dominican Republic and Haiti are the two sovereign states sharing this island which lies between Cuba to the west and Porto Rico to the east.
Of the two countries, only the DR has developed into a viable and commercial tourist hot spot and is now the Caribbean’s largest holiday destination. Its popular resorts such as Puerto Plata and Playa Dorada in the north face the Atlantic ocean whereas, in the south, Bavaro and Samana both enjoy the calmer waters of the Caribbean.
Ten years ago we stood on the deck of a chartered catamaran off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Captivated by the experience, we began planning our life afloat. We bought a yacht, sailed the Caribbean for two years and , well, got it out of our system. So it was a reminder of those get-away-from-it-all fantasies when I planned a return to this idyllic island paradise.
Tourism figures show that the DR is the most visited holiday island in the Caribbean and with its tropical climate has average temperatures of 25 degrees centigrade. May to November is the most popular time to visit with August the hottest month. The rainy season – although still acceptable for off season breaks - is November to May.
Palm-lined beaches of the south east are amongst the best in the Caribbean and diving, wind surfing and sailing all available from most of the hotels on a 35 mile stretch known as the Coconut coast.
Santo Domingo is the capital and is a two hour drive from the resort of Bavaro but well worth a visit. It is typically Spanish and its architecture is reminiscent of Barcelona.
Closer is the 16th century re-creation of a medieval European village. Altos de Chavron is where Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were married. It has an impressive amphitheatre that’s played host to the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra.
Their love of dancing and singing are all part of the friendliness that exudes from the folk here…try and speak a little Spanish and you’re their friend for life and they may even teach you their dances.
Dominican Republic’s interior is a lush tropical paradise. The Chavron River is where part of the first Jurassic Park movie was filmed back in 1993. A trip on the large, former US troop transport vehicles through the mountains and forests of the interior is amazing. Swim in the rivers and lunch at a remote restaurants before visiting a village to see how local people live.
A considerable number of Caribbean hotels have five star ratings, some fall way short of what might be expected but our two weeks at the Gran Bahia Principe resort located in Bavaro on the south eastern coast of the DR was superb. The complex, completed in 2004, is smack bang on the shore and it’s only 30 minutes from Punta Cana airport.
Although there are four hotels on this site with over 2,800 rooms – all junior suites – there’s never a feeling of being overcrowded, being spread across a huge area.
The most recently built hotel (2009) is the Esmeralda which, alongside its sister hotel the (adults only) Ambar, is located on the beach. Both have areas reserved for guests and a there is a water sports centre and two small beach bars.
Such is the size of the Gran Bahia Principe resort that fun-sized miniature buses run constantly between hotels, restaurants, beach, theatre and spa facilities.
Rooms are huge and have four-poster beds and Jacuzzi baths. Service is the key word and guest experience a level of ‘pampering’ that would be hard to match in a top London hotel. Butler service in the Esmeralda includes running a bubble-filled bath complete with flower petals and a bottle of champagne for that romantic touch.
Food quality was outstanding and seafood is very popular but there is a selection of international restaurants dotted throughout the complex offering Spanish, French, Japanese and Italian cuisine to match the best anywhere in the Caribbean.
The Gran Bahia has one member of staff for every two guests.
Golf has blossomed in the DR with over 20 year-round courses to choose from including the Jack Nicklaus designed Punta Espade golf course, a few minutes drive from Punta Cana International airport.
Nearby the Gran Bahia Principe resort is the excellent Punta Blanca Golf Club – the course was designed by South African golfer Nick Price. It offers hotel guest free pick-ups and there are all inclusive packages, for around US$145, that include green fees, caddy car, lunch and non-alcoholic drinks. Clubs can be hired (US$45).
As well as golf there are trips to swim with dolphins, snorkelling and fishing excursions arranged locally by the hotels.
Tip: It is certainly worth leaving the crowds behind at the airport and arranging a private transfer to your hotel. A pick up with Amstar provides a fast-track service in a modern air conditioned limousine and personal chauffeur. Prices are from US$26