Last updated: 01:00 PM ET, Tue April 26 2016

3 Dominican Republic Treasures Beyond Punta Cana

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | April 26, 2016

3 Dominican Republic Treasures Beyond Punta Cana

PHOTO: The Viva Wyndham V Samana opened last year. (photos by Brian Major)

If one region represents the Dominican Republic’s booming visitor arrivals, it‘s the Punta Cana resort district. Blessed with lush rainforests and leafy jungles bordered by beautiful white sand beaches, the 18.5 square-mile area lies along the Dominican Republic’s east coast. Constructed on previously uninhabited land, Punta Cana is a purpose-built resort destination launched 1969 by U.S. labor lawyer Theodore Kheel and hotelier Frank Rainieri.

READ MORE: Dominican Republic Leaders Seek to Support Surging Visitor Arrivals

The land Kheel and Raineri acquired was beautiful but raw, lacking even access roads. Today Punta Cana is the nexus of Dominican Republic tourism, offering a multitude of upscale all-inclusive resorts set along a seemingly endless series of beautiful beaches. Punta Cana International Airport, owned by Raineri’s Puntacana Group, last year welcomed 66 percent of the 5.6 million travelers to visit the country in 2015, the highest figure among Caribbean destinations.

Yet Punta Cana’s indisputable success has government and private tourism stakeholders eager to expose the wave of new tourists to other areas of the country, which offer a variety of attractions and activities absent from Punta Cana.

In recent years, the government has sought to facilitate intra-island travel in this mountainous country, building new highways linking Punta Cana with the capital of Santo Domingo and other major Dominican cities.

The well-built roads have sliced travel times by more than half, enabling a new generation of travelers to combine visits to Punta Cana with such locales as Puerto Plata and the Samana Peninsula. Here we take a look at three areas of this diverse destination beyond Punta Cana:

Santo Domingo

PHOTO: Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.

Santo Domingo for years has been obscured by Punta Cana among Dominican Republic travel destinations, and even by San Juan, Puerto Rico as a magnificently preserved Caribbean colonial city. But following a nearly complete renovation of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial district, the country’s historic capital city is quickly gaining a reputation as top-shelf urban Caribbean destination.

Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and 15th century European explorers’ first permanent American settlement. The first cathedral, hospital, customs house and university in the Americas were all located here, and the city features numerous 16th century structures, including palatial mansions, majestic churches and imposing government offices.

Calle de Las Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas, leads to Plaza de Espana, a broad stone courtyard bordered on one side by the Ozama River. The courtyard features Alcazar Colon, the restored, one-time palace of Don Diego Coln, the Spanish viceroy of Santo Domingo during the palace’s 1512 construction and a son of Christopher Columbus.

Zona Colonial also features several new boutique hotels set in historic buildings, nestled along quiet cobblestone streets. Leafy courtyards feature small art shops and restaurants, and on some streets, visitors will find murals and hand-painted artwork adorning open walls and lamposts.

Beyond Zona Colonial is a sprawling, energetic city with a growing, upscale downtown retail and entertainment district. A number of new hotels have been launched this decade, with several more in the works.

Hard Rock International will partner with the All Inclusive Collection to open the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Santo Domingo, a 400-room, all-inclusive resort, in late 2017. The 40-story structure will reportedly be the city’s largest and feature a 23,000 square-foot casino, a film screening room, and a nightclub opening onto the resort’s main pool. The high-end hotel will also offer a Rock Star suite and a floor of Rock Royalty premium-level accommodations.

Also planned is a $14 million Homewood Suites by Hilton Santo Domingo property, set to open in 2017 on Winston Churchill Avenue across from the upscale Blue Mall in downtown Santo Domingo’s Novo Centro district. The 150-room, $50 million JW Marriott Santo Domingo opened in 2015 within the Blue Mall complex and features a trendy rooftop restaurant and bar, plus an infinity-edged pool and a glass-floored terrace positioned hundreds of feet above the shopping street below.

Samana Peninsula

This formerly under-the-radar region has been popular in recent times among Dominican and European travelers for towns like Las Terrenas, which feature quiet, palm-tree lined beaches, relaxed shore-town activities by day and energetic nighttime bar and club scenes.

Samana is also celebrated for protected eco-tourism areas and a whale-watching season that stretches between January and April. Each year thousands of North Atlantic Humpback whales migrate from the Gulf of Maine and the eastern coasts of Canada, Greenland and Iceland to reproduce in the Dominican Republic’s Samana Bay. Several operators along Samana Bay’s beaches offer whale-watching tours.  

Samana welcomed more than 500 new hotel rooms in 2015, said officials at the recent Dominican Annual Travel Exchange (DATE) conference in Punta Cana. The new properties include the Viva Wyndham V Samana, an all-inclusive, adults-only resort.

The Bahia Principe Samana Hotel, a 149-room, adults-only luxury property, is scheduled to open in November. At DATE, Amhsa Marina Hotel & Resorts announced a $50 million project to build the Kaaeni Beach Hotel in Samana’s Las Galeras district. The 336-room, all-inclusive luxury property will offer five restaurants, a spa, health and fitness center and an entertainment complex featuring a theater, dance club and shops.

Puerto Plata

PHOTO: An amphitheater adjacent to Puerto Plata’s Fortaleza San Felipe is nearing completion.

A popular destination during an earlier era of Dominican tourism, Puerto Plata’s attractions include an amber museum dedicated to the region’s signature natural mineral and the Caribbean’s only aerial tram, which takes visitors to the summit of 2,601-foot Pico Isabel de Torres.

Construction of a seaside amphitheater adjacent to Fortaleza San Felipe, a 16th century fortress, is nearing completion, said government officials. Puerto Plata also features a historic downtown district with architecturally distinctive, colonial-era buildings and a winding malecon (seaside boulevard) bordering the city.

READ MORE: Dominican Tourism Reaches its 'Greatest Moment,' Says Minister

Amber Cove, Carnival Corporation’s $85 million purpose-built cruise ship facility, has also provided Puerto Plata tourism with a spark as Carnival Corp. has launched tours visiting local and regional attractions.

Coral Hospitality Corp. recently announced a $10 million refurbishment of Puerto Plata’s Coral Costa Caribe Hotel in time for the 2016 winter season. The hotel's 400 rooms and common areas will be fully renovated and equipped with all new furnishings.  

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