Brian Major | June 09, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Santo Domingo's History and Charm Lie Beyond The Beach
For most North Americans, the Punta Cana resort district defines the Dominican Republic. The area’s lush landscape of beautiful white-sand beaches, fertile rainforests and feature-rich, all-inclusive resorts draws millions of vacationers each year, pushing the country into a preeminent spot among Caribbean vacation destinations.
Yet Punta Cana’s popularity somewhat overshadows what may be the country’s most compelling city. Santo Domingo is not only the Dominican Republic’s capital, but is the Caribbean’s largest city based on population, so it’s not exactly a “hidden” gem.
However the city offers attractions and artifacts unrivaled across the Caribbean. The city’s Zona Colonial, one of the western hemisphere’s best-preserved colonial districts and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is tied to the earliest days of American history.
Santo Domingo is also a modern, cosmopolitan city, with upscale entertainment and shopping, and an emerging generation of deluxe hotels and resorts. The city is also the scene of a compelling contemporary legacy tied to the 31-year reign of one of history’s most brutal dictators, and the country’s emergence from those challenging times.
For visitors, access to Santo Domingo has never been an easier. The completion of a highway from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana cuts the drive from a tiring four hours to an efficient one and a half. So even visitors to Punta Cana can now opt for excursions as brief as one day in Santo Domingo.
On a recent visit I spent several days strolling with other journalists in and around Santo Domingo. In the Zona Colonial, we walked up and down Calle de Las Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas. At one end of the street lies Plaza de Espana, a broad stone courtyard bordered on one side by the Ozama River.
Here we found the Alcazar Colon, the restored, one-time palace of Don Diego Colón, a son of Christopher Columbus. Colon was the Spanish viceroy of the captaincy general of Santo Domingo during the palace’s 1512 construction.
PHOTO: The Alcazar Colon is the restored palace of Don Diego Colón, a son of Christopher Columbus. (All photos by Brian Major)
A magnificent and striking coralline stone building, Alcazar Colon is the Zona Colonial’s most-visited site and features an array of period furnishings, paintings, sculpture and decorative accessories. As we toured the home, our guide very honestly explained that while the artifacts were not necessarily owned by Colon himself, they nevertheless are authentic 16th century pieces.
Indeed, contemporary sources have described the collection, which includes Flemish tapestries created by the Van Den Hecke family, as among the Caribbean's most important collections of European late medieval and Renaissance art.
Across from the palace is an attractive row of open-air restaurants, bars, shops and boutique hotels. In authentic Caribbean style, the sunny courtyard is absent of locals during the hot afternoons but comes alive as the sun sets, with a festive and fun atmosphere that draws visitors and residents alike.
Spread throughout the Zona Colonial are numerous 16th century buildings ranging from palatial mansions to majestic churches and official government offices and new boutique hotels set in historic buildings.
Zona Colonial also offers quiet cobblestone streets and leafy courtyards, dotted throughout by small art shops and restaurants. In some parts of the district, visitors will find murals and hand-painted artwork adorning open walls and street posts.
At the Colonial Gate theater, a new tourist venue dedicated to cultural and educational entertainment, I stopped in to watch a “4D” dramatization of Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 capture of Santo Domingo.
I’d earlier wandered into Jackie Colonial art shop and stood among a colorful array of paintings, sculpture other art pieces, including a special section featuring creations by Haitian artists.
After staring for quite a long time at the fascinating collection I finally bought a small painting from a friendly gentleman named Alberto. He patiently allowed me to work on my Spanish and later gave me my first-ever shot of Mama Juana, a traditional Dominican beverage concocted from rum, red wine, and honey, all left to soak in a bottle with tree bark and certain herbs. It went down easy.
PHOTO: Alberto gave me a shot of MamaJuana.
Outside of the Zona Colonial is a large and somewhat sprawling city of the type seldom found in many Caribbean destinations. Our group spent several nights at the Sheraton Santo Domingo Hotel on Avenue George Washington.
Built in the 1970’s, the property adjoins the El Malecon, the broad, low wall that runs for miles along the Caribbean Sea and is a popular stretch for joggers, bikers and people-watchers relaxing behind a setting sun.
Further along Avenida George Washington is the iconic El Obelisco monument, built in 1936 to commemorate the city’s rechristening as Cuidad Trujillo under the egotistical dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Twice serving as president and at other times as unchallenged military strongman under presidential figureheads, “El Jefe” ruled the country from 1930 until, as one of our guides matter-of-factly explained, “we shot him” in 1961.
PHOTO: Zona Colonial is filled with artistic murals.
Like numerous contemporaneous Latin American regimes, the “Trujillo Era” unfolded amidst an absence of civil rights, a multitude of political killings and massacres and the dictator’s plundering of the country’s material wealth.
Visible along almost the entirety of El Malecon, El Obelisco is today adorned with Dominican flags and anti-Trujillo murals and is viewed as monument to the country’s resistance to his rule. In particular the monument honors the four Mirabal sisters, influential anti-Trujillo proponents, three of whom were assassinated in 1960.
In many ways today’s Santo Domingo encapsulates the country’s emergence from those dark days into its present era as a globally prominent tourist destination. That progress was evident as we toured the city’s Novo Centro urban district of upscale malls, office buildings and residential neighborhoods.
At Novo Centro’s new Blue Mall, we strolled through a series of high-end retail outlets and later took an elevator up to the 12th floor to the JW Marriott Santo Domingo, a 150-room luxury hotel that is the brand’s first in the Caribbean.
The $50 million property features an outdoor deck that offers a sweeping view of the city, as well as an infinity-edge pool, a restaurant, a trendy bar and a glass-floored terrace with a full view of the shopping street hundreds of feet below.
PHOTO: The JW Marriott Santo Domingo features an outdoor infinity-edge pool overlooking the city center.
Looking out across the city it was hard not to believe Santo Domingo has turned a page, showing a new confidence and vitality as it prepares to host for a new era of international visitors. It’s a city that already has much to offer to the uninitiated.
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